Reihan Salam dissects the concept of white privilege, making reference to a piece I wrote on the concept of privilege generally. He agrees with me that privilege-checking as sensitivity-signaling is silly, and I agree with him that unearned advantage is very much real. Here’s Reihan:
Even white Americans of modest means are more likely to have inherited something, in the form of housing wealth or useful professional connections, than the descendants of slaves. In his influential 2005 book When Affirmative Action Was White, Ira Katznelson recounts in fascinating detail the various ways in which the New Deal and Fair Deal social programs of the 1930s and 1940s expanded economic opportunities for whites while doing so unevenly at best for blacks, particularly in the segregated South. Many rural whites who had known nothing but the direst poverty saw their lives transformed as everything from rural electrification to generous educational benefits for veterans allowed them to build human capital, earn higher incomes, and accumulate savings. This legacy, in ways large and small, continues to enrich the children and grandchildren of the whites of that era. This is the stuff of white privilege. …
In Blurring the Color Line, CUNY Graduate Center sociologist Richard Alba argues that rapid aging of white America creates an opportunity for younger Latinos, blacks, and Asians. Even if whites want to hoard all of the most privileged jobs for themselves, they’ll have no choice but to open up competition to those with the necessary skills, regardless of race. But this process of opening things up, as WASPs did for southern and eastern European immigrants and their children in an earlier era, will go far more smoothly if we have a growing economy, which will give everyone an opportunity to climb the social ladder. If we instead have economic stagnation, we will see a fierce zero-sum contest for economic and political power, in which tribal identities—including white identity—will become more central.
I’d argue that this is exactly what we’re living through right now: If everyone’s wages were growing, and if everyone felt secure enough in their jobs to quit every now and again in search of better opportunities elsewhere, I doubt that we’d be talking quite so much about white privilege. We’d definitely talk about broken schools and mass incarceration and law enforcement policies that disproportionately damage the lives of nonwhites. Yet we might talk about these problems in a more forward-looking way, as formidable obstacles that need to be overcome by all Americans, not just guilty whites.
As I read him, what Reihan is saying is that the white-privilege conversation has emerged, paradoxically, because most white Americans – along with most non-white Americans – aren’t doing so great economically. A sense emerges that success (or just access to a living wage) is a zero-sum game. It emerges, that is, in all parts of society, except among the most entrenched of society’s haves.