Let me begin with an apology. Normally I try to maintain some level of intellectual stoicism in my writing, but tonight I’m pounding on my keyboard. Over the years many events have inspired me to write about white “privilege,” whether it’s the Occupy Movement or the Knockout Game. This time it was an article by a courageous college student named Tal Fortgang who wrote Why I’ll Never Apologize For My White Male Privilege. Thanks to him the issue of white “privilege” is surging on social media to twerking Cyrus proportions. Usually I come to my senses before I publish these rants, but if you’re reading this it’s because this time anger got the better of me. Hopefully I can tease out some kind of teaching moment about race.
”When striking at the branches of evil few realize that the stick they swing is cut from the same tree.” ~me
I’m putting “privilege” in quotes because there’s a difference between a “privilege” and a “right.” A “right” being something innate and universal that should belong to all people, and a “privilege” being a special advantage, or immunity granted only to a particular person or group of people, often at the expense of others. Most examples of a white “privilege” that I’ve heard were not privileges granted to white people, but rights violations against people of color. The term suggests that the “privilege” should be taken away, rather than the right restored.
No one calls marriage as a “straight privilege.” They call it a “human right,” because they don’t want to take marriage from straight people. They want to give marriage to all people. Bring all the historical injustices, and modern statistics you want. It’s still the wrong word for the wrong concept. Yet, when I point out this simple distinction over the definition of a term I am circled by an echo chamber of cultural Marxists lambasting me as a white supremacist. One thing that sparks my skepticism of a social theory is when its adherence respond to scrutiny with hostility instead of curiosity.
Some simpletons think my skin disqualifies me from speaking about race, and if you think that you’re part of the problem.
The first time I was asked to “check my privilege” was by an anti-war activist I was working with. Of course, I happen to know that this person drives a nicer car than me, lives in a nicer apartment than me, and comes from a richer family than me. My philosophy informs me that she deserves the products of her hard work, as well as the products of her family’s hard work. But her philosophy suggests, as an axiom, that this disparity is evidence of oppression… or at least it would if she shared my skin color.
During a planning session I expressed a concern that libertarian voices were being shouted down, even though it was supposed to be an open forum. I was told that I should “check my white privilege” and let more marginalized people speak first. In reality the work group was dominated by Marxists who shouted down anyone who disagreed, regardless of race or gender. So, apparently I was already adequately represented by those Marxists because we shared a skin tone.
Then I was told that “white people need to be allies, not leaders” and that “white people don’t get to tell people of color how to resist.” But it was apparently perfectly fine for people of color to tell white people how to resist. Defining white people as “allies not leaders” is literally moving them to the margins, which we apparently deserve because of our “privilege”.
There is an important distinction to be made between formal equality and material equality.
Formal equality means equal treatment, and concerns institutions within society, as in equality before the law. Formal equality is what was meant by “created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Material equality means people being made equal with respect wealth or resources. Material equality is the goal of Marxists and Communists, and is factually impossible to achieve because people are individuated and objects are indivisible. The two equalities cannot coexist because in order to impose material equality, formal equality must be violated.
The civil rights movement demanded formal equality. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to, “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” is a perfect expression of formal equality. It cannot possibly refer to material equality unless the content of everyone’s character is identical.
Whatever extent the institutions within society lack formal equality for people of color is despicable and should condemned, and resisted by all people of conscience. But the evidence presented for white “privilege” does not make this distinction. It conflates the two equalities, claiming that material inequality in income, employment, and education are proof of formal inequality, and ironically calling for formal inequality as a solution.
Cultural Marxists use “victimization” as an argument, as if whoever has suffered more must be intellectually correct. This is tragically fallacious logic, probably the result of public schools teaching statistics in the social sciences before they teach statistics in the actual sciences. If white “privilege” exists, and you want to treat people differently on the basis of their “privilege” it must be measurable. Otherwise you’re just projecting your prejudices into the world and calling it justice. Drawing the line along racial lines does not reflect anything measurable, and if you draw your lines in the wrong place you’ll be fighting the wrong battle.
In discussions of racism I see two logical fallacies routinely committed.
The “coincidental correlation fallacy” is the assumption that a correlation between two variables automatically means a common cause, or that one caused the other. Correlation may imply causation, but doesn’t prove it. For example, multiple independent studies have shown that ice cream sales and rape strongly correlate, and interviews with convicted rapists, and victims, reveal that a high percentage of them ate ice cream shortly before the crime. That would lead those who believe this fallacy to assume ice cream somehow caused rape. Similarly, cultural Marxists argue that because race and income are correlated racism must be the cause of income disparity. Racism may very well be one of many causes, but the correlation is not sufficient evidence of causation. Proving causation requires a counterfactual dependence. In other words, a control group.
The second more common, but less acknowledged fallacy committed during discussions of race is the “ecological fallacy” which assumes that the nature of individuals can be inferred from the nature of the group to which those individuals belong. This includes confusing ecological correlations and individual correlations, and confusing a higher average with a higher likelihood. Both or false. This is the central fallacy of all stereotyping. If an individual exhibits a unique trait it is fallacious to conclude that all members of their group exhibit that trait. Similarly, if a group statistically exhibits an average trait it is fallacious to conclude that any given individual from that group exhibits that trait. For example, it can be shown statistically that those who experienced child abuse have lower IQs as adults, however that doesn’t mean it’s safe to assume an individual with a lower than average IQ was abused as a child, or that someone who was abused as a child has a lower than average IQ.
Because of these fallacies it’s impossible for me to conclude that the popular statistics are proof of racism or white “privilege.” Even though racism and preferential treatment exist in individual instances, statistics are not sufficient evidence to claim they exist in all instances, or that they are causal.
Privilege exists. White people exist. Some white people experience privilege. But to claim that being white de facto equals being privileged is false.
When someone says that color blindness is a form of racism it’s difficult to take them seriously. You can’t have any kind of coherent conversation with these people if you can’t pin them down on a clear and consistent definition of racism.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines racism as:
“the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races; prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”
The Mariam Webster Dictionary defines racism as:
“a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race; racial prejudice or discrimination.”
These are perfectly sufficient definitions for discussing reality, but apparently not for academic ethnic studies programs.
According to ethnic studies professors these definitions describe “racial prejudice” not “racism.” That’s a distinction without a difference in reality, especially when you consider that “racial prejudice” is right there in the Mariam Webster definition. But in academia they make a distinction between common racial prejudice, and racial prejudice plus power. According to them, people of color don’t have power, so they are incapable of racism.
This is false on it’s face, and it’s an embarrassment to the intellectual tradition that experts parrot this tripe with a straight face.
For example, when I was in middle school I was routinely terrorized by ethnic gangs because I was white. I know this because they used racial slurs while I was being pummeled. Can the ethnic studies professors seriously argue that these thugs, who outnumbered me, were not exerting power over me?
In fact, numerous people with fancy ethnic studies degrees have told me that I was not the victim of racism, because racism involves institutional power, not individual power. See, because the principal of the school was white, and therefor I was still the one in a position of racial power.
In reality, when the principal intervened I was punished for fighting because the gang had more witnesses claiming that I punched first, even though I had not even punched once. The principal routinely held me to higher scrutiny than my assailants because my anti-authoritarian tendencies were already manifesting, and that pissed him off. My locker and backpack were searched more often, and I was punished for petty things like carrying a plastic knife from the cafeteria, because zero tolerance for weapons. So much for white “privilege.” In reality, power favors the compliant over the disobedient, not the familiar over the minority. So, the gang actually did enjoy institutional power, because their victim was denied formal equality by the administration in power.
“Racial prejudice plus institutional power” is obviously a specious and arbitrary definition concocted by bigot academics to limit the range of possible discussion. I wonder if the academics of Oceania were as eager to use their “definitions” as a mallet. But this is not how the proponents of this ideology use the term anyway. Even if I grant them that my bullies were not racist, these activists won’t even admit that they were racially prejudiced. They also will never acknowledge that by their definition white bigots are not racist because they are individuals and not institutions. Somehow the lone white supremacist picking his nose on his own porch and thinking racially prejudiced thoughts satisfies their definition of institutional power, but an actual political institution that exerts power to enforce material equality at the expense of formal equality does not.
It doesn’t matter how many bookshelves you have in your office. There is no amount of academic literature that can overcome a contradiction in the first premise. What’s clear is that the ethnic studies definition of “racism” is designed solely to prevent the universalization of ethics, and when it suits that purpose they will wobble back to the dictionary definition. Reduce all definitions to subjective preferences, and call anyone who disagrees a racist.
Justice is about balancing scales. Weights and measures. No matter how many people I ask no one has given me a suitable way of measuring white “privilege,” nor a way to balance it that isn’t itself unjust. So what am I supposed to check exactly?
People don’t have a lot of credibility with me when they claim to be standing up for marginalized voices, but when someone is marginalized right and front of them they act like it didn’t happen because the victim is white, or worse like they deserved it because they are white. I totally understand the need to empower the marginalized, and I think all people of conscience want to create formal equality for all people. But why should I work with allies on an issue when there is no reciprocity? I expect to be treated as a formal equal, and if people think I should be regarded as unequal because I was born one color and not another I just can’t work with them. Why should I tolerate being silenced because other white people have had more than their fair share of speech?
Racial inequality, at least in the US, stems in part from America’s history of chattel slavery, but those motivated by racial justice seldom celebrate the early white abolitionists who opposed slavery on principle from the beginning? Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Lysander Spooner. When these white men intersected with power they were not “privileged” for their race. Like me, they were targeted for their anti-authoritarian tendencies.
Power favors the obedient. If you did a study I’m sure you’d find that those obedient to State authority enjoy a much higher income on average than the disobedient. I’m sure you’ll find the obedient enjoy greater access to public services, and higher education. The obedient absolutely experience preferential treatment from law enforcement, and the “justice” system if compared to the disobedient. In fact I’m willing to bet the disparity between the obedient and the disobedient is greater than any other social class.
Privilege is not a matter of race and power. It’s just a matter of power. Those in power, and those obedient to power enjoy privileges that those without power, and those disobedient to power do not enjoy. There is a deep unacknowledged hypocrisy among people who say, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” out of one side of their mouth, and “power to the people” out of the other side.
So, next time you hear someone preaching the ideology of “privilege” casually suggest that they “check their obedient privilege.” How much higher is their income because they do what they are told? How many prison sentences have they avoided by doing what was legal, instead of what was right? How many of their fancy degrees were earned because they cowed to their pushy professors? How many advantages do they enjoy because they grovel for the State. And most importantly, how many of the liberties that they enjoy were won by rebels and criminals who disobeyed? It seems to me this is a far more accurate measure of privilege in society, so maybe it’s time for a little chastisement, and a little obedient guilt.