If There Is "White Privilege," What Does It Consist Of?

You can’t have helped noticing that assertions of “white privilege” are all the rage on the left these days. Or maybe it’s “white male privilege.” For example, back in January, there was CNN’s Nia-Malika Henderson throwing down the “white privilege” gauntlet on Beto O’Rourke: “Beto's excellent adventure drips with white male privilege.” Beto, of course, promptly acknowledged that Henderson was right, stating in Iowa on March 16, “As a white man who has had privileges that others could not depend on, or take for granted, I’ve clearly had advantages over the course of my life.” 

When I first heard the term “white privilege” gaining currency, my initial reaction was to doubt that it could amount to much of significance. In my own experience, ever since I was old enough to notice, every institution that I came in contact with, to the extent I could tell, was making every effort it possibly could to attract and advance minorities candidates, particularly African Americans. In many cases, these efforts would clearly have the effect, explicit or implicit, of disadvantaging whatever white candidates were competing for a limited number of slots. For example:

  • Way back in 1968, when I was applying to college, elite colleges already explicitly practiced affirmative action. Although the details were closely guarded then as now, my own college (Yale) constantly boasted about its efforts to find and admit qualified minority candidates.

  • My first serious summer job was in 1969 at the U.S. Post Office (sorting mail by hand, as they did in those days, on the midnight to 8 AM shift). To get the job you took a test, and about half the jobs went to those with the highest scores. The other approximately half the jobs were reserved for minority candidates irrespective of test scores.

  • In the summers of 1971 - 73, I worked as a computer programmer for the Federal Reserve System. The Fed was engaged at the time in extensive efforts — without notable success during that era — to try to recruit minority candidates to do programming.

  • Then I got into the big law firm game, and in that context I got to see the recruitment effort in detail from the other side. Even back in the 70s we would make enormous allowances in the effort to recruit minority candidates with even a slight chance of success in our very demanding world; and over time, those efforts only became greater (although the success rate, however you might measure it, never changed much). And, to believe what they were saying, every other major law firm was doing the exact same thing we were doing.

So wasn’t it the minority candidates who were getting substantial advantages? Where was or is the “white privilege”? Well, that was my reaction before I started thinking about the subject very much. Now that I’ve thought about it, and observed the world more broadly, I have a different answer: There is “white privilege,” but it’s not what you might think. The “white privilege” consists exactly in not being looked upon or treated like someone in need of a handout or ongoing help from the grownups. It consists of being forced — or maybe the better word is “allowed” — to take responsibility in life, and to be an adult yourself.

I’m certainly not the first one to remark that members of minority groups who obtain positions in areas where affirmative action is prevalent — elite colleges and law firms being good examples — face downsides that may not have been immediately obvious to them when they got into this. At the college, you could find yourself struggling academically, and finishing at the very bottom of the class. At the law firm, you could be recognized as not up to the job within weeks or months of starting, and then being quickly turned back onto the job market without a good reference to help you. These are significant points to be considered.

But they are not the most important point. The past several weeks have shone a spotlight on the more important issue. That issue is what I would describe as the utter contempt in which the self-anointed elites of our country hold members of minority groups, most particularly African Americans. Somehow, these elites — or at least some very substantial number of them — have decided that African Americans are not capable of accepting personal responsibility in life or of being treated like adults. Therefore African Americans must be “helped” by their betters to accomplish the very basics, like staying out of trouble or earning a living.

For Exhibit A, look at the Jussie Smollett case. Charged with 16 felonies, Smollett was then mysteriously let off the hook without explanation, without guilty plea even to the smallest misdemeanor, without fine (beyond forfeiture of bond), and without acknowledgement of wrongdoing. The Chicago state prosecutor preposterously says that this is a normal disposition in such a case. Definitely not. But more important, is this any kind of a favor to Mr. Smollett? And how about to the other few hundred thousand young African American men in Chicago? What they desperately need to learn is that the only route to success in life is to take responsibility, to demand to be treated as an adult and to earn that treatment by your own behavior. But instead this case sends them the message, loud and clear, that nobody is going to make you take responsibility in life. You can go ahead and behave like a two year old and never face consequences.

And then we have the question of “reparations” for African Americans, suddenly ubiquitous in the news. Are you an African American who is struggling to succeed in life? (Isn’t everyone struggling to succeed in life?). We could say, man up and keep struggling until you make it. That’s what adults have to do. But now we have a better idea: no need to keep striving; just take the seemingly easy route of claiming “reparations.” The cover story is that this will be an entitlement based on mistreatment of your distant ancestors. But let’s face it, you aren’t fooled by that. The unmistakable message is that the proponents of reparations have no faith that you have any ability to make it on your own as an adult. Therefore, you will not be allowed to try, and you will be treated as a child in permanent dependency on the government.

Who are these proponents of reparations? At Al Sharpton’s National Action Network conference this week, a plurality of the Democratic presidential candidates showed up, and the Rev took the occasion to demand of each of them in turn whether they support this “reparations” thing. One after the other, they said they did: Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand, Julian Castro. Even John Hickenlooper! Would anyone say, I think responsibility-free handouts are not a good thing, and that African Americans adults are perfectly capable of making it on their own? Not in this crowd. They are deep racists, all of them.

At least so far, whites still have the privilege — and it really is a privilege — of not being treated by those in power with this kind of disdain. But don’t count on it continuing. The entire agenda now going by the name of Democratic Socialism — free health care, free college, guaranteed jobs, guaranteed wages, protection by the government against all downside risks in life, etc., etc. — aims to take away everyone’s ability to be a self-responsible adult in life.