Monday, September 4, 2017

On "White Privilege"

Dennis Prager had a good piece here on so-called "White Privilege."  There it was noted that the poverty rate among two-parent black families is 7% and the poverty rate among single parent white families is 22%. Statistics like this lends credence to the claim that whatever white privilege is, there are other privileges that outweigh it and are worth more of our attention.
But what is "white privilege"?  As a philosopher, I've been asked this on several occasions, and in general I think it's a good idea to get clear on what one is talking about before diving in (how many times have you heard the term "racist" from someone who has no idea what it means?). On one way of understanding white privilege, it is white people having more benefits on average than other racial groups.  Of course, as Prager notes, by the standards of what typically counts as a benefit, Asians fair better than whites, so one wonders why the left isn't talking about Asian privilege, or white and Asian privilege.  Is it because there are more whites in the United States?  I don't think so, for that wouldn't explain why the left talks about the privileges of the "1%" who are also a minority.  (Prager gives the real reason in the excerpt below).

More importantly, this sense of white privilege isn't a very interesting one.  We could just as well talk about "rich privilege," "American privilege," "healthy privilege," or "having all four limbs privilege."  Moreover, this is not the sense of "white privilege" that people who talk on and on about white privilege need in order to shame white people, stir up white envy or hate for political purposes, or assuage their own "white guilt."

What "white privilege" needs to mean is the unearned benefits one has in virtue of one's own whiteness.  That is, it won't do simply to note the benefits--earned or unearned--of whites which have nothing to do with their being white. It needs to be because of the whiteness. The whiteness needs to enter into the explanation of why they have certain unearned benefits.

So what unearned benefits do whites have in virtue of their whiteness?  Well, this will largely depend on the individual.  Certain whites in backwoods communities might have unearned benefits due to their racist neighbors who think less of blacks qua black.  At the same time, it should be noted that they lack the unearned benefit of growing up in a non-racist community.  It is certainly not a moral advantage to grow up in a racist household and community.  In addition, they lack minority scholarships and privileges of affirmative action; in part by lacking education, they continue to be racists. Such unearned benefits need to be weighed with the unearned disadvantages, and there are many disadvantages of growing up uneducated and hating other people simply because of their race.

Speaking of my own case, I'm unaware of unearned benefits that I have due to my whiteness, although I certainly can imagine that there have been times when I benefited.  For instance, it's plausible that I was less observed for possible theft while in stores as a youth compared to blacks my age.  Cases like this can perhaps be multiplied.  At the same time, when in a company in the Army where the chain of command was all black, I was subjected to racism due to my whiteness (one of many, many examples of explicit racism to which I've been subjected).  I also lacked the unearned benefit of affirmative action going through school.  So it's difficult to tell the extent to which my whiteness causally contributed to my stock of unearned advantages.  Of course similar things could be said of blacks, but the devil is in the details. The truth is, most people just don't know the extent to which they've received gained and losses due to their race over the course of a lifetime.
What is almost always confused in these discussions is the difference between the totality of advantages whites have today on average compared (e.g.) to blacks, and what unearned benefits they have because of their own whiteness.  Whites could have more wealth, education, live in safer communities, be raised in two-parent households, etc. and none of this due to their own whiteness.

What about the fact--and it is a fact--that part of the cause of the black plight in the U.S. is due to past slavery by racist whites?  And what about the fact that some whites today (particularly ones with Southern heritage) have benefited downstream from slavery?  Isn't this white privilege?

No, it's not. The fact that I am white and had slave owning white ancestors isn't sufficient for saying that I have white privilege, at least not in a meaningful sense (and, in truth, I have a northern heritage with no known ancestors who owned slaves--but let's suppose I do for the sake of argument).  My whiteness is not the cause of the unearned benefits.  My whiteness in fact is explained by my biological past (supposing for the sake of argument that whiteness is a biological kind and not a social kind), so it can't be an explanation of that past; explanations can't be circular.  Still, let's go ahead and say that I have benefited by white racism in the past.  I have "privilege" in some sense, not because of my own whiteness, but because I received unearned benefits from racist whites in the past.

But then of course we have all received benefits from whites in the past, just as we've all received benefits from all sorts of other people groups from the past. There is a causal chain stretching back to the beginning of mankind from which we've received unearned advantages as well as disadvantages.  And there is no way to sort out the extent to which my unearned advantages are due to prior whites, blacks, browns, and so forth.  (This is a fact that makes reparations for past injustices logistically impossible).  So I think it best to ignore "white privilege" in this sense and focus just on what privileges I have due to my own whiteness.

And now to drive home the main point once again since so few appear to get it: In almost all discussions of so-called "white privilege" there is a deep conflation between unearned advantages that whites have on average and what they have in virtue of their being white.  I came from a small town where there were a lot of  farmers with common sense, where people went to church, there was low crime, drug use, and violence, the county was one of the poorest in the state of Ohio but the schools were decent and relatively safe, people weren't rich but they weren't desperately poor, I had two parents who loved me and disciplined me, etc.  Most importantly, the culture was saturated with people who possessed a good deal of moral virtues.  These are all unearned advantages.  And my community was mostly white, so whites had these unearned advantages.  But none of the things mentioned are unearned advantages due to my own whiteness.  Why not?  Because there are blacks, Hispanics, etc. who also have these same advantages. 

So for those who want to say that whites have "privilege" due to their own whiteness, they need to separate what unearned advantages whites happen to have today and what they have due to their own whiteness.  What unearned advantages do non-racist, poor whites have in virtue of their whiteness?  This would be the place to start.

Dennis Prager, take it away:

[I]f [white privilege] were true, why would whites commit suicide at twice the rate of blacks (and at a higher rate than any other race in America except American Indians)? According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, white men, who the Left argues are the most privileged group of all in America, commit seven out of every ten suicides in America — even though only three out of ten Americans are white males.
Whatever reason one gives for the white suicide rate, it is indisputable that, at the very least, considerably more whites than blacks consider life not worth living. To argue that all these whites were oblivious to all the unique privileges they had is to stretch the definition of “privilege” beyond credulity. Second, there are a host of privileges that dwarf “white privilege.” A huge one is Two-Parent Privilege. If you are raised by a father and mother, you enter adulthood with more privileges than anyone else in American society, irrespective of race, ethnicity, or sex. That’s why the poverty rate among two-parent black families is only 7 percent. Compare that with a 22 percent poverty rate among whites in single-parent homes. Obviously the two-parent home is the decisive “privilege.”
So then why all this left-wing talk about white privilege? The major reason is in order to portray blacks as victims. This achieves two huge goals for the Left — one political, the other philosophical. The political goal is to ensure that blacks continue to view America as racist. [TB: Prager is not denying that there is any racism, just the extent to which it is a cause today.]  The Left knows that the only way to retain political power in America is to perpetuate the belief among black Americans that their primary problem is white racism. Only then will blacks continue to regard the Left and the Democrats as indispensable.
The philosophical reason is that the Left denies — as it has since Marx — the primacy of moral and cultural values in determining the fate of the individual and of society. In the Left’s view, it is not poor values or a lack of moral self-control that causes crime, but poverty and, in the case of black criminals, racism. Therefore, the disproportionate amount of violent crime committed by black males is not attributable to the moral failure of the black criminal or to the likelihood of his not having been raised by a father [TB: or the failure of Democratic policies], but to an external factor over which he has little or no power — white racism. 
White privilege is another left-wing attempt, and a successful one, to keep America from focusing on what will truly help black America — a resurrection of the black family, for example — and instead to focus on an external problem: white privilege.


  1. Wow, that was incredibly well written and thought out. I always feel so frustrated when I hear the term white privilege. Just as you pointed out, two parent privilege would have a huge impact in the african american community. If institutional racism is so rampant, why are asians thriving? Could it be that culturally they promote different values? What percentage of asian families are two parent? Excellent article. Thank you for writing it.

  2. Could you please cite a source for the infographic?

  3. It's from the link in the first sentence of the post.