What White Privilege Really Means

It’s not about what whites get. It’s about what blacks don’t.

die-in to protest police brutality and the decisions by grand juries in New York and Missouri not to indict police officers involved in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.
Legal professionals and students stage a die-in to protest police brutality and the decisions by grand juries in New York and Missouri not to indict police officers involved in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, in Los Angeles, Dec. 16, 2014.

Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

In the early 1980s, the hardcore band Minor Threat released “Guilty of Being White,” a song that drew on lead singer Ian MacKaye’s experience as a white student attending a predominantly black public high school in Washington, D.C. “I’m sorry for something I didn’t do,” he sings. “Lynched somebody, but I don’t know who.” In an interview with Steven Blush, author of American Hardcore: A Tribal History, MacKaye recalled how “people would beat the shit out of me or rob me because I was white.” Unsurprisingly, “Guilty of Being White” became a favorite song of white-power militants. MacKaye, though, was aiming for something entirely different: “People were judging me on the color of my skin, so I wrote what I thought was a really direct anti-racist song—I wanted to say something radical.” MacKaye was asking to be judged as an individual rather than as a convenient, scrawny stand-in for unnamed oppressors who were nowhere to be seen.

I bring this up because it strikes me as the exact opposite of the sentiment behind the “Criming While White” social media phenomenon. After the grand jury decisions not to indict a pair of white police officers for killing black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner, white people used the #CrimingWhileWhite Twitter hashtag to chronicle various moments when police officers gave them the benefit of the doubt, presumably because of some combination of their race and social status. The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that even brazenly disrespectful behavior, like blowing marijuana smoke in the face of a police officer, will be overlooked or forgiven if the offender is white. The implicit counterpoint: If the offender was black, or more specifically a young black man, the consequences of such infractions could have been dire, even deadly.

MacKaye’s younger self resented being blamed for crimes he didn’t commit. #CrimingWhileWhite asks that whites reflect on how often they’ve been found not guilty of crimes they did commit. This shift from resentment to self-critique reflects the broader conversation around white privilege in 2014. Today, that discourse insists that whites confront the various ways they benefit from racial inequality, even if—like a young Ian MacKaye—they don’t believe they’ve done anything wrong as individuals.

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? In my view, the key to understanding white privilege is in this question: How can you benefit from racial inequality without being a racist? It’s true, and important to understand, that white people often have the privilege of getting the benefit of the doubt from law enforcement. Or to put it in another, starker way: White people are less likely to be killed by police officers.

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.

What’s fascinating about this moment in American history is that our anxiety about white privilege is ramping up at a time when the United States is getting progressively less white. Younger Americans are far less white than their older counterparts—roughly 43 percent of millennial adults are nonwhite, as are half of all newborns.

It is worth noting that blacks represent a minority of nonwhite millennials. Most nonwhite millennials are first- and second-generation Americans, for whom the issues of historical justice that are so salient in the case of black disadvantage apply only imperfectly. That doesn’t change the fact that first- and second-generation nonwhite millennials face challenges that their white native-born counterparts do not—that they are generally poorer, and that they don’t have networks that are as extensive or as influential as their white counterparts. Still, will the conversation we’re having about white privilege sound the same in 10, 20, or 50 years, as whites go from being a numerically dominant majority to just another group looking out for its own interests?

In Blurring the Color Line, CUNY Graduate Center sociologist Richard Alba argues that rapid aging of white America creates an opportunity for younger Latinos, blacks, and Asians. Even if whites want to hoard all of the most privileged jobs for themselves, they’ll have no choice but to open up competition to those with the necessary skills, regardless of race. But this process of opening things up, as WASPs did for southern and eastern European immigrants and their children in an earlier era, will go far more smoothly if we have a growing economy, which will give everyone an opportunity to climb the social ladder. If we instead have economic stagnation, we will see a fierce zero-sum contest for economic and political power, in which tribal identities—including white identity—will become more central.

I’d argue that this is exactly what we’re living through right now: If everyone’s wages were growing, and if everyone felt secure enough in their jobs to quit every now and again in search of better opportunities elsewhere, I doubt that we’d be talking quite so much about white privilege. We’d definitely talk about broken schools and mass incarceration and law enforcement policies that disproportionately damage the lives of nonwhites. Yet we might talk about these problems in a more forward-looking way, as formidable obstacles that need to be overcome by all Americans, not just guilty whites.