“White privilege” is a term often invoked as a causal explanation for the success of whites relative to other groups. But the problem with white privilege isn’t its assumptions about racial discrimination, but its causal disposition. White privilege suffers from a bad case of mono-causality, or “one-thingism” as Jonah Goldberg puts it.
Rarely does a single explanatory variable account for a complex phenomenon. Instead, complex outcomes are best explained by a confluence of factors. In the case of white privilege, there are a number of variables which, together, better explain differences in group outcomes. Moreover, there is a bevy of countervailing evidence that calls its validity into question.
This is not to suggest that racial discrimination cannot or does not play a role in differential outcomes. Nor is it to suggest that privileges do not exist in some form or another. Where you live and who your parents are can be privileges. But to posit white privilege as the only or a predominant explanation for differences in group outcomes is, based on the empirical evidence, incorrect and irresponsible.
Alt-Righters and White Liberals
The term “white privilege” harkens back to an 1989 essay by the American gender scholar Peggy McIntosh. In short, white privilege refers to a set of built-in advantages held by whites. From “flesh-coloured” band-aids that only match the skin tone of whites to lower rates of incarceration, white privilege manifests in a variety of ways.
Under this framework, the success of whites and failure of non-whites is a product of centuries of systemic racism. As one scholar notes, “White privilege is an institutional (rather than personal) set of benefits granted to those who, by race, resemble the people who dominate the powerful positions in our institutions.” As it stands, white privilege presupposes that differences in group outcomes are a feature of historical discrimination.
But who preaches against the evils of white privilege? Well, white liberals mainly.
According to Pew survey data collected in 2017, 79.2 percent of white liberals agreed that “racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days.” In fact, white liberals are to the left of blacks on this issue, with 59.9 percent of blacks viewing discrimination as the main deterrent to upward mobility. A similar trend can be observed in a 2018 ANES survey where 87 percent of white liberals reported that an increase in ethnic diversity would make the U.S. a better place to live.
White liberals were also the most likely to both support race-based affirmative action and the removal of racist books from public libraries. In general, the percentage of white liberals who perceived discrimination against blacks to be a “very serious problem” increased from 25 percent in 2010 to 58 percent in 2016, with 70 percent believing the criminal justice system was biased against blacks. Compare this to the 75 percent of minorities that reported rarely or never experiencing discrimination in their day-to-day lives.
In fact, the Democratic shift toward leftism has been attributed to greater support for social issues regarding race and gender among non-Hispanic Whites. According to Gallup, whereas 39 percent of white Democrats reported being liberal on social issues between 2001 and 2005, this increased to 61 percent in 2015. More to the point, nearly 60 percent of young white liberals considered themselves activists.
But why do white progressives insist on spreading the gospel of white privilege? Simply put, they benefit immensely from doing so. Ask yourself: do white liberals gain status among their peers or lose it when acknowledging their privilege? The answer is obvious. We are, after all, a tribal species, easily swayed by the allure of social brownie points.
For white progressives, white privilege amounts to an institutional superstructure which affirms the unjust superiority of whites. Indeed, if one group possesses a set of unearned privileges that others do not, then this group handles the reins of that society. In this regard, the core tenets of white privilege bear an eerie resemblance to the core tenets of white supremacy. That is, both white liberals on the far-left and white supremacists on the far-right believe in the superiority of whites. The only difference is that one group sees their superiority as a bad thing while the other does not. White privilege and white supremacy are two sides of the same coin.
Regardless, both interpretations are incorrect for similar reasons. When it comes to differences in group outcomes, the far-left and far-right conflate perception with reality. For neo-Nazis and alt-righters, their supposed superiority lies in their genetics. For those on the far-left, the unjust supremacy of whites is based on systemic discrimination. Both are sorely mistaken.
Privileges and Plights
Contrary to the diktats of white privilege, several ethnic groups outperform whites in a number of areas. To this extent, we have created four indices through which group outcomes can be judged: 1) economics, 2) education, 3) crime, and 4) health outcomes.
As it relates to economics, the oft-used median household income seems like a good place to start. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income of non-Hispanic whites in 2017 was $68,145. While this is higher than the national median of $59,039, it is considerably lower than the incomes of several ethnic groups. Indian Americans, Pakistani Americans, Filipino Americans, and Taiwanese Americans each out-earned whites in 2017, boasting median household incomes of $110,716, $83,956, $83,256, and $81,903, respectively. Lebanese Americans ($76,805), Sri Lankan Americans ($73,856), Chinese Americans ($72,927), and Iranian Americans ($72,733) also out-earned whites.
In general, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that Asians have had a higher median household income than whites since the mid-1980s. In fact, figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that white men earned 80 percent of what Asian men earned in 2017.
The economic gap between whites and Hispanics seems to be dissipating, as well. According to a study by Stanford, Harvard, and Census Bureau researchers, the incomes of white and Hispanic households will soon converge, with some 45 percent of Hispanics who grew up in poverty making it to the middle class or higher, compared to 46 percent of whites. Furthermore, the median income for Hispanic households rose for the third straight year, increasing 3.7 percent in 2017, outpacing the 1.8 percent increase for all U.S. households.
The assumptions of white privilege are further contradicted by a stable pattern of upward mobility among non-whites. In Wealth, Poverty, and Politics, Thomas Sowell documents the meteoric rise of the Lebanese, Chinese, and European Jews in America. Cuban Americans have an equally inspiring rags-to-riches tale. Following the imposition of communism in 1959, many Cuban refugees migrated to the U.S. By 1990, the children of these exiles had yearly salaries exceeding $50,000 at twice the rate of whites. Astonishingly, within forty years, the total revenue of Cuban-American businesses overtook the total revenue of the island of Cuba.
What gives white privilege a patina of empirical credibility are its statistical comparisons between blacks and whites. However, these statistics are often decontextualized, omitting base rates and key group comparators. As Thomas Sowell points out, “The mere omission of one crucial fact can turn accurate statistics into traps that lead to conclusions that would be demonstrably false if the full facts were known.” Take mortgage approval rates, for example.
In 2000, data from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights showed that 44.6 percent of black applicants were turned down for mortgage loans. In comparison, 22.3 percent of white applicants were turned down. In spite of data indicating that black-owned banks had turned down black applicants at rates higher than white-owned banks, accusations of discrimination within the banking sector were widespread. However, the same report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights revealed another interesting statistic: the mortgage rejection rate for Asian Americans was 12.4 percent. In other words, Asian Americans were approved at a higher rate than whites. This data point never saw the light of day in most newspapers or television news programs.
Seldom are Asian American data included in news stories or academic studies which conclude that racial discrimination explains much or most of the disparities between blacks and whites. Reporting this data would undermine, if not devastate, the conclusions made by the proponents of white privilege. This, according to journalist Wesley Yang, is why they are often excluded. Asians disrupt the narrative of white privilege.
In fact, education is another area where Asian Americans surpass whites. Before considering college graduation rates, let’s examine dropout rates. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 23 percent of white students drop out of college. In contrast, only 16 percent of Asian students drop out. In other words, whites are 44 percent more likely to drop out of college than Asians.
When it comes to the distribution of academic degrees, a similar pattern emerges. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 22 percent of whites aged 25 and older held a bachelor’s degree while 9.5 percent and 2.1 percent held master’s and doctorates, respectively. In comparison, 31 percent of Asians have a bachelor’s degree, 18 percent a master’s, and 5 percent a PhD. Put differently, Asian Americans are 40 percent more likely to hold an undergraduate degree, nearly twice as likely to hold a master’s degree, and more than twice as likely to have a doctorate, compared to whites. Not exactly the pattern predicted by white privilege.
Still, if we really wanted to see white privilege in action, maybe we could find it in America’s most elite universities. If the conclusions of white privilege are correct, then we would expect elite universities to reserve most of their spots for white applicants. But the data doesn’t support this. While America’s population is about 60 percent white, Harvard’s student body is less than 50 percent white. Moreover, Asians, representing 6 percent of the U.S. population, make up 19 percent of the undergraduates at Harvard, 19 percent at Princeton, and 19 percent at Stanford. For a country steeped in white privilege, it seems odd that Asian students are overrepresented by a factor of 3 at Yale and 9 at MIT.
But it’s not just Asians. Though making up only 0.7 percent of the black American population, Nigerians are overrepresented among black students at elite American colleges and universities by a factor of 10. Furthermore, Nigerians represent 20 to 25 percent of black students at Harvard Business School, 10 percent of the nation’s black physicians, and appear to be overrepresented at America’s top law firms by a factor of at least seven. In fact, Census data indicates that more than 43 percent of African immigrants hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, with almost two-thirds of Nigerians holding college degrees. Finally, the percentage of black high school graduates enrolled in college jumped to 70.9 percent in 2013, exceeding the enrolment rate of whites (67.3 percent), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. These statistics aren’t exactly supportive of white privilege. Far from it.
But what about crime? Surely the criminal justice system must be biased against blacks and favourable towards whites? Well, if one were leaning solely on decontextualized statistics and incomplete statistical models, then yes. But a deeper look into crime statistics reveals a story that is very different from the one pedalled by the proponents of white privilege. As stated before, we are not suggesting that racial discrimination does not play a role in criminal justice outcomes. It can and does in some instances. But the rationale behind these outcomes has less to do with discrimination and more to do with cold hard conditional probability.
Let’s begin with fatal police shootings. For the proponents of white privilege, the shootings of minorities by law enforcement is indicative of a legal system which favours whites. After all, given the level of news coverage, it must be that non-whites are disproportionately affected by police use of lethal force. But as is often the case, what activists and news anchors claim conflicts with what statistics show.
In a study of racial differences in police use of lethal force, Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer found no differences among racial groups in either the raw shooting data or when contextual factors were taken into account. In fact, blacks were 23.5 percent less likely to be shot by police, relative to whites. Even when controlling for weapons possession, black suspects were still less likely to be shot.
In fact, two studies, both using high fidelity computer training simulators that mimic real life encounters, found that officers displayed significant bias in favour of black suspects. That is, officers took longer to shoot both armed and unarmed black suspects than they did whites. However, even when black suspects are killed, they are usually armed and shot by an officer of the same race.
Nevertheless, there seems to be clear evidence of racial bias when we consider population proportions. Black Americans, representing 13 percent of the U.S. population, account for 26 percent of fatal police shootings, while non-Hispanic whites, representing 60 percent of the population, account for 50 percent. It is from this that the advocates of white privilege develop their conclusions about a pro-white criminal justice system. But as we’ve discussed, uncontextualized statistics have a nasty habit of obscuring the truth.
Using population-level comparisons as a benchmark for evidence of racial bias relies on the assumption that people of all races are equally involved in situations where officers are likely to use deadly force. Population proportions are a flawed benchmark for measuring police shootings because they exclude the contexts in which lethal police force is used.
Suppose you wanted to know if there was racial disparity in treatment for a disease. You find that 13 percent of blacks receive treatment. When compared to a U.S. population that is 13 percent black, you conclude that no racial bias exists. But then you learn that blacks made up 75 percent of people with the disease. Well, this changes things. And that’s because the correct benchmark isn’t a population-level comparison, but a pool of those who needed treatment.
In the case of police shootings, the evidence is clear that fatal shootings are strongly tied to situations in which violent crime is being committed. Given this, the question we must ask is: “Are blacks shot more than whites given their presence in situations in which police shootings are likely to occur?” This is what three researchers did. Using two years of fatal shooting data across 16 crime rate estimates, the researchers found no evidence of anti-black disparities in fatal shootings, fatal shootings of unarmed citizens, or fatal shootings involving misidentified objects. In fact, the odds of being killed by police gunfire were 3.9 and 4.8 times higher for whites than it was for blacks for homicide and violent crime arrests, respectively.
In a more recent paper on police shootings, the researchers state, “One of our clearest results is that violent crime rates strongly predict the race of a person fatally shot. At a high level, reducing race-specific violent crime should be an effective way to reduce fatal shootings of black and Hispanic adults.”
However, the problem of faulty statistical benchmarking doesn’t just apply to police shootings. Behold the statistical holy grail of white privilege: incarceration rates. At a presidential primary debate in 2008, then-candidate Obama claimed that blacks and whites “are arrested at very different rates, are convicted at very different rates, [and] receive very different sentences…for the same crime.” In fact, topflight Democratic candidates like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker have all used population proportions to discuss incarceration rates. After all, blacks make up 40 percent of all state and federal prisoners despite constituting 13 percent of the U.S. population. But the correct benchmark for imprisonment is not population proportions but rates of criminal offending. And this is where the narrative of white privilege begins to crumble.
In The War on Cops, Heather MacDonald provides a battery of heart-rending statistics. From 1976 to 2005, blacks Americans committed over 52 percent of all homicides in the U.S. They also made up roughly the same number of homicide victims, as these crimes are often committed within the same communities. In 2005, the black homicide rate was over seven times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined. In 2006, blacks constituted 39.3 percent of all violent-crime arrests, including 56.3 percent of all robbery and 34.5 percent of all aggravated-assault arrests, and 29.4 percent of all property-crime arrests. These statistics, which are supported by several key criminological studies, are disconcerting, but they help to clarify differences in incarceration rates.
In 1997, criminologists Robert Sampson and Janet Lauritsen reviewed the literature on sentencing and concluded that “large racial differences in criminal offending,” not racism, explained why more blacks were in prison, relative to whites. Furthermore, Alfred Blumstein found in 1993 that blacks were significantly underrepresented in prison for homicides compared with their presence in the arrest data. Finally, a 1994 Justice Department survey of felony cases from the country’s 75 largest urban areas found that blacks, relative to whites, had a lower chance of prosecution following a felony and were less likely to be found guilty at trial.
More often than not, declarations of white privilege within the criminal justice system are propped up by shoddy statistics. Still, when there are clear cut cases of discrimination, racial or otherwise, we must stand against them.
In a society saturated with white privilege, one might also assume that whites live longer and healthier lives than non-whites. But you’d be wrong. The statistics on health outcomes across racial groups reveals another hole in the white privilege narrative.
In JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Tim Carney’s Alienated America, the authors discuss a sobering fact: white middle-aged Americans are dying at a greater rate today than in previous decades. In 2015, economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton published a paper reporting “a marked increase in the all-cause mortality of middle-aged white non-Hispanic men and women in the United States between 1999 and 2013.” To be clear, white Americans still live longer than black Americans. But while the trends for blacks have been improving, trends for whites are worsening.
While the mortality rate for US whites aged 45-54 fell by 2 percent per year on average between 1978 and 1998, this pattern has reversed in the years following 1998, with the mortality rate rising by half a percent each year. Put another way, midlife all-cause mortality fell by more than 200 per 100,000 and 60 per 100,000 for blacks and Hispanics, respectively, but rose by 34 per 100,000 for whites. No such pattern exists anywhere else in the industrialized world.
Importantly, this pattern is largely due to increases in drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases among non-Hispanic whites. In Appalachian states, which are more than 80 percent white, the combined mortality rate from these “diseases of despair” was 37 percent higher than in the rest of America. In fact, white males, making up 29.5 percent of the young adult population (age 25-34), accounted for 57 percent of all drug, alcohol, and suicide deaths in this age group between 2010 and 2014. Moreover, between 1999 and 2014, the age-adjusted suicide rate for white males and females increased by 28 and 60 percent, respectively. Only America’s Indigenous population had higher increases.
Clearly, differences exist between ethnic groups in the U.S. But, as we’ve shown, white privilege does not explain them. In fact, white privilege condenses the complexities of group outcomes into a simple narrative that does not help anyone. Furthermore, white privilege fails to offer any meaningful prescriptions on how to reduce group disparities. Ironically, only those who preach against white privilege benefit from it.
Vincent Harinam is a law enforcement consultant, research associate at the Independence Institute, and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. You can follow him @vincentharinam
Rob Henderson is a Gates Cambridge Scholar and PhD student at the University of Cambridge. You can follow him @robkhenderson