June 19, 2021

The Sharpened Edge of Privilege

By Mary Keyes Rogers | May 29, 2021

One of the greatest speeches of all time was delivered at the 1976 Democratic Convention by keynote speaker, Barbara Jordan, the first Black woman to serve as a senator from Texas. Her address to delegates, the first-ever keynote at a political convention to be delivered by a black woman, riveted the crowd’s attention with her deep and booming must-be-heard voice: 

“We believe in equality for all, and privileges for none. This is a belief that each American regardless of background has equal standing in the public forum, all of us. Because we believe this idea so firmly, we are an inclusive, rather than an exclusive party. Let everybody come.”

Listening to that speech today, I am struck by the sharpened edge of the word privilege. It has become a prickly word, one I had barely noticed in the many times I have revisited this speech.

I’ve always understood the word equality as an ideal. How in the world do we abolish privilege? I am awash in privilege.

I was born into my white family with two college-educated parents and four college-educated grandparents. My family raised me in the same suburban Detroit neighborhood where they grew up, with one of the best public school systems in the country. Our city’s neighborhoods were almost exclusively populated by more of the same, i.e., well-educated white professionals who valued education and enjoyed prosperity, passing wealth from one generation to the next.

My little snot-nosed friends and I were very, very fortunate and, in many cases, equally oblivious to our luck in this matter. We did nothing other than simply being born. Some went on to meet their parent’s expectations to continue the legacy of privilege, while others, for one reason or another, simply did not.

Handed every advantage, each little girl in her patent leather Mary Janes and every little boy with his fresh crew cut grew up to inevitably become their own unique person, making the most — or least — of what they’d been handed.  But to whatever degree of hard times they might have fallen upon, a helping hand was probably no more than a phone call away. A parent, a sibling, a friend’s well-placed and sympathetic father or mother, maybe a neighbor, could intervene and reintroduce them to the legacy land of privilege.

When we made bad choices, we didn’t end up in jail; we were sent home to our family.

As children growing up in this enclave of privilege, we were very fortunate. Regardless of our mistakes, we were vastly better educated with our high school diplomas than inner-city Black kids. If one of us were to awaken penniless in a ditch far away from home, we could easily rebound, speaking articulately with our expanded vocabularies, blessed with excellent manners and a forgiving community to fall back on.

I have certainly benefitted from a system of racial inequality in this country. Every white person has. I believe that most white people are well aware of this, even if they were raised in poverty. 

The important difference lies in our determined effort. We each must decide whether to play blind and protect our privilege or understand our good fortune for what is and dismantle the institutionalized policies and practices that got us where we are. It is a choice.

As Dwight D. Eisenhower stated, “A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.”

How secure is your faith in your neighbor to honor the principles of the common good above their privilege? Mine is shaken as I grow increasingly convinced that individual greed may have won over the common good.

I do not feel ashamed of being white or for the advantages I’ve received, but rather, hold a great sense of responsibility to cleanse what Senator Jordan calls the public forum. Equality in the public forum must be fought for not only by those who have been disadvantaged. The advantaged must stand with them and be willing to forfeit the expectation of their legacy by helping not only those who look like us and live like us but also for the common good of our countrymen and women. 

Mary Rogers is the host of "The Experience 50 Podcast for Midlife" and an actively engaged citizen of Grand Traverse County. She lives in Traverse City.

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