In Molière’s play Le Malade Imaginaire (1673), the president of the faculty of medicine poses the question “Quare opium facit dormire?” (“Why does opium induce sleep?”). The character Thomas Diafoirus replies, “Quia est in eo virtus dormativa quae facit sopire” (“Because it has a dormitive property that induces sleepiness”). Today’s institutions of higher education and public intellectuals often play out a similar scene in discussions of contemporary inequalities across demographic groups. Why do whites occupy better situations than people of other categories? Because they have white privilege, which produces advantage.
Whether whites really do enjoy a universal advantage as individuals is highly debatable. Let’s assume for the moment, though, that there is something about being white that results in better job opportunities, higher incomes and net household worth, greater access to education, better treatment by police and other public officials, and the simple luxury of not feeling like an outsider in public places. Labeling that something privilege gives us no real information and explains nothing.
There are multiple causal explanations for categorical advantage. One of them is the prejudice/discrimination explanation, which in its simplest form holds that members of the racial majority hold negative views of the minority group and therefore discriminate against them. Racial prejudice and discrimination are historical facts: slavery, the Jim Crow system and discriminatory practices in employment, housing and education have been common in the US. We can also find extensive examples of historical prejudice and discrimination against Asians and people of Mexican and Central American heritage. Although overt discrimination is undoubtedly less prevalent today than it was fifty years ago, it still occurs. The extent to which it still occurs and contributes to contemporary racial and ethnic stratification, though, are questions that vague invocations of privilege simply obscure.
The prejudice/discrimination explanation has more subtle variants. Among these is the view that overt prejudice may have declined in recent years, but stereotypes, often unconscious, inherited from the past remain with us. Many of the claims about racial profiling involve the idea that racial or ethnic stereotypes have been ingrained in our culture by our history. Claude Steele’s stereotype threat theory—which holds that the academic performance of black students is inhibited by their own internalized stereotypes—represents another form of the hypothesis that the legacy of discrimination continues to shape our unconscious ideas.
The legacy of discrimination approach also appears in arguments about enduring structures of opportunity. For example, access to mortgages and housing locations shaped where minority group members could live and how much household wealth they could build up in the past. This has arguably affected their ability to invest in younger generations, creating disadvantages that outlast overt discrimination.
Social capital and network accounts of racial and ethnic stratification are consistent with legacy of discrimination views. Social capital refers to the idea that connections to other people constitute an asset. This capital is generated by networks. Having contacts with others who have resources or information creates possibilities, and these contacts can most commonly be found among people who share a common group membership. There is also a cultural dimension to this. A substantial body of literature supports the idea that family structure is connected to the development of cultural orientations associated with academic performance and competence in the world of work.
I offer an argument about how immigrants from different ethnic groups fit into different positions in society in my 2014 book, Immigrant Networks and Social Capital—and the book’s argument can be extended to all racial and ethnic categories. But my purpose here is simply to point out that these explanations involve a range of hypotheses to be tested. To pretend that we offer an explanation when we call the inequality privilege is to substitute a label for careful analysis.
There is an additional problem. The inequality people think they describe when they refer to privilege may not be what they think. Even if whites enjoy some property that gives them an advantage in every situation, giving this property a name would say nothing about it. But should we take that property for granted? Does being white really always pay off?
The Problem of Outcomes
The evidence clearly indicates that being white does not always result in better outcomes.
The proselytizers of the white privilege claim tend to rely heavily on unfalsifiable perceptions and personal anecdotes. At the end of the 1980s, the feminist and anti-racist activist Peggy McIntosh published a series of highly influential articles on how everyday experiences should be seen as manifestations of an omnipresent and invisible system of unfair racial and gender privileges. In his 2004 book, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, Tim White generalises from his own experiences as a scion of the upper middle class to make vague, expansive pronouncements about the universal benefits of whiteness. Sociologist Robin DiAngelo coined the term white fragility in 2011, as a sweeping ad hominem dismissal of those who were sceptical of this tendentious way of thinking about race. These and similar advocates tend to state their positions as revelations, rather than arguments. Disagreements are not treated as counterarguments, but as the ignorance of the unenlightened and the stubborn denial of revealed truth.
The American Community Survey of the US Census contains a common measure of relative social status, known as the Duncan socioeconomic index: a composite measure of occupational income, occupational prestige and educational attainment. Computing group averages for this measure from 2013–17 reveals interesting results. Non-Hispanic whites placed not at the top of the American socioeconomic status hierarchy, but in about the middle. These results have been stable for at least a couple of decades.
Those at the top of the American socioeconomic pyramid were not white, but Indian, with an average of 59.37. People classified as Chinese, in what the census calls detailed race categories, scored 52.66 and those classified as Pakistani averaged 52.10. Non-Hispanic whites showed an average of 46.59. Black non-Hispanics came in at 37.92, clearer lower than whites, but substantially higher than Mexicans, Hondurans and Guatemalans (32.50, 26.52 and 26.00, respectively).
Of course, one might argue that whites enjoy their positions because of their privilege, while Indians and Chinese enjoy theirs despite their lack of privilege. But that would mean that privilege is not the only determinant of socioeconomic outcomes, that social positions are actually the consequence of factors that affect all groups, including whites, and that, whatever white privilege may be, other assets are more valuable.
If we look at poverty rates (especially child poverty rates), the relative position of blacks is much lower than it is when we look at socioeconomic status. This is largely because only people who are in the labor force have socioeconomic index scores and blacks have much lower labor force participation rates than other groups. Here again, though, it is not privilege, but being in the labor force that causes the differences.
One of the topics that prompts assertions of white privilege most often is that of police treatment. The police, it is often claimed, treat white people better than they treat non-white people, so whites have the putative privilege of not being harassed or shot by officers while going about their business. One might respond that, if this is so, it is not a privilege but something every citizen should expect.
Racially prejudiced police officers exist. It may also be the case that there are implicit biases among the police and that the stereotypes produced by these implicit biases account for at least some of the differences in how the police interact with people of different races. It is also entirely possible that stereotypes may be the consequence of over-generalization from realities.
According to the Uniform Crime Report published by the FBI, between 2009 and 2018, 97% of the murderers of police officers were men and 57% were black, even though black men made up only 6% of the US population. That officers might bring different levels of apprehension and readiness to engage in force when confronting young black men and when dealing with elderly white women can be seen as understandable, if lamentable and unjustifiable. This is totally unrelated to special privilege. How common differential treatment of minority group members by the police may be and whether at least some of the differential treatment may be associated with race are genuine questions. Although overt prejudice, implicit bias or over-reactions to statistical realities may cause the police to deal more harshly with some racial groups than others, evidence indicates that we cannot take it for granted that being white ensures people better experiences.
For example, a research group from the University of Michigan published a study in July 2019, which found that, despite the national publicity given to shootings of black men by white police officers, white officers were no more likely to shoot blacks than black or Hispanic officers. Even more importantly, the fatal police shootings of blacks were not related to race per se, but to high crime rates in the places where those shootings occurred. Officers were just as ready to fire their guns on whites in white neighborhoods with high crime rates. One can question the results of this study, but we cannot simply assume that police behavior reflects a reaction to a social advantage that whites have and others do not.
Why Do We Hear So Much About It?
If assertions of privilege tell us nothing about the true nature of racial and ethnic inequality, why are these assertions so ubiquitous? Why do universities often host conferences on white privilege and teach this amorphous property to students as a self-evident truth? I am not suggesting that the privilege idea can be discredited by claiming that its adherents are misguided. But it makes sense to consider why so many people are so steadfast in their belief in this mysterious property.
The answer, I think, is that, while the language of privilege is a shoddy way to investigate facts and causes, it provides an inspiring slogan. Identity politics, with its overriding concern with real and perceived unfairness based on group identification, produces simple, appealing catch phrases. The presentation of privilege as a revelation to be achieved, rather than as a concept to be critically examined, helps to integrate people into the ranks of those united by moral commitment.
While the assertion that all individual whites are the beneficiaries of undeserved advantages intensifies the commitment and solidarity of some, it also provokes reactions on the part of others. This is the aspect of the white fragility allegation that has some substance: people who feel that they have been unjustly accused do tend to react with resentment and refuse to engage in dialogue with their accusers. The proponents of privilege see this as the stubborn denial of self-evident truth, resulting from deeply entrenched systemic racism. The privilege claim contributes to a growing political polarization.
Nowhere is political tribalization so evident as in contemporary academic institutions. Significant parts of our educational institutions have turned toward advocacy and activism and away from trying to understand the world through careful investigation. Marching together does not encourage reflection and analysis. The key question on many of today’s campuses is no longer how do we strive to understand our complicated world? It is which side are you on: the side of privilege or the side of social justice?