White Privilege Doesn’t Mean Anything—And That’s the Point

If you’re intimidated by a racially loaded term such as “white privilege,” as so many conservative leaders and commentators seem to be, then you don’t belong in a position of power. A game is being played on you, and you don’t understand the rules.

Here’s how it works.

Take a look at this video clip from last year’s Munk Debate over political correctness. In it, the Canadian clinical psychiatrist Jordan Peterson asks his adversaries how he is supposed to understand “white privilege.”

Peterson accepts for the sake of discussion the premise of white privilege—he otherwise rejects it outright—and poses a practical question. How much is his white privilege responsible for his own success? Peterson wonders. Five percent? 25 percent? And what is he supposed to do about it at this point?

Michael Eric Dyson, professor and media figure, responds by judging Peterson’s question “dismissive, pseudo-scientific, non-empirical.” Which is a lie, of course. Peterson has done the opposite, wanting some clarity about the empirical specifics of his white benefits. Dyson confesses as much in the next sentence, which reveals well how the white-privilege allegation works. White privilege “doesn’t act according to quantifiable segments,” Dyson says. Rather, white privilege is a moral command for “a society to grapple with the ideals of freedom, justice, and equality.”

Got that? White privilege doesn’t describe a reality. It tells people how to behave.

Let’s be more specific. It tells white people how to behave, their first obligation being to acknowledge their own responsibility for injustice and inequality. When someone talks about white privilege, he doesn’t burden blacks, Hispanics, or Asians with changing their ways. Only whites are affected. The moment someone utters “white privilege,” it sets all the white people in the room on the defensive. Only when whites join in the attribution of white privilege, especially to themselves in a kind of show-trial or struggle-session confession, do they regain some integrity.

That’s the real meaning of “white privilege”—not to signify a social and historical condition, but to control a situation. You can see that in Dyson’s refusal to answer Peterson’s request for specifics. If Dyson said something like, “You owe 20 percent of your wealth to white privilege, and you should donate it to black churches, black colleges, and the NAACP,” Peterson would be able to engage the numbers and question the advice. He would have a ground on which to argue a case. He would no longer be on the defensive. Better for Dyson and other white-privilege talkers to remain vague and tell whites that they must “grapple” with freedom and inequality—which is another fuzzy injunction that leaves even agreeable whites guessing, “Uh, what does that mean?”

It is essential that conservatives, especially Republican politicians, understand “white privilege” in just this way—as a power move, not a sincere idea. It is not designed to communicate facts. It means to stymie and stigmatize opposition.

There’s a reason, too, that liberals have chosen this particular rhetorical weapon. It doesn’t just paralyze conservatives with a guilt trip. It steers the subject away from a condition embarrassing to liberals.

Seventy years ago, liberalism adopted the plight of African Americans as a cardinal moral mission. That’s why they so often refer to fresh controversies as “the Civil Rights issue of our time.” Back then, African-American uplift, especially in education, became a special goal that would confirm the truth and goodness of liberal philosophy and politics. And through the 1970s and ‘80s, it seemed to work as the education achievement gap closed.

But over the past two decades, the trend has stalled. On the National Assessment of Education Progress math exam, the gap for white and black 17-year-olds in 1973 was 40 points. (See Figure 4 here.) By 1992, the gap had shrunk to 26 points, a clear sign of success. Since then, however, the gap has remained at around 26 points, in spite of Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, affirmative action, and other programs designed to remedy the inequity.

This is painful for liberals. They don’t know what to do about it. More money for public schools, more “cultural relevance” in the curriculum, fewer racial disparities in school punishment, no more school-to-prison pipeline . . . the liberal solutions keep coming, but nobody puts much faith in them.

Conservatives have a ready answer to the “why” question: No matter how much you improve schooling, they say, children who grow up in a single-parent household generally fare less well than do children in two-parent households. Educational achievement rises for children living in a stable traditional family.

But that is not the situation for most African-American kids. In 1965, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan completed his report on the black family, the rate of illegitimacy was 25 percent, which he termed a “crisis.” Today, the rate of African-American children raised in single-parent households stands at 66 percent. This family breakdown, more than any other factor among African Americans, has hampered educational progress. It has stopped liberal hopes cold.

Liberals can’t talk about the family, however. Feminism and LGBT voices won’t let them. It might sound like blaming-the-victim or downgrading single mothers or pushing “heteronormativity.” Still, they can’t ignore the educational stall, so liberals desperately need another explanation for the persistence of the achievement gap.

“White privilege” does the job well (as does “systemic racism,” another murky term). It retains the racism theme, which still frightens conservatives who worry about their “respectability.” At the same time, it is nebulous and insinuating enough to keep the targets of it off-balance.

It’s time to stop playing along. The next time conservatives face the white privilege point, they should not give it one iota of credence. Instead, they should say, “Let’s talk about something real, like the number of African-American boys who have never lived with their fathers. What happens to them, Mr. Caring Liberal?”

Photo Credit: Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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