Did Obama Deserve the Nobel Peace Prize? (An Affirmative Action discussion)
Considering the most recent “birther” charges and Trump’s inferences regaring the President’s grades, Melissa Harris-Perry tweeted this morning that it may be impactful and important to discuss the racial animosity surrounding affirmative action.
…and I’ll let her words speak for themselves…
Yesterday’s anxiety about my critique of the Nobel Peace Prize Award appeared to echo these worries. Some felt that by raising my disagreement I was implying President Obama did not deserve the prize, and that politics, not merit, was responsible for the committee’s decision.
I heard the unspoken Affirmative Action Dilemma lurking. “Please professor, don’t make them think we have things we didn’t earn”
Generally the response to affirmative action anxiety is to list all of the individual’s accomplishments and thereby prove the individual is actually worthy of the award or position. Most Obama faithful pursued this tactic yesterday. Many demanded that I tune into The Rachel Maddow Show and several sent me lists of all President Obama’s accomplishments in the area of diplomacy. Uh…ok, but that strategy is limited. (Particularly because it doesn’t really negate the whole two wars, drone attacks thing)
I think a more effective counter to the Affirmative Action Dilemma is a little honesty about the wages of whiteness.
I am an affirmative action baby (born in 1973), and I have never felt any dilemma about the policy. I did not sit in my college classroom fretting about whether my white peers thought I deserved to be studying beside them. I have never lost a night of sleep worrying about my colleagues who regard my tenured position at Princeton University as a policy decision, rather than a scholarly accomplishment. This is not because I am so sure of my personal worthiness- that ebbs and flows-rather my general lack of affirmative action anxiety is derived from my clear sense of the continuing reality of white privilege.
White privilege is the bundle of unearned advantages accessible to white people in America. White privilege is not equivalent to racial prejudice. All whites share certain element of racial privilege regardless of their political or racial views. This does not mean that life is perfect for all white people. I was raised by a single, white mother, so I certainly know that white American face real barriers and struggles based on class, opportunity, gender, education, sexuality, and other cross-cutting identities. But white privilege exists and has powerful consequences. This does not mean that race is more important than socioeconomic class. It does mean that in the United States there is a preferential option for whiteness, and this preference means racial privilege produces a certain wage of whiteness.
Simply put, not everything that white people have was earned by merit. Some was, some was not. Some of the wealth, access, prizes, goodies, and political power currently held by white people are ill gotten gains from centuries of accumulated white privilege. Knowing this makes me a lot more relaxed about having to prove that I “deserve” every success, acknowledgement, or position I have.
I encourage my friends and readers to calm down a little about having to prove Obama deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. The point is that he has it now. I, for one, have been doing a little “impeach that suckers” dance ever since I heard. This one is in the history books. No turning back.
Rather than give into the racial anxiety to prove the President’s worthiness let’s celebrate that President Obama responded to the prize with humility and grace. -Melissa Harris-Perry
Your thoughts are always welcomed…