Here's the thing about this tweet, which is responding to the astonishing fact that at the Women's Marches yesterday, which featured four or as many as five million people protesting Donald Trump all across the country (and the world), there was absolutely zero violence, and there appear to have been zero arrests. The first sentence is absolutely true! It's true in every dimension, and it's important.BLM is just as peaceful as the #WomensMarch — only difference is cops aren't as willing to jump white women. Acknowledge privilege— Amy Dentata (@AmyDentata) January 22, 2017
So why do the last two words rub me the wrong way so much?
I think it's because the word "privilege," as it has come to be used, carries with it a connotation of wrongfulness. But in this case it is obvious that the "privilege" enjoyed by the "white women" (who were, of course, only part of the crowds at these protests) of not being "jumped" by the police while protesting peacefully is entirely rightful. It is a privilege against wrongful treatment, one which we should all by rights enjoy. The correct remedy is not to abolish the privilege but to extend it universally; in a good world, peaceful BLM protesters wouldn't get arrested either. (Of course in a good world BLM wouldn't have to exist, but you get the point.)
This is, I think, a general fact about a whole lot of kinds of "privilege." The way privileged people are treated is the way people ought to be treated, period. A video will surface of a white man brandishing a gun at the police and being carefully subdued without a shot's being fired. We all know that this is an example of "white privilege," and it really is! A black man behaving similarly would have been dead within seconds. But the problem here is not with how the privileged white guy is being treated, it's with how the oppressed black men—and boys, and women and girls—are treated. Those of us who are privileged are, in most cases, simply being treated the way we deserve. We should all be so privileged; the horror is that so many are not.
And I'm speculating here, but I suspect this has something to do with the cocktail of grievances and resentments that fueled Donald Trump's support. Because very often, privilege does not really benefit the privileged; oppression does not really benefit the oppressor. Sometimes it does, of course. White supremacy and white privilege are among other things concerned with the distribution of scarce material resources, and the more those resources are plundered from black people the more plunder there is for white people to enjoy. Affirmative action in college admissions, for instance, has this zero-sum dynamic.* But potentially-fatal police encounters are not zero-sum. The police really could treat everyone they meet and have occasion to consider shooting the way they treat white people in that position, and doing so would benefit a whole lot of black people without taking anything from white people to do it. Oppression in these contexts is, in other words, negative-sum. It may even be, like, a bizarro version of Pareto efficient, making some people worse off and no one better off.
And so I suspect that this is part of why it rubs some people so much the wrong way to be constantly told how privileged they are. Because after all, doesn't that make it sound like they lead lives free of woe and strife? They are, after all, privileged! But of course that's not true at all. In so many cases their privilege does nothing real to benefit them, not against the baseline of rightful treatment, of what should happen. And they may have other troubles; they may even partake of other forms of oppression, e.g. along class lines. They feel in other words that their lives are hard, and are no less hard than they should be because they are write. And they're right! White men may be playing the game of life on the "easy" level of difficulty, but there's nothing really wrong with that in most cases. We liberals, who have fought for centuries to make the world a better place, are huge fans of the "easy" mode. We created it, and it is our mission to extend its bounty.
But of course these people, who are told that they are privileged and who cannot square that with their own experience and the difficulties they face in their lives, do exactly the wrong thing with the fact that their privilege does not really help them all that much. They lash out. They want to punish those who accuse them of the horrible wickedness that is being privileged, and in doing so of course they become not just privileged but defenders of privilege, not just people who benefit from racism but actual racists themselves. And to be clear, that is overwhelmingly their own fault. It's entirely their own fault, really, on any sort of moral level. Culpability for racism lies with the racists.
But we lawyers (and I am, as of a couple days ago, a lawyer) distinguish between causation and fault; the one is a subset of the other. And though it is not our fault, those of us on the left, that there are so many goddamn racists, we should probably find any way we can to reduce the number of things factually contributing to the existence of so many goddamn racists. And I suspect, though again this is extremely speculative, that this thing about the "privilege" analytical framework is part of that factual causal problem. Certainly the practice of demanding that people acknowledge their privilege, or "check" their privilege, feels almost perfectly calculated to arouse defensiveness and resentment. I suspect that the better form of outreach to these people would be to say, look, we know you're hard-working, ordinary people just trying to do your best to live a decent life. All we want is for so many of these other people to have the same chance at that that you do, which they unfortunately and unjustly do not, and for you to understand that these other people aren't as lucky as you are and to have sympathy with their struggle to obtain the "privileges" that you so rightfully enjoy. I bet that message, which I think was in large part Barack Obama's message, would piss off a whole lot fewer people.
Again, it is not our job, on any accounting of justice or responsibility, to avoid pissing these people off. It is rather their job to stop being racist. But far too many of them aren't going to do their job, and so unfortunately those of us who do care about making the world a better place for everyone, and especially for the racial minorities and other oppressed groups whose interests a powerful politics of racial resentment so threatens, are faced with a choice between trying to save people from their own goddamn racism and accepting a world with all these goddamn racists. If we're going to try to do the former, which we probably should (though it is such an aggravating enterprise and the impulse is so often to rage-quit), I feel like we'll be better served with a narrative of privilege that is less accusatory and that, where appropriate, recognizes that oppression benefits not the oppressor and that the only problem with privilege is its absence from too many people's lives.
*Of course, things like affirmative action are zero-sum only if you just take their immediate material effects at face value. I suspect that in even in these cases oppression harms the oppressor, by depriving society as a whole of the bounty which the oppressed would have produced had they been given the opportunity. This relates to the arguments for why e.g. sex discrimination in hiring practices are inefficient and irrational. Obviously the conclusion sometimes forced upon those arguments, that employers, being rational, will therefore not discriminate and so there's no need for anti-discrimination law, is a load of bull, but that doesn't mean the discrimination isn't economically irrational. (Corporate boards with more women on them perform better, etc.) And when those oppressed people are prevented from realizing their full potential, society is impoverished and that harms the oppressor class, too.
Even in cases where the raw material math works out such that the oppressors are coming out ahead, though, I still think oppression and supremacy are worse for the supreme oppressor class than equality would be. As my grandfather once said, in his masterful article defending Brown v. Board of Education:
I can heartily concur in the judgment that segregation harms the white as much as it does the Negro. Sadism rots the policeman; the suppressor of thought loses light; the community that forms into a mob, and goes down and dominates a trial, may wound itself beyond all healing.This was a man who knew whereof he spoke, having grown up as a white man in segregated Texas. Oppression largely offers the oppressors only false promises. In exchange for some small amount of plunder taken directly from the oppressed they impoverish their own society and, on top of that, poison, perhaps irreparably, their own personal and political morality.
And of course the very next line of the same paragraph could not be more on-point:
Can this reciprocity of hurt, this fated mutuality that inheres in all inflicted wrong, serve to validate the wrong itself?