“Privilege,” when I was young, was a word conservatives would direct at youngsters to humble them, to prevent them from becoming spoiled, from acting “entitled.” Speaking of a sports program, for example, a coach was apt to sermonize: “This field, this gym, this discipline — these are not your rights. You are here because some people did extra so you could have this. It is a privilege to be here.”
“Privilege,” now that I am old, is something progressives say to induce guilt.
What is going on here?
One has something by privilege if it is unearned, not by right. So, the progressives’ story runs, you should make way for those who have not been blessed with your advantages. We who have privilege should step aside to help others rise to our levels of wealth and advantage.
White men are the usual targets of the term. They are the ones said to be the most privileged. Indeed, the most commonly marshaled term is “white male privilege.”
Is there any truth to the charge? Well, it depends on how you define the term.
Most of the time, folks who talk about privilege speak as if it were mostly a matter of unearned advantage. And I admit with no qualms that, in a predominantly white society, there are indeed advantages to “being white,” just as there are advantages in China to being Chinese, in Japan to be Japanese, and in Saudi Arabia to be . . . Arab, but especially Saud. But the idea that being white is an insurmountable advantage over darker skinned folks does not play out well in the statistics of success. In America, the groups that do the best generation by generation are Asian people, particularly the Japanese, Chinese and Indian.
As often noted by conservatives, if you follow that fact, there must be “Asian privilege” in America.
That hardly makes sense.
And it is worth noting that natural endowments that cannot be sensibly thought of as “earned” do constitute advantages and disadvantages, depending. Height, intelligence, and good looks really do make a huge difference in life. Indeed, it turns out very interesting to compare statistics of a population’s outcomes according to these three qualities, contrasting them with race.
However, as an average-height, fairly intelligent and not completely homely American, when I think of what privileges I have specifically as a white man, I cannot list many.
But I do have a clue.
It can be found in the simple fact that the “white privilege” charge so often sticks, even when it does not make much sense.
Why is this? Because (a) most white men care very little about the charge, on the whole, and brush it off, while (b) a small cohort of white men — along with many college-educated white women — do indeed accept the charge as if caught . . . white handed.
It is this latter white guilt that fans the flame of the meme. And it is white indifference that allows it to flourish.
Most of the current barrage of criticism of the concept have focused on the white guilt. So I will look at the bigger issue: white indifference.
There is (or was, until recently) a dominant attitude in American culture: individualism. This is the notion — or memeplex, or ideology — that would have people treated as individuals first and foremost, to deal with people under the assumption that they are responsible for themselves, and that it is through each of our efforts that we make our lives. This attitude discourages excuse-making, accepts that everyone has different talents and talent deficits, and requires that each person make the most of what he or she has.
Individualists regard people “as equal” only insofar as they are equally human. Individualists regard people as often radically unequal in nearly every other way. And they are fine with that.
One key to this attitude is that questions of “cosmic justice” and “poetic justice” and overall Life’s Fairness are put off the table. Envy is not allowed. Whining is to be discouraged. A certain jovial Stoicism is expected.
This attitude is the very opposite of “social justice.” The charge of “white privilege” is a tool in the arsenal of a very different culture. And that culture is not a culture of achievement.
The culture of social justice is obsessed with a revolutionary perspective, one that seeks to use the power of the state — and the hectoring allowed in popular cupturned — to equalize or somehow “make up” for the injustices inherent in nature.
Though of course social justice advocates do not put it like that. They say — against all evidence — that they are fighting against the evils of social control that men, particularly white men, have used against all other groups to gain the upper hand. “Society’s to blame” has been updated in modern social justice theory to “white men are to blame.”
But, from what I can tell, what they all really hate is any form of responsibilitarian individualism.
But we who are individualists may treat the perverse charge of the social justice warriors as a badge of honor, and, indeed, adopt it as a descriptor of our common attitude of indifference to the charge itself.
White privilege, let us admit, if only for a moment, arguendo, is the cultural attitude of individual responsibility and achievement. White men tend not to think of themselves as a group; we have no class solidarity. And this seeming lack of “group identity” stands upon a firm foundation, a very different idea of justice than those who yammer about “social justice.” It is the kind of justice that was once (in Europe, anyway) understood as limited in scope. Limited to the ways in which people treat each other. Justice does not and cannot address all the unfairnesses of the universe, the uneven disadvantages distributed at birth and further increased by family and church and school. Justice merely prevents the worst harms by establishing rules about how people may treat one another. Justice evolved through the adjudication of disputes, and comes to play when an injustice has occurred. It redresses grievances based on action. And then allows people to make do. To adapt.
White privilege is thus something anyone can have, regardless of skin pigment, as soon as those individuals set aside standards that try to balance out all nature’s wrongs. It “just seems white” because this attitude came to its fullest flowering in the West, where white people lived.
For the mavens of social justice, individualism is “white” because it was was whites who were the ones who made the most of it. And this rather racist color coding — racism being the over-weighting of matters of race, in this case attributing an idea to a race, rather than to those individuals who pick it up — is not without historical precedent: the Communists of a hundred years ago were commonly called (and called themselves) Reds, while the traditionalist and individualist opponents of these Reds were called the Whites.* This was not a racial issue then, of course, but merely a conventional identification scheme.
For the social justice crowd, individualism “just seems privileged,” too. Privilege has long been contrasted with strict justice, especially regarding ownership rights. If I can do something by special permission — of the sovereign, of the actual property owner, whatever the property may be — then it is said that I “am privileged.” If, on the other hand, I can do something by right — if I own the resource, if I have the authority — then I am not privileged; I am “in my rights.” Since social justice activists think that people merit goods equally, the meritocratic element of individualism seems especially unjust to them, while it seems more than just (necessary!) to individualists.
The distinct senses of entitlement are striking.
Questions of equality have long been a part of American discourse. Equality under the law was the original notion, and was understood as an equality of basic rights. Our basic rights were all we were entitled to from the State.
But the French nobleman and researcher Alexis de Tocqueville noted a different factor at play: class. There were no strong class boundaries in 1830s America. Europe, on the other hand, was awash with them. Tocqueville considered this a direct effect of “democracy,” and he described the absence of class barriers as “equality of conditions.” He did not mean “equality of wealth” or health or incomes. By equal conditions he meant social freedom, the equal lack of social barriers put up by tradition and government.
Equality of opportunity was the next to surface. Here social equality was to be backed by certain positive reinforcers, like universal public schooling. But once one notices that public schooling did not and cannot produce “economic equality,” the game was up. Equality became a materialistic matter of wealth levels.
The once vaunted equality of opportunity was thought not to be enough, because of . . . advantages.
But a careful look at actually existing advantages and disadvantages yields a more complex reality than the social justice advocates asserted.
The biggest advantage white people in America have, for example, is that they are treated more justly than are some other darker skinned folks. Or at least seem to be. That is the current story, anyway. Certainly, I am not routinely stopped by police for “driving white,” harassed for walking “in the wrong neighborhoods” or suspected of crimes merely by loitering in a posh store. In these common situations, I, a white male wearing respectable (but by no means extravagant) clothing, am treated justly. Usually.
Is that a “privilege”? Of course not. To be treated justly is not a matter of privilege. It is a matter of justice. Those who are not treated justly are not “under-privileged”; they are, instead, victims of injustice.
Nearly every white person I know earnestly desires that no one be treated unjustly. But many white people I know are increasingly skeptical of some of the current complaints along racial lines, in part because of this very charge of “privilege.” The obsession with equality and advantage covers up some sins that government appears incapable of fixing.
Of inner city violence, we “white individualists” (actually, all individualists, regardless of color) look at inner city African-American neighborhoods and what do we see? Few people working; self-defeating attitudes rampant; vice and indolence; and of course poverty. And we all know, from personal experience, that few folks can make a success out of vice and folly and crime.
And then we witness folks with horrific, socially destructive attitudes tied to deep moral deficits publicly complaining about others’ privileges!
It is not merely indecent. It is pretense. Effrontery. We shake our heads, incredulous.
The truth, of course, is that American white society is not just one thing. The number of whites who hold to the traditional forms of American individualism appear to be dwindling. Certainly, there is a rapidly expanding camp of white folks on government assistance, living lives at the margin with scant hope of crawling out from their poverty.
And, just as certainly, there is a wealthy subset of the professional and college-graduate whites who, while still living generally according to the mores of individualism — working hard, saving money, staying married and investing in their children — have nevertheless abandoned the doctrine itself for the cults of collectivism, for “social justice.” And that is the doctrine they export to the poor, the disadvantaged. Indeed, they are the ones who accept white guilt and actively promote notions of “white privilege.” They guiltily feel that they are privileged. They are sad about that, but nevertheless feel a thrill of righteousness when they can heap moral scorn upon individualists.
But let us not discount their feelings completely. It is true that they have soaked up many advantages, no small number of them designed as such by a governmental system that favors college graduates and school-work expertise over market cooperation. Since this is one area where government policy does yield consistent patterns of advantage, it may very well be that the only unjustly privileged in America are those in the cognitive elite. Well, at least those who work on the taxpayer dime.
And it just so happens that these folks are overwhelmingly in the “social justice” camp.
Still, even now, most of America’s individualists brush off all the charges, or just look at the recent social justice uproar in puzzlement. The copybook-heading wisdom of individualism still makes sense to them, and their main worry remains. They fear that government, pushed by folks who bandy about terms like “white privilege” and “white male privilege,” now favors the whiners and collectivists and looters and rioters and . . . the confessed guilty.
I began by noting that when conservatives used to marshal the word “privilege,” it was in service to the discouragement of the entitlement attitude. It is worth noting that the use of “privilege” by social justice progressives is the very expression of entitlement. They think they are fighting others’ senses of entitlement, by shaming, sure. But by characterizing others’ success as unearned, they show how entitled they feel themselves to be — entitled to the product of others’ labor and investments.
Or, in the case of the wealthy cognitive elite, they feel that their earnest work for the cause of the downtrodden absolves them of their crimes, and they secretly pretend to be generous when they urge higher taxes on their own kind . . . while deflecting attention away from their own wealth by talking about the unjust wealth of the “millionaires and billionaires.”
This is not progress.
* In full disclosure, my heritage is White Finn — Church Finn, to be exact. But this traditionalist standpoint I have given up for a secular individualism. I have never fallen for The Red line, and my days of avid interest in socialism, almost prurient, was brief, and in my teens.