Do I deserve to be at Yale?” Everyone has asked themselves this question, amazed both by the stunning intellect of others and also the bewildering resources of Yale. My answer is an emphatic no. I didn’t cheat on the SAT, if that thought popped into your head. Rather, my “achievements” are due to the almost overwhelming odds that relative wealth, a safe learning environment, caring parents and teachers give to a willing student, as opposed to any special effort. I’m really, really lucky. Moreover, many of these factors arise from the unjust distribution of wealth and particularly arbitrary characteristics of skin color. To understand the unfairness of life and to see its particular racial component is to comprehend privilege. Specifically, what it means to be a White South African: knowing full well that all the benefits in my life were built on the misery of Black lives. Accepting this worldview has important consequences for America.
There are very few instances of unfairness more obvious or more atrocious than Apartheid. Imagine for a moment the disparate effects of Apartheid. Being Black in South Africa was akin to a death sentence. This was literally true for many: the Apartheid government hanged and shot hundreds of Black people who fought for equality. Black people were forcibly removed from their homes, dumped on unsettled wastelands and forced to build shantytowns out of whatever scraps of corrugated iron they could find. Denied jobs above menial labor, denied the ability to use public amenities, denied free movement, Black people were trapped in crushing poverty.
White people as a class rose up on this bloody wave of oppression. The initial goal of apartheid was to ensure that no White man was poor. And it was successful beyond all the lunacies of its founders. Government employment was available to almost any White person who wanted a job. Public education, health care and pensions became larger and more extensive for White people. White business could rely on the exploitative labor of Black people: abundant cheap goods produced by Black hands. With labor costs so low, profit margins soared.
My parents were never directly involved in Apartheid: They never voted for the National Party, the party that maintained Apartheid, nor did they have government jobs. Yet they still benefitted: they had the ability to go to university, to start a business, to keep their savings and property secure. They benefitted from cheap labor, cheap goods, and, at the very least, did not actively suffer from Apartheid policies.
Inevitably, I am the inheritor of such injustice. I grew up in a leafy suburb of Johannesburg, safely guarded behind tall walls. I was sent, along with all my White friends, to private school, and even to extra Latin lessons. Compare this to the average Black person. The average Black person goes to a public school system where teachers do not show up, where they go hungry at lunch, where they do not have textbooks or paper and where they eventually drop out because they have to help their families at home.
Verashni Pillay, a South African journalist, categorized the zero-sum differences between White and Black people. Intergenerational wealth is the most important. I could get an expensive private education because my family had money. Most Black people have very little family savings due to Apartheid. I could afford to take breaks between studying, to actually take the SAT, when my Black peers had to work either for themselves or their family.
Secondly, there is disparate social capital. My family knows many of engineers, doctors, lawyers, businessmen who can give insider help for finding jobs. Black people, by contrast, are generally excluded from this because generations past never had the ability to learn in higher education.
None of my analysis is unique to South Africa. America was built on destroyed Black lives. There is a flawed idea that because slavery happened so long ago its effects are nullified, when in fact it is probably the opposite in the absence of truly redistributive policies. The quicker White America realizes its continued complicity in profits from past injustice, the quicker redress can come about. There are two evils of privilege: not to acknowledge it and not to spread it.
Adam Krok is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .