Why Acknowledging “White Privilege” Won’t Help

America has made tremendous progress on the issue of race over the last fifty years. In 1960, a black man could be lynched for the “crime” of flirting with a white woman, very few African-Americans could exercise the right to vote, almost none held elected office, and the most profitable careers were off-limits. I can only imagine the psychological pain of being barred from restaurants, parks, and theaters restricted for use by “whites only,” or the difficulty of explaining such an unjust system to one’s children. Today, there are no laws left in place specifically discriminating against African-Americans (though some still allege unequal enforcement). Since President Obama’s election, a black man has held the highest office in the land, a feat deemed impossible just a decade ago.

Does racism in America still exist, despite all this progress? Certainly. The everyday experiences of millions of Americans attest to this reality. But the degree of racism depends on how it is defined. Our culture is still heavily influenced by stereotypes, ranging from the “gangbanger” to the “dumb blonde” to the soulless corporate executive. Yet only a very small and discredited minority still claim the superiority of the white race, or favor a return to segregationist policies. In 1958, only 4% of Americans approved of interracial marriage; by 2013, that figure had jumped to 87%. A Swedish study found that the United States is one of the least racist countries in the world, with less than 5% saying they would not want “people of another race” as neighbors. Compare this to the 40+ percent in countries like India and Jordan, and we seem pretty tolerant.

Half a century after the Civil Rights Movement, most Americans are ready for the sort of “race blind” society envisioned by Dr. King. We want to judge people on the basis of their individual merits – the content of their character – not the color of their skin. Millions of Americans interact peacefully and harmoniously with people of other races on a daily basis. They are our friends, our neighbors, and our coworkers; increasingly, they are our spouses and children. There is a deep yearning on the part of most Americans to come together, acknowledge our common humanity, and truly be one nation under God.

Ironically, a small but powerful segment of mainly liberal activists (black and white) seems unwilling to accept decades of progress on civil rights, or to take the vast majority of white Americans at their word that they are not racist. They prefer a race-obsessed society to a race-blind one. In their view, it is wrong to simply “move on” from the undeniable racism in America’s past, as this glosses over its enduring pain and ongoing legacy. They are determined to lay the blame for every problem affecting black America at the feet of white racists. Recently, the idea has gained traction that it is not enough for whites to simply disavow racism; they must also acknowledge – publicly or privately – the relative “privilege” they enjoy vis a vis their black counterparts.

Many whites are understandably confused and frustrated by the suggestion that they have unfairly profited from the mere fact of being white, especially as they feel themselves disadvantaged by racial preferences benefitting minorities. The term itself seems an insult, insinuating that their success was not entirely earned, but unfairly obtained. In a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, Christine Emba attempts to soften the definition of “white privilege” to be more palatable to reluctant whites:

A request to acknowledge one’s privilege is just a reminder to be aware — aware that you might not be able to fully understand someone else’s experiences, that the assumptions you were brought up with may be blinding you, that some people may have to struggle for reasons foreign to you…

A worthy sentiment indeed, and one that we should all attempt to practice regardless of the race, religion, social class, or nationality of whoever we happen to encounter. But racism is just one of the difficulties an individual can experience in his or her life. Are we to assume that the supposed “benefit” bestowed by white skin cancels out the challenge of being mentally or physically handicapped, the pain of childhood abuse, or even the more commonplace disadvantages of being unattractive, unintelligent, or unhealthy?

I have never met a single person who did not struggle with some significant challenge. This includes people who appear to have it all – the wealthy, the intelligent, the beautiful. It seems a fairly universal aspect of the human condition. Why should I see a non-white person and assume, purely on the basis of their skin color, that they have experienced painful traumas beyond my ability to comprehend? Why should I see a white person and assume they have led an easier life than most? It seems as though the white privilege crowd is calling for just the sort of prejudice that was once part of the standard definition of “racism.” Why can’t we all just focus on being better human beings, as Emba’s explanation of white privilege exhorts?

Even less clear than the basis for this white privilege is how its acknowledgment (just a step below an apology) would result in better lives for African-Americans. Emba writes:

Generally, we expect those with advantages to help out those who are disadvantaged. The leg up provided by white privilege offers a chance to do just that. Understanding that you benefit from white privilege offers the freedom to amplify important issues in ways that those without it cannot. It represents an opportunity to speak out more loudly against injustice, knowing you’re better-protected from negative outcomes. It’s the ability to use the access you’re given to create opportunity and space for others.

There is so much wrong going on here, I hardly know where to start. First, Emba argues that acknowledging white privilege is good because it creates a sense of obligation (some might call it guilt) on the part of the privileged to help the under-privileged. As a Christian, I already believe I have the moral duty to help my fellow man; but this responsibility is derived from our equal value as God’s creations made in His own image, not our unequal power. Instead of partners standing side by side to defend our mutual dignity, Emba sees the obligated looking down at the obligators, the helpless staring up at their benevolent helpers. This unequal power dynamic is more likely to foster patronizing condescension on the part of the part of the in-power group and bitter animosity on the part of the out-of-power group than genuine love or solidarity.

The truth is, we are all called to be helpers; none of us is helpless. Even if I feel myself at the bottom, chances are there is someone even lower than me who would appreciate what I have. We rise by lifting others. But encouraging someone to see himself as a victim does the double injustice of depriving both himself and society of his talents.

My second objection to Emba’s argument here is that she projects onto whites a special invulnerability, a superhero-like quality that is almost totally out of sync with reality. Whites have the unique ability to “amplify important issues?” When a non-white person raises the issue of unfair treatment, it is often taken far more seriously than if they were white, not less. For example, two University of Virginia students were recently arrested by ABC officers using excessive force – a white female and a black male. You have possibly heard of Martese Johnson, whose troubling arrest video went viral, but what about Elizabeth Daley? Her “white privilege” didn’t keep her from being unfairly arrested for the “crime” of purchasing bottled water, nor did it attract a fraction of the national publicity or outrage. And let’s not forget about “clock boy” Ahmed Mohammed. His arrest for bringing a hoax bomb to school earned him a trip to the White House and international celebrity status.

I also fail to see how whites are “better-protected from negative outcomes,” unless they are the minority of whites with the power or money to insulate themselves from dangerous or costly decisions (a privilege that has extended, at least for a time, to powerful African-Americans like Bill Cosby and O.J. Simpson). The racist is the one category of persons almost universally abhorred and despised in this country. No one desires this label, as even the mere suggestion of racial bias can be career-ending. This is why most white people prefer not to discuss race. On this sensitive, emotionally-charged issue, they have less of a voice, not more.

But my biggest problem with the unequal power relationship Emba sets out is that it pits white America against black America in an almost Marxist fashion, assuming that one group’s privilege come at the price of another group’s rights. Once you internalize this belief, there are only two possible responses – acceptance or agitation. I can imagine no greater disservice to an African-American child than to indoctrinate him with the belief that America is still too racist for him to succeed, that he must wait until the day when no white person benefits from his majority-status or holds a single racist idea in his head, a day that will never come. How utterly defeatist and soul-crushing.

The irony is that white people pushing the narrative of white privilege may be the the real “subconscious racists.” They are the ones implying that African-Americans cannot help themselves; they need white allies to “speak out” on their behalf.

Emba concludes:

The use of white privilege tends to be unintentional. White privilege isn’t asked for, but it’s also not earned. The advantages it brings are uncomfortable to acknowledge and easy to take for granted. But they shouldn’t remain invisible. There’s no way to level the playing field unless we first can all see how uneven it is.

But would acknowledging white privilege actually help level the playing field? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that white people do enjoy certain cultural advantages denied to their black peers (a contention that is likely true, at least to a limited extent). They aren’t expected to represent their race in all matters, they don’t get unfairly judged for their exotic-sounding names, and they see more people in positions of power who “look like them.” Let’s then posit that every single white person in America signs an official document acknowledging this ill-begot privilege. How many fewer black men are in prison? How many fewer black children are in poverty? How does this admission of white privilege grow the black middle class? How does it lead to more black CEO’s and business owners?

It’s hard to understand how “confronting” white privilege would improve the lives of African-Americans on any of these measures. But perhaps that’s not the point. If white privilege is, as the liberal narrative holds, the original sin of every white American – a condition inherited at birth through no fault or virtue of one’s own – then acknowledging or denouncing it is but a means of atonement; it is more about consoling white guilt than easing black pain.

Respected African-American philosopher Lewis Gordon adeptly summarizes the whole problem with viewing race through the lens of privileges instead of rights:

A privilege is something that not everyone needs, but a right is the opposite. Given this distinction, an insidious dimension of the white-privilege argument emerges. It requires condemning whites for possessing, in the concrete, features of contemporary life that should be available to all, and if this is correct, how can whites be expected to give up such things? Yes, there is the case of the reality of whites being the majority population in all the sites of actual privilege from prestigious universities to golf clubs and boards of directors for most high-powered corporations. But even among whites as a group, how many whites have those opportunities?

If we truly want to be a country where everyone has a fair chance in life, why not focus on the things that could realistically improve the economic situation of all Americans, black and white: promoting intact families through marriage, ensuring access to high-quality education, fostering greater job and business creation, and reforming corrupt inner-city governments, just to name a few? Or are we really too busy wringing our hands over the lack of diversity in the Oscars to tackle these more meaningful issues?

Emba calls the idea of white privilege “uncomfortable” for whites to accept, but perhaps the narrative of a subconsciously racist America is too comfortable, too convenient for the white privilege crowd to give up. They prefer to see themselves as noble heroes out to slay the dragon of white racism – if only its lingering ghost – than to acknowledge the possibility that their policies, no matter how well-intentioned, may have actually contributed to the problem.

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Time to Retire the 77 Cents Myth

“Women make just seventy-seven cents for every dollar men earn.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard this figure quoted as evidence of workplace discrimination: from my Facebook newsfeed, to my classroom, to the State of the Union Address. I am sure we will hear it many more times in the run-up to the 2016 presidential contest, as the mythic “war on women” has proven such a convenient tactic for avoiding the real issues.

Wage equality seems to be one of those topics where facts do not matter. Evidence and logic do not matter. We are not supposed to think too hard about this, or analyze what other factors might explain the slight difference in earnings between men and women who actually perform the same job with the same level of experience. All that matters to the politicians and activists who quote this figure is that we embrace the narrative that our society is so deeply sexist that the only way to ensure equality for women is through the creation of cumbersome new laws and regulations.

Sorry, but I’m just not buying it.

I know women face obstacles in the workforce. I’ve experienced them myself. I know women are more likely to choose lower-paying careers than are men. I have done this myself. I know women still feel slighted or underestimated on occasion because of their gender. I have felt this way myself. But I refuse to believe in a “glass ceiling” of lingering prejudice keeping me from reaching my dreams. I refuse to believe that my worth as a person is best measured by the amount of dollars another person is willing to pay me to do a job. Not only are these ideas false, they are also deeply harmful to the women and girls who might actually internalize them.

The truth is, women in western democracies have experienced remarkable gains in the last century. In countries like the United States, women now have the same legal rights as men, including the right to vote, own property, and make contracts. Women have the same access to education as men, including access to technical and medical careers. Actual, real-life women have taken advantage of these freedoms to achieve incredible success. Oprah Winfrey, Angela Merkel, and Beyoncé are among the wealthiest, most powerful, and most influential people on the planet. If there really is a “glass ceiling,” perhaps someone forgot to tell them.

Women do face tremendous prejudice and abuse, but mostly in the less democratic nations of the developing world. In Yemen, a woman is considered only half a witness and cannot legally leave the house without her husband’s permission. In Saudi Arabia and Morocco, rape victims can be charged with the crime of fornication. In China, millions of women are subjected to forced abortions every year, a fact that likely contributes to their extremely high rate of female suicide. China is the only country (with the exception of the tiny nation of Sao Tome and Principe) where the rate of suicide is higher for women than men, with one report putting it three times as high. Despite having only 19% of the female population worldwide, China accounts for 55% of all female suicides. Millions of rural Chinese women have used pesticides to end their own lives. And let’s not forget the 200 million women killed in the womb by sex-selective abortion worldwide. These are the figures that should outrage us, not the misleading 77 cents statistic.

Like most of the “evidence” used to support the idea that the United States economy is still deeply sexist, the 77 cents figure uses some pretty misleading methodology. It comes from comparing the average earnings of all full-time women against the average earnings of all full-time men, regardless of education, occupation, or experience. When these important factors are taken into account, the actual “gap” shrinks to about 95 cents on the dollar. For further sources debunking the 77 cents myth, see here, here, or here.

Despite all this evidence, President Obama still used the 77 cents line in his State of the Union Address, earning a rating of “dubious” from Fact Checker. Bernie Sanders became the latest politician to deploy this line for political purposes, using the revised 78 cents figure. And I’m sure we can expect Hillary Clinton to make this and other ill-supported claims of rampant discrimination as she campaigns for the White House primarily on the basis of her gender. (Ironically, Clinton and Obama both pay their female staffers less.)

Women do earn less on average than men, but this is largely due to factors other than sexism. For starters, women tend to choose lower-paying majors and careers, like social work and education. Even women who enter higher-paying careers like medicine tend work fewer hours and choose less lucrative specialties than their male counterparts, resulting in lower salaries.

Women also take off more time from work to have and raise children. Motherhood continues to present obstacles to women’s career prospects, much more so than fatherhood. The conflict between having children and a successful career isn’t just socially constructed; it is biological. Women are the ones who have to be pregnant for nine months, go through the physical exertion of having a baby, and then (let’s face it) be the primary caregiver for their infant. Even if men wanted to, they could not become pregnant, give birth, or breastfeed infants. Someone has to do the tough work of continuing the human species, and that task largely falls on women. More time off from work means fewer opportunities for promotion. Even after the pregnancy and infancy stages, women with children are more likely to value jobs offering greater flexibility and shorter hours so they can better meet the needs of their families. These jobs tend to pay less.

But it’s not all about babies. Studies show women and men tend to have somewhat different values in terms of employment. According to one survey of 1,000 workers, “male workers regard pay, benefits, authority, status and power noticeably more than do female workers. Women placed their greatest workplace values on relationships, respect, communication, fairness, equity, collaboration, and work-family balance.” My guess is even women without children are likely to have these slightly different career priorities. Anecdotally, most of the workaholics I know are men, but most of the women I know seem to understand the importance of balancing work and life.

Is any of this really such a bad thing? Should we discourage women from choosing lower-paying careers where they feel they are making a difference, or taking jobs with more time off to enjoy recreation, community, and family—all in the name of gender equality? If a woman wants to dedicate her life to climbing the heights of the corporate ladder, by all means—let her do it, and don’t treat her any differently. But most of us also want other things, and those other things should be respected, if not equally compensated with our more work-oriented counterparts.

What should be done to help women’s economic prospects?

First, stop blaming everything on sexism. Don’t turn us into a victim group. This doesn’t help anyone, including women who might be discouraged or embittered. Where there is evidence of actual discrimination or sexual harassment, existing laws are sufficiently strong to protect female employees. The beauty of the free market is that in the long run, prejudice does not pay. If a woman thinks she is being paid less than what she is worth, she should: a) ask persuasively for a raise (something women are four times less likely to do), b) find a company willing to pay her what she is worth, or c) start her own company where she can fully control her own salary.

Second, if we are really interested in fighting sexism, we can start by putting human rights back on the table in our relationship with China, something Obama and Clinton have reversed. We need to do more to stand up for the rights of women around the world, including the unborn.

Third, we must be careful to consider the unintended consequences of any law or policy that overburdens employers in the name of being “family-friendly.” Chile recently passed a law requiring employers to provide working mothers with childcare, and as a result women’s salaries declined between 9% and 20%. Consider the following cautionary tale from Spain, which passed a law giving workers with children under seven the right to work part-time:

Over the next decade, companies were 6 percent less likely to hire women of childbearing age compared with men, 37 percent less likely to promote them and 45 percent more likely to dismiss them, according to a study led by Daniel Fernandez-Kranz, an economist at IE Business School in Madrid. The probability of women of childbearing age not being employed climbed 20 percent. Another result: Women were more likely to be in less stable, short-term contract jobs, which are not required to provide such benefits.

“One of the unintended consequences of the law has been to push women into the lower segment of the labor market with bad-quality, unprotected jobs where their rights cannot be enforced,” he said.

Make it more costly to hire women, and fewer women will be hired; the ones who are will be paid less.

Fourth, there is another reason women earn less than men, and that is that they are disproportionately hurt by out-of-wedlock births and divorce. 40.9 percent of female-headed families with children live in poverty, while the poverty rate of married families with children is just 8.8%. This is just further evidence that the sexual revolution has been a disaster for women and children. Reducing these causes of female poverty would require strengthening a culture of marriage, which unfortunately does not seem likely to happen in the near-future. In the meantime, expecting women to play the roles of both primary caregiver and primary breadwinner dooms many to dead-end jobs, and their families suffer alongside them.

In conclusion, there are several things we can and should do to help women succeed economically. But the seventy-seven cents line exaggerates the severity of the problem and points us in the wrong direction for answers. We should encourage women to consider more lucrative majors and careers, and to start their own businesses, but only if this is what they want. We should teach women to be more assertive, to “lean in” as the expression goes, but only if they are comfortable with the costs of putting career before family and leisure. We should value the non-monetary contributions made by so many women to their communities, especially those made by stay-at-home moms.

We should not sit around waiting for things to be completely fair and equal because they never will be. Studies have also shown that short men tend to earn less than their taller counterparts. Do we need special initiatives to help them succeed? Should employers be required to hire a quota of men under 5’10”? In 2012, men also accounted for 92% of workplace deaths. Is this the product of discrimination, or simply different occupational choices? Here’s a crazy idea: people should be paid according to their responsibilities and contributions– which are most often the results of individual priorities and decisions– even if this leads to statistical discrepancies between groups.