A Bottomless Heaping Of “Have”

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

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.

There are, even in crap economic times, a handful of Americans whose central concern is that they have too much unearned comfort. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, these are the very same people who are directing the cultural conversation about social injustice. I could get into why – journalism’s barriers to entry explain a lot – but the point, for our purposes, is that that’s how it goes. And for those already accustomed to apologizing for their very existence, further privilege-acknowledgment comes naturally. For this set, racism of resentment isn’t just worthy of condemnation (which, of course, it is; resentment explains but doesn’t excuse), but altogether baffling.

Reihan’s commenter nomoreno puts it well:

My experience is that white people who prattle on about white privilege, actually do have privilege, usually middle class, parents paid for college, hetero, etc… The problem is they think all other white people are in the same situation and are shocked that not everyone is.

As does commenter MysticWav:

I’m fine with the concept, I just hate the term. “Privilege” implies something extra to me in connotation. The proverbial silver spoon. That’s not the problem we face. Whites don’t have anything that we don’t all deserve. What we have a problem with is people that are “Disadvantaged”. Ones that don’t have the things we all deserve.

The language matters because it influences how we react to the problem and how we think about the necessary solutions. One inspires reflexive resentment from white people, the other inspires reflexive sympathy.

Indeed. The problem with the term “privilege” – both the luxe the word evokes and the manner in which it’s all too often used – is that it frames questions of justice in terms of haves graciously offering up some of their bottomless reserves of have to have-nots. It may help some posh racists change their ways, but it’s of absolutely no use in convincing anyone whose racism is one of resentment.