White privilege?


Some of my friends — I mean real friends, not the Facebook variety — are rolling out the old ‘white privilege’ trope, after the most recent round of police murders.

(That’s the subjective genitive, not objective; I mean murders by police. I’m not losing any sleep over the fact that somebody occasionally shoots back. There are, after all, laws of Nature.)

Now I think this is a bogus concept — white privilege, I mean.

[Voice from offstage] : That’s because you’re white!

Well, maybe. But I also have better reasons than that.

Let’s start from facts that we can all agree on.

1) Nearly everybody in the world — except for that notorious 1% — has a pretty shitty time of it.

2) In particular, and speaking of home matters, cops shoot somewhere between 500 and 600 people a year in the US. In absolute terms, most of these dead people are former white people — though in the grave these distinctions vanish quickly. Importantly, however, in proportionate terms, a young black guy is on average a lot more likely to be shot than a young white guy. This is not an insignificant fact.

3) Therefore: Though most people have a pretty shitty time of it, some — and they are not difficult to identify — have an even shittier time of it than others.

This, in a nutshell, is the case for ‘privilege’ as a concept: most everybody has a shitty time, but some people’s times are shittier than others. For no good reason: they’re not lazier, they’re not less intelligent, they’re not less moral or conscientious.

Now my own inclination is to focus on the overall shittiness, and ask why we have to put up with it.

But the discourse of privilege focuses on the disparity — as if that were the problem, and the overall shittiness were unavoidable; it’s only a question of how we spread it around.

Well, in theory, the disparity could be fixed. We could encourage the cops, for example, to shoot more white people, so as reduce the disparity.

Or we could hold the number of shot white people constant, and try to bring the rate of shot black people down to the same level. That would also reduce the disparity, and would certainly be preferable to Plan A. Particularly from my white point of view. But it’s still a lot of dead people. Rather too many, I should say.

But really, who wants either of these outcomes?

This is why I think the discourse of privilege leads us down a rabbit hole. It presupposes that the quantum of misery is constant, and like a kind of perverse reverse Communism, seeks to ensure that everybody is equally miserable.

I have developed a tactic for responding to my friends who bring up the matter of white privilege. Since it’s usually in the context of police murders — again I mean, murders by cops, not of cops — I ask them, well, if you want to put an end to police shootings, why not disarm the police? Then they couldn’t shoot anybody, black or white.

So far I have not had a single response to this question, and I have asked it many times. It seems clear that my anti-privilege friends are still strongly in favor of state-sanctioned violence — as long as it’s levied with an even hand.

16 thoughts on “White privilege?

  1. Merlin Mann’s tweet yesterday. “It’s interesting to live in a time when the sky’s raining shit, and so many people just want to argue about the color of their umbrella.”

  2. It’s not a zero sum game though. Elites have been anxious about freed slaves and their descendants since slavery was abolished. For this reason blacks–assumed rightly or wrongly to be slave descendants–have been uniquely and persistently persecuted. So absolutely, we need to disarm the cops, disband them. And of course for liberals its convenient to point the finger at racism and white privilege while ignoring institutional realities. But pretending we are all in the same boat when we are not probably only widens social divisions further. There’s a reason a figure like Sanders can connect with white kids feeling the squeeze, but ethnic minorities, especially African Americans, not so much. We come from entirely different worlds.

  3. I would have said that ‘zero sum game’ is exactly what’s implied by the discourse of privilege. It’s a sort of algebraic identity: white privilege plus black disprivilege = 0. The one term is as real as the other; they’re different ways of saying the same thing. I think this is a mistake.

    Of course you’re right that we’re not all in the same boat — or at least, we’re not all as deep in steerage as some. Though there is something to the ‘same boat’ metaphor. The immiseration to which whites are subject is structurally connected with the deeper immiseration of blacks.

    But the discourse of ‘privilege’ inverts reality. It’s not that whites are by and large privileged in any meaningful sense. Though some are, most aren’t. What is the case is that even though most whites have a pretty tough time of it, blacks in general have it even worse.

    Thought experiment: suppose we were to start speaking of white immiseration and black super-immiseration. It seems to me that this captures the factual reality of the situation, though it’s not very catchy, and it doesn’t suggest (as ‘white privilege’ does) that white folks, overall, are getting more than they should. They’re not.

    The other thing, of course, is that the discourse of ‘privilege’ works against solidarity; and if ever there was a time when we needed solidarity, surely it’s now.

  4. The other other thing, of course, is that there’s no such thing as ‘white people’. It’s like predicating certain qualities of non-redheads.

  5. The majority of victims of police violence are white, yet they are “privileged” to be ignored completely by the media which is more interested in stirring up racial antagonism than confronting the fact that police brutality is a feature not a bug in the system. The cops are there to keep us in line and shooting a citizen every now and then “pour encourager les autres” may well be an acceptable part of the game.

    The “privilege” scam is a remarkably clever propaganda trick as it makes it seem that the majority of desperate, struggling white people are in fact getting something special they don’t deserve. Since blacks are presumably more subject to bigotry than Micks, Dagos, Wops, Krauts and other assorted white trash, redneck scumbags are, this magically transforms into a presumption of special advantage that always exists in theory but rarely seems to materialize in reality. As many “white” people quickly discover, there is no magical Pez dispenser out there that gives candy exclusively to the white kids.

    But yeah, pretending it’s a zero-sum game where whites can only get ahead by fucking blacks ignores the fact that most people are getting screwed over and only by uniting together are we ever going to change that. If there is one, beautiful thing to come out of the Occupy movement it is the concept of the “99 Percent.” Regardless of our differences in terms of identity or experience, we have a common interest in sticking together and seeing ourselves as one. It is no accident that the first weapon deployed against that movement was not cops with pepper spray, but divisive identity politics hucksters.

    Yes, they are actually calling him “Micah X.” Sometimes, you just have to laugh at the bullshit.

  6. Comrade Smith, I’m in total agreement with you and have always thought that the Black Lives Matter movement should broaden the focus to popo brutality in general. Some of these videos of cops beating the shit out of white people are just as horrific. If you make the movement about the police brutality and the cops disarmament as the solution, we’ll get more traction. Having said that, I’m not on board with changing the slogan from Black Lives Matter to All Lives Matter only because the latter tends to dilute the fact that the sky indeed rains more shit on black people.

    • Agreed. Black Lives Matter probably isn’t the slogan I would have chosen, but it’s not bad, and it caught on in the right way. All Lives Matter was clearly an attempt to neutralize the essential message.

  7. am i missing something or why is no one commenting on the fact that the supposed shooter (sic) was a veteran of the heroin wars in afghanistan? as soon as this story broke i tho’t immediately that the guy was almost certainly a vet or, if not, a SWAT-type cop or ex-cop. Oh my prophetic soul! helen keller coulda seen that one coming. what was his war experience, and what was his post-war experience? how many of his vet buddies had offed themselves, or become homeless or addicts or all the above, b/c you know at the VA the waiting line never moves? nope. everything is about race.

    • A friend called the perp Melanin Jason Bourne. And read the “backstory” about him in the Daily Beast and some nonsense on CNN.com about his writing letters in blood. COINTELPRO has really turned to their B-listers.

      • Alex Cockburn used to refer to the military as “violence central” and back in his days at the Nation, he used to correlate the wife beating and domestic violence to the military background of the perpetrator.

  8. Well, there’s privilege and there’s privilege. It would seem to be a funny word to use when referring to relative oppression. But then again “oppression” is a funny word to use when referring to someone who doesn’t even know they are oppressed, God love ’em.

    I think I might go with “beneficiary”. Like, if you get twenty-three cents paid out on your uncle’s life insurance, it may not be something to write your second home about — what with your older brother getting willed the bicycle — but you were a beneficiary. If you as his lawful next of kin had to pay his burial expenses because your biking brother’d been dead for years, on the other hand…

    What I’m limping to say is that you got your relative shittiness, but then you got a kind of nary-sensed windfall because of others’ misfortunes. Americans are the prime example of a folk willfully ignorant of how they indirectly capitalize off the backs of their uncle’s dirty deeds. I certainly don’t have to tell longtime readers of thishere site that even those who cry out against those actions will compromise if they think somebody might get shitty health insurance out of the deal.

    It matters not that Uncle Sam protects & enables the riches of the very few and treats the rest to an unequal amount of meatloaf made of breadcrumbs and crap. The point is, some craploaf eaters’ lives are spared, or their level of freedom is protected more often than others’. You might even say that one guy, simply by virtue of his skin tone, can pretty much go wherever his happy-go-lucky lifestyle takes him, while his darker cousin’s life expectancy plummets with many of those same steps.

    So the question I’d raise as regards the game of GestoppedGo is: Is it a good or bad idea to acknowledge that those let go, if they’d been stopped at all, or those not hired, if they got an interview, or those gunned down while they were sleeping, if they’d been able to sleep, are part of how the benefits are assessed and paid out? You know, at least until we finish getting the guns away from the pigs.

    • ‘“oppression” is a funny word to use when referring to someone who doesn’t even know they are oppressed’

      funny, middle-aged “professional” black man who’d spent 20 or so in the army & now works in consumer financial oversight (guffaw) for the federales said repeatedly that he himself had never in his life experienced prejudice, oppression, etc. I found this hard to believe. He then tells a story of him & group of young black army friends who wound up driving on to “the wrong side of the tracks” in Houston, TX, sometime around 1980, and the hysterical, enraged reaction of the cop who told them to get their nigger-asses back to their side of town if they knew what was good for ’em.

      but he’d never experienced prejudice or oppression?!? even when we mouth off about “sympathy” for those murdered by cops, we still do not want to identify ourselves personally among the oppressed. doing so shows a low esteem & is not conducive to a victory narrative about one’s life.

    • I guess I’d tend to use the word ‘privilege’ when the goal is levelling down (e.g. abolishing the House Of Lords), and different language (deprivation? oppression?) when the goal is levelling up (e.g. the abolition of slavery).

  9. there are different poles or axes one can look at the issue of “oppression” and come up w/meaningful differences. urban/surburban/rural. males/female. “blue”/”red” state. coastal/heartland. other variables. obviously class. focusing on race exclusively is by design intended to obfuscate the overall shittiness of this country. apparently, women are more willing to work a Wal Mart type job than men. (no doubt for the chirruns.) so men need to be more like the women? fuck that.

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