Is there any left-wing political talking point more annoying and stupid than “white privilege”? Especially since the facts simply aren’t in its favour.
No need to plead guilty
The fashionable doctrine of ‘white privilege’ is fatally undermined by the facts
The concept of “white privilege” is some-times credited to the African-American writer W.E.B. Du Bois, but the phrase didn’t enter the lexicon until it was used in a 1989 paper by the feminist academic Peggy McIntosh. “As a white person, I realised I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage,” she wrote in “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” With the American accent very firmly on “white” rather than “privilege” or any other aspect of class which British ears would so much more readily hear.
Not only is McIntosh white, she is, by any measure, astonishingly privileged. She grew up in an affluent suburb of New Jersey where the median income was four times the national average, and her father, who was a high-ranking scientist at Bell Laboratories, owned patents in several valuable electronic inventions.
After attending Radcliffe, UCL and Harvard, where she earned a PhD, Peggy married Dr Kenneth McIntosh, the son of a Columbia professor. According to William Ray, a Canadian journalist who wrote about her for the online magazine Quillette last year: “Peggy McIntosh was born into the very cream of America’s aristocratic elite, and has remained ensconced there ever since.”
But when McIntosh writes about her “privilege” she doesn’t mean in this conventional, upper-class sense. Rather, she is referring to the advantages she enjoys in virtue of being white and which, in her view, all white people share. The “knapsack” she unpacks isn’t a $1,000 Burberry backpack of the kind Peggy and Kenneth might take on a hike in the Adirondacks. No, it’s a bag full of useful things that all white people carry with them, regardless of how disadvantaged their upbringing.
So what’s in the “invisible knapsack”? All told, Peggy finds 26 benefits she enjoys thanks to her ethnicity. True, some of these “privileges” can plausibly be ascribed to all white people. Number 15, for instance, is, “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group,” although that’s exactly what she’s doing in this article. But others are laughably Peggy-specific, such as number eight: “If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.”
And some of them so clearly apply to members of her affluent peer group that they’re almost comically revealing — like number two: “If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.”
It seems pretty obvious that Peggy McIntosh has confused class privilege with racial privilege. That is, she has led such a pampered existence and had so little contact with people outside her Harvard-Radcliffe bubble that she assumes all whites enjoy the same advantages as her — and not just in the United States, but across the Western world. Which is pretty offensive if you’re a victim of America’s opioid epidemic known as the “white death” because it disproportionately affects white people in the American South. One wonders how many victims Dr McIntosh has known? A survey of white adults born after World War II showed that between 1980 and 2000, just 18.4 per cent of white Baptists and 21.8 per cent of Irish Protestants — the main white ethnic groups to settle in the South — managed to get college degrees, compared to a national average of 30.1 per cent. Among those Americans of Chinese and Indian descent, the average was 61.9 per cent.
In England, working-class whites are doing equally badly when it comes to higher education. A 2015 report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that white British pupils in the lowest socio-economic quintile are 10 per cent less likely to participate in higher education than any other ethnic group in that quintile. But it isn’t just whites from disadvantaged backgrounds who are struggling. According to the Department for Education, whites in general made less progress in England’s schools in 2018 than Asians, blacks or Chinese.
When it comes to income, whites are also lagging behind some other ethnic groups. In 2016, white Americans had a median household income of $67,865, lower than Indonesian Americans ($71,616), Pakistani Americans ($72,389), Malaysian Americans ($72,443), Sri Lankan Americans ($73,856), Filipino Americans ($84,620), Taiwanese Americans ($90,1221) and Indian Americans ($110,026).
The same picture is emerging in the UK, where 42 per cent of Indian households have a weekly income of £1,000 or above, compared to 26 per cent of white British households. If whites are born with a knapsack full of advantages over all non-whites, as Peggy McIntosh maintains, they appear to be squandering them on an epic scale. Is that what she means by “invisible”?
You’d think that would be an end to it. Surely even the most extreme racial activist could see through McIntosh’s exercise in narcissistic self-flagellation? But no. The reality of “white privilege” is now so widely accepted in the US that anyone who denies it risks being branded a racist.
It has become embedded in universities in the form of critical race theory and whiteness studies – a recent conference at Edinburgh University on “Resisting Whiteness” banned white people from speaking – and is the central pillar underpinning America’s $8 Billion-a-year “equity, diversity and inclusion” industry. Employees of public bureaucracies across the Anglosphere are forced to undergo regular “unconscious bias” training where they’re bombarded with a tsunami of gobbledygook, all revolving around the idea that white people have privileges no other ethnic group enjoys, sometimes at enormous expense to the taxpayer.
For instance, the schools chancellor of New York recently introduced mandatory “anti-bias and equity training” for the city’s 75,000 teachers at a cost of $23 million a year. To complement this initiative, top officials in New York’s Department of Education were taught that “the characteristics of white supremacy” include “perfectionism”, “worship of the written word”, “individualism” and “objectivity”. And it’s all thanks to a WASP princess with a Harvard PhD.
One of the main planks of the case for “white privilege” is the discrepancy in outcomes between whites and blacks. Logically, this is a bad argument because, as we’ve seen, whites trail behind many other ethnic groups, so even if they do fare better than blacks that doesn’t make them the most privileged group. Given the success of Indians across the Anglosphere, it would make more sense to talk about “brown privilege”. (Indian pupils are, on average, 14.2 months ahead of white pupils in England’s schools by the time they reach the age of 16.)
But even if we ignore the terrible reasoning here, is it true that whites are doing better than blacks? The answer is “yes” when it comes to some yardsticks, “no” when it comes to others. For instance, it’s true that African-Americans continue to face discrimination in the housing and labour markets, although never less so than today.
According to a recent report by the American Enterprise Institute, 57 per cent of black Americans now belong to the upper or middle class, compared to 38 per cent in 1960, and the share of black men in poverty fell from 41 per cent in 1960 to 18 per cent in 2016. But
if we look at education, African-Americans are beginning to outperform whites. Black women, for instance, have higher college-attendance rates than white men and, according to the New York Times, out-earn their white counterparts when they graduate.
Black Lives Matter activists point to the recent spate of shootings of unarmed black men as evidence of “white privilege”, such as the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012 (although the shooter was a dual heritage Hispanic man). But according to the African-American Harvard Economist Roland Fryer, blacks and Hispanics are no more likely to be shot by police officers than whites (although they are more likely to experience the non-lethal use of force, even taking contextual factors into account). In fact, the odds of an unarmed black man being shot dead by a police officer are about the same as being struck by lightning.
What about the psychic wound of slavery? Surely this is a sin that all white people are guilty of? That’s the reasoning behind the demand for reparations made by the African-American intellectual Ta-Nehesi Coates and Elizabeth Warren, the frontrunner in the race to be the Democratic presidential candidate. The claim that all white people are uniquely privileged and have a moral obligation to renounce that privilege and atone for it is based in no small part on the role played by Britain and America in the North Atlantic slave trade. This is what accounts for the exceptionalism of whites — why they are uniquely privileged.
But hang on. The idea that whites as a race participated in the slave trade or benefitted from slavery is ridiculous. In 1860, less than five per cent of whites in the American South owned slaves and, according to the black historian John Hope Franklin, three-quarters of white Southerners had no economic interest in the maintenance of slavery. The percentage of the population of Great Britain and Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who were slaveowners or beneficiaries of the slave trade is even smaller. As Doug Stokes of Exeter University has pointed out, stigmatizing an entire ethnic group because of the sins of a small minority is a textbook example of racism.
The transatlantic slave trade is certainly a stain on the history of Britain and America, but they were hardly the only countries guilty of participating in this practice. Between the 16th Century and the middle of the 18th Century, over a million Europeans were bought and sold in the slave markets of the Barbary Coast of North Africa, encompassing Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. According to the African-American economist Thomas Sowell: “More whites were brought as slaves to North Africa than blacks brought as slaves to the United States or the 13 colonies from which it was formed.”
The only exceptional thing about Britain and America when it comes to the obscenity of slavery is that both countries devoted considerable blood and treasure to ending it, whether it was the Royal Navy in the North Atlantic, or the Union Army in the American civil war.
So if “white privilege” is a myth, and a poisonously racist one at that, why do so many educated, intelligent, nice people believe in it? How did this idea become embedded in the consciousness of rich white liberals? And make no mistake, it’s a concept that enjoys much more currency among affluent whites than poor blacks. One of the most striking developments in American politics of the last 20 years is that white liberals are now to the left of black Democrats on the issue of discrimination.
According to a Pew survey in 2017, 79.2 per cent of white liberals agree that “racial discrimination is the main reason why black people can’t get ahead these days,” with only 18.8 per cent agreeing that “blacks who can’t get ahead in this country are mostly responsible for their own condition.” Among black Democrats, by contrast, 59.9 per cent agree with the first statement, compared to 32 per cent who agreed with the second.
What accounts for this degree of “allyship”, given that white liberals do not, on the face of it, stand to gain from dismantling “white privilege”? I don’t think it’s prompted by guilt, at least not entirely. After all, if powerful white liberals are genuinely consumed with guilt about their superior status — if they believe the exalted positions they occupy in institutions such as the New York Times and the BBC is morally indefensible — they could always check their privilege and resign. But they never do.
A case in point is Cassian Harrison, the editor of BBC Four, who told the Edinburgh International Television Festival last year that no one wants to watch white men explaining stuff on TV any more. “There’s a mode of programming that involves a presenter, usually white, middle-aged and male, standing on a hill and ‘telling you like it is,’” he said. “We all recognise the era of that has passed.” But having engaged in some ritual racial self-flagellation, Harrison, a middle-aged white male, didn’t renounce his £170,000 salary and resign in favour of a black successor. Like many white liberals, Harrison beat himself up for his un-earned privilege and then carried on as before, seemingly untroubled by conscience.
The same is true of Peggy McIntosh. After having penned her seminal essay drawing attention to the injustice of whites’ elevated status, she didn’t then give up any of her privileges. As William Ray wrote:
One is left to wonder why, given her stated conviction that she has unfairly benefited from her skin colour, there seems to be no record of her involvement in any charity or civil rights work. If she did take to the streets in support of some cause or other, she left no trace that I can see. Nor, as far as I can tell, has she spent any time teaching the underprivileged or working directly to better anyone’s condition but her own. Instead, she has contented herself with a generous six-figure salary, and has not shown any particular eagerness to hand her position over to a more deserving person of colour.
So if these exercises in racial self-flagellation are empty gestures, what’s the point of them? According to the journalist and author Reihan Salam, the purpose of the ritual is to let other highly-educated, well-paid whites know that you’re on the same rung of the status ladder as them. It’s the twenty-first-century equivalent of Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption, a way of communicating to the Brahmin left that you’re a member of the club:
It is almost as though we’re living through a strange sort of ethnogenesis in which those who see themselves as (for lack of a better term) upper-whites are doing everything they can to disaffiliate themselves from those they’ve deemed lower-whites. Note that to be “upper” or “lower” isn’t just about class status, though of course that’s always hovering in the background. Rather, it is about the supposed nobility that flows from racial self-flagellation.
In other words, the reason Peggy McIntosh unpacked her ‘“invisible knapsack” — and the reason so many from the same social strata have followed in her footsteps — was to advertise her elevated social status. It’s not enough for rich liberals to live in beautiful homes, go on holiday in places like Tuscany and pilot their children through elite universities and graduate schools. No, to really underline just how much better they are than the rest of us, they must decry their “white privilege” too, thereby proving they are morally as well as socially superior. In effect, it was a $1,000 backpack after all, but one made from organic materials and bearing a “Fairtrade” kitemark.
The irony of all this coded status-signalling by limousine liberals is that it helps their political opponents. White working-class voters outside metropolitan areas, whether in Britain or America, understand perfectly what members of the identitarian left mean when they denounce “white privilege” — it’s an example of “upper-whites”, to use Salam’s term, expressing their contempt for “lower-whites”, i.e. them. This was succinctly put by a Trump voter in Indiana, interviewed by the Guardian in 2016. She explained that “the whole idea” of “white privilege” irritates whites outside the bicoastal elites “because they’ve never experienced it on a level that they understand. You hear privilege and you think money and opportunity and they don’t have it.” She continued: “And you’ve got people calling them stupid and deplorable. Well how long do you think you can call people stupid and deplorable before they get mad?”
As this voter made clear, if you’re a 45-year-old white person struggling to hold down two minimum-wage jobs so you can feed your partner and kids and keep a roof over their heads, nothing could be more guaranteed to make you vote for Donald Trump or the Brexit Party than being told you’re “privileged” by a privately-educated, upper-class socialist with a PhD in gender studies.
Which begs the question: Should we stop objecting to this idiocy? If you don’t want Jeremy Corbyn to be the next Prime Minister or Elizabeth Warren the next President, should you welcome this toxic identitarianism? That’s the view of Steve Bannon, who pointed out that when the left talks about “race-identity politics” it helps his side: “The longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em … I want them to talk about race and identity … every day.”
Tempting though it is to just sit back and allow the left to self-harm, we shouldn’t do that. Racial politics is so ugly, and so fundamentally dangerous, as we know from the history of the twentieth century, that we have to expose concepts like “white privilege” for the toxic nonsense that they are. Those of us who live in Britain and America – among the least racist, most tolerant societies on earth – have a duty to stand up to this tsunami of gobbledygook before it sweeps us all away.https://thecritic.co.uk/issues/december-2019/no-need-to-plead-guilty/