The political philosopher Chris Bertram published two posts last week on Crooked Timber, the philosophy and social science blog, the first challenging critiques of the concept of “white privilege”, the second arguing that certain claims about race and class are irrational. As I was one of the targets of these articles (Chris linked to one of my posts as exemplifying the problem, and we had previously debated the issue on Twitter), this is a response. (It has been published on Crooked Timber, too – my thanks to Chris for doing that.) Chris’ two posts are not directly linked, but they clearly deal with linked issues, and it is worth looking at them in tandem.
In the first post, Chris argues that “the ‘white privilege’ claim sits best with a certain sort of metaphysics of the person, such that individuals have a range of characteristics, some of which are more natural and others more social, that confer a competitive advantage or disadvantage in a given environment, where that environment is constituted by a range of elements, including demographics, institutions, cultural practices, individual attitudes, and so forth.”
But he also acknowledges that “I’m not establishing that, as a matter of fact, “white privilege” in the form I describe is a real thing, although I believe that it is”. It is difficult to see, though, how one can have a debate about whether “white privilege” is a meaningful category without have first established whether it is “a real thing”. It is possible to have an abstract debate about whether such a phenomenon could exist, but not to critique those who challenge the concept as inchoate in reality. Chis, in common with many proponents of the “white privilege” thesis, takes as given that which has to be demonstrated.
Underlying the “white privilege” thesis are two basic claims. First, that being “white” is a useful category in which to put everyone from the CEOs of multinational corporations to the cleaners in an Amazon warehouse. And, second, that being in such a category imbues people with privileges denied to those not in that category. Are either of these claims true?
The idea of whiteness as a “certain sort of metaphysics of the person” derives, of course, from racial thinking. In recent years it has found an important expression in the notion of “white identity” – the idea that all those deemed white have a common identity and set of interests which may conflict with those of non-whites. Most anti-racists (and, I assume, Chris, too) reject such a claim. We recognize that all whites do not have a common identity, that the interests of white factory workers or shelf-stackers are not the same as those of white bankers or business owners, but are far more similar to those of black factory workers or Asian shelf-stackers.
Why, then, do we ignore this when it comes to the question of “white privilege”? Because, proponents of the white privilege thesis argue, white people do not suffer the kinds of discrimination suffered by non-whites by virtue of their skin colour. At one level this is true. “Racism” refers to the practice of discrimination against, and bigotry towards, certain social groups; there may be many reasons for such discrimination and bigotry, but one is clearly that those who are non-white are often treated unequally. Viewing the issue in terms of “white privilege” is, however, deeply flawed for a number of reasons.
First, it is not a “privilege” not to have to face discrimination or bigotry; it should be the norm. I doubt if Chris, or, indeed, most proponents of the white privilege thesis, would disagree. Framing the absence of oppression or discrimination or bigotry as a “privilege” is to turn the struggle for justice on its head.
Second, the concept of white privilege fails to distinguish between “not being discriminated against or facing bigotry because of one’s skin colour” and “having immunity from discrimination or bigotry because one is white”. The distinction is important. Many whites, because of privileges afforded by wealth and class, do have immunity against discrimination. But many others, who are poor or working class, do not. Their experiences of state authority or of policing is often similar to that of non-whites.
Consider, for instance, police killings in America. African Americans are disproportionately killed by police. But more than half of those killed by US police are white. Some analyses suggest that the best predictor of police killings is not race but income level – the poorer you are, the more likely you are to be killed. The data here is relatively sparse, largely because it is easier to break the figures down by race and ethnicity than by class. So, by default, the question of class often disappears. Note that I am not saying that racism does not shape the policing of black communities – it clearly does. What I am saying is that for working class whites, being white does not provide an immunity from the kinds of militarised policing that black communities face, nor provides them with a privilege to avoid it.
Or take the question of mass incarceration. Some studies have shown that the startlingly high prison numbers in America are better explained by class than by race and that “mass incarceration is primarily about the systematic management of the lower classes, regardless of race”. There is data, too, that suggests that while the ratio of blacks to whites being incarcerated has remained broadly flat over the past century, the proportion of high school drop outs compared to graduates has exponentially increased in the past 50 years (see fig. 1 here). What this suggests is that the extraordinary rise in prison numbers in recent decades has been fuelled by a vast increase in the imprisonment of those without higher education and of the poor and the working class. There is an ongoing debate about these figures and about the causes of both police brutality and mass imprisonment. But as someone who has long accepted that mass imprisonment is primarily the result of racism – the “new Jim Crow” in Michelle Alexander’s phrase – I am beginning to change my mind, having seen some of this data. It is certainly the case that African Americans are disproportionately poor and working class. It is also the case that racism plays a major part in ensuring they are so. But it makes littles sense to view police killings and mass imprisonment in terms of “white privilege” when poor and working class whites do not enjoy such privilege.
Or take school exclusions in Britain. Black pupils are disproportionately excluded from school, and there has long been evidence of racism being an important reason as to why. But look more closely at the figures and you see that the problem is primarily faced by those of Caribbean descent. Pupils of black African descent are less likely to be excluded than their white peers. This difference can be seen in many aspects of education, not just exclusion, and class probably plays an explanatory role – those of Caribbean descent being more working class, while those of African descent being traditionally more middle class (though that has changed in recent years). Figures also show that pupils claiming free school meals (FSM) – a proxy for poverty – are almost four times as likely to be excluded as those not receiving FSM. In other words, the differences between both pupils of African and of Caribbean descent, and between pupils claiming FSM and those who do not, suggest that class as well as race plays an important role. Again, none of this is to say that there is no racism in the education system. It is saying, however, that it cannot be viewed simply in terms of “white privilege”.
Chris derides such arguments in his second post with an analogy between rich and poor people sleeping under a bridge. The fact that rich people sleeping under a bridge may suffer the same harms as poor people doing so (“exposure to the cold, or being beaten up by gangs of strangers”) does not mean, he points out, that economic inequality does not exist, nor that we should not concentrate resources on poor people sleeping rough. The same, he suggests, applies to arguments about race and class. White people may face police brutality or imprisonment, but that’s essentially equivalent to rich people sleeping rough.
Except that it’s not. The odd rich person may find themselves sleeping under a bridge because of particular circumstances, such as being “inebriated after a night at their club”. But it is not just a “few” working class whites who face police brutality or imprisonment or school exclusion. Nor is it simply the case, as Chris dismissively suggests in his first post, “of noticing that some groups of white people suffer outcomes that are as bad or worse than non-white people on average or some non-white groups in particular”. These are, rather, features woven into the fabric of social life. They may happen because of one’s skin colour. Or because of being working class and poor. Or because of both. But only by ignoring the facts could one suggest that there is any meaningful analogy between white working class people facing police brutality or imprisonment or exclusion and rich people sleeping under a bridge. The degree to which race and class may be causally important in any specific issue at any particular time is an empirical question. It is not, however, a question that we should ignore in the way we can ignore the problem of rich people sleeping rough.
There is a danger, too, in much of this debate of diminishing the importance of class to black people and imaging that their lives are shaped primarily, or only, by race. Class reductionism is a problem that we should avoid. So, too, is race reductionism.
Chris also makes this point in his second post:
There are harms reliably associated with low socio-economic status and those harms fall on people regardless of their race. Kerching! – it is claimed – race doesn’t matter in the explanation of those harms! But obviously, if being black increases your relative propensity of being sorted into a poor working-class group that is exposed to such harms, and if being white reduces your relative propensity of being so sorted, then race is actually a big part of the picture. Showing that, of those who are in a category that is strongly pre-selected for by race, harms were not associated with race, does not lead to the valid conclusion that those harms are not associated with race.
It’s a claim that conflates the critique of the white privilege thesis with a denial of racism. I have not at any point denied the existence of racism, nor do I know of any leftwing critic of the white privilege thesis who does so. It is precisely because I am concerned with challenging racism that I am critical of the claims about white privilege. Yes, African Americans (and other minority groups) are disproportionately working class and poor, and, yes, racism plays a significant part in explaining why this is so. But that, as I have already pointed out, is not the same as demonstrating the existence of “white privilege”.
A key phrase in Chris’s quote is “if being white reduces your relative propensity of being so sorted…”. This, again, is to conflate two issues. First, a higher proportion of whites than blacks are middle class and wealthy. Second, a large proportion of whites are working class and poor. The problem lies is in the belief that we can “sort” all white people into a single category and assume that such a category is meaningful in discussing social injustice. Just as there is no category “white” that is meaningful in discussing the identities and interests of all people deemed white, so there is no single category “white” that makes sense in discussions of social injustice or privilege.
Racism is an important issue that needs urgently to be tackled. So is class inequality. Looking at social problems through the lens of “white privilege” helps us tackle neither.