The left’s campaign against so-called “white privilege,” although misguided, rests in part on an important truth: Throughout much of America’s history, governments and many private individuals horribly mistreated various ethnic minorities. The most glaring example is slavery; other examples include policies stripping rights-respecting American Indians of their property, myriad racist laws many states enforced into the 1960s, and overtly racist immigration policies (e.g., against the Chinese).
A black man living in the South in 1850 certainly could claim that white people had “privileges” that black people didn’t: Whites had the legal “privileges” of (among other things) enslaving him, selling his children, brutalizing him, even murdering him.
But when today’s leftists speak of “white privilege,” their goal is not to abolish overtly racist laws—those were abolished in part by Lincoln and his supporters in the Civil War and virtually in full within a century of the Civil War. Nor is the left’s goal to eradicate private bigotry—which today is big news precisely because it is rare (e.g., Donald Sterling).
What, then, do today’s leftists mean by “white privilege,” and what do they hope to accomplish by campaigning against it? “White privilege” in the modern leftist sense means essentially four things:
- It means (or implies) that non-leftists who happen to be “white” should mute their non-leftist cultural and political views. As satirist Julie Borowski remarks in discussing the phrase “check your privilege”: “We all know what that really means: Shut up.” In this respect, the left’s campaign against “white privilege” is part and parcel of its broader strategy of smearing and bullying its opponents.
- It means that individuals are to be judged, not by their words, deeds, actions, and character, but by their skin color and by their adherence to leftist narratives regarding racism (e.g., see my recent blog post.) In this respect, the left’s campaign against “white privilege” is patently racist.
- It means that “white” people should perpetually feel guilty about their skin color and self-sacrificially work to serve the allegedly non-privileged. In this respect, the left’s campaign against “white privilege” is a mixture of the morality of self-sacrifice and the atrocity of racism.
- It also means that, if there is any disparity in income or wealth between any “white” person (however defined) and any “person of color”—whatever the cause and regardless of context—government should work toward eliminating the disparity by forcibly redistributing wealth and imposing regulations. In this respect, the left’s campaign against “white privilege” is part of its broader egalitarian and statist aims.
To further see why the left’s campaign against “white privilege” is (in the respects mentioned) absurd, racist, and immoral, consider some additional facts:
- In America today, people’s success or lack thereof has (for the most part) nothing to do with the color of their skin. All one need do is glance at a newspaper or a television to see that highly successful people as well as miserable failures come in every skin tone. To succeed, what a rational person fundamentally needs is freedom—specifically, freedom to live his own life by his own judgment—and today, all Americans have or lack such freedom to the same extent.
- Who counts as a “white” person, and what counts as “privilege,” are largely arbitrary. As Tal Fortgang eloquently writes, it’s absurd to claim that descendents of Jews who escaped Hitler’s holocaust somehow led a “privileged” life. Irish and Asian immigrants, among others, suffered under bigoted laws and faced widespread prejudices. Yet, as Eugene Volokh points out, Asians now are often regarded as “white” for political purposes. I know adopted “white” children who were abused so badly by their birth parents that they will carry the physical and emotional scars for life; is this their “privilege”?
- Insofar as some minority neighborhoods are relatively impoverished and crime-ridden, that is not because of the skin color of the residents (or nonresidents). Rather, such conditions are, as I’ve written elsewhere, the “result of cultural breakdowns exacerbated by bad government policies.” Numerous government policies, even if not overtly racist, disproportionately harm minorities. Such policies include prohibitions on drugs, which drive black-market crime; minimum wage and union laws, which cause unemployment; government schools, which fail to educate children properly (if at all); licensing laws, which throttle competition and preclude people from starting their own businesses; and welfare programs, which foster dependence on the state.
For the sake of justice, as individuals and as a culture we should continue to condemn racist attitudes, whether among whites, blacks, conservatives, leftists, or whomever. For the sake of liberty and prosperity, we should seek to repeal rights-violating laws, which harm every rational and productive person.
What no one should do is feel guilty about the color of his skin, or judge another person by the color of his skin. Each individual deserves to be judged, not by the color of his skin, but by his actions and by the “content of his character.” It is high time for all Americans to embrace these truths.