Decrying “white privilege” has become one of the left’s loudest battle cries. The accusation suggests that white Americans are privileged because of their race relative to “people of color.” Not only is that transparently false, but the left’s argument against what it considers “unearned” privilege is fundamentally misguided and dangerous. It is an attempt to delegitimize tradition and culture. The absence of these is a recipe for societal failure.
The data show that other groups, such as Asians, have rapidly become wealthier than white Americans even though many of them are much more recent arrivals than the established, European-descended white population. It is not a very effective system of white privilege, with all its supposed unearned advantages, that enables so many minorities to prosper. Indeed, some of the critics of white privilege, like Robin DiAngelo, Peggy McIntosh, and Lawrence Blum acknowledge that the real problem is unearned privilege, the idea being that white people, by virtue of their race, inherit an unearned advantage over people of color. Of course, that charge will come as news to many poor whites in our inner cities and rural areas. The argument assumes that since this privilege is unearned it is, as Blum says, “unjust.” But is that true?
One can easily identify numerous groups of Americans born with unearned privilege. Consider children of the following groups: professional athletes, members of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, celebrities, extremely attractive people and models, members of MENSA, famous artists, television “news” presenters, military officers, university professors and administrators, high-ranking union officials, among many others. Since, being unborn, one does not “earn” one’s parents, the children produced by these groups have a great deal of unearned privilege at birth.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine someone born into greater privilege than a person born into a family in which both parents were professors or scientists at elite universities. One such person is the current vice president of the United States, Kamala Harris. Her father was a Stanford professor and her mother was a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley’s Zoology and Cancer Research Lab. Her family had connections with the University of Chicago, McGill University, the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin and the National Institute of Health. Yet there is no criticism from the left that Harris’s massive inherited unearned privilege makes her accomplishments somehow unjust. Quite the contrary, her “accomplishments” are enthusiastically celebrated on the left. This is because the left’s accusation of unearned privilege was never meant to be neutrally applied but was always to be used only as a tool to be deployed against its political enemies.
My argument is not, however, that Harris’s massive unearned privilege makes her accomplishments unjust. Quite the contrary. Cultivating this kind of privilege is a necessary ingredient in the production of successful people and, therefore, successful societies. For, to establish a successful culture or traditionis to establish a system of privileges. Each of us enjoys privileges inherited from ancestors, whether in the form of wealth or knowledge or social standing.
For example, Beethoven was able to do what he did because he was privileged to stand on Hayden’s shoulders. What Beethoven did was not unjust because he was lucky enough to grow up in Haydn’s orbit. Similarly, when Harris’s parents established their successful careers, they were beginning a familial tradition of privilege which their children, who, by definition, did nothing to earn their parent’s privilege, could use to establish their own successful careers. Kamala did precisely that and has not yet apologized for her massive unearned privilege. It may be true that, for example, the son or daughter of an uneducated manual laborer who achieved similar success would deserve special kudos, but that does nothing to make Kamala’s achievements unjust.
More important, any attempt to delegitimize this kind of unearned privilege in principle undermines one of the necessary conditions for producing successful people and, by extension, successful societies. The left is wrong to argue against unearned privilege of the sort possessed by Kamala Harris (and Chelsea Clinton, Mika Brezinski, and Laila Ali to name only a few).
The truth is that for decades the United States has been home to innumerable social programs that have attempted to eradicate the kind of privilege leftists rail against. The contradiction can be easily seen here: our national culture of affirmative action effectively privileges individuals who are not white in what is supposedly a society based on white privilege. One would have thought that the vociferous opponents of white privilege would have noticed this since many of them would not be in their positions of influence without these programs.
But, of course, white privilege was never the name for a real falsifiable theory. It was always only the name for a tool to be used selectively when it gives the left what it wants and, miraculously, not used when it doesn’t.
Richard McDonough is a university professor and author of the books Martin Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’ and The Argument of the Tractatus. He lives in Singapore and holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Cornell University.