Prejudice and Privilege

I really dislike looking into matters of race, but you don’t have to scratch the surface of any American problem very hard to find race eating away just under the surface, complicating solutions and, worse, analysis. It is this subterranean process, this rotting under the polished surface of our ideals, that has given rise to the relatively new popularity of the notion of privilege as racism. I wish to examine this view of racism in relation to the traditional notion of prejudice.

Their etymology indicates a major difference that has major implications. While “prejudice” is rooted in the active voice — it means literally “to prejudge” presumably without sufficient evidence, “privilege” derives from French meaning “private” and “law.” To be granted a privilege is a passive, not an active act. We may assume that favor was sought, but its reception was not within the power of the recipient to procure in contrast to the power we have in exercising our judgment actively to show prejudice.

Now the use of these two terms today tracks their etymology, and this distinction is hugely important in the current racial climate for two different reasons, both of which make remedying racism more difficult. First, the concept of personal responsibility is a bedrock moral principle, and that is difficult to connect to privilege as racism. Consequently, we tend to underestimate the degree to which our actions are determined by prior conditions ( see “The Determinism Problem“) and overestimate our moral freedom in present ones, thus leading to the second problem: we consider our accomplishments to be entirely our own and resist crediting others for even a part of our success.

Contrast this haze of shared responsibility to active prejudice. To commit an act of prejudice is to make an error in thinking. It is within the thinker’s power to remedy. It is not only a cultural offense but also a rational one. It connotes sloppy thinking even when the prejudice is positive. For unless a class of things or persons is definitionally exclusive (“All bachelors are unmarried”), one may not reasonably apply even accurate group classifications to individuals, not to mention the difficulties inherent in forming those classifications, a danger postmodernists blithely ignore for some reason (see “Stereotypes and Categories“). But to receive a privilege is a gift the recipient has no control over. In the sense social critics use the word, white privilege describes a thing unearned, an accident of birth, a booster rocket for economic and social ascent denied to others. The term is thus not only passive, but also inevitably comparative. From its beginning, the private law benefiting some was implicitly to be contrasted with the public law relatively penalizing others. Framed in this way, privilege is not an issue of justice but of fairness, which is an inferior moral quality to justice.

So the use of the word “privilege” changes the nature of a charge of racism. First, the accused may have done nothing offensive in contrast to the implicit irrationality and injustice of a prejudicial judgment. She may bear no personal moral responsibility. She is merely the beneficiary of an unearned advantage that she may have neither asked for nor been aware of. Second, the charge insinuates that any advantage thus conferred also must penalize others. Finally, we face the most relevant issue that derives entirely from her degree of moral responsibility: what is she supposed to do about it? Let us attempt some calibration.

First, the power of charging prejudice is inextricably linked to the rational error it commits. Racism is morally offensive in part because it is stupid, and holding the moral high ground in the discussion cannot be separated from intellectual superiority. Racists are ignorant, uneducated, unable to grasp nuance. They make sweeping generalizations that are wildly inaccurate and then attempt to paint individuals with them. A long tradition of finding empirical or rational means to justify racist judgments from pseudo-Aristotle to Thomas Jefferson to Charles Murray attempts to invalidate the association between racism and ignorance, but its existence only reinforces the connection, for the act of stereotyping implicit in prejudice reeks of lazy thinking and the self-indulgence of belief (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”). This intimate connection between prejudice and mental defect cannot be carried over to the new racism of privilege, for privilege reveals no requisite flaws in its recipient whatsoever. Southern freedom riders in the 1960’s were as guilty as the dog handlers who attacked them if both were white and inheritors of the same moral stain. Indeed, the notion of privilege immediately conjures up a consequential guilt that might have motivated the former and enraged the latter. But should those risking their lives to end racism be charged with prejudice because they receive benefits from a system they actively oppose? Is their opposition to their own privilege to be admired? Or are they to be considered as making reparations for evils they are held to be responsible for and therefore to be regarded as morally neutral agents?  And must white privilege disadvantage all persons of color?

We must assume that such privilege derives not from the absolute advantage conferred by being white but by the relative disadvantage the privilege implies for being non-white. We will call this kind of privilege disparative privilege. Now this relationship requires some investigation on three counts: first, what constitutes the privilege; second, how does it redound to the disadvantage of people of color; and third, must any conception of privilege be built upon comparative relationships?

Conservative whites wish to dismiss the whole notion of white advantage– and with it the notion of white guilt– by insisting that whatever advantage they received was earned rather than given, though they wish to be vague about whether they earned it or their forebears did. At most, they point to cultural values that encourage their success: family structure, emphasis on education, and work ethic. They rightly accentuate the self-discipline their success required, the acceptance of deferred gratification and commitment. But the essence of privilege-as-racism is the precisely the charge that advantages were not earned, that they accompany skin color as a gift. So we step into a minefield of moral ambiguity, for I cannot be responsible for a harm I did not commit, nor can I be asked to feel guilt for a benefit I earned. To be fair, these character traits are not confined or exclusive to “white culture,” and to say they are is simply prejudice. To claim that being non-white automatically results in cultural disadvantage in regard to these prerequisites for success is a claim I can’t imagine any unbiased cultural observer would wish to make. Nor are these automatic socioeconomic markers, for lazy scions of wealthy families and ungrateful second generation Americans are clichés that belie any guaranteed conferral of virtue. So much for any sweeping comparisons. But let’s face it. The conditions for success are certainly better established in some socioeconomic environments than in others, and of the multitudinous strands in the tapestry of any success story, many are woven without effort, simply by the expectations of others that form our horizon of possibilities. Still, it is a gross act of prejudice to see white privilege as an unearned gift which white America takes for granted… at least until one compares it to being a person of color in America. Only by comparison and its attendant unfairness does the generalization hold undeniable truth. White guilt derives not from privilege but from prejudice as surely as the tail of the coin implies a head. Compared to the lot of non-whites in this country– not only in the past but in the present– every white person now living was born on third base, and whatever her positive efforts, all potentials were built to a degree upon a scaffold of exploitation. There is no denying that any comparison of white and non-white privilege will lead to one conclusion: whites still reap unearned benefits and non-whites unearned privation because of skin color, and this legacy of active prejudice is a moral stain. White persons are like the boss’s son who may start in the mail room and may work hard but who will never know how much of his success is due to the accident of birth nor to what degree that success has kept less lucky fellow workers from rising as they might have in an equal race. Who can doubt that the future occupant of the corner office will pass on the fruits of his success to his children just as his future underlings will hand off their lesser luck to theirs?

But note in the example that the while the goods are absolute, the harms are all relative. Let us try to think of privilege in an absolute sense. Considered as an unearned gift, we are awash in privileges. We did not earn the social order that benefits us, the political system that frees and equalizes us, the economic system that enriches us, the family that nurtures us, the knowledge that guides us, the beliefs that give meaning to our lives, and on and on. While it makes sense for us to be grateful for these blessings, I can think of no reason we should feel guilty for them. In this large sense, anyone who lives in conditions allowing her to meet her human needs in the world is privileged, for it is by the satisfaction of our needs that our lives are fulfilled and the conditions for that satisfaction have been well-established thanks to the conventions of civilized life (see “Where Do Rights Originate?“). If we have a loving family, dear friends, education, civil order, productive work, and the like, it seems to me we have the goods we are by nature designed to have, and the moral response to that is satisfaction and gratitude, not guilt. What is more, these are not limited goods. There are more than enough of these blessings to go around and my having a sufficiency in a working civil society in no way limits your access. We do not compete for all privileges.

But we do compete for those blessings that are limited, and then we are forced to face both the universality of our needs and the pain their absence produces. The most impoverished citizen in this country is privileged compared to the 84% of Liberians living on less than one dollar per day and the most unjust political jurisdiction here is utopia compared to life in Syria. If comparative privilege imposes a consequential guilt, then we all have a moral duty to ameliorate the living conditions of the poor regardless of their location. But do we? Let us put religious injunctions aside for the moment, though they impose their own moral duties, so that we may confront the central question that a relativistic concept of white privilege and white guilt implies: does relative economic and political privilege inevitably impose moral obligation? Let us refine the question: does privilege impose an obligation even when disparity is not a consequence of the privilege?

I acknowledge and laud the sentiment evoked in kind-hearted persons by seeing suffering. We wish to make it better. But a clear-eyed view of this natural desire also compels us to see how conditioned it is by our degree of privilege, as exemplified by the coat-drives-for-pets mentality of some wealthy enclaves. And just as any suffering tugs at the heartstrings, another nearly universal response is simply to turn away. What we happen to see disturbs us, so we simply refuse to see it so as not to be disturbed (see “Empathy: A Moral Hazard”). This accounts, I think, for at least a part of the gated community mentality that seems so prevalent in rich neighborhoods. The moral principle of ought-implies-can–that moral obligation only follows the ability to act– comes into play here as well. An indiscriminate and wholesale equality of goods would be impossible to conceive much less to achieve (see “The Riddle of Equality“). The Soviet Union was a case study of that failure. Despite the efforts of thinkers like John Stuart Mill to objectify such sentiments and thereby impart to them some moral valuation– an effort that collapsed in a thicket of evaluating pleasures and pains– we would do well to remember that justice does not require an equality of degree of all perceived goods. For we perceive many things as good and value them differently and there are too few Maseratis to go around. Rather, it is the sufficient distribution of goods necessary to meet our human needs that is required, otherwise called an equality of kind. This operation is a profoundly rational one, the tugging at our heartstrings notwithstanding. We are left then with the suspicion that some kinds of privilege and guilt are not handmaidens of wellbeing and some are and that some wellbeing is earned rather than gifted. So why should guilt be intertwined with privilege like snakes on a caduceus?

But that is just the issue, isn’t it? For in our times and in America and for economic and political privilege especially, the relationship is always partly causal. Some linkages are as thick as wisteria vines squeezing the columns of antebellum mansions. Some family wealth, wealth that produced all the goods it is capable of buying for succeeding generations, was built on the direct foundation of the importation and perpetuation of slavery. Other privileges are less easily traced. It is said the target of the fourth hijacked plane on September 11, 2001 was either the White House or the Capitol. What kind of loss to our national pride would that inflict? Both edifices were built by slaves. When a group of people are disadvantaged by color and so denied an equal wage or vote or voice in social policy sufficient to deprive them of the satisfaction of their needs, someone will reap the benefits, and the misalignment of power being what it is, the odds are that someone already has the sufficiency that justice requires. To the degree that white America has harvested this kind of white privilege, it deserves to feel white guilt. And so long as the privilege is maintained, so too is the guilt, and so too is the moral obligation to correct the moral harm. Reparations for slavery would not clear the slate, for the vestiges of racism would continue, producing continuing disparity and white privilege (see One-Armed Economics and Wealth Creationism“).

But just to be clear, should I feel guilty for having parents who valued education and instilled a work ethic because others were less fortunate in their parents? White guilt must be measured by the racism that relatively advantages one group over another, not the absolute goods consonant with universal human needs that some received and others did not. Social scientists may attempt to lay all cultural differences at the feet of some ancestral economic exploitation, but such an indictment seems too sweeping to be justified by science and too Marxist to be embraced by interpreters, though it is consistent with postmodern emphasis of culture as the creator of identity (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents“). If a narrower difference maps the battleground of white privilege and white guilt, then fight it there. But let liberals leave out injunctions of religious duty, emotivist objections to inequalities of degree, and claims that all privilege imposes guilt. Let conservatives put away their blind pride in winning a rigged game and their contempt for those losing it. While privilege may broaden our view, it shouldn’t change our focus. Prejudice is still the villain of the piece, still a moral obloquy and intellectual failure. So long as its effects ripple through the culture, white guilt is its proper consequence.

That conclusion applies also to the other kinds of privileges. To the degree that they were unearned benefits at the costs of sexism, colonialism, imperialism, and the like, we might expect to see coinages of terms like male privilege, first world privilege, heterosexual privilege and the like with their attendant trains of guilt. And to the degree that these disparities still hinder exploited people from satisfying their needs while easing the lives of their exploiters, active amelioration is the only morally justifiable response.

So what is active amelioration; what is to be done? Since justice is defined as “to each her due,” it seems clear that justice demands that those unjustly advantaged should be those who make reparations after, of course, performing the required triage. For if all vestiges of racism were magically removed from our society today, we would still be left with the inequities it has long produced, both privilege and privation. Repairing these inequities is not so difficult as egalitarians might imagine since justice requires not only an equality of kind but also the inequality of degree that the exercise of our preferential freedom produces (see “Our Freedom Fetish“). The shame has never been that some have an excess. Rather it is that the prejudice that helped produce the excess has also produced a deficiency for its victims. It is daunting to accept that the same arguments that produce white guilt hold sway in regard to other kinds of privilege, leading to other moral obligations, but there it is. Since the exercise of influence over other sovereign nations is a governmental function, we as citizens should move our government to act on our behalf in accord with the limitations of the ought-implies-can principle of morality.

This is what is to be done: we have the obligation to root out disparative privilege in all of its other manifestations by actively opposing prejudice in our own circle and by favoring governmental action to produce the equality of kind that justice demands. And let us remember also to be thankful for the absolute privileges we all enjoy but did not earn.


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