I wonder if the racial self-flagellation of #CrimingWhileWhite is like buying an indulgence. If you engage in ritualized expressions of white guilt, you are free to enjoy your white privilege, comfortable in the knowledge that you are nothing like those ignorant and presumably terrible white people who refuse to do so. I have little patience for this kind of privilege-checking. As Phoebe Maltz Bovy observed back in May, invocations of white privilege are more often than not a way for one privileged person to “win a sensitivity competition” with another privileged person. What, then, is a useful way to think about what white privilege means and how it works? . . .There's an interesting analogy to be made between Asian Americans and Jewish Americans. Both groups are richer than the average white American. But they reached that point only by doing a lot to compensate for discrimination and historic oppression.
It’s also important to understand the social and economic components of white privilege. The basic idea, as described by scholars like Nancy DiTomaso, author of The American Non-Dilemma, and Daria Roithmayr, author of Reproducing Racism, is that all kinds of valuable social goods are transmitted through social networks. If you hear of a job opening at your company, you will likely pass that information along to a close friend or relative. I’ve shared information in this insider-y way, and I’m guessing that you have as well—if you don’t, then the people you value and respect might value and respect you a little bit less.
Why does white privilege come into play here? Because most Americans, like most humans, associate with people much like themselves. Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute has found that the social networks of white Americans are 91 percent white, and three-quarters of whites have entirely white social networks. This shouldn’t be too shocking, as most Americans are non-Hispanic whites and there are many neighborhoods in which making nonwhite friends would take a great deal of effort. Looking at these relationships through an exclusively racial lens can be misleading, as factors like the neighborhood you live in, the high school you attended, and your religious background could be doing more of the work than any preference for associating with other people of your own race. But the neighborhoods we live in and the high schools and churches we attend tend to be segregated by race, so even the mildest same-race preference will get magnified by these other avenues. Since white people hold a disproportionately large share of the most lucrative and the most powerful jobs, the natural tendency to help those you care about most ends up reinforcing racial inequality.
There is nothing intrinsically white about helping your friends and relatives. When it comes to building self-reinforcing social networks, one could even make the case that other groups are beating whites at their own game. Recently, Chris Martin, a graduate student in sociology at Emory University, and John Nezlek, a social psychologist at the College of William and Mary, found that people consistently underestimate the median household income of Asian Americans, and that people who believe that whites are highly privileged were particularly likely to assume that Asian-American households earn less than white households. This is despite the fact that Asian-American households have had higher incomes than white households for more than 30 years.
Does this mean that we ought to talk about Asian-American privilege more and white privilege less? Not without acknowledging what “privilege” means in the context of different groups. If anything, newcomers to American society and their children might find themselves more dependent on friends and relatives than deeply rooted whites, and thus more likely to cultivate and maintain these ties in an environment that seems alien and at times hostile. Those who arrive with high levels of educational attainment are particularly well-positioned to take advantage of job opportunities, and to share inside information with their co-ethnics. Virtually all Taiwanese immigrants benefit from the fact that 74.1 percent of American adults of Taiwanese origin have at least a bachelor’s degree. Similarly, the life chances of college-educated Hmong Americans are affected in all kinds of ways by the fact that 37.9 percent of American adults of Hmong origin have less than a high school diploma.
Imagine if we could rigorously apply a similar subgroup analysis to white Americans. The Census doesn’t capture data on educational and labor market outcomes for religious minorities like Jews and Mormons, yet there is evidence that people have a much greater tendency to associate with narrower ethno-religious groups than with fellow members of larger racial groups. Even so, we don’t generally speak of Jewish privilege or Mormon privilege. The language of white privilege also obscures the ravaging effects of poverty in heavily white regions like Appalachian Kentucky, where drug abuse is rampant and privilege-checking seems almost totally irrelevant.
Why does the white privilege conversation ignore the ways in which Asian Americans have used their social ties to achieve success, or the yawning chasm that separates upper-middle-income Mormon Californians from impoverished Appalachian whites? The simple answer is that we talk about white privilege as a clumsy way of talking about black exclusion.
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.