Why does the White privilege conversation ignore the ways in which Asian Americans have used their social ties to achieve success, or the yawning chasm that separates upper-middle-income Mormon Californians from impoverished Appalachian Whites? The simple answer is that we talk about White privilege as a clumsy way of talking about Black exclusion.
Even White Americans of modest means are more likely to have inherited something, in the form of housing wealth or useful professional connections, than the descendants of slaves. In his influential 2005 book When Affirmative Action Was White, Ira Katznelson recounts in fascinating detail the various ways in which the New Deal and Fair Deal social programs of the 1930s and 1940s expanded economic opportunities for Whites while doing so unevenly at best for Blacks, particularly in the segregated South. Many rural Whites who had known nothing but the direst poverty saw their lives transformed as everything from rural electrification to generous educational benefits for veterans allowed them to build human capital, earn higher incomes, and accumulate savings. This legacy, in ways large and small, continues to enrich the children and grandchildren of the Whites of that era. This is the stuff of White privilege.