Talk about Privilege!

In a recent piece at Quillette, William Ray provides a fascinating discussion of the origin and implications of the left’s current obsession with “white privilege.” Ray begins by noting:

The concept of ‘white privilege’ was popularized by Peggy McIntosh in a 1989 paper written at Harvard University and titled, “White Privilege: Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack.” … This hugely influential paper has been responsible for the subsequent proliferation of a rigidly enforced theory of privilege throughout social movements and university classrooms. So central has this doctrine become to progressive politics, pedagogy, and activism, that to even question its validity is to invite the inquisitorial wrath of ‘social justice’ radicals. But it is for this very reason that it is important to subject McIntosh’s ideas to scrutiny. So let us return to the source and to first principles and unpack Peggy McIntosh’s knapsack.

Ray then provides the details of McIntosh’s extraordinarily privileged life:

Peggy McIntosh was born Elisabeth Vance Means in 1934. She grew up in Summit, New Jersey where the median income is quadruple the American national average…. McIntosh’s father was Winthrop J. Means, the head of Bell Laboratories electronic switching department during the late 1950s. At that time, Bell Labs were the world leaders in the nascent digital computing revolution. Means personally held—and sold patents on—many very lucrative technologies….

Elizabeth Vance Means then attended Radcliffe, a renowned finishing school for the daughters of America’s patrician elites, and continued her private education at the University of London … before completing her English Doctorate at Harvard. Her engagement to Dr. Kenneth McIntosh was announced in the New York Times‘s social register…. McIntosh’s father, Dr. Rustin McIntosh, was Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics at Columbia University. His mother was President Emeritus of Barnard College, an institution in the opulent Morningside Heights district of Manhattan, famous since 1889 for providing the daughters of the wealthiest Americans with liberal arts degrees. … Kenneth McIntosh was himself a graduate of the Phillips Exeter Academy…. He later completed his elite education at Harvard College and the Harvard Medical School. By the time of his marriage to Elizabeth, Kenneth McIntosh was a senior resident at the prestigious Brigham Hospital in Boston, founded by millionaire Peter Bent.

In other words, Peggy McIntosh was born into the very cream of America’s aristocratic elite, and has remained ensconced there ever since. Her ‘experiential’ list enumerating the ways in which she benefits from being born with white skin simply confuses racial privilege with the financial advantages she has always been fortunate enough to enjoy. Many of her points are demonstrably economic. One is left to wonder why, given her stated conviction that she has unfairly benefited from her skin color, there seems to be no record of her involvement in any charity or civil rights work. If she did take to the streets in support of some cause or other, she left no trace that I can see. Nor, as far as I can tell, has she spent any time teaching the underprivileged or working directly to better anyone’s condition but her own. Instead, she has contented herself with a generous six figure salary, and has not shown any particular eagerness to hand her position over to a more deserving person of color.

Ray ends with some personal musing of his own:

Very few of the people reading this article—whatever the color of their skin—will have even the vaguest idea of the comfort and privilege in which Peggy McIntosh grew up and to which she has since become accustomed. Nor will we have access to the world of opportunities that she has been fortunate enough to enjoy. But even though the lifetime of privilege McIntosh has experienced is almost certainly due to her wealth and not the colour of her skin, she nevertheless found a way to share this irksome burden with the illiterate children of Kentucky coal miners, the hopeless peasants of the Appalachians, poor single mothers struggling to make ends meet on welfare, and the vast majority of whites in the United States and throughout the world who never had the chance to attend Radcliffe or Harvard. She simply reclassified her manifest economic advantage as racial privilege and then dumped this newly discovered original sin onto every person who happens to share her skin color. Without, of course, actually redistributing any of the wealth that, by her own account, she had done nothing to deserve.

All of which means that pretty much anything you read about ‘white privilege’ is traceable to an ‘experiential’ essay written by a woman who benefitted from massive wealth, a panoply of aristocratic connections, and absolutely no self-awareness whatsoever…. This dark epistemology has quietly percolated through the universities and the wider culture for two decades now. It has had the effect of draining attention from a massive and growing wealth gap and it has pitted the poor against one another in public spectacles of acrimony and even violence. Even so, it was readily embraced by progressively-minded professors who might otherwise have had trouble squaring their thirst for social justice with their high six figure salaries. …

And all of this has created the societal conditions in which a spoiled racist like Sarah Jeong—another hyper-privileged Harvard graduate and member of a population group far more statistically favored by rates of wealth, education, and incarceration than whites—can send countless tweets denigrating white people, and then have the validity of those ugly sentiments defended by the self-appointed gatekeepers of the progressive consensus. Dozens of articles suddenly proliferated patiently explaining that we just don’t get it, that only whites can be racist, that only whites have privilege, and that anyone who disagrees is almost certainly a racist. …

Every time identity politics has been used by any faction in human history for any reason violence eventually follows. No matter how detailed and intricate the justification, no matter how reasonable it can be made to sound as a way to correct for unequal social conditions and historical injustice, it always ends in the same foul basement of mutual fear, loathing, and depravity. It is past time to consign this foul epistemology to the trashcan of self serving debasements and return our attention to the real causes of ‘privilege’; the growing disparities of wealth that divide us, whatever the color of our skin.

Read the whole thing!

Jon Guze / Director of Legal Studies

Jon Guze is the Director of Legal Studies at the John Locke Foundation. Before joining the John Locke Foundation, Jon practiced law in Durham, North Carolina for over twent...

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