The Myth of White Privilege

Throughout academia, the corporate world, and government, leaders are pushing the notion that American society advantages whites and disadvantages blacks. The notion of white privilege, though, is mistaken, thereby rendering worthless much of the teaching and underlying research.  

In 1989, Wellesley College’s Peggy McIntosh published her influential article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” This article tied in with a group she founded, Seeking Educational Equity & Diversity (SEED). Since 1986, SEED has trained 2,200 teachers and professors in more than 40 countries. As a result, her work has influenced and will continue to influence millions of students.

The notion of white privilege intersects with other areas of teaching and research, including Critical Race Theory, white fragility, and whiteness studies. For example, Westfield State University’s Robin DiAngelo’s book,  White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (2018) focuses on white people’s defensiveness when their whiteness or racial worldview is mentioned. It was a bestseller for more than a year. It along with other books form a new canon of literature focusing on racism, white defensiveness, and white privilege. Other books include Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist (2019) (24 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list), Carol Anderson’s White Rage (2016) (won the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism), and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015) (twice topped the bestseller list and was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize). 

University of Michigan’s Dan Lowe defines privilege as the advantage a person has because of membership in a social group in a context when membership should not normally matter. The issue is whether white (or Asian) people benefit from white privilege.

There is little reason to believe that racial injustice caused the lion’s share of white-black differences. Racial groups differ in their cultural environment. According to the Center for Equal Opportunity, in 2018 40% of births in the United States were out of wedlock. The particular out-of-wedlock birth rates were 11.7% for Asians, 69% for blacks, 52% for Hispanics, 68% for Native Americans, and 28% for whites. According to the Brooking Institution’s Isabel Sawhill, children raised by single mothers are less likely to graduate, do worse in school, have more physical and psychological problems, are more likely to be involved in crime, and so on. The out-of-wedlock birth rates in the black community have been skyrocketing over the decades even as alleged racism has been plummeting. In addition, the general ordering of out-of-wedlock birth rates likely tracks the countries from which people came. Hence, it is unlikely that racism explains most, let alone all, of these differences.

Next, consider intelligence. Since 1970, Oxford University’s Nathan Cofnas points out that if we exclude children, the black-white IQ gap has remained roughly constant, at approximately one standard deviation. This is a big gap. IQ matters because it correlates with crime, education, jobs, marriage, out-of-wedlock childbearing, and so on. There is a heated debate as to whether genetics cause some of the gap. It is worth noting that anonymous surveys indicate that a significant percentage of experts in intelligence think this is so. See, for example, Heiner Rindermann and colleagues’ 2016 and 2020 studies. Even if the gap is 100% environmental, it does not follow that racism alone explains it.

The white privilege proponents might claim that these differences result from, and only from, racism, whether past or present. However, this claim rests on the notion that we can compare the role of racism to other causes such as blameworthy choices, non-racist cultural differences, and genetics. If these causes cannot be factored out, and neither proponents nor others have done so, their claim is purely speculative.    

Even if there were white privilege, it would not matter morally. As philosopher Spencer Case points out, the mere fact that one group is doing better than a second is morally irrelevant. Attractive people likely have advantages in dating, employment, income, sex, etc. when compared to their unattractive competitors. The same is true for tall people. Attractive and tall people should not feel guilty about their advantages, try to nullify them, or pay compensation for them. This is because they did not violate their competitors' rights or commit other types of injustice.  

Case points out that the best account of privilege (an advantage a person has due to membership in a social group in a context when membership should not normally matter) depends on a theory of when membership should matter. This depends on when attractiveness, height, or race should matter. And this in turn depends on what one thinks should matter regarding personal decisions (for example, dating, friendship, and marriage) and policies (for example, education, imprisonment, and welfare). Whether something is a privilege, then, depends on what individuals and governments should do. That is, it is a conclusion of moral reasoning rather than something that should guide it.    

The white privilege movement is mistaken. Whites are not privileged over blacks. Even if they were, nothing should be done about it.

Stephen Kershnar is a distinguished teaching professor in the philosophy department at the State University of New York at Fredonia and an attorney

Image: Adam Fagen

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