Is White Privilege a Distraction?

13 February 2016


This week, we're thinking about White Privilege and Racial Injustice. Everybody knows that the US has a long and sorry history when it comes to racial injustice.  It also has a long history of privileging the needs, concerns and narratives of white people over those of people of color. But how exactly are white privilege and racial injustice related? That’s our question for this week.

Some might think the the connection is completely obvious. Ask yourself how many times have we had to witness the tragedy of unarmed black men and boys getting shot and killed over practically nothing? White people just aren’t subject to this kind of crap. Imagine if they were? How loud do you think the uproar would be? The point is that white privilege and racial injustice are just two sides of the very same coin. Eliminate white privilege—and with it the unequal treatment of whites and people of color—and racial injustice automatically goes away.

This being philosophy, of course, things are never as simple and straightforward as they seem. Even if there is, in fact, rampant mistreatment of blacks, that does not in and of itself prove the existence of so-called white privilege. To see this, we need to start from the beginning and get clearer about what exactly we mean by white privilege. Perhaps a good starting definition is that there is white privilege wherever whites enjoy unearned advantages relative to others. Think not just of the criminal justice system, but of spheres like education, housing, and employment, to name just a few.

Now if you view white privilege in something like this way, you might be inclined to think that the fact that whites are much more likely to be treated by cops with respect than people of color is a sign of unearned white privilege. After all, they really did nothing to “deserve” the advantage of being treated with respect by the police, except be born white in a racist society. Ergo, you might think, the fact that they are so treated is a sign of white privilege.  

But there’s a problem with this way of thinking. Although not everybody is in fact treated with respect by the cops, everybody surely deserves to be—whether they are black, white, or brown. That is, we all have the right to be treated with respect. And for none of us does that right have to be earned.   We’re get it automatically just in virtue of being born. The problem with our earlier way of thinking, then, is that it misconstrues what are really matters of rights in terms of privilege.    

Granted, the cops far too often trample the rights of black people—though that’s not to say that they don’t trample the rights of whites sometimes too—but far less routinely and with far less impunity. But this doesn’t prove anything about white privilege. Quite the contrary. The problem isn’t that the cops are wrong to respect the rights of whites. They are wrong to disrespect the rights of blacks. I don’t mean to deny that there is such a thing as white privilege. But it’s not a privilege to have one’s rights respected. To eliminate the kind of racial injustice that involves the cops mistreating and even killing unarmed black men and boys, for example, we shouldn’t be focused on tearing down so-called white privilege, but on securing the too often trample rights of people of color. After all, it’s not like we want cops to go around violating everybody’s rights.

So far, we haven’t really found a good example of white privilege in action.  It was simpler to do so in the days of explicit white supremacy, in particular during slavery or the days of Jim Crow segregation. Then just being white gave white people a privilege enjoyed by every white person and no black person—the privilege of just being white and not being black. That was something that the least among whites could hold over even the best among blacks. We’ve come a long way since then. Indeed, we've come so far that some people dismiss talk of white privilege as an anachronistic relic of a distant racist past.

But it’s not so simple. Even if explicit, legalized discrimination is a thing of the past, a strong case can be made that far too many of our racial interactions are governed by implicit bias. That’s where people unconsciously judge minorities or women more harshly than white men, even though they may consciously endorse and even live out anti-racist, anti-sexist points of view. Implicit bias leads directly to white privilege. Take those experiments where exactly the same paper is submitted to exactly the same journal, once under a black sounding name—Jamal, say—once under a white sounding name—John, say. Pretty reliably, John’s paper will be evaluated more favorably than the Jamal’s paper, even though they are otherwise exactly the same. And many people think that implicit bias is a major source of white privilege.

There may well be something to this idea. But I’m not sure it’s as straightforward as some might think. To fully establish the existence of white privilege on the basis of the phenomenon of implicit bias, you’d have to know whether John’s paper was evaluated higher than it should be by objective standards or Jamal’s paper was evaluated lower than it should be by such standards. Only the former would be a sign of white privilege in action, because only the former would show that John was receiving an extra perk just for being white. If Jamal is evaluated lower than he objective deserves to be, that would be a sign of bias against blacks, to be sure. But it’s not clear that would really be a sign of white privilege in action. 

The moral isn’t that there is no such thing as white privilege. I think there surely is such a thing. But it’s just not as cut and dried to establish what such privilege consist in as you might think. Even the case of implicit bias raises issues a lot like our cop case. Everybody deserves to have their work evaluated fairly and by the same objective standards. If Jamal’s work isn’t but John’s work is, that shows that Jamal was discriminated against and discrimination surely should be eliminated. But it doesn’t automatically show that John enjoys some white privilege.

Now this week’s guest, Naomi Zack, argues that although there is such a thing as white privilege, the discourse of white privilege is often—though not always—a distraction when thinking about how to combat racial injustice. Most of the time, we will get further with a discourse of rights. I’m not sure I’d go quite as far as she seems willing to go in shifting focus from the elimination of white privilege to the securing of minority rights, but I find her ideas deeply engaging. Give a listen and see if you do too. 

Comments (12)

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, February 14, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

The final paragraph is a bit

The final paragraph is a bit cryptic. The answer, of course, is that everyone should be privileged. But if that last remark refers to a call for "restitution", this sort of thing fuels the flames, creating more division and confirming the suspicion that minorities just want to mooch off whites. The reverse might be the case, and difficulty in explaining this to whites should be telling, but it is hard to see how a privilege (private legal right) can be institutionally enforced or redressed. We cannot entirely rid judgments about what we each deserve of subjectivity because such decisions are almost always made in private. More public accounting would be helpful, a bit of ventilation often clears foul air. It might be better to just make government responsible for some modestly decent lifestyle for everyone, rather than creating programs that single out groups. "Special treatment" is what opponents will call it. But this will still not address the issue of earned opportunities denied. Keep in mind, this denial is done in private, often tracelessly. And it is arguable, evident to some, that it is done explicitly to restrict opportunities within a loose grouping. But the plain fact is, where private decisions lead to socially toxic outcomes the public sector must intervene. Not by heavy handed intrusion in private institutions, but by providing opportunities in the public sphere that tend to restore a balanced potential to all. What we do with our lives is our business, but if there is no fear of destitution and a reliable expectation of seeing a reasonable rate of earnings for our efforts, then violence will subside. But as long as we have a culture that relies on cheating working people of their earning power racism will serve as a smokescreen for the real target that earning power is. In 1628, I think it was, a colonial leader near Boston tried to get rich by selling some of his followers into slavery in Virginia. They were white. This at a time when slavery was on the wane in England. Ten years later preachers spoke of a contrast between a "covenant of work" and a "covenant of grace". At the time of the American revolution a preacher in England (Jeremiah Burroughs) divided the world between "saints and worldlings". The theme that some of us bear the stamp of the divine and others of the "worldly" or profane runs deep in our culture, even in black culture. Racism is a most atrocious part of this theme that some are more deserving than others, but it is not the whole story, and going at that monster piecemeal gives it ample avenues of eluding our efforts to kill it, and time to reemerge in another form.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, February 15, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

How about Cornell West for

How about Cornel West for Scalia's vacancy?

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, February 15, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

I'll not go into all the

I'll not go into all the ramifications of the storied history of these United States of America. Yes, we have gotten a lot of it wrong and will, no doubt, continue to do so for the forseeable future. As a people, though, we are not much worse than most, and only little better than certain others in this world. Rights are commonly viewed as inherent in all free societies. Perhaps some would disagree, saying: if you want to have rights, you have got to fight for them. Maybe so. Most consider freedom a right and we know we have to fight for that. But, this is only because there are those who would deny freedom to anyone who they believe does not deserve it. And so, freedom is not an absolute. We have to earn it, one way or another. And, if we are unable or too pacifistic to do so, it, like the Tao, of which John spoke in a different blog posting, just disappears---goes away, evaporates. Privilege may be earned. Earning it is often difficult, requiring us to be or do things we may find insulting or downright repugnant. In one sense then, earning a privilege may also require us to fight for it. Privilege can be inherited, along with sufficient wealth to more-or-less ensure its longevity.Inheritance does not mean that the privilege is deserved. We inherit many things for which we are blatantly undeserving. But, some ancestor just could not (or would not) deny our right to the privilege of the inheritance he or she wished to leave us. It really is complicated, isn't it?
Privilege may be seized, violently or surreptitiously. Despots are especially adept at wresting privilege for themselves and ensuring that no one under their influence has a ghost of a chance. If there is no will, no where with all on the part of the oppressed, the oppressors always win. Look around, though. The oppressed in this country are not so dramatically oppressed as they used to be, Racially, we are an imperfect society. But privilege is not exclusively white nor is it any other color or national origin. I might think that some people whose heritage is Asian or Indian have been accorded undue privilege in attaining education and employment in the United States. If that were true, it would still be only what I think. And that would be my right and privilege, right or wrong. Yes, it is complicated. Cornel West is a lovable intellectual. Witty, outspoken and all-in-all, an iconic figure. But, his stature is of his choosing and would not necessarily qualify him as Supreme Court Justice. Call me crazy, but he would not mesh well with the likes of Clarence Thomas. Or Ruth Bader-Ginsburg. I doubt that the suggestion was all that serious. But everyone has the right to an opinion. Freedom of speech is a freedom. But, it too requires fighting the good fight.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, February 16, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

I see no reason the members

I see no reason the members of the court should be pals. Problem is, of course, that judges tend to stay out of the public eye, so we have little awareness of available talent. I'm sick and tired of "respect" for nice guys pursuing vile agendas. I'd rather see vile people pursuing a worthwhile agenda. Scalia's philosophy was that of the monster Chronos, a past that consumes its children lest they have a future not of its ordaining.
Tell those working double the forty hour week, and paying more than half their gross wages on housing, they are less oppressed than in former times! If anything, feudal serfs had more autonomy than the working poor today. There really is a shocking lack of appreciation about just how bad life is in America for low wage earners.
It is not complicated at all, all negotiations are asymmetrical, and that asymmetry is entropic. That is, unless governments exert a countervailing effect against it, it tends to increase until unsustainable without "oppression", that is, without the force of law to sustain it.

Guest's picture


Friday, February 19, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Thanks Ken Taylor for

Thanks Ken Taylor for creating this philosophy talk.We know that you are one of the most important person who create this big philosophy platform.We are thankful to you.

Guest's picture


Sunday, February 21, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Nice talk Mr. ken. But the

Nice talk Mr. ken. But the plain fact is, where private decisions lead to socially toxic outcomes the public sector must intervene. Not by heavy handed intrusion in private institutions, but by providing opportunities in the public sphere that tend to restore a balanced potential to all.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, February 22, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Can I take that as a "like"?

Can I take that as a "like"?

ben.clark's picture


Thursday, September 13, 2018 -- 9:14 AM

Sorry for necroing this

Sorry for necroing this thread, but rarely do I read such hogwash on white privilege. Clearly, the author lacks an understanding of how white privilige is designed and defined in America. I quote the author here, "So far, we haven’t really found a good example of white privilege in action." There is no reason to read any further. Had the author written, "So far, I haven't really found a good example of white privilege in action" I could work with that. But this is utter subjective nonsense. One need only Google "how is white privilege defined in America" to find innumberable objective examples. Clearly, the author was not going to research before contributing to the very thing they pronounce as "hard to find". Anyway, should the author or any future visitors wish to clarify "what is white privilege" that they might recognize it rather than claim its invisibility, here are 26 objective examples:

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, October 5, 2018 -- 11:38 AM

Well. We are about to get a

Well. We are about to get a new Supreme Court justice. We are not yet 100% sure of this, but, it looks as though it will happen tomorrow, torpedoes be damned. He will be very white, and may be a sound jurist, for those of the same persuasion. I don't know what may happen next. Maybe nothing truly perilous, but maybe something more. Qualifications for the job appear to be somewhat flexible. Political background and ideology are key. As is the case with most any professional job in Washington, D.C. All of this is as transparent as plate glass and no one seems to question that. Why should they? It is how the game is played---the swamp is not there for draining; it is an ecosystem, unto itself. Sure, there is white privilege, alive and well in these United States. Everyone knows it and those who would change it had better think twice.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, June 11, 2020 -- 5:17 PM

Historic irony... sometimes

Historic irony... sometimes going back through these posts... it is interesting to hear yourself think.

I had a post last January about the relative impact of SARS CoV2 like that. I wonder if Harold would have taken umbrage at this.

I also wonder if he is still alive for that matter.'s picture


Sunday, October 7, 2018 -- 12:56 PM

I know that the dictionary

I know that the dictionary defiition of privilege indicates a sense of entitlement, but I have long held that privilege is a distinction that is earned, and that elitism is what should be used instead of privilege in the context of race relations.

Being still somewhat new to Philsophy Talk, I think I sent this message as an email via the "contact" page, when I only wanted to make a comment here (I could not find this comment page for this particular broadcast). I copied the text of my comment, but then lost it. I admit it. I'm a klutz.

So I am trying to recall exactly what I said in my earlier message and transcribe it here, so be patient with me for a moment.

I should think that if one has the distinction of parking in the special parking space reserved for the employee of the month, that disctinction came because that individual parking there either showed up on time for work, was exceptionally cooperative and efficient every day that month, i.e. earned that distinction, or that individual feels that he or she IS the best employee in the workplace and deserves such a distinctive and convenient parking place by force of his or her own will, or he or she does not care at all about employment, or workplaces and merely feels meritorious of that parking place simply on the basis of immediate desire to obtain and make use of it.

The use of privilege in race relations stems, from my perspective, from the language of supremacy, a language and an intention that confuses gift with merit, possession with earning, that posits reward without effort.

Now there are those who might object that the efforts of past generations, who came over on the Mayflower, let us say, and were subjected to harsh conditions in the New World and oppression in the Old World and so on, have guaranteed to succeeding generations the privilege of benefiting from whatever social advantages those initial settlers may have earned by sweat of brow and perseverence of spirit.

But hold on. I suggest that privilege is earned by commensurate committed effort. A natural-born athlete does not have the privilege of being honored in a sports hall of fame, that is an expected honor of that individual's exceptional inbred talent and physical dexterity. The less talented and gifted athlete, on the other hand, would have earned the privilege of such an honor by means of his or her dedicated effort to reach, or even exceed, what was generally judged to be the highest achievable level of athletic excellence for that individual. In another sense, the fact that yet a third individual athlete's parent, obviously of a previous generation, was an excellent performer and accomplished great feats of skill on the field of play is not, and should not be, a factor in considering whether or not to bestow such an honor on the athlete of the present generation.

In the comment I emailed earlier I made mention of riding a city bus. If I present my magnetized card and pass it under the scanner, or sensor, I have the privilege of jumping the line, as it were, and going immediately to a seat or open standing place, while another rider may be fumbling about in his or her pocket, or purse, or wallet, or brief case, or back pack, for the appropriate amount of money required by the transit authority to ride this bus at this time. I earned the privilege of jumping the line because I bothered to pay for a month of rides ahead of time online. Now another rider may have a host of reasons for not using the online system, or he or she may just decide that it is easier to track daily expenses when paying for each ride as it occurs and would find it a greater inconvenience to remember to pay online every month.

But had I not paid in advance, and had no magnetic pass to gain access to ride the bus at that time, and did not present the amount of money that would afford a ride on the bus, but merely boarded the bus and took the first open seat I happened upon, perhaps even taking that seat from someone elderly or disabled, I would not be acting out of earned privilege, bur from a presumed elitist conviction that an object, or a situation becomes my possession by means of my desire alone. Perhaps I felt I could board the bus without paying because I believe I pay enough in taxes already and am owed this means of transportation from a grateful municipality, or because my parent owns the transportation company contracted by the city, or because I consider myself good looking, or for any number of motives completely unrelated to the transit authority's mission to provide transportation service to paying passengers only. In such an instance my ridership is not a privilege at all, but is the result of my presumption of my status as an elite member of society.

When honor or distinction is not earned, but is expected as a matter of course, that is not an earned privilege, that is rather the sense, either inherited or invented, of an elitist conviction of entitlement based entirely on presumption; a presumption that one is entitled to unique status, beyond any and all evidence asserting the contrary: that the human social condition is one of altruism and egalitarian concern for one's fellow citizens.

Socratically speaking's picture

Socratically sp...

Tuesday, June 9, 2020 -- 9:34 PM

Wait, chandellier of what?

Wait, chandellier of what? Can we have a clip of that quoteplease? maybe a gif?

Where can we get more of this lady? Naomi Zack is her name?