Against White Privilege: Clarifying the Critique of a Problematic Term

My critique of “white privilege” rhetoric (for example, here: “Debunking a Sacred Text in the Church of Identitarianism”) concerns the practice of using the term to describe prevailing racial inequality. It is not a denial of the problems of race prejudice, race discrimination, or racial inequality. These are very real problems to be addressed. But the vast majority of Americans are not racists nor do Americans live in a nation that runs on racism.

Cartoon America

I reject the white privilege discourse not because of “white fragility” but because the discourse misuses language and meaning. Race privilege has been abolished in the United States. Continuing to speak as if a problem the nation overcame decades ago is still a problem is more that unhelpful. It divides the working class (which is likely the reason so many bourgeois institutions push the rhetoric in rules and training). Instead of founding a proletarian movement on the basis of common material interests, the rhetoric of race privilege fragments class consciousness and worker solidarity. It leaves the impression that the nation has accomplished very little with respect to the problem of racism and white people are the reason. By mischaracterizing the contemporary situation, the rhetoric denies progress while recycling grievances long ago addressed.

President Lyndon Johnson signs the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964

It is, moreover, fallacious—and racially discriminatory if it informs treatment—to attribute to individuals group averages based on skin color. Individuals are not statistical averages. Persons are concrete entities with biographies. One cannot explain a person’s successes (or failures) on the grounds that he allegedly possesses a group advantage “revealed” by aggregated statistical differences. This is the problem of making claims about racial differences in aptitude and intelligence tests based on aggregated data, “findings” that are at best correlative even generously granting the validity of such instruments. The chart presented below from Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s notorious The Bell Curve (1994), is not explanatory. It is illogical to infer causality from statistical averages drawn from passive demographic categories (unlike aggregate analysis based on shared belief systems, for example religious groups). It’s stereotyping. It turns people into cartoon abstractions: villains, victims, allies, and heroes. It is the reification of demographic categories that allows for the production of mythology, of monolithic standpoints labeled “oppressor perspective” and “victim perspective.”

A chart from Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s infamous The Bell Curve (1994) positing that racial inequality across a range of social categories are attributable to innate cognitive differences between blacks and whites as revealed by IQ tests.

When I discuss this matter with people, they often raise the problem of redlining, the practice of selectively granting loans or selling homes to buyers on the basis of their race. Doesn’t redlining prove white privilege? Depends on the historical context. The fact that corporations and banks engage in discriminatory and illegal practices today does not substantiate a claim that we live in a society that operates on the basis of race privilege.

There were several landmark changes made in the United States that ended race privilege in the form of de jure housing discrimination. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 made it “unlawful to discriminate in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale of a dwelling because of race or national origin.” FHA also made it “unlawful for any person or other entity whose business includes residential real estate-related transactions to discriminate against any person in making available such a transaction, or in the terms or conditions of such a transaction, because of race.” Congress strengthened the law in 1977 with the Community Reinvestment Act.

President Lyndon Johnson signs the Fair Housing Act of 1968

While financial institution do engage in these practices, they do not do so with impunity. Just in the last five years, enforcement actions have been brought against, to identify but a few examples, Associated, Community State, Evans Bank, First United Security, and Hudson Bank (banks in the northeast, midwest, and deep south). Far from establishing privilege for whites who get loans, banks are punished for discriminating against non-whites. A society operating on the basis of white privilege does not make it illegal to discriminate against non-whites. Whites do not enjoy special rights or immunities—the meaning of privilege—on the basis of discriminatory action by financial institutions.

To draw a contrast, we live in a capitalist society where economic exploitation is legal. There is a very real class privilege reinforced by law. Under socialism, exploitation would be illegal; class privilege would be abolished. It may very well be that under socialism labor will be exploited here and there. But such instances would—or at least should—be addressed through government action. These instances of exploitation under socialism could not be said to establish class privilege, as they are deviations from the law that makes exploitation illegal. The failure to enforce the law is also not an instance of privilege. By analogy, a person who gets away with murder is not privileged. The law failed to hold him accountable. Nor is an innocent man privileged because the system failed to convict him of a murder he did not commit.

I recently wrote about racial disparities in criminal offending (see “Mapping the Junctures of Social Class and Racial Caste: An Analytical Model for Theorizing Crime and Punishment in US History”). The rhetoric of white privilege is often attached to these disparities, as well. The sources of violent crime in the black community are chiefly structural inequality, culture, and easy availability of guns. As I have explained, these problem emerge in part from de facto patterns of occupational and residential segregation shaped by legal and economic history. Furthermore, the problem with white privilege rhetoric, as well as the claim that the problems of black people are the result of an ongoing web of structural oppression, is the denial of human agency and dignity. It treats black people like puppets on a string. It makes a black man killing a black man the fault of white people. Whites get all the agency; they’re responsible for their actions and more. Blacks are infantilized; they’re victims. It’s more than an error to blame the social problems associated with black neighborhoods on “white privilege.” It undermines human dignity.

What about inherited and cumulative advantages and disadvantages? These are certainly explanatory. The explanation moves the call for reparations. Whatever one thinks about reparations (and I believe they are a bad idea “For the Good of Your Soul: Tribal Stigma and the God of Reparations”), reparations have already occurred. As the call for more reparations ramps up, we’re again hearing the slogan “forty acres and a mule.” Forty acres and a mule was a feature of Special Field Orders 15, a declaration by Union General Sherman in 1865 in the context of a civil war. Because this never happened, the story goes, nothing was ever done about the material foundation of post-slavery racial inequality. But in the Civil Rights period, reparations did indeed take place, they just took a different form: public investments, expansion of the social welfare system, public housing, affirmative action, and other policies and programs. Forty acres and mule no longer made sense in an advanced industrial society.

Today, Americans live in one of the freest and most open societies in world history. The United States is a multiracial and multiethnic democratic-republic with legally protected access to educational, occupational, and residential institutions. We no longer live in a nation that operates on white supremacy and race privilege. Of course, as I said at the outset, race prejudice, race discrimination, and racial inequality persist. But we must emphasize that these problems do not establish the presence of white privilege. Legal structures granting privileges on the basis of race that function to systematically advantage whites are required to indicate white privilege. Moreover, white privilege is unnecessary for race discrimination and racial inequality. It is wrong to claim, as we hear people say all the time, that every black person experiences discrimination or that every white person benefits from discrimination or that every white person is racist or that white people cannot suffer discrimination. This is the rhetoric of a grievance industry that denies the progress this nation has made in righting the wrongs of history and power.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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