Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) recently wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal titled “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege.” He argued:
“After a full generation of [the Civil Rights] debate, WASP elites have fallen by the wayside and a plethora of government-enforced diversity policies have marginalized white workers. … Unfortunately, present-day diversity programs work against [the notion of fairness], having expanded so far beyond their original purpose that they now favor anyone who does not happen to be white.”
In other words, according to Webb, the real victims of racism are whites.
However, some poor whites (that is, the rural poor and the downwardly mobile middle-class) share the same economic disenfranchisement as many people of color. They are not victims of racism perpetrated by people of color. Rather, they are victims of the same classism designed to privilege the “WASP elites” – the elites of which Webb is part and whom he mistakenly believes “have fallen by the wayside.”
The good senator’s position would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that a growing number of Euro-Americans seem to agree. And yet, when we explore our nation’s economic structures, Hispanics (which the senator never mentions since he’s still stuck in a white-black dichotomy) continue to systematically be disenfranchised. As the Great Recession shows, in spite of the so-called “plethora of government-enforced diversity policies,” it is the Latinas and Latinos, and not the whites, who continue to be systematically marginalized.
Two years into the Great Recession, political pundits started reassuring the American public that the economic recovery had begun. This may be true for white America, but for U.S. Latinos and Latinas (along with other communities of color), the primary victims of the subprime mortgage shenanigans that contributed to the Great Recession, recovery may very well be generations away.
“In 2007, 27.6 percent of home purchase loans to Hispanics and 33.5 percent to blacks were higher-priced loans, compared with just 10.5 percent of home purchase loans to whites that year,” according to a report from the Pew Hispanic Center. The recent economic downturn resulted in substantial loss of wealth for Hispanics, as more than three in five (62 percent) Latino homeowners saw foreclosures in their neighborhoods in 2008. When it comes to Great Recession economic recovery, Hispanics have simply been left behind.
Many Hispanics bought into Webb’s American Dream of fairness – working hard, saving money and finally purchasing their own homes. However, due to ethnic discrimination within U.S. political and economic structures, this dream rapidly revealed itself as a nightmare.
According to the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research, Hispanics, like African Americans, live in neighborhoods with lower-than-average median household incomes and higher rates of poverty when compared to Euro-Americans. In addition, Hispanics are more than likely to live in overcrowded households: 26 percent in 2003 compared to non-Hispanic whites at 4 percent or blacks at 8 percent.
Hispanics were also among the first to lose their jobs as the Great Recession began. The jobless-claims figure for August 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, showed that the unemployment rate for Hispanics rose to 13.0 percent compared to a non-Hispanic white unemployment rate of 8.9 percent and a national unemployment rate of 9.7 percent.
Not surprisingly, Hispanics, according to U.S. census numbers released in September 2009, bore the brunt of the Great Recession, experiencing the biggest poverty rate jump among all ethnic and racial groups, from 21.5 percent to 23.2 percent. Latino and Latina children, who make up 22 percent of all children in the nation, are worse off, with 30.3 percent of them living in poverty. And these numbers are increasing. For every 100 new children who slipped into poverty during the previous year, 71 were Hispanics.
Regardless of what Webb professes concerning affirmative action legislation, our capitalist economic structure in the 21st century has become the means by which a new color and ethnic line has been drawn. The vast majority of the poor, those locked out of the economic benefits this country has to offer, are and will be disproportionately persons of color. Even though past generations of Latinas and Latinos bought into the American Dream, the economic structures have been, and continue to be, constructed to maintain their disenfranchisement.
For the U.S. economy to function efficiently, an industrial “reserve army” of laborers must always exist. This is a racialized “reserve army” disproportionately comprised of Latinas and Latinos. They make up 14 percent of employed adults, yet they represent 20.2 percent of employees in the service sector, according to a Labor Day report last year on Latinos and Latinas in the workforce. Using Toussaint-Comeau’s socioeconomic index score, which measures wages and human capital requirements [that is, education], “more than half of the Latino workforce is employed in the eight major occupation groups with the lowest socioeconomic index scores.”
Furthermore, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce “about 38 percent of non-Hispanic whites worked in managerial, professional and related occupations. … Hispanics were less likely to work in these occupations, with about 18 percent in managerial, professional and related occupations.”
Regardless of these dismal statistics, Webb and company insist that white Americans are the true victims of racism. By recasting themselves as victims, the victimizer is free from having to deal with how societal structure privileges them. They see themselves under the tyranny of those who have historically been oppressed but who now, according to Webb, have greater opportunities to advance.
Euro-Americans are, indeed, victims, but not victims in the sense Webb intended. Instead, they are victims of the very structures designed to protect their power and privilege. The societal structures that cause oppression are not reducible to a formula where only those who are marginalized are the victims.
Although it is impossible to equate the suffering of those who are disenfranchised with those who are privileged, it is important to note that those at the center of society are indoctrinated to believe they deserve, earn or have a right to power and privilege. They are trapped in a zero-sum-rule logic and, as such, require the same liberation yearned for by the disenfranchised.
The statistically unproven rhetoric of racism against whites creates vehement resistance to any programs designed to rectify societal and economic structures that disenfranchise Latinos and Latinas.
Miguel A. De La Torre is professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.