PC Culture

The White-Privilege Tedium

Sen. Elizabeth Warren in 2015 (Gary Cameron/Reuters)
It’s not a coincidence that many of the loudest critics decrying white privilege are . . . privileged whites.

 “I’m a white woman. . . . And my job is to shut other white people down when they want to interrupt. My job is to shut other white people down when they want to say, ‘Oh no I’m not prejudiced, I’m a Democrat, I’m accepting.’”
— Sally Boynton Brown, erstwhile candidate to head the Democratic National Committee

“These white men, old by the way, are not protecting women. They’re protecting a man who is probably guilty.”
— Joy Behar, cohost,
The View

“Are white people genetically predisposed to burn faster in the sun, thus logically being only fit to live underground like groveling goblins? . . . Oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men.”
— Sarah Jeong, newly appointed editorial board member, the
New York Times

 

Why are current monotonous slogans like “white privilege” and “old white men” finally losing their currency?

Who exactly is “white” in a multiracial, intermarried, and integrated society? How do we determine who is a purported victim of racial bias — relative degrees of nonwhite skin color, DNA badges, an ethnicized last name, or nomenclature with two or three accent marks?

The reason that Arab-, Greek-, or Italian-Americans are more likely to be branded or to self-identify as “white” than Brazilian-, Argentinian, Spanish-, or Mexican-Americans doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with appearance or their DNA or their ancestors’ or their own historical experience in America. It has everything to do with the perversities of the devolving diversity industry in which claims to victimization bring greater careerist advantage or at least psychological satisfaction.

The recent farce involving Elizabeth Warren’s “ancestry” has not only probably aborted her presidential aspirations, but — along with the Asian-American lawsuit against Harvard’s admission practices — also reminded us of the growing corruption of race-based set-asides. Warren’s desperate gambit was simply a response to the new reality that minority status often has little relation with appearance. (Many Latinos — a term never adequately defined — look “whiter” than Italian Americans or Greek Americans who have been absorbed as “white” long ago.)

When called out, a flustered Warren was finally reduced to releasing her DNA pedigree, only to argue that a possible 1 percent (or perhaps less) Native American ancestry adjudicates her identity. (Adding to the oddity, her DNA researcher, as a basis of comparison, used samples from Mexico, Colombia, and Peru to “stand in” for Native American DNA, owing to a dearth of Native American DNA.) Is Warren’s lesson that Americans are now to be neo-Confederate racialists, and so, in antebellum Southern style, we now define a person by a 1 percent drop of blood and not 51, 75 or 99 percent? Do we “construct” our race the same way that we now construct our gender? If Ward Churchill feels he is a Native American, then why cannot he be whatever he wishes? What is the difference between a biologically mostly white Rachel Dolezal transracialing to an exclusively black identity and a biologically determined male transgendering to a female?

Which whites really do have privilege? If all whites were uniformly privileged, why would so many whites, such as Rachel Dolezal and Elizabeth Warren, strive so hard to construct a nonwhite identity? Why does progressive upscale white male Texas Senate candidate Robert Francis O’Rourke go by the Hispanic nickname “Beto,” as in “Beto O’Rourke? Would he do so in Maine or Montana? Why did California congressional candidate Kevin Leon rather abruptly become Kevin de León, emphasizing an ethnic cachet — if “whiteness” equaled unearned advantage and non-whiteness earned lifelong discrimination?

In a world of real white privilege, would people not instead be taking DNA tests to “prove” that they were overwhelming white, and not black, Native American, or other nonwhite supposedly victimized groups? In the days of a prior race-obsessed America, supposed nonwhites sought to “pass” as supposed whites; in the days of a present race-obsessed America, supposed whites seek to “pass” as supposed nonwhites. The common denominator across time and space is to adapt to whims of the race-obsessed establishment that doles out non-meritocratic concessions on the basis of appearance.

Class now means nothing. Working-class people of all ancestries, from Merced to Youngstown, have grown accustomed to TV talking heads, academics, and politicians damning “white privilege.” Poor blacks are accorded no more preference that what is given to wealthy Latinos.

By now we have come to a rough consensus about the entire comedy: Those of the elite classes (who enjoy “good” jobs, income, neighborhoods, and schools, and often are able to shore up their class privileges by admission to elite schools, inheritances, old-boy networks, power marriages, and all the accustomed, all-too-human effort to use nepotistic and tribal advantages) are the most likely to decry “white privilege.” So, as a general rule, those who do not enjoy intrinsic white privilege are damned by those who do enjoy some sort of class or ethnic leg up.

The only mystery of the weird white-privilege mantra is motive: Do elite whites racially disparage as privileged middle-class and poor whites as a way of squaring their own circles of advantage, either as a psychological means of assuaging their guilt, or as a more self-interested ploy of pulling up the ladder after they have reached the attic of career success, or ingratiating themselves with perceived new loci of power?

I noticed after decades in academia that the fiercest proponents of racial preferences in faculty hiring were usually older, white male professors nearing retirement (many of them real mediocrities hired under the lax standards of the 1960s and 1970s when university expansion required thousands of sight-unseen Ph.D.s, most of them white and male). On hiring committees, such old white guys selected new faculty applicants by race and gender, and often at the expense of younger, white male Ph.D. job applicants far more gifted than those who were doing the hiring. After watching dozens of these faculty hiring committees operate, I never once saw a 60-year-old white male say, “After 30 years of enjoying white privilege in the days of white exclusivity, and understanding that my publications and teaching record are far less impressive than those of the current applicants for this job, I announce my retirement and step down to allow others better qualified to have my billet.” Virtue was always the loudest expressed when it was at some else’s expense.

The white working classes lack the clout of the elite white professionals, and they also have no access to class-based affirmative action. In other words, in our increasingly non-meritocratic society, it is advantageous for elites either to establish minority status (increasingly defined as anything nonwhite), or to draw on their wealth, contacts, and family advantages.

The privileged children of Eric Holder apparently need affirmative action in a way that the offspring of Appalachian coal miners do not. If you wish to get into Stanford or Yale, it is helpful either to have rich and influential parents and a lifetime of privilege, or a minority cachet, or both. What is disadvantageous is to have neither, and in today’s America, that often means to be a deplorable and irredeemable white working-class youth or an “overachieving,” middle-class Asian American.

Are we all to join tribes? The most insidious achievement of the Obama administration was to redefine affirmation action away from its original intent. No longer it was to be a white/black binary designed to address centuries of slavery and Jim Crow discrimination, or even a Latino/white dichotomy to atone for supposedly long-standing and endemic racism against Mexican Americans. Much less did it seek to concentrate solely on the poor and the lower middle class rather than the affluent.

Instead, diversity was now offered as a single existential, all-encompassing divide: All who were not white pitted against all who supposedly were. The traffic of white disparagement increased exponentially after 2009, once this new duality was mainstreamed and institutionalized, and rewards and punishments were clearly recalibrated. Immigration was weaponized: Even wealthy and elite newcomers, if they had some claims to being nonwhite, joined the supposedly new minority-soon-to-be-a-majority demographic.

All at once, all the old liabilities and paradoxes of affirmative action vanished: 1) Suddenly class and actual past historical grievance mattered less. A wealthy Punjabi immigrant or a Brazilian aristocrat could find advantages in hiring or college admissions on the basis of his purported nonwhite “diversity,” or he could at least piggyback onto more legitimate and older claims for reparatory action. 2) Suddenly minority numbers grew. Anyone, regardless of class, status, or prior experience, who could claim that he or she had some (albeit perhaps more than Elizabeth Warren’s 1 percent) nonwhite ancestry, could swell the ranks of a new ascendant demographic collective. 3) Suddenly accustomed old tensions between various groups — blacks resenting employers who hired illegal aliens, racial tensions between blacks and Latinos, inner-city resentments against entrepreneurial Asian-American shopkeepers — were to be absorbed by a greater, common antithesis. As nonwhites, their real, collective resentments were uniformly directed against a white “shrinking” majority. Suddenly academic departments and public agencies did not “count” just particular minorities but rather sought to meet assumed quotas or targets by aggregating them all into one nonwhite category, ignoring both need and claims of historical grievance.

The 2016 election was not, as the unserious Van Jones once alleged, a “white-lash,” given that whites in 2008 had voted for Barack Obama in greater percentages than they had in 2004 for John Kerry and would for Hillary Clinton in 2016. That said, the more activists now mouth “white privilege” and “white supremacy” and “white women” and “old white men,” the more white/ non-white binaries will trump class, ideology, and even political affiliations.

The natural result should be that eventually even liberal, progressive, and left-wing whites will at last logically check their privilege and turn over their reins of power to more deserving nonwhites as long-overdue compensations for their own unwarranted exclusivity.

Why would the billionaire, mansion-living, 85-year-old child of privilege and white exclusivity, the progressive darling Diane Feinstein, in her current race with Kevin de León, feel exempt from diversity politics? After all, she “hogs” a Senate seat in a diverse state in which the largest minority group is Latino, which so far has had no ethnic representation in the Senate.

Why are not Corey Booker, Kamala Harris, and Maxine Waters the real leadership faces of the new Democratic Congress — the most diverse in history — rather than the septuagenarian multimillionaire white elite Nancy Pelosi and the near-septuagenarian professional politician Chuck Schumer? So far, left-wing whites have assured themselves that the wave of identity politics will not break on their privileged shores. In other words, their progressivism and superior morality has exempted them from the ramifications of their own identity-politics ideology. A cynic might suggest that they invest in identity politics for others as an indemnity policy for themselves.

Soon, however, they will learn that bumper-sticker virtue-signaling is only a temporary reprieve, given that once you adjudicate by race and appearance and compensatory action based on grievance, then, in French Revolution logic, you too eventually will be judged by race and appearance and grievance reparations.

Already, a few old-style liberals are voicing guarded anxieties that racialism is increasingly directed at them. In the logic of primordial tribalism, they too may eventually retreat to tribalism. Bloc voting by whites seems to be increasing as the blunderbuss “white privilege” sloganeering becomes louder and more inexact. The upsurge is not necessarily from newfound conservative traditionalists, but from disillusioned liberals who feel, albeit stealthily, betrayed and hurt that their revolutionary racial good faith was consumed by the revolution. They fear becoming targets of what they created — as we see by the new slur “white women” for wealthy elite white progressive females who vote and speak in politically acceptable ways.

We are entering dangerous territory, the sort of tribalism that worried the astute Martin Luther King Jr. precisely because he had seen what had happened in the South by the 1960s, when a white majority tactically feigned grievance, and as various rival and often mutually suspicious ethnic groups began coalescing and forging a new white commonality, holistically defined in opposition to nonwhites.

King instead preferred that blacks adopt the higher moral ground, downplay their racial separatism, and emphasize instead a common content of character and humanity that transcends the color of one’s skin — and urge others to do the same.

One practical reason he promoted integration and assimilation rather than separatist identity politics was also to ensure that whites of varying ethnicities could not claim that they too could seek refuge in a new racial tribalism — always a perilous historical phenomenon when a state defined by polarizing ethnicities prompts a previously loosely defined majority to redefine itself as a uniform, distinct, and angry tribe, as we see from the Balkan Serbians to the Rwandan Hutus to the Shiites in Iraq.

In short, the next time you hear a journalist, politico, or academic preen on and on about white privilege, assume that such assertions probably have little to do with real white privilege and everything to do with the insecurities, agendas, and careerism of the speaker.

 

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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