The problem with the idea of "white privilege"

Is, as economists would say, that privilege exists along many margins. Of course there are situations where merely having white skin is an edge: gaining membership in the Klu Klux Klan is an obvious example. And there are many others where the legacy of past discrimination has accumulated to white people's advantage. But there are other situations where white skin clearly is not an advantage. For instance, my son played for a few weeks in an elite Brooklyn basketball program. Regularly, he would hear his opponents taunt him with, "Yeah, white boy, I'm gonna..." whatever. (I told him he should at least get them to taunt him correctly, as "Half-white, half-Filipino boy.") After a few weeks he couldn't take any more of this and dropped out.

And there are many, many other aspects to privilege: being beautiful can make you privileged. (Beyonce appears to be in a fairly privileged position to me.) Being the president's kids isn't a bad deal. (The kids of some meth-addled trailer-park mom in Appalachia will no doubt be amused to discover that their "white privilege" gives them an edge over Malia and Natasha Obama.) Being the son of the greatest international reggae superstar is an edge. (Respect due, Ziggy.) Being very tall makes one privileged in some regards: I recently read that well over 10% of males in the US over 7 feet tall and between 20 and 40 years of age are currently in the NBA!

So one problem I see with the idea of white privilege is not that it is total nonsense but that it is a one-sided emphasis on one aspect of privilege amongst many others. But there is a further problem: the whole project of harping on privilege itself seems to assume that we could create a human society in which privilege does not exist. But we have never, ever seen such a society: even in the most egalitarian of hunter-gatherer cultures, being the chief's son was no doubt an advantage. And current efforts to fight one privilege typically just create privilege for a different group: affirmative action has largely benefited the children of upper middle-class blacks, especially black immigrants, so that, say, Nigerians are four times more likely to be doctors in the US then is the average American, while doing very little for the most under-privileged blacks. (Note: this is just what Pareto described. New political projects are forwarded by a rising elite trying to displace an established elite: their non-elitist elements are mere "derivations" created to collect non-elite support for the rising elite.)

A just society can try to ameliorate the effects of privilege. But to try to eliminate those effects is a utopian project, which, when taken to its logical extreme, is likely to result in things like the death of everyone who wears glasses.

11 comments:

  1. (This is the commenter formerly known as MathMan.)
    Would you consider Martin Luther King to be engaged in an undesirably utilitarian project? From his "I have a dream" speech:
    "No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

    "I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exhalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."

    Isn't there something to be said for striving for an ideal, even if that ideal cannot be practically realized? Aren't there dangers in too readily resigning yourself to what you think the limitations of Man are?

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    1. Yes, King was being utopian.

      Of course there is a risk of passing up some workable reform by hastily judging it utopian. That appears small to me compared to the danger of a Pol Pot.

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    2. "Yes, King was being utopian." But don't you think that Martin Luther King's utopian vision invested his followers with a sense of hope and purpose, driving them to do practically achievable things that they would not be sufficiently motivated to do had he merely said "If we engage in some non-violent resistance, then hopefully we'll get the government to pass some sort of civil rights legislation that will reduce racial injustice."?

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    3. "That appears small to me compared to the danger of a Pol Pot." Oh, and it seems to me that the content of the utopian vision matters as far as what it's pursuit will lead to. That utopian thinking often leads to distopian outcomes just indicates to me that we need to be vigilant about those pitfalls, not that we should never pursue impossible ideals.

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    4. Keshav, new post to answer your question coming soon.

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  2. If you are going to make a marginalist point on privilege you should at least apply marginalism throughout. The argument is of course not that the young ladies in the Appalachian trailer have a higher average level of privilege than the young ladies currently living in the White House. It is that on the margin of race, the young ladies in the trailer have an advantage. They are doing better than young black ladies in the trailer park. Similarly, a young white girl raised in the White House is (perhaps) better off than Sasha and Malia (I say "perhaps" because of course at the tails of the privilege distribution it's likely that typical rules break down). Given a set of characteristics, dialing up the "white" knob adds privilege.

    I think there are caveats to that as you point out in the rest of the post. I just don't think the argument was ever that people in the trailer park have it better than people in the White House.

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    1. I thought I was pretty clear here: "So one problem I see with the idea of white privilege is not that it is total nonsense but that it is a one-sided emphasis on one aspect of privilege amongst many others."

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    2. Gene, don't you think that the sorts of people who are concerned with white privilege are concerned with other forms of privilege as well? The left has a broad set of critiques of privilege on the basis of race, gender, income, orientation, etc. They just think that different forms of privilege sometimes merit different remedies.

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    3. I did note your point that in some contexts whites don't have privilege (your son's basketball court). I recognized that you were saying "in some circumstances being white does not offer privilege". I did not realize you were also saying "white privilege claims that all whites do better than all non-whites".

      If you are interpreting "white privelege" to mean trailer park children have an edge over Sasha and Malia then we're probably talking and thinking about very different things.

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    4. 'I did not realize you were also saying "white privilege claims that all whites do better than all non-whites". '

      What makes you "realize" this now?

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  3. Nice post, Gene. I think I'm agreeing with you when I say that the problem with the concept "white privilege" is not that it is false but that it is underspecified. Moreover, the fact that it's underspecified is not necessarily a bug, but could be a feature for those who are most enthusiastic about using it, if their goal is to shut down discussion and disagreement rather than to communicate.

    Steve Sailer wrote on a related topic, Ta-Nehisi Coates' argument for reparations, today:

    http://isteve.blogspot.com/2014/05/reparations-amnesty-brendan-eich.html

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