Privilege part 2 – Is it a Myth?

I stated last week that privilege is a useful concept. Of course not everyone feels that way. Indeed, many individuals are invested in the concept of colorblindness as it concerns racial privilege. The argument from colorblindness is that privilege does not exist and is instead merely a tool being used by activists to shut down conversation and to win political concessions. Therefore, attempts to ignore race are seen as the moral path to take in our racial discussions. I am not going to deny that some progressive activists have misused the idea of privilege, and I will tackle that issue next week. But this week, I want to address the argument that privilege is a myth.

I remember last year the topic of white privilege came up in a facebook discussion. Someone argued with me that the entire idea of white privilege is a myth. To be honest I had become tired of the conversation as it was clear to me that he wanted to fire off a bunch of talking points. When the subject of privilege came up, rather than make an argument himself, he offered up a video from Ben Shapiro. Just as a point of reference, if you are going to argue with me, then give me your arguments. Do not post a video of someone else’s arguments. If you cannot put into your own words why you believe the way you do, then do not expect me to respect your position. Needless to say, that was the end of it for me on that particular discussion.

However, since then I have seen many of my facebook friends post links to Shapiro and talks about privilege. He seems to be the conservative go-to guy on this subject. Since this is the argument that so many of the colorblind crowd are using, it should be the place I go to deal with that argument. (Needless to say this may not be the best articulation of a colorblind position, but since it seems to be the one many conservatives are using, it will be the one I will address.) A quick google search led me to the video “Ben Shapiro Destroys the Concept of White Privilege.” Another aside here. Videos that label themselves and evidence that someone or some concept has been “destroyed” rarely accomplish the goal they say that they have accomplished unless there is a bit of deceptive editing. Such titles are generally a nice bit of clickbait.

Okay so let’s break down this video and see how the argument that white privilege is a myth is made. Shapiro starts out by arguing that this concept is used to shut down conversation by whites. Fair enough, as we will see next week that there are some activists who use the concept of white privilege to do just that. He then defines it but only used a statement from someone from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Now I am not a fan of the SPLC and feel no need to defend their definition of white privilege. But it is curious that he did not use the general definition given by Macintosh that it is a “as an invisible package of unearned assets that I (whites) can count on cashing in each day.” If he had used that straight forward definition, then he may have escaped his first mistake which is the direct linking of white privilege to racism.

This theme occurs throughout his video. According to Shapiro, the proponents of white privilege argue that white privilege is a claim that whites are racist. To be fair, some activists do make this argument, and I find that making such an assertion is not very useful. But that is not the main principle of white privilege, especially as it concern the contemporary forms of this issue. Note that white privilege is about unearned advantages that are “invisible.” When people throw around the term “racism” they are evoking an image of KKK riding through the countryside looking for black folks or a “whites only” sign. But that is not what the notion of white privilege is about. Reasonable advocates of the term know that is not about overt racism. Indeed most Americans are horrified about the racism in our past as well as episodes of racism today. It is the hidden aspect of privilege that is part of the problem. The invisibility helps whites to not see that racial problems still exist.

So right off the bat, Shapiro has created a strawman argument about white privilege that he will tear down for the rest of the video. It makes for a very entertaining video. Shapiro must be given credit for being easy to listen to. But by linking white privilege, which is invisible, to notions of racism, which is seen as quite visible, he robs himself of the ability to truly critique the concept.

But let’s go with Shapiro and see where he takes us. He then talks about how feelings do not matter. Only facts. I agree with him – to a point. I agree that facts are more important than feelings. I am a pretty cognitive person. I am not easily moved to accept a position due to an argument based on feelings. So I am very attracted to arguments that are about the facts.

But note that Shapiro says that only the feelings of his wife and kids matter. Now why does he care about the feelings of his family, regardless of what the facts say? Is it because that Shapiro knows that relationships are not merely about facts, but they are also about how we feel towards each other. To build relationships, we have to understand why others feel the way they do. In this I think we see the different goals of Shapiro and myself. Shapiro is engaged in a political battle with the forces of political correctness, and he must muster up the facts to win this war. My goal is to find a way to overcome the racial, or other types of social, alienation in our society and to build healthy relationships between those who do not always see eye to eye. So as much as I am drawn towards pure “facts,” I know we must understand why people feel the way they do to move forward towards those relationships. I am not advocating ignoring facts, but I am suggesting that we do not reduce interracial discussions to mere fact-checking.

The next segment is the meat of the video. Shapiro takes on a variety of activists’ claims about racial disparity and then attempts to debunks them. He basically debunks them by finding some study he can use to show that these claims are incorrect. It is a clever technique for a speaker. It is hard to dispute a study. However, this is not how science works. Science is rarely determined by a single study. The issues that Shapiro deals with such as lending practices, occupational discrimination, police profiling, sentencing as such cannot be adequately discussed in this 21 minute video. But what we can do is pick a single study and then declare that the topic has been decided in one’s favor. This is what Shapiro does.

Rather than tackle all of the topics that Shapiro addresses and write a research article, let me address two topics. I will look at occupational discrimination and police profiling. By looking at these topics, I will show that the evidence with them is more complex than Shapiro relayed to his audience. Once I have shown this to be the case with these two topics, then we will be able to extrapolate that issues of racial disparity are much more complicated than the video indicates.

So as I turn my attention to occupational racial discrimination, I note that Shapiro does not even cite any research to support the notion that such discrimination is a myth. He merely states that occupational discrimination is illegal, and that we have a system of affirmative action which is really reverse racism. So I took it upon myself to see what research has stated about occupational discrimination. Research has shown that even after controlling for a range of social class and structural variables that there is still racial discrimination in “social-skills-oriented” jobs. There is also research indicating that employers use racial stereotypes to exclude racial minorities from potential jobs. We also have audit studies indicating that if a racial minority shows up for a job, then he or she is less likely to get the job. And since Shapiro further argues that we have nothing to worry about on college campuses, this audit study also indicates that professors treat minority students worse than white students. This is enough evidence that we can claim that whites have an advantage, often unseen, in the workplace. So claims that there is not real racial discrimination today because it would be foolish to discriminate and because we have affirmative action really does not stand up to the science on this matter.

What about police profiling? Shapiro seems to blow off this possibility with the mention of a single study from the Department of Justice in New Jersey. I referred to a different study last week in my discussion of my experience of being pulled over. But there are others. For example, this study shows that after controlling for a variety of variables, including driver behavior, the evidence for driving while black is strong among local, but not federal, law enforcement officers. Another study of New Jersey provided statistical evidence that black speeders were more likely to be pulled over than white speeders. Finally, a survey of college students indicated that black students were treated by the police in ways that are more controlling than white students. Bottom line is that driving while black is a phenomenon that does exists, but also defies simplistic explanations. The dismissal of it based on a single study is not the way to find out relevant facts about this phenomenon.

I could do this with many of his other attempts to dismiss the presence of racial discrimination, but I think we get the point. Shapiro has offered an incomplete explanation based on a single, or sometimes no, research study. But there is other work out there that either he does not know about or has chosen to ignore. Either way, it is a cherry picking type of presentation that does not allow us to fully understand the issues behind white privilege. Those who want to engage in facebook discussion to disagree that privilege exists and think that merely putting up a video by Shapiro ends the discussion are sadly mistaken and likely engaging in confirmation bias.

Let me end on a note of agreement with Shapiro. He closes his video by calling out college administrators for their unwillingness to deal with campus protestors. In a less flamboyant way, I did the same thing a few weeks ago. Yes, as I have already stated, people can misuse the reality of privilege to push their own social agenda. That does not mean that privilege is a myth. So I will agree with Shapiro that I would love to see more of our college administrators take a proactive approach towards dealing with the anti-free speech movement.

I want to make one thing very clear. Although I have spent all of this space dealing with the arguments of Shapiro, this blog is really not about him. He is merely the foil for the argument that privilege is a myth. His misuse of the definition of white privilege prevents him from realistically challenging the idea in the first place, but also his attempts to promote a colorblind solution fall short. They fall short not because he fails to be an intelligent, articulate promoter of the cause. He is. They fail because this colorblind mentality is severely limited in fostering the intergroup understanding we need to overcome the challenges we face today.

And this is not just about racial issues. Privilege is seen in a wide variety of social dimensions. The proper use of this concept can help clarify the sort of discussions we can have in our society. They may lead to solutions to the problems that continue to separate us. For example, there is evidence that recent attempts by colleges to create a gender neutral family-friendly policy have backfired and even work to the disadvantage of women. As such, these policies have created an invisible privilege for male professors. Understanding this reality is not calling all men sexist. Understanding this can help us to see a potential unfair advantage men have been given over women in our society. Then we can be in a position to see whether this advantage is correctable.

The colorblindness enunciated by Shapiro and others, when also translated to other social dimensions often stops us from having the discussions we need to deal with this problem. Rather than cherry picking studies to deny the reality that some groups have advantages others do not have, we would do well to listen to the stories of privilege and try to consider what we can do to address the problems that have emerged from unearned privilege. I am not saying that whites, males or whoever does not have a say in how we solve those problems. I am saying that imposing a previous agenda of ignoring privilege will prevent us from understanding what the problems are in the first place. So my challenge for those who enjoy the privilege is to be open that this is what is occurring and try to help us figure out how to make sure that unearned advantages can be minimized in our society.

But the problems of dealing with privilege do not just come from those pushing an agenda of blindness (be it color or otherwise). These problems also come because some defenders of the concept of privilege make it nearly impossible for us to have productive conversations about the problems connected to privilege. In pushing the idea of privilege, they make it unpalatable for those who do not see the world the way they do to accept their arguments. So if I left this conversation with only a critique of conservative elements in our society, then I would be doing the conversation a disservice and setting up a distorted view of the problem of using privilege to foster conversations. Thus, next week I will deal with the problem of the way some of the activists who support the notion of privilege have abused the term and used it to shut off, rather than produce helpful conversations.


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