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Context and Power

Charles Platt, guest-blogging at BoingBoing, shared the following:

The picture above is of me, finishing my shift at the world’s largest retailer. How did I move from being a senior writer at Wired magazine to an entry-level position in a company that is reviled by almost all living journalists?

It started when I read Nickel and Dimed, in which Atlantic contributor Barbara Ehrenreich denounces the exploitation of minimum-wage workers in America. Somehow her book didn’t ring true to me, and I wondered to what extent a preconceived agenda might have biased her reporting. Hence my application for a job at the nearest Wal-Mart.

The job was as dull as I expected, but I was stunned to discover how benign the workplace turned out to be. My supervisor was friendly, decent, and treated me as an equal. Wal-Mart allowed a liberal dress code. The company explained precisely what it expected from its employees, and adhered to this policy in every detail. I was unfailingly reminded to take paid rest breaks, and was also encouraged to take fully paid time, whenever I felt like it, to study topics such as job safety and customer relations via a series of well-produced interactive courses on computers in a room at the back of the store. Each successfully completed course added an increment to my hourly wage, a policy which Barbara Ehrenreich somehow forgot to mention in her book.

Somehow that kind of news is never as popular as denunciations of the free market written by professional handwringers such as Barbara Ehrenreich.

Charles Platt, like the vast majority of WalMart’s management – senior corporate headquarters, store-located, everything – is a white man. Perhaps this difference between himself and Ehrenreich crossed his mind and he chose to ignore it, or maybe it never came up. But to point out the very obvious: white men have a massively disproportionate about of power in the United States. Whites generally have the lower rate of unemployment and higher rate of compensation; white men have higher rates of compensation and lower rates of unemployment than white women. Non-Hispanic white men comprise ~34% of the U.S. population and the era of Obama notwithstanding, continue to control the vast, vast majority of U.S. wealth, political, cultural, [FILL IN THE BLANK] power.

Platt isn’t a racist for not acknowledging these issues, nor a misogynist, nor do I claim any particular valor for foregrounding my white male privilege. It’s a marker of how ingrained and powerful that privilege is that an intelligent guy like Platt – a man who’s made his bread as writer and cultural observer for going on 40 years – could be quite so blind to it. The most revealing turn of phrase in his account is when Platt acknowledges that “Somehow [Ehrenreich’s] book didn’t ring true to me.” Well of course it didn’t – that’s kind of the point. It’s not about Platt – it’s about the two-thirds of the population (more, when you take into account class distinctions) that aren’t Platt and don’t have his built-in racial and/or gender advatages.

More in-depth treatment of other issues of race and achievement later this week, but this kind of set me off.

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