Whose Privilege Is it Anyway?

Progressives love to celebrate America’s increasing diversity. Sounds nice, but if you stop to think about that for a moment, what they’re celebrating is the declining white portion of the U.S. population.  The headline of an opinion in Newsweek awhile back is typical: “America’s Getting Less White, and That Will Save It.”

“Good!” says the subtext.  “It’s about time white dominance came to an end.”

Perhaps it’s happening faster than people think.  Last week, the Brookings Institution issued a report showing “a shocking increase in midlife mortality among white non-Hispanic Americans.”

It was a follow-up to a 2015 report by the same researchers, Princeton economists Anne Case and her husband Sir Angus Deaton, a much-discussed study that had reached the same conclusions. The new report provides more comparisons by race and sex, most significantly this: while mortality rates for blacks and Hispanics have fallen, rates for whites have risen significantly, especially among the lower-educated. In just the last 15 years, the mortality rate of whites aged 50-54 with only a high school degree has gone from 30 percent lower to 30 percent higher than the mortality of blacks the same age. (The full report is available here.)

We’ve gotten used to the idea that we’re all living longer, thanks to an economy that provides us with better drugs and medical services. But in a stunning reversal, this is no longer true for one demographic group in one of the world’s richest countries. Caused mostly by drugs, suicide, and alcohol, these are deaths Case and Deaton term “deaths of despair.”  Those pathologies seem to be striking lower-income whites more than they are blacks and Hispanics.

But don’t expect this to be discussed at the White Privilege Conference next month in Kansas City or among any other progressive group interested in the state of American society.  The official journal of the organization that runs the conference, Understanding & Dismantling Privilege, tells us how much the whole initiative relies on the premise of white advantage.  One essay in the current issue titled “On Clinging to Whiteness and Failing Humanity (And Myself)” reveals it well.  The author, a white graduate student in social science, recounts her time with Americorps in a black area of St. Louis and how a particular character trait kept her back: her “deep loyalty to White supremacy.”  She had learned in school “to think of White privilege and White supremacy as powerful processes that operated all around me,” but that fact was never quite real and personal.  In her experience with Americorps, she came to admit, White privilege operated “through” her.

The confession proceeds for several pages, and the shame she feels will not allow for any complication in the assumption of white guilt.  When “Whiteness” attitudes penetrate this deeply into an intelligent mind, signs of white decay are hard to accept.  They’re simply out of bounds.

One might think that progressives would recognize the class dimension to the problem. Marx would have done so. But in 21st century America, race eclipses class.  White privilege runs all the way up and down the income ladder.  To acknowledge the flailing bottom half of the white population is to forget a social justice warrior’s crucial duty to ask white people to “check their privilege.”

So how can a good progressive square his claims of white privilege with the rising “deaths of despair?” One can look away, of course, or one can blame white privilege itself. That’s what one blogger does.  “Let’s put this clearly,” Josh Marshall warns, “the stressor at work here is the perceived and real loss of the social and economic advantages of being white.”  That is, if an unemployed white worker kills himself, is addicted to heroin, or drinks every night, his angst over losing white supremacy helped get him there.

This attribution of race-based anxiety among middle- and lower-class whites helps explain why so many of them supported Donald Trump. The white-privilege thesis puts them in a guilty position, and they’re tired of it. They are made to feel guilty even for damaging themselves! Donald Trump was the first political figure in a long time to remove that guilt, telling them that they had sound economic reasons, not phony racial reasons, to feel bitter and cheated.

One lesson of his victory is clear. If you want to govern, you can’t keep telling a good portion of the electorate that their attitudes are nasty. Progressivism—and much of the Democratic Party—has accepted white privilege as a precious dogma. November 9 proved that the dogma has stalled, just as has the War on Women theme. Whatever else he accomplishes, Trump has shown just how much identity politics have poisoned the public square, and that itself is a civic achievement.

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