A man wearing a reflective, faceless mask
Liberals shout about it, conservatives sneer at it -- but what is privilege?

Some notes on privilege

Conservative pundit John Ziegler:

I am fully aware that most liberals will think such white angst is a Fox News-created fantasy. In their world, the deck is still stacked against people of color in this country and “white privilege” (which, if it exists, is actually badly misinterpreted “rich privilege”) is still very much a corrosive force on our culture. Liberals Are Partly to Blame for Trump’s Racism Strategy

Anyone who has said this has not thought about the issue. But words like “privilege” get thrown around a lot on social media without anyone bothering to stop and explain it. So let me give it a try.

Here is an actual thing: most of us already understand and believe in privilege even if we argue against it when the word comes up. We know, for example, that the world is not fair. We know some people get things — resources, advantages, opportunities — not because they earned them but because they were in the right place at the right time.

The theory of privilege is that these advantages are systemic. In other words, society (“the system”) is built around providing those advantages only to specific groups of people. Some of these decisions are intentional and codified in law, such as denying women the right to vote. Others are more implicit and reflect a disregard by the ingroup for the needs of the outgroup. For example, a coat-hook hung at five feet in a bathroom stall designed for wheelchair access.

That said: is there white privilege? And is it just wealth privilege in disguise?

It’s hard to argue against the notion of white privilege. In the United States – and the colonies before them — society was organized around the theft of labor from black people for several centuries. That theft has never been sufficiently addressed and acknowledged. For almost our entire history, conservative politics has focused on maintaining that privilege, first through the protection of slavery as a legal institution, then through the replacement of slavery with Jim Crow laws. The system still maintains and protects white privilege. Yes, Barack Obama was elected President. That means the system works imperfectly, but it is not proof that privilege is an illusion.

Of course, the wealthy have advantages both explicit and implicit. Their resources allow them to live better, take on commitments with ease, and fail to meet them without fear.

But white privilege is not just wealth privilege. We know this because a poor white man can cut his hair, put on an expensive suit, rent a fancy car, and people will think he is rich. A rich black man can put on his own outfit, get in his own car, and people will think he stole it. Becoming wealthy does not secure the privileges of whiteness.

Here, LeVar Burton explains how he reacts when the police stop him:

In this Facebook post, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson compares the dozens of times he’s been stopped by police with the encounters his white colleagues have had. “I was stopped two or three times by other security officers while entering physics buildings,” he says, “but was never stopped entering the campus gym.”

Only by passing for white can a black person get the advantages of whiteness.

These are just two examples, but there are millions. Black people’s interactions with police are fundamentally different, even if — especially if — they are wealthy black people. To deny the concept of white privilege out of hand means denying the experience of many, many black people.

But even after admitting that his fellow Republicans were racist, he can’t bring himself to acknowledge that racism has real economic and social effects:

[A] lot of this feeling of anxiety has been created by an overzealous desire on the part of the news media and Democrats to overcorrect for past racial wrongs, most of which were not committed by any of the white people who now feel as if they are being punished for those old sins.

… Ziegler says, as though three centuries of the destruction of families, theft of wages, denial of property rights, and enslavement of an entire race could be resolved by merely stopping any overtly racist action.

Despite all available evidence, Ziegler believes that the world is mostly fair and people get what they work for. Perhaps he has to. After all, what recognizing privilege tells us is that America is an unjust society; that the game is rigged against you based on class, gender, and race. It also says that the people at the top who have all the money and power did not get there because they were smart and talented alone — they got there because our entire culture is designed to lift people of a certain type up while holding others down.

Worse, it becomes even harder for you to see your victories as being the result of hard work and talent once you see privilege.

The funny thing is, a lot of liberal concern with privilege seems to be driven by a desire to create the meritocracy that conservatives insist already exists. We see the systemic pressures that advantage some groups while holding others back and try to find ways that we can either compensate for eliminate those. There are many potential tools at our disposal, but they are primarily through transfer payments, legislative and regulatory action, subsidy, and public education campaigns.

But because conservatives deny there’s a problem to begin with — a denial that, again, requires not only ignoring mounds of evidence but also insisting entire races are liars, all women are hysterical grasping opportunists, and nothing but male and female gender identities even exist — Ziegler can’t begin to conceive of liberal concerns about opportunity and justice to be anything more than pandering. These never-Trump right-wing self-styled “centrists” like to call it “identity politics” as though any politics could be free of identity; as though his own politics were not centered in the normalcy of him being a white, straight, male.

Photo of a man in a chrome mask by Alex Iby, distributed through Unsplash. unsplash-logoAlex Iby