I am a white male. I recently went through a job search a few months ago and found something interesting: many of the places I looked into (mostly laboratories and jobs at universities) had diversity in the description of what they were looking for in a job candidate. Perhaps I’m wrong (I did end up getting a job tutoring at a university, after all) but it seems like that is essentially saying white men need not apply. Is this proof that white male privilege is no longer a thing?
I think a lot of people forget that racism and sexism in this country wasn’t some low-level phenomenon that only flared up every once in a while, but was, in fact, institutional. More than that, it was taken by many as just plain accepted fact. And this wasn’t something that was going on in the far-flung past, this was something going on within the lifetimes of a lot of people still living today. The ripples of these policies and attitudes will not disappear as soon as a few pieces of legislation are passed. So, does this mean that white men are still privileged in 2019?
First, let’s think about what privilege is. In common vernacular it is used to mean that someone has access to something that other people don’t, usually arbitrarily. Saying that it’s arbitrary is important, because someone who earns access to something isn’t privileged: if you work hard, make a lot of money, and as a result you get to buy first class tickets on the plane, you aren’t really privileged to sit in first class, you earned it. Thus, we can say that the opposite of privilege is merit. Regardless of what one thinks about white male privilege now, it would be ridiculous to say that there wasn’t white male privilege in the past when only white males could own land and vote. That’s arbitrary and wasn’t earned.
How arbitrary are the groups – racial and sexual – into which we categorize people? This is a hairy subject precisely because so much discrimination has occurred based on the notion that differences between groups of people made some people better (morally, intellectually) than others. This was a grave mistake. Just from a consequentialist point of view, one must wonder how many people on the intellectual level as an Einstein or a Kant or a Gandhi were kept from making important contributions to human thought from this sort of arbitrary discrimination. But more than that, it is just deontologically wrong to discrimination in that way.
However, a new mistake seems to have arisen, and that’s mistaking moral equality for biological equality, at least in the case of the sexes. The differences in sexes shouldn’t be seen as a way to judge people’s moral worth or potential in any particular field, but so shouldn’t such equality be mistaken for the sexes being identical in every way. Two years ago James Damore was fired and publicly pilloried for pointing this out, showing just how much of a hot button issue it is.
But there is another sticky issue when it comes to this idea of privilege for a group of people. That has to do with individualism vs collectivism. Obviously, when it comes to racism and sexism, the group is what is arbitrarily used as the criteria for privilege and discrimination. But when it comes to merit, that is a purely individual endeavor. It is individuals that pursue greatness and strive to achieve it. However, there are those who wish to turn this on its head. Proponents of privilege theory want to raise people up based on their arbitrary groups, not through merit but through so-called social justice (reverse discrimination). Meanwhile, opponents to privilege theory seem to think that incidents of racism or sexism happen only on an individual basis rather than to groups as a whole.
I think a reasonable middle ground exists on the issue of whether white male privilege exists: of course it exists, but it doesn’t explain everything about how our society is organized. Indeed, as Coleman Hughes points out in this Quillette piece, a not insignificant portion of the disparity in racial wealth gap can be explained by cultural attitudes and behaviors. Similar findings would likely be found between the cultural attitudes and behaviors of poor whites vs wealthy whites – in other words, its not a race thing as much as it is a cultural thing. Indeed, as Hughes points out, immigrant black people who start off poor usually end up doing better financially than native black people, even though they would face the same (if not more) discrimination.
That being said, does that mean that white male privilege doesn’t exist? I think it would be difficult to make a case that racism is merely a thing of the past and that we have completely overcome it. Even if we were to accept that all of the people in the U.S. (or any other western country) were cured of all racism, which is a preposterous premise, the echos of past racist policies surely continue to have effects in our time. Things like housing, family wealth, and even the very cultural attitudes that explain much of the disparity, are results of such institutional racism in the past, even of that institutional racism is no longer the case.
I’m sure by trying to take a reasonable look at this issue I will have pleased no one. Those on the left will still say I’m a bigot or shitlord or whatever pejorative is in vogue amongst their ilk and those on the right will still say I’m an SJW or or cuck or whatever the popular obloquy is in use by their lot now.