Features, Privilege

A Different Kind of Privilege

If you live your life in and around higher education (including Christian higher education, as I do), then you see and hear a lot of discussion of the topic of white privilege. White privilege refers to the many things white people supposedly don’t have to think about (such as how they are perceived in a retail environment, how they interact with law enforcement officers, etc.), but which are bigger issues for African-Americans and perhaps other non-white persons.

At the same time, there is a growing critique of the slice of Americans (a recent Atlantic essay characterized them as the 9.9 percent) who dominate American life as the winners of a meritocracy. Americans have typically been friendly to the idea of aristocracies of talent as opposed to aristocracies based on blood and family, but increasingly there are fears of a ‘cognitive elite’ that is becoming increasingly cohesive through geographic, educational, and marital clustering. The worry is that this group is driving economic stratification faster and further than old aristocracies ever could.

Against this backdrop of ideas running on parallel tracks, I consider a conversation I had with a couple of academic theologians. In many places, professors of Christianity very often take jobs as interim pastors. It is not unusual for such jobs to open up in smaller and more rural congregations. Both of these pastors mentioned that they’d had hair-raising experiences with frank racism from some congregants. I was intrigued because I have never encountered any kind of racist sentiment in church during my nearly half century of life in the south. “Did these experiences happen in churches of the type that you would ever join?” Both answered in the negative. “Have either of you known people to express racist sentiments at churches you choose for your families?” Again, the answer was no.

My thesis is that frank racism is something that for several decades now has grown in a separate environment from other cultures. In other words, if you are in certain parts of society (including in the south), you know better than to judge people on the basis of the color of the skin. This is what I mean when I refer to a different kind of privilege. It is the kind of privilege to which I was born.

My father is the son of a blue collar worker (a handler of phosphorus who eventually became a safety supervisor) and a school cafeteria manager. They were both the children of farmers and both grew up in and maintained faith through the strictly conservative Church of Christ. My mother is the daughter of a mailman and a homemaker. Their family was Catholic. The family to which I was born, then, didn’t turn its collar white until the generation preceding mine. It is in the mid- to late-twentieth century that you get the engineers, the administrators, the managers, and the educators. I suspect such a family arc is typical of the south during the period of its industrialization and development.

All of this means that I did not grow up in a southern family of inherited wealth, of ancestral land holdings, of club memberships, or even of college educations. Based on the received perception of the region, one would expect that I spent my childhood amid a hail of negative comments and racial slurs. The reality was exactly the reverse. At nearly half a century of life and with all of it lived below the Mason-Dixon line, I have almost never (and I qualify that with ‘almost’ just because I can’t be completely certain of memory) been in conversation with any fellow southerner who talked that way or thought that way. I take racism to be the assumption or belief that persons of another color are automatically less worthy than those of one’s own color. Virtually no one I have ever known in the south has expressed such sentiments to me.

Now, having made these expansive claims about my experience, I have to offer some qualification. It is likewise true that despite the fact that I attended public schools throughout my young life and also attended three major state universities during my time in higher education, I was never offered marijuana or illegal drugs of any other kind. I do not take that fact to indicate that marijuana did not exist or was not used during those years. Such a claim would strain credulity. Likewise, I cannot claim that the lack of racist feeling in my life and relations means that racism did not exist.

I am making a different point. This is where privilege comes in. My parents were not wealthy, though sometimes I was under the false impression that they were. I got that idea in part because they made an explicit effort to expose my sister and me to certain experiences. They wanted me to know how to play baseball, golf, and tennis. They took us to resorts where one had to dress for the dining room or even to play bingo. They took pains to expose me to knowledge about table manners and which button to leave unbuttoned on a blazer. They wanted me to be able to live and thrive in a variety of environments.

I have come to the conclusion that whether consciously or not, they engaged in the same training of me with regard to racism. I think my mother and father knew that a racist sensibility was nothing more than a millstone around the neck of any person. They did not wear that millstone themselves, nor did they wish that their children should wear it. That is the nature of my privilege. To put it less than gently, I was brought up in such a way as to see an expression of racism as ill-mannered and about as welcome as the audible passing of gas at a meeting.

As I read the Atlantic’s negative appraisal of the meritocratic top ten percent in American society, I couldn’t help but think about my family who pushed me to become exactly that kind of person. And I find myself thinking the same thing I’ve sometimes thought as I read Marx: “Are these bourgeoisie such bad people? Don’t they work hard, learn much, and transmit good values to their children?” I stand where I often have in saying that a meritocratic society can be a good one in thought and deed. Did I have privilege in growing up as the child of someone who rose because he was smart in a meritocratic society that values such persons? Absolutely. But please recognize that the greatest part of that privilege has never been money. My folks were never rich. The largest part of the privilege they passed on to me was the privilege of good habits, good manners, a good work ethic, and a good general philosophy of life. It is this privilege that caused me to dismiss and revile racism as a mental framework.

 

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is dean of arts and sciences at Union University, an affiliate scholar with the Acton Institute, and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He is the author of three books on politics and religion. You can follow him on Twitter @hunterbaker

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59 Comments

  1. Sergio says

    Nicely said, I think it speaks to our society as a whole that when someone purports themselves as as someone with “good manners, good work ethic, and a good general life philosophy” they’re seen as privileged.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Robert Paulson says

      I’m not sure what the main point of this article was. Is he subtly mocking the idea of privilege by labeling the collection of bourgeois values he grew up – values that arguably are good ones – as such? The implication of your above comment seems to imply that our society is indeed in a sorry state when a good upbringing such as the author’s is derided with scorn. Was that what you mean?

        • Robert Paulson says

          No just looking for clarification. I thought the author of the piece was a bit too subtle and I missed the point.

    • Michael says

      The well-heeled are seldom racist. Why should one this to be otherwise when their privileged position enables them to lord it over everyone else, irrespective of colour, creed or any other consideration?

      Cheap immigrant labour services their lucrative businesses and swish homes, and brings fringe perks for jobless, bored wives such as cut-price home hair-do’s, massages and pedicures.

      The miracle is that relatively few ordinary working people are racist. This may be because, subconsciously, they recognise that they share a burden of assumed inferiority with the migrants with whom they are increasingly forced to compete for jobs, homes and other essentials.

      Whatever the explanation, the labouring classes have have historically been renowned for their innate fierce pride, self-respect and sense of fair play – qualities conspicuously lacking among many of their wealthy peers.

      • Diana says

        Well, your reply leaves your sensibilities plain: wealthy people have “jobless, bored wives” soaking up vanity, while also lacking in the “pride, self-respect and sense of fair play” exhibited by their working class peers.

        I wonder how a hard working and accomplished female plays in your world? Or a successful small scale entrepreneur (say, one who ran a successful dry cleaning operation and branched out)? Is the owner of your favorite busy restaurant, car dealership or your doctor worthy of such scorn?

  2. James says

    An excellent article which starts to close in on a core truth which liberalism can’t yet reconcile; successful societies are those where a majority of adults conscientiously pass on the social capital described here by Baker. These adults, subconsciously or otherwise understand their debt to their past and their obligation to the future and choose to do the hard things, because they are the right things.
    Unfortunately many liberals who are caught up in the Rawlsian vs Nozickian paradigm between absolute justice and absolute freedom miss this point, the Rawlsians in particular. They are quick to dismiss this advantage at birth as “morally arbitrary” and quiet unearned but of course there is nothing arbitrary about it – it was exactly as that child’s parents, grandparents etc. intended!
    To strive to give your child the type of advantage beautifully described by Baker and very distinct from economic advantage is something that liberalism has struggled to understand because as Deneen and some others have observed, liberals suffer from two fundamental assumptions:
    – The “natural” state of the individual, quite apart from his or her family and community (and thereby free from obligation to or restriction by those same societal levels)
    – The blinkers of “presentism”, preventing them from seeing that society and culture exist and evolve on a continuous time continuum. Even though individuals are finite, much of what inhabits our mind and soul, not to mention gets us out of bed in the morning, are things that beneficially impact others and often quite a long way in to the future (past the horizon of our own lives).

    So much of what classical liberalism has evolved is important, triumphant and desperately requires re-discovery but I urge classical liberals to incorporate the individuals role in their family and community in to their philosophy and consider that many of an individuals deepest efforts are reserved for other people in a future time.

  3. ga gamba says

    … there is a growing critique of the slice of Americans (a recent Atlantic essay characterized them as the 9.9 percent) who dominate American life as the winners of a meritocracy.

    I’m happy Mr Baker linked the Atlantic article. It’s the type that once would have elicited many readers’ comments there and made for a lively discussion, but in a cowardly move the Atlantic ceased accepting readers’ comments a few months ago.

    The Atlantic article asks: So what kind of characters are we, the 9.9 percent? And answers: We are mostly not like those flamboyant political manipulators from the 0.1 percent. We’re a well-behaved, flannel-suited crowd of lawyers, doctors, dentists, mid-level investment bankers, M.B.A.s with opaque job titles, and assorted other professionals—the kind of people you might invite to dinner.

    Certainly the 9.9% include those people, yet is that group comprised mostly of them? Also, why are they wearing flannel suits when worsted wool is the proper one for much of the year?

    I recall the book The Millionaire Next Door, www(dot)davidbeitler(dot)com/temp/The%20Millionaire%20Next%20Door%20%5BBook%5D-MANTESH.PDF.pdf

    These people cannot be millionaires! They don’t look like millionaires, they don’t dress like millionaires, they don’t eat like millionaires, they don’t act like millionaires–they don’t even have millionaire names. Where are the millionaires who look like millionaires? This was said by a upper-crust vice president of a trust department. He made these comments following a focus group interview and dinner hosted for ten first-generation millionaires. His view of millionaires is shared by most people who are not wealthy. They think millionaires own expensive clothes, watches, and other status artifacts. The research found this is not the case.

    The wealthy are fastidious investors. On average, they invest nearly 20 percent of their household realized income each year. About two-thirds work between forty-five and fifty-five hours per week. About two-thirds of them who are working are self-employed – of the self-employed, only 25% are doctors, lawyers, and other highly educated professional. They have a “go-to-hell fund.” In other words, they have accumulated enough wealth to live without working for ten or more years. Most of America’s millionaires are first-generation rich; more than half never received as much as $1 in inheritance. They are also very frugal and their spouses tend to be even more frugal.

    Typically, the fortunes built in the first generation will be completely dissipated by the second or third generation. The American economy is a fluid one. There are many people today who are on their way to becoming wealthy. And there are many others who are spending their way out of the affluent category. This phenomenon is even coming to be in the UK, a nation frequently mentioned as one being the most static in socio-economic mobility.

    Thomas J. Stanley, PhD and William D. Danko, PhD, the authors of The Millionaire Next Door, developed several multivariate measures of wealth. The simplest rule of thumb is: Multiply your age times your realized pretax annual household income from all sources except inheritances. Divide by ten. This, less any inherited wealth, is what your net worth should be.

    If your net worth is less than expected you are an under accumulator of wealth (UAW). Often this is comprised of people from the high-income professions because they are carrying a lot of debt and they also spend a lot to maintain appearances. UAWs tend to live above their means; they emphasise consumption. And they tend to de-emphasise many of the key factors that underlie wealth building. The prodigious accumulators of wealth (PAW) are worth twice the level of wealth expected. Many PAWs don’t have large incomes, but they know how to create wealth; they include people like firemen who co-found roofing companies with their colleagues.

    Where is wealth retained by the wealthy? One of the countries is the one many claim to have best achieved economic equality: Sweden. www(dot)statista(dot)com/chart/6165/where-the-super-rich-inherit-their-wealth/

    My comment’s intent is to draw attention to the many paths taken by people to achieve economic success. Yes, having good table manners is appreciated by your dining partner. Knowing that Oxfords and not derbies are the proper business formal dress shoe is important… when working at a City financial firm or hidebound law office. But these codes do not exclude people from pursuing alternatives, ones that are just as viable and relevant to build fruitful and happy lives. I think we ought to remember that many of those writing the articles about urban elites and their power tend to gravitate to and orbit certain socio-economic realms that become the objects of their fixation whilst ignoring, or discounting, everything else. BTW, let’s not ignore many of the once-secret codes are revealed online in Youtube videos and online forums, if one is so inclined to learn such things. You may not overcome your accent by becoming fluent in RP (and in many places RP is a disadvantage), but you may easily learn not to button your jacket’s lower button and when not to wear a regimental-striped tie.

    • Robert Paulson says

      Thanks for the comment. One thing I like about Quillette is that some of the commentators are just as insightful as the original article.

  4. Steve Biffler says

    Boo! White privilege comes from your whiteness. Everybody know that. Duh.

  5. Jack B. Nimble says

    ‘……Americans have typically been friendly to the idea of aristocracies of talent as opposed to aristocracies based on blood and family…..’

    Oh, boy……. ‘typically’ is doing hard work in the fragment I quoted. Americans have actually experienced cycles of populism and anti-populism over the past 2 centuries.

    The 1950s & 1960s for example were a period of anti-populism in which experts in space technology, medicine including vaccines, nuclear physics, etc. were held in high esteem. That was also a period of relative economic equality and security, and bankers were held in high regard as being pillars of the local community.

    Periods like the present one and the 1890s [Gilded Age] were characterized by high inequality, widespread support for populism and socialism, and mis-trust of elites. In the Gilded Age, though, the elites were more financial and technological experts [like railroads and petroleum] than scientific.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilded_Age#Love-hate_relationship_with_the_railroads

    I don’t know where America goes from here, but populism has traditionally been electoral poison, except in the South and in rural states that are experiencing long-term population and economic decline. That gives me some hope for the future, provided that political power in the U.S. can be wrested away from the ‘failed states.’

  6. Jason says

    It is indeed a great privilege to be shielded from the effects of the demographic and cultural changes that have beset our country in the past half century. Of course parents are able to raise their children without warning them of threats that never occur in their community. I was raised in Chicago so my parents raised me without warning me about rattlesnakes or alligators (dangers never encountered there). They did of course warn me about the dangers that were near at hand and they taught me well to stay out of bad neighborhoods and how to tell which neighborhoods were bad. I believe we should all be free to give equally pertinent instructions to our children without being demonized by those living in safer environments.

  7. asdf says

    I had the exact opposite experience of this article. Let me outline.

    I grew up in the North to a working class but unionized family. I was taught that racism was bad, that whites in the south were ignorant and hateful for no good reason, and that the enlightened believed something like what modern progressives believe. My Dad marched for Civil Rights in the 60s growing up. There was a “conservative” track of this thought that allowed you to harp about the values in rap music, but the message was basically the same. Racism came out of nowhere, was based on nothing, and poor backward people believed it for no good reason. You aren’t poor and backward, right?

    There was a little bit of a hiccup when I went to an Asian magnet school. Asians are racist and none of us liked when they tried to shut the school down for not having enough blacks (you needed to pass a math tests, blacks couldn’t pass). Nonetheless, I was still a good thinker on race. My entire upbringing I knew very few black people, and the few I met were all high IQ and behaved white.

    Then I moved to Baltimore…

    The first thing you learn is that living around lots of (ordinary low IQ) blacks is really difficult. Especially if they are a majority and control the local government like in Baltimore. There are terrible issues with crime that I never dealt with up north. The school system in a joke. The city government is a joke. The taxes are insanely high but they can’t even fix a pothole. It’s just difficult to describe what its like to live in a majority black city. Once I was actually around real black people…those attitudes of those evil southerners started to make a lot of sense.

    I now get that they were simply regular people trying to protect themselves and make a better life for their family. Since the problem they faced was bigger and they had fewer resources to run away from it with (no paying 5k a month rent to drive away the blacks) they didn’t have the luxuries of ignoring it or buying it off like up north.

    What I’ve learned is that anti-racism is pretty well correlated with not having to deal with black dysfunction. There are fewer blacks up north. In cities the rich whites all pay sky high rents so they can avoid living near poor blacks (or Puerto Ricans, or whatever the problem group in you area is). If you can physically separate yourself, if you can buy your way out of sharing a school with them, if you have enough money you can afford the extra taxes and rent, then you can believe whatever you want about them without having reality slam you in the face.

    Anti-racism is a privilege. It’s a class marker. It’s no different then fashion. If you can afford to avoid thinking about difficult situations brought about when poor blacks are around its just another way of showing how rich you are.

    If anyone questions this, just spit a bunch progressive doctrine at them. Punching down at poor whites is your way of drawing attention away from the fact that all substantial actions of the white upper class show they believe every single thing poorer whites do when it counts in there own lives.

    People who express racist attitudes, even when the entire society is designed to dehumanize, demonize, and punish them, are probably just stating the truth of their lived experience. And we know from statistics that their lived experience is basically true and accurate. But we deny it.

    There is a lot to gain in punching down. Social, economic, and cultural advantages. You can do things to a “racist” you would never do to a fellow citizen. At a minimum, its easier to punch down then to punch sideways or up, so might as well do it out of fear and hope to fit in.

    Ambition, narcissism, avarice, fear, cowardice…these are the things I think of when I think anti-racism.

    When I think racism I just picture some working white family that would like the schools to work when they pay double property tax, or that the cops would at least try to stop the three car jackings that happened last month, or could they at least do something about that roving bike gang that had a high speed chase in the nearby park. Maybe they state it in the uncouth, unsubtle way that people without a verbal IQ of 130 and a lot of education do, but its still the truth.

    • ab says

      your post was very interesting and i found that it spoke to my experience as a minority who was raised in a conservative part of california, but now lives in a dysfunctional progressive part. i come from an immigrant background and speaking about my bad experiences with ‘people of color’ (i really dislike this political term) has seen me turned into some sort of privileged nazi madam. i just need to be quiet and let ‘people of color’ harass & degrade me based on my skin color, appearance and higher earning power.

      i wish someone would write about the ways in which affluent predominately white progressive democrats and radical ‘people of color’ unite to fuck up the social contract for the rest of us. from trying to abolish our police forces, lowering academic standards, removal of discipline in schools, to straight up harassment & bullying of neighbors for daring to identify criminals & other suspicious people as black.

      this essay reminds me why no-one will never make me feel guilty for achieving or striving for more, because to me it’s gaslighting or another similar form of psychological manipulation.

      • Robert Paulson says

        I’m also live in a progressive part of California, but one of the “super zips” of Silicon Valley. People here have transgender kids and signs in their yard saying “no matter where you are from, we’re glad to have you as our neighbor” written in Spanish, Arabic and English. In the day, they go to work in Silicon Valley and their houses are cleaned, their kids watched and their gardens tended by Mexican immigrants, many of whom are likely illegal. The cost of living is impossibly high and most of these immigrants are sleeping > 5 to a room on the “other side of the tracks”.

        Here we have no crime because criminals can’t afford to live anywhere near here. Without getting into details, I’d be curious to know the general area where you are.

        • ga gamba says

          … signs in their yard saying “no matter where you are from, we’re glad to have you as our neighbor” written in Spanish, Arabic and English.

          Does failure to place such a sign on one’s front lawn stigmatise the homeowner as a wrong thinker or hate criminal?

          • Robert Paulson says

            ***Does failure to place such a sign on one’s front lawn stigmatise the homeowner as a wrong thinker or hate criminal?***

            The conservatives can be identified from the American flags hanging outside or their neat lawns and trucks. The liberals have Californian flags or yard signs and and drive sedans, hybrids or electrics and have bumper stickers.

            I’ll confess during the election I stole a neighbor’s I’m With Her sign in the dead of night. They replaced it a few days later and I would steal it again. Iterate this four or five times, and they gave up and didn’t put a sign up any more 🙂

        • ab says

          hello, we’re neighbors – i’m close to berkeley so that should give you an idea of what i’m dealing with.

          those sappy multilingual welcome signs are all over my neighborhood as well, and most shops have some kind of political/love all poster to announce that they don’t discriminate. my favorite has to be this poster of a muslim woman in hijab to promote inclusivity at the hipster bar just down the road from me – didn’t know it was ok to use muslims to promote alcohol.

          lastly, yes, as a hispanic woman who watches my wealth-insulated neighbors advertise for bilingual nannies & housecleaners and seeing businesses (usually restaurants) advertising for staff in spanish-only, the love of cheap labour is very obvious. sanctuary city types are exploiters who wrap themselves up in a false sense of compassion.

          • Robert Paulson says

            Oh man, I was just in downtown Oakland a few weeks ago and that’s exactly what I saw! Tons of local business loudly advertising their wokeness with signs in the windows. Meanwhile, there is what is basically a refugee camp under 880 overpass. The homelessness in the Bay Area is getting out of control. On ever piece of unused public land you can find a tent or a tarp stretched between a bush and a shopping cart.

            **my favorite has to be this poster of a muslim woman in hijab to promote inclusivity at the hipster bar just down the road from me – didn’t know it was ok to use muslims to promote alcohol.**

            I love how these people claim to stand against “hate” and “ignorance” but can’t tell you a single thing about other cultures.

          • This also goes on in the UK. I am from Northeast England (very working class ex-mining communities & steel works – destroyed in the 80’s) economies which have never recovered from the losses of such trades which were jobs for life, generations of the same families grafted hard in hard work industries. People take you as they find you. Interestingly large numbers of immigrants are left in these difficult communities which are littered with drug problems and crime. The working class here are angry – not racist, because the middle class bosses who employ cheap labour make their lives harder whilst exploiting freedom of cheap labour (not freedom of movement…My father for example has never left the UK in his life, so telling him to shut up or be grateful for the option to go work in Berlin is stupid – he barely has enough money to survive in the region he was born. Most here have nothing against the poor workers of mainland Europe or the refugees fleeing war, however, they have a huge problem with greedy self righteous bosses undercutting jobs/wages…and political correct narcissists telling them to feel ashamed of who they are, their regional traditions and where they come from. Just today i was at the dentist and overheard a woman start her sentence with…I’m not racist but…..People are scared to tell the truth because it gets shut down instantly.

      • ga gamba says

        You scare the bejesus out of them because you’re the person correctly observing and forthrightly stating the emperor has no clothes. Can’t have you disrupting the narrative speaking “your truth”.

    • Rachel says

      Just wanted to say @asdf that your comment was one of the best I’ve read over the months I’ve combed through Quillette. Thank you for articulating such an eloquent counter sentiment. I grew up in inner city Memphis, and everything you said about Baltimore rings very loud and true.

    • Skip says

      …all substantial actions of the white upper class show they believe every single thing poorer whites do when it counts in there own lives.

      Bingo! Great post, asdf

    • Dark Matter says

      I too found your post insightful and necessary, having formulated into concise words something I’ve struggled to wrap my head around for years. I don’t share your exact experience, but I do have something I can offer that’s related:

      Specifically, I grew up in north-eastern New Jersey in an affluent town. My parents were both artistic Italian Brooklyn-ites, who were themselves the children of blue collar immigrants. Wealth-wise, I’d describe my family as middle to upper-middle class. Crime was minimal in my town, if not completely non-existent. The school system I was enrolled in was rated as one of the best in the country. By all accounts my family lived “The American Dream”. Many kids in my town were bored and talked about how much they hated it and wanted to get out – I always felt very lucky to be raised there. You could say it was a privilege.

      My town was roughly divided into three major populations: white, Israeli, and Korean. There were virtually no black or hispanic families (though as it happened, my best friend in high school was one of the few blacks). Most people around me were “liberal”, and that’s what I considered myself as well. I was never specifically taught that “racism is bad”, but as a fiery young teen I certainly wore that badge on my chest. Not that there was much need for it – I never witnessed or heard of a single instance of anti-black racism in my town. In essence, as a naive young kid it was easy to “talk the talk” as there was no need to “walk the walk”.

      As a young adult I moved into New York City, specifically Harlem (a friend of mine happened to be living there and needed a roommate) – things changed pretty quickly. I soon began having terrible experiences with local black residents: I would be screamed at, called “cracker”, “white boy”, or “white trash”, threatened with violence or gruesome death (i.e. having my head cut off, being burned alive), etc. These incidents have occurred about once every month or two, and they happen in all cases simply as I’m walking down the sidewalk minding my own business. Last year my wife and I were outside our building – I was a few steps ahead of her and I turned around to see a man coiled around her, pressing his body against hers, trying to put a rose in her hand as she repeatedly said no. When I interjected, he stormed away, screaming that I should go back to my own neighborhood, before going on at length about how he was going to rape my wife right in front of me, and that she might even enjoy getting it from a black man. Even my dog (who has white fur) has received death threats for being a “cracker-ass white dog”.

      I’ve been here for over a decade now and these incidents still occur. And they take a heavy toll. The struggle for me to process it all is ongoing, though to be certain, the naive youth that imagined black people solely as victims of oppression is dead. I now find myself sympathizing with those who have spoken up about having bad experiences with black neighborhoods (of course, this makes me racist in progressive eyes). I’m not sure I’m entirely ready to claim it’s a problem with “black-ness” versus poor-ness, but I do see a cultural component here that I’m not sure is as big a factor in poor non-black neighborhoods. And that’s not to say that Harlem is poor – it’s actually become a highly varied place, with many affluent sub-neighborhoods, even as the rundown projects still exist. But even among the affluent, middle-class black neighbors that I have, I see a lot of low-level bad behavior, i.e. littering, failing to pick up after their dogs, loud public drunkenness, etc. Maybe this is more along the lines of the type of privilege the author discusses in the article. I.e., it’s not about money, it’s about how you’ve been brought up.

      I realize how rambling my post is and I wish I had a more concise point to make, but at the least I felt like my story was relevant to the topic. Re-reading what I wrote, I’m sure a progressive could tear it apart as evidence of both my own privilege, and of obvious black oppression, though I think the full story is way more complex. I’ve been told before that the behavior I described above is “understandable”, given the history of oppression blacks have experienced at the hands of whites. I’ve struggled with this a lot. Because on a certain level it is understandable, just as I find asdf’s story understandable. But I don’t think it’s excusable. That said, I also see a slippery slope where we can find ourselves sliding into genuinely racist territory, even in reaction to something terrible that was done to us.

      I don’t have an answer beyond wishing that we could be more accepting as a society of this discussion, rather than immediately writing off people’s experiences or reactions as racist. I’m fairly new to Quillette (I’ve been reading for a few months and this is my first post), and I really appreciate that this seems to be a place where people can discuss these ideas openly in good faith.

      • Robert Paulson says

        Thanks Dark Matter for your comment. I would check out the discussions between Glenn Loury and John McWhorter, both of whom are black and have a lot to say that you will relate to.

        Here is a recent one that is really good and speaks to your experience living in Harlem:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHNeafr4_ws

        • Dark Matter says

          Thanks Robert, I really appreciate it. I’ve seen some of Glenn and John’s content before and have been meaning to follow their work more closely. This is a great reminder to take a deeper dive – thanks for the suggestion!

      • Andre says

        Dark Matter, I appreciated your comment.

      • The trick is to know that two things are true at the same time: 1) stereotypes tend to be true, and it’s only sane to use them when one has no other information to go on or when dealing with groups, AND 2) individuals morally and legally need to be treated as individuals.

        The so-called “progressives” deny the first point, and (real) racists deny the second.

        When dealing with things like “moving to a new neighborhood” or “choosing a school” or “allowing millions of people to move into your country,” one has to deal with things at the level of 1); when talking to an individual neighbor or to the lady in front of you at the post office, one has to move to mode 2). This way lies sanity.

        • asdf says

          But of course if we give people the freedom to do #2, some of them might not (not anyone you know, and not anyone in power, but some theoretic dumb hick in the middle of nowhere that mysteriously hates people for no good reason and can somehow cause all these bad statistics for black people he never meets or interacts with).

          So OBVIOUSLY what we need is a huge administrative state to constantly use various poorly constructed disparate impact models to determine if there is racism in your heart (or “the system”) and then force everything to be the way they want it to be through violence and coercion. Let’s tack on a private mob of uninformed and emotional zealots who consider it their duty to social justice people out of homes and careers.

      • Smdt says

        Dark Matter: Your post made me think of Hillbilly Elegy and J.D. Vance’s reflection on Appalachian culture and how the norms of that culture negatively affect a person’s ability to “move up” and succeed. Regardless of one’s race, culture and agency significantly contribute to a person’s chance for upward mobility.

    • Debbie says

      asdf’s post reminds me of my friend’s story. He was a liberal guy from a Western US state. Couple decades older than me. He built-up a savings and loan (that he founded and owned) and then went to federal prison for conduct related to his business. Before prison he never had reason to entertain a racist thought. There, however, he had to live with African-American inmates and became an avowed racist, much like asdf has become. I count this as some evidence supporting asdf’s point that good fences (be they barbed wire or equestrian board, or economic — high priced housing, zoning, tracks thru town, 8 Mile Road, living in a whitopia, etc.) make good neighbors — and its corollary that when the fences are strong, then it’s easy not to be offended by (or racist towards) what’s on the other side of the fence.

      But my story is quite different. My father was in the military. I lived outside the USA for most of gradeschool. I went to integrated, highly diverse schools run by the military. Racism was not a serious thing. Then we moved to the US and assumed the privileged life of a surgeon’s family … in Boston — the city where my extended family had lived for generations. I went to a genteel ivy-ish university in the South and lived in the “community” for the final three years of undergrad. Then I moved to Texas. With that background, let me be perfectly clear: The most racist place I have ever been to is New England, by an order of magnitude. So lay off the bubbas.

  8. yandoodan says

    This talk of “privilege” is fundamentally reversed. We do not need to dispute whether whites have wrongly enjoyed privilege. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that a group — define it any way you like — enjoys safe environments in retail establishments, when in the presence of law enforcement, etc. This is not bad; it’s the correct way, the way things should be. This state of safety (describe it with any word you want) needs to be expanded to everyone. No one should be condemned because they are safe in public.

    —-

    PS. When you describe the former states of the Confederacy you are describing a coherent region whose proper name, as with all proper names, is capitalized: The South, or the South. After all, would you describe the formerly communist half of Berlin as “east Berlin”? Or even worse, “eastern Berlin”?

  9. Darren, Nottingham says

    The concept of white privilege is a confusion only possible because Henry George’s Progress and Poverty has been completely forgotten. George’s thesis has never been disproven: the source of unearned privilege was and still is land ownership and the fact that we failed to modernise our tax system to fix this.

  10. Sean Wood says

    The point the author is making, at least with respect to the importance of bourgeois values, is related to the one that Amy Wax made, regarding the positive effect on society of certain (not all) bourgeois values:

    Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime. … Would the re-embrace of bourgeois norms by the ordinary Americans who have abandoned them significantly reduce society’s pathologies? There is every reason to believe so.

    For saying that societies in which these values are the norm are preferable over societies in which they are not, she was excoriated and branded a racist. She was accused of promoting not just the values she named but all values from the 50’s, including racist ones. She was accused of denying that white racism is entirely to blame. She was called a white supremacist for suggesting that an American sub-culture could improve itself if it adopted these values.

    I think that her detractors would also disagree that this author is not racist, as he claims. If he is saying that certain bourgeois values should be adopted by communities that do not hold them in high regard then he is a white supremacist for suggesting that the values of the dominant white culture are preferable, and he is racist and victim-blaming for suggesting that any significant part of the blame for the pathologies present in certain inner-city African American communities belongs with the members of those communities, because in fact, it is clear to those who are woke that the entire blame rests with others.

    • Where I come from, those “bourgeois” values are plain old Christian morality, and if it’s the case that Christian morality is racist, and if it’s so that African Americans don’t want to uphold those values and European-derived Americans do, then those two groups can’t live with each other and need to separate. You can’t have a functioning, high-trust society without a shared idea of the True, Good, and Beautiful.

  11. Earl of Sandwich says

    That article in the Atlantic notwithstanding, there is nothing approaching a Left consensus against meritocracy. Mostly people just don’t think that’s what we have. The haves these days are looking less and less like an “aristocracy of talent” and more and more like a good old fashioned aristocracy. You know, the kind where you inherit Dad’s land and title when you come of age and everybody treats you like you did something to deserve it. In this world, talk of meritocracy is usually just a tarted-up just world fallacy, the preferred fallacy of nine out of ten lottery winners.

    But sure, go ahead and tell yourself that poor people are poor because they don’t know which button to leave unbuttoned on their blazer.

  12. ccscientist says

    In a sense, privilege due to birth (aristocracy) might be easier to stomach, because it is absolutely out of your control and says nothing about your abilities. A meritocracy implies that if you didn’t make it then you are a failure, which may hit home and bother people more.
    Earl of Sandwich argues that the “meritocracy” we have is more like inherited. I would argue this is mostly false. Many well-off people got that way with simple businesses (plumbing, dry cleaning) and did not inherit anything. Almost all the world’s current billionaires made most of their money–did not inherit it. Many of the kids of rich people have squandered their chance and work as barristas. Sure, some do take advantage of the wealth of their parents, but mostly this type of wealth does not get a job for their kids. How is the doctor going to give a great job to his kids, or the professor or the lawyer? They don’t have jobs to give out, only $ to pay for college. There aren’t many family business left. Big corporations don’t usually do the nepotism thing anymore.

    • Robert Paulson says

      I think it depends on what you consider “inherited”. Trait that lead to success in the competitive meritocracy such as high IQ and conscientiousness have a strong genetic component, so in that sense they are inherited. And in today’s meritocracy, you have associative mating between people with these traits, making it likely that they will pass them on to their offspring. What we basically have is the creation of a genetic aristocracy of high IQ individuals mating a creating more high IQ offspring.

      Obviously, this is a rough approximation since there are random effects that can disrupt this continuity between generations, but we need to take seriously the possibility that the competitive selection processes of “cognitive capitalism” risks creating a GATTACA-style genetic over-class in a few generations.

  13. Sean Wood says

    The author of the Atlantic essay that this author is responding to assumes that the “haves” can only achieve that position at the direct expense of the “have nots,” as if wealth were a zero-sum game and an increase in one person’s fortune requires a corresponding reduction for some other person or persons. But this is absurd and he doesn’t defend it. The only policy recommendation I could detect was an increase in taxation. His bottom line seemed to be a belief that people “working two minimum-wage jobs to stay afloat” bear no responsibility for their fate, as if they never had the opportunity to acquire skills that would pay more than minimum wage, and the option to postpone a family and dependents until they were better situated financially was not available to them.

    • The problem is, though, Sean, that some people don’t have the opportunity or ability to acquire skills that’d pay more than minimum wage. The average IQ is ~100, which means that there are many people with IQs much lower than that. My understanding (don’t quote me on this) is that a good 10% of the population has an IQ of around 85, which makes them unemployable. Literally. As in so unable to learn necessary skills that they cause more problems than they solve on pretty much any job. As in so literally and truly generally incompetent that the Army won’t even take them. How to help this population fit in to an information-based, high-tech society is an extremely serious problem. Hell, it’s a bad enough problem for those with IQs in the high average range.

      • asdf says

        What’s more the kind of things that help people at the lower end of the IQ spectrum are the total opposite of what is good for people at the high end. People at the low end need strict rules brutally enforced to develop good habits. High IQ chafe at that. One needs rote learning and routine. The other is supposed to be creative. One needs things to be organized simply and literally. The other thrives on nuance and subtlety. One can sort of handle drugs and premarital sex (it still hurts them through lost potential and lower TFR, they just don’t end up in the gutter as much), the other has their lives ruined and fast if they mess around with either.

        Doing what is necessary to help “make something” of the low IQ would require sacrifices by the high IQ in terms of social norms and societal organization. They don’t want to do it and they know that the payoff (very low margin value added by “fixing” the low IQ) probably isn’t worth it to them.

      • DocJ says

        roccocannoli, I have heard Peterson’s discussion. I 95% agree with him, but on that he is wrong. His reasoning is that the Army cannot use people with IQ70, meaning there are only about 2.5% of the population that cognitively just can’t work well enough to survive outside a sheltered workshop. So Jordan overstated his case, at least in that example.

    • Sean Wood says

      68% of the population has an IQ between 85 and 115. People don’t start talking about retardation until you get below 80. There are numerous jobs people with an IQ of 85 can perform very well if they just are able to acquire the necessary skills. Examples are: roofer, tiler, cement mason, concrete finisher, nurse’s aide, cook, manicurist, shoe repair, fabric mender, barber, butcher, painter, grounds maintenance worker, a huge volume of specialized but repetitive assembly line work.

      • https://www1.udel.edu/educ/gottfredson/reprints/2004socialconsequences.pdf :

        Gottfredson, L. S. (2006): “IQ 85 is a second important minimum threshold because the U.S. military sets its minimum enlistment standards at about this level. Although the military is often viewed as the employer of last resort, this minimum standard rules out almost half of blacks (44%) and a third of Hispanics (34%), but far fewer whites (13%) and Asians (8%). The U.S. military has twice experimented with recruiting men of IQ 80-85 (the first time on purpose and the second time by accident), but both times it found that such men could not master soldiering well enough to justify their costs. Individuals in this IQ range are not considered mentally retarded and they therefore receive no special educational or social services, but their poor learning and reasoning abilities mean that they are not competitive for many jobs, if any, in the civilian economy. They live at the edge of unemployability in modern nations, and the jobs they do get are typically the least prestigious and lowest paying: for example, janitor, food service worker, hospital orderly, or parts assembler in a factory.”

        • Debbie says

          This is not a problem. A society needs low-skill workers to perform work that requires low skills. The problem is that most countries provide benefits to their low-skill workers that disincentivise low-income work. This increases unemployment, and it correspondingly increases the demand for “exploitable” workers and drives unlawful immigration.

          • It’s not a problem if there are enough low-skill jobs to go around, but automation, the outsourcing of manufacturing to slave states like China, and the importing of cheap labor by the elites who want their lawns mowed cheaply conspire to put such low-skill workers in tent cities. Couple all that with the welfare state, lax morality, a porno culture, incessant attacks on Christianity, and unfair divorce/custody laws working together to reward promiscuity and single parenthood — well, one gets what one pays for and allows.

        • Sean Wood says

          I’m not denying that an IQ of 85 puts many opportunities outside the reach of a person. I’m saying that there remain many opportunities (examples supplied) that allow such people to earn well above the minimum wage. I don’t doubt that the military would set its cutoff above the level required for person to be a successful roofer or tiler or concrete finisher, especially if it can fill its needs with that cutoff level.

    • Debbie says

      The author of the Atlantic essay that this author is responding to assumes that the “haves” can only achieve that position at the direct expense of the “have nots,” as if wealth were a zero-sum game and an increase in one person’s fortune requires a corresponding reduction for some other person or persons.

      But isn’t that the entire premise behind the movement to do something about wealth/income disparity? If it isn’t a zero-sum game, then it doesn’t matter how much wealth Steve Jobs’s kids have because you can go out and make your own.

      • Sean Wood says

        If it isn’t a zero-sum game, then it doesn’t matter how much wealth Steve Jobs’s kids have because you can go out and make your own.

        Exactly. If Steve Jobs created the iPhone, making him a billionaire, how does that reduce anybody else’s income (except for competitors of iPhone)? The truth is that Jobs was a huge net income/jobs creator.

  14. “The largest part of the privilege they passed on to me was the privilege of good habits, good manners, a good work ethic, and a good general philosophy of life. It is this privilege that caused me to dismiss and revile racism as a mental framework.”

    Aptly describes my upbringing as well. The major difference is that my parents and siblings are intellectually talented, whereas I am not. So my siblings have occupied that 9.9% and are living the good life (albeit a hectic and challenging one), while I sort of trudge along in a middling career and pedestrian existence. The gap between our lives has grown as we reach middle age, so I sort of have a first hand view of the escalator that bright people can get on in our society.

  15. markbul says

    “the same thing I’ve sometimes thought as I read Marx: “Are these bourgeoisie such bad people? Don’t they work hard, learn much, and transmit good values to their children?”

    I’ve been waiting a long time to see that observation in writing. I’ve thought it many times. In the late 19th and early 20th century, men were desperate to smash the boring world of the bourgeoisie. They certainly did that, by God. And caused unimaginable suffering.

  16. Prince’sasslesspants says

    The proper response to being a beneficiary of a meritocracy is gratitude. You need to expand the condition that allowed you to succeed to as many others as possible, not take credit for an environment and genes you had get no credit in having created. How you do that is up to you as an individual, but you can’t assume people are you, you have to meet them at their own level. I like the idea of a potlatch, but you won’t see me giving everything away. Always remember there but for the grace of god go I.

  17. asdf says

    Supply and demand.

    Whether a low skill worker will be able to earn a living (and perhaps more importantly, the social status to attract a mate and have self respect) depends on supply and demand.

    Make-work probably won’t do that. Most people can tell if they are a part of the “reeks and wrecks”. It’s not fulfilling and it won’t grant much status. There is a limit to what public works can do.

    I don’t think that manual routine labor will be enough. Robots are too good at it. If there are to be jobs it will primarily be providing services to the better off (even if those are manual labor in the home). You have to do something a robot can’t do.

    The best way to increase demand would be to make the lower classes the kind of people that someone might want in their home or want to interact with. As it stands there is too much dysfunction in the lower classes for this (its not entirely their fault, the society the upper class has built encourages dysfunction). This is one area where the well off could try to make a difference but I don’t expect them to (high effort, low reward).

    You also have to deal with the fact that subservient service based positions don’t grant status to men (even if they get paid). Mere money isn’t enough to attract a mate when you’ve got the welfare state.

    On the supply side restrict immigration. The global IQ is low and falling, its obvious we don’t have enough low skill work for these people. Of course this would require one to draw a moral difference between citizen and non-citizen.

    Welfare also has limits. Most welfare isn’t like an EBT card that helps you buy cheap mass manufactured goods. Most welfare comes in the form of high IQ peoples labor. Public education is provided by college graduates. Law enforcement and social services are also skilled professions. Medical care requires the time of extremely skilled individuals. And Lex Luthor said, “land, they just aren’t making any more of it.” Real estate in the places with jobs is basically a zero sum resource as well. If you subsidize rent it drives up the rent for everyone else.

    There is a limited amount of high IQ peoples time to go around, that’s the limiting resource. To the extent the high IQ outnumber the low IQ, the low IQs labor is more valuable in return and the supply of high IQ labor that can meet their various needs is abundant enough to provide charity. If those ratios get out of whack, as they are in the third world, then you get third world conditions.

  18. Intrograted says

    Is that your real name? That’s so cool.

  19. skeptical says

    “The largest part of the privilege they passed on to me was the privilege of good habits, good manners, a good work ethic, and a good general philosophy of life. It is this privilege that caused me to dismiss and revile racism as a mental framework.” Growing up in the city in which Mr. Baker now resides, I’d say the connection between those good traits and reviling racism is tangential, at best. My parents, aunts, uncles, brothers, and cousins are, for the most part, hard working and have good manners. They have done quite well for themselves. They all went to some of the largest churches in Jackson, TN (where Union University is). They are, almost all, blue collar or clerical workers. And almost every individual that I have just described are what most would consider racist, entertaining ideas like “perhaps getting rid of slavery wasn’t the best idea” to “scheduling a child’s birth so that the birthday did not fall in February (i.e. Black History Month)”). I think I was privileged to be raised in a family that instilled good habits and manners, but it is not that upbringing that I don’t see other races as inferior. And let’s be honest here… there is a ton of privilege that comes with money (not least of which is being around other people who also have money).

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