Saturday, January 23, 2016

"White Privilege" Isn't Really A Thing

   Insisting you're right doesn't make you right. Case in point, insisting that white privilege is totally a thing doesn't make it one.
   I've gone through these arguments before. Thing is, as with most ideas, there's not absolutely nothing to it. There's an idea buried in there somewhere...but its mired in conceptual confusion like almost everything that comes from the illiberal left. "White privilege" is largely a figment of far-left imagination, much like "rape culture," "cultural appropriation," and "microaggressions." That's not to say that whites don't *on average* have a comparative advantage as against (and I take it that this is the comparison the lefties actually have in mind) blacks in the U.S. in many circumstances. Rightly or wrongly, I thought we'd all been convinced long ago that this was true. It is, rather, to say that it isn't accurately described as "privilege." The illiberal left lives in a philosophical fantasy world packed full of concepts that almost make sense...but not quite. 
   "Social construction" is a good example. There are, of course, social influences on belief...but it is not accurate to say that this means that "reality is socially constructed." It's radically inaccurate and misleading terminology--and it's calculated to mislead in a direction that the left finds tactically advantageous and emotionally pleasing. There are rapes, and culture no doubt plays some role, but American culture cannot reasonably be called a "rape culture." The culture's more-or-less official position on rape is: it's basically the most heinous crime there is, with the possible exception of child molestation...which is a kind of rape.  
   People face many small annoyances...they're *micro-* alright...but their not "aggressions." If I ask you where you're from, it may be annoying because it's the third time you've been asked this week. But there is no intent to harm, ergo it's not "aggression." One can adopt practices from other cultures, but this need not be "appropriation", since the term suggests that's wrong when, in fact, it isn't. There might be some circumstances in which it's wrong...though I have a difficult time thinking of any. Usually the real cause of concern is disrespect for the culture. Some cultures deserve to be disrespected in certain ways, of course...but it's prima facie plausible to think that at least some acts of disrespect aimed at at least some cultures is worthy of criticism... But, again, the problem there would be disrespect, not "appropriation."
   Disenfranchisement of blacks is not "white privilege," it's discrimination against blacks. Voting isn't a "privilege," it's a right. Emba notes that black kids are suspended more from school, but some studies indicate that this is because they have more behavioral problems--something that wouldn't be surprising given that more black families are impoverished. If people who are black are followed around in stores, but whites and Asians are not, then this cannot reasonably be called "white privilege." Again, it is a kind of discrimination against blacks.
   And "privilege" isn't merely the mirror-image of 'discrimination.' "Privilege theory" typically entails that whites benefit from discrimination against non-whites. Sometimes this is true, but not usually. I gain nothing when others are e.g. disenfranchised--especially since my political preferences tend to track with those of the majority of black Americans. "Privilege theory" is a mess, as is the term. There are good reasons to reject it, like the rest of the conceptual disaster of the post-post-modern regressive left. We can't be forced to accept bad concepts and false theories just because the left insists that we must. 
   The general problem here is that what are sometimes called "cultural elites" are in the grip of a political correctness fad. They are insisting that the rest of us adopt the fad, too. Some people can be bamboozled by quasi-academic jargon...but I'm gratified to see that, so far, at least, there's significant resistance to this nonsense.
   I shouldn't have to add this, but you know what times are like...: none of this is to say a word about how bad discrimination against blacks in the U.S. is, nor how much of a comparative advantage it is to be white and/or Jewish (however you want to divide things up there), Asian, etc.

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Blogger Vidoqo said...

Maybe I've been misunderstanding the most popular usage of the term, but I've always thought of "white privilege" as meaning as a broad set of cultural advantages ranging from the psychological (growing up with positive models of your ethnicity in media or literal examples of them in positions of status in society), to the financial (having inherited on average a more financially secure upbringing with attendant safety, cleanliness, etc. in neighborhoods, more frequent access to a familial safety net, etc.), to the educational/cultural (growing up in a home with more opportunities for cognitive enrichment, schools with similarly enriched peers, etc.).

I'm not sure what the difference is between the concept of privilege and advantage. Each of these categories are categories of real advantages. Each of them have at some point in the past, or to some degree are at present, affected by racism - whether institutional, or personal.

What does bother me, however, is that emphasizing the racial component - while perfectly accurate as a factor, becomes a sloppy avenue towards a total cause for too many on the left. the right certainly misses the subtlety. It is as if the moral claim to justice - to take any positive steps towards social change that would benefit minorities - requires placing all blame at the foot of racism. I profoundly disagree.

I see all human behavior as functionally related to environment. I see environment as necessarily socially determined. I see this determination as placing all of us responsible, as members of the society. So racism, as a part of the story, of the contours of the function, is less important than the larger dynamics that perpetuate disadvantage.

A child grows up in a cognitively poor household, is unsupervised, plays in unsafe streets, is not held accountable for homework, who gets poor grades, gets pregnant as a teen, and raises the child while on welfare because the father is gone and can't afford childcare. And at age 4, we see a...

...child grows up in a cognitively poor household, is unsupervised, plays in unsafe streets, is not held accountable for homework, who gets poor grades, gets pregnant as a teen, and raises the child while on welfare because the father is gone and can't afford childcare. And at age 4, we see a...

... and so it goes. Racism is a part of this story. It may exist implicitly in the lack of urgency with which white Americans view the notion of intervening (the other). It definitely existed explicitly if we go back a few generations (housing policy, treatment of job applicants, employees, etc.).

But the more important story is how we as a society break this "child's" story. It could be any poor child, really. What interventions work? From the direct (social workers, school supports), to indirect (higher wages). The politics of BLM in a way illustrates the tensions in how we understand the intersection of race and poverty, and our difficulty in interrogating the root causes of what puts so many young black men in conflict with the police.

1:00 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Advantage: a condition or circumstance that puts one in a favorable or superior position

Privilege: a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people

The point is: white people have advantages, but not privileges. We do not think it is a privilege to not be discriminated against; it is a right. To say that white people are "privileged" is inaccurate; rather, the problem is that non-white people are discriminated against and therefore their rights are being violated.

One can correct a problem of privilege by removing said privilege, but one cannot correct the current problems being ascribed to "white privilege" by removing said "white privilege." For example: asking that police harass white people because they are white will not correct the problem of police harassment towards non-white people because they are non-white.

3:12 PM  
Anonymous Lewis Carroll said...

Vidoqo: *like*.

I've long believed that most economic and/or political intervention in society should be guided more by strictly *economic* factors than by identity factors...your post eloquently summarizes why. That goes especially for 'affirmative action' type programs.

Assistance based on economics is politically loaded, but it is less politically loaded than assistance based on race/gender/origin etc., and I think more defensible.

As for the best point of attack on the cycle you mention, Nobel-prize winning economist James Heckman believes it to be early childhood, say from birth to elementary school:

4:27 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Thanks for the thoughtful and tactful comment, vidoqo.

I haven't had a chance to reply yet, but, like LC, I agree with attacking the problem via economics, as I've said around here a lot. The average net worth of black households in the U.S. was *1/10th* that of white households *before the recession*. And the economically less-well-off tend to lose ground during recoveries. Also, improving the position of the economically worst-off is more justifiable morally in many ways...and more viable politically.

I do think that there are two forms of "privilege"-talk. One that tries to subsume injustice into "privilege" (and that won't work for the reasons I gesture at), and another that bifurcates the problem and uses "privilege"-talk to characterize the stuff that (allegedly?) falls below the level of injustice. I think your point is: the use of the term 'privilege' is defensible if it's used in the second way. I've thought of that a bit, and actually was thinking as I wrote this piece that I should think about it more. I have some reasons against that view too, some like those articulated by the Mystic, and some others...but I ought to think about them more before typing them out.

Thanks to all three for good, civil responses.

9:40 AM  

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