It is time for white Americans to take responsibility — to dismantle the Return on White Privilege

Actress Felicity Huffman arrived at federal court in Boston on Wednesday to face charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal.

The college admissions scam lifted a veil on something we already knew – that the wealthy are using their resources to tip the scales in their favor. But if this scandal is exclusively about class, why is it that nearly all of those implicated are white?

Thirty years ago, Peggy McIntosh popularized the term “white privilege.” Americans disagree about whether white privilege exists. Nearly all black Americans report experiencing discrimination. Half report experiencing racial slurs. Meanwhile, a majority of white Americans say they face more racism than black Americans. They cite experiences like affirmative action and feeling unable to speak freely about race.

The admissions scandal suggests that even progressive perceptions of white privilege do not go far enough. Often, white privilege is framed as a “head start” or “being born on third base.” Another analogy is a relay race with advantages passed down like a baton from generation to generation. While helpful, these analogies understate white privilege’s benefits, because they depict white privilege as a one-time windfall. In actuality, white privilege offers compounding benefits that accumulate over time and are amplified by class and other types of privilege.


I’ve come to think of these compound effects as the Return on White Privilege. The Return on White Privilege says nothing about how hard any individual works. Nor does it imply that white people never face adversity. Rather, it simply suggests that, on average, white people receive a premium on their efforts and a discount on their missteps. Like compound interest, the benefits snowball.

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The racial wealth gap illustrates how the Return on White Privilege compounds. Today, the 50 richest white Americans are wealthier than all 43 million black Americans combined. By contrast, from 1983 to 2013, median black wealth fell from $6,800 to $1,700. In Boston, median black wealth is just $8. Some studies suggest median black wealth will zero out nationally. If that day comes, the typical black American will have no more money in the bank than those who arrived on slave ships four centuries ago. Put bluntly, white people have a near exclusive capacity to rig the system.

Inequities in the criminal justice system illustrate how white people also receive discounts on missteps. Last year, economists found that sons from black families that earn $1 million are as likely to be in jail as white sons from families that earn $36,000. This disparity exists in part because black Americans are more likely to have their cars searched, be offered plea deals that include prison time, serve longer sentences for the same offense, and have probation revoked.

Unlike white poverty, black and brown poverty is highly concentrated. So, when police search for crime in high-poverty areas, they find more people of color. In “The Condemnation of Blackness,” Harvard historianKhalil Muhammad argues that while black people are more likely to be indicted and convicted, no one has proved that black people commit more crimes. Wealthy white parents do not worry that a police officer will “stop and frisk” their child’s SAT exam or college application. Meanwhile, black and brown parents — desperate to get their child into a decent public school — are in jail for using a relative’s address. While even wealthy families of color know that a single mistake can strip away their status, only white people can cheat the system without fear of repercussions.

As a white social entrepreneur, I am a poster child for the Return on White Privilege. Every step of the way, my successes have been amplified and my stumbles have been forgiven. Growing up, I thought of my family as middle class. Later, I realized we were wealthier than 99 percent of American black families. At Stanford, I skipped many classes and earned mediocre grades, but no one questioned my intelligence or work ethic. When I started a nonprofit, white donors provided 90 percent of the $15 million we raised.


Along the way, the organization’s mostly white board never doubted my leadership. When I applied to Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School, powerful white alumni and faculty put in a good word on my behalf. Yes, I worked hard. But in today’s hypercompetitive world, the Return on White Privilege has given me a crucial edge.

To undo the Return on White Privilege, white Americans must do the opposite of what these rich white parents did. Instead of leveraging our power to further stack the deck, we must de-rig the system. We must redefine racism as believing racial disparities are justified for any reason. We must interrupt racist jokes that reinforce negative stereotypes. We must commit not just to reduce representation gaps in politics and business but actually close them. We must fully integrate people of color into safe neighborhoods and high-quality schools. We must raise taxes on the wealthy so we can strengthen public institutions. The effect of every action compounds.

For 400 years, white Americans have left responsibility for racial injustice at the doorstep of people of color. It is time for white Americans to take responsibility — to dismantle the Return on White Privilege.

Garrett Neiman attends Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School as a Zuckerman Fellow. He is also the cofounder and former CEO of national education nonprofit CollegeSpring. He can be reached at gneiman@mba2020.hbs.edu. Follow him on Twitter @garrettneiman