'White privilege' and its cousins have achieved enormous prominence on the American left, from which it now seems to be spreading around the Western world. As a slogan it has an undeniable rhetorical power. But from a moral perspective it is flawed: at best mistaken about the core problem of racial injustice and at worst racist in its own right. At the political level it is divisive - arguably deliberately so - and thus incapable of supporting the consensus needed to build a just society.
Political Correctness Disclaimer
I am going to criticise the concept of white privilege and its use in quite strong terms. I am going to do this even though I am white and even though (actually, because) I support the overall cause of ending racial injustice in America and elsewhere. Some may find this combination incomprehensible or even illegitimate. For reasons of political correctness you may not be used to receiving honest criticism, only attacks by the asshole right. But I am not Rush Limbaugh. I am not even a player in America's political melodrama. I am just trying to get things right. You are welcome to disagree with my arguments and we can discuss that in the comments. But please do read them first.
I. Misdiagnosing Racial Injustice
You may have never used the N-word in your life, you may hate the K.K.K., but that does not mean that you don’t harbor racism and benefit from racism. After all, you are part of a system that allows you to walk into stores where you are not followed, where you get to go for a bank loan and your skin does not count against you, where you don’t need to engage in “the talk” that black people and people of color must tell their children when they are confronted by white police officers. (George Yancy, Dear White America)
White privilege is a very particular, very American account of racial injustice constructed upon its peculiar history of slavery and Jim Crow. That whether or not they choose to acknowledge it, white people are the complicit beneficiaries of systematic racism.
The first problem with this perspective is that it understands injustice in relative rather than absolute terms. I.e. in terms of the unfairness of the relationship between racial groups. Specifically, it is unfair that the members of one racial group, 'whites', enjoy special privileges - such as feeling safe in their interactions with police or having job applications judged on their merits or shopping without being followed by the security guard - which are denied to the members of certain racial groups (especially, hispanics and African Americans).
Although this state of affairs is clearly unfair, fairness does not seem the best moral frame for understanding and condemning it.
The fairness view suggests the problem of racial injustice has to do with distribution: some people get more rights than others. Call this the birthday cake view of social injustice: the problem is that white people are like those greedy birthday kids who think they deserve to have more cake than anyone else at the party and to win every game they play. One can see in this the left's traditional anti-capitalist tendencies: the reduction of all injustice to distribution problems and the 'intelligent design' assumption that because one group does better than others from unjust arrangements that must be why they exist.
I don't deny that there are some distributional aspects to today's racial injustice (such as in the public education system). But civil rights and dignity are not like a birthday cake, where one person's gain is another's loss. The whole point of them is that everyone can enjoy them equally at the same time. Despite the moral and legal victories of the 1960s civil rights movement that obviously hasn't happened yet: in practise black and hispanic Americans are still routinely misrecognised as 2nd class citizens. That is the central problem to be addressed: not that some people are treated better than others but that some citizens are still treated as less than equal.
White privilege misdiagnoses contemporary racial injustice by implying that civil rights are scarce goods distributed according to status - like an Ivy League degree or a New York rent-controlled apartment - and that it is because white people enjoy more rights that other ethnic groups do not. But what is never explained is how whites as a whole are supposed to benefit more from living in an unjust society rather than a just one. The idea that white people have some rational collective interest in suppressing black people just makes no sense, any more than keeping women out of work made men better off or keeping other countries poor would make America richer.
Take America's police forces, especially implicated in today's racial injustice. If the police don't respect the rights of civilians then we are all liable to mistreatment, even if that tends to fall more heavily on some than others (such as because of various stereotypes police officers of whatever skin colour have developed, especially about young black men's dangerousness, or because poorer areas are more heavily policed). No one is really safe no matter what colour their skin: America's police also shoot far more white people than other Western countries'. They also seem to have a license to loot travellers (I choose my driving routes carefully when I visit.) The glaring mistreatment of ethnic minorities is an important symptom but it is the underlying disease - the militaristic 'hero' ethos, the abysmal training except in the use of firearms, the adversarial attitude towards civilians, the lack of legal accountability, etc - that needs treating with the kind of institutional reform proposals set out by Campaign Zero.
White privilege locates the cause of contemporary racial injustice in the putative moral beliefs of the people who do better under it, i.e. whites. They should renounce their racist white supremacy values and work to change or overcome the values of other racist whites (i.e. Republicans). However reasonable this was in 1960s America, this approach is as relevant today as section 5 of the Voting Rights Act*.
II. A Better Account: Racial Bias not Racial Supremacy
The character of racial injustice has changed dramatically over the last few decades. Public morals in most Western liberal democracies have moved definitively against racism as a moral doctrine (though it persists in many other countries). Racial superiority is no longer an acceptable moral view even for private individuals, let alone politicians or government employees. There are few unabashed racists left to convert to the principle of racial equality or shame out of office, and diminishing returns to the effort. The supposed seat of contemporary racism, the Republican party, while morally repugnant in a number of other ways, long ago renounced racism and has fielded multiple black and hispanic presidential nominees in recent elections. (Even Trump, who hardly represents the views of the Party establishment anyway, sought and achieved endorsement by Ben Carson.) The persistence of racial injustice cannot be explained by white supremacists holding the reins of power. The moral challenge is no longer about establishing the principle of racial equality, but of fulfilling our joint responsibility for properly implementing it.
A better explanation of contemporary racial discrimination is what I will call 'racialism', taking a person's race as salient and then assessing their personal character and abilities by reference to stereotypes one holds about that race (try an Implicit Association Test to find out yours). Racialism is a huge problem, but it is not the same kind of problem as racism proper. In particular, it operates behind the back of individuals, whether below their conscious reasoning (subconscious stereotypes) or beyond it (in the way institutions like the criminal justice and education systems work). It is thus not directly reachable by moral suasion.
It is also incorrect to see racialism in terms of race relations as the white privilege view encourages, a matter of just terms of engagement between separate ethnic groups. First, racialist prejudices are also common among the very groups who suffer most from discrimination (as Jesse Jackson famously noted, and as George Zimmerman tragically demonstrated). Second, although the Ferguson police force was extremely white, most organisations with institutionally racist policies - like the NYPD's stop and frisk - have many black and hispanic employees. Racialism is not just a problem of moral conversion for white people but a collective challenge to overcome the effects of prejudices, and thereby, eventually, the prejudices themselves.
What the politics of racial injustice should be about is not who is to blame for it but how to fix it. In America and elsewhere we need a greater general awareness of the subconscious character of the prejudices most of us carry around with us and how they can distort our judgement (and on other matters too, such as gender and sexuality). We need to change laws and policies based on racial stereotypes. We especially need to reform how government and commercial institutions 'reason' about cases. Institutions often have decision rules which multiply the effects of prejudices by using biased judgements as the input for other biased judgements. Standardised algorithmic procedures and racial blinding (e.g. anonymising school and police records) can ameliorate that. So can efforts to check for unknown biases in the way institutions operate by looking at inequalities in outcomes and then tracking down the decision rules at fault.
We all share a moral responsibility for advancing such political reforms, a responsibility whose demands are proportional to our opportunity to influence the process, not the colour of our skin. We all also bear an individual responsibility to curtail the influence of our own prejudices on our judgements. Even if we can't directly get at the prejudices themselves, once aware of them there are countermeasures we can take, such as trying to explicitly reconstruct the reasoning behind any judgement that would be consistent with prejudice. These moral responsibilities, and who holds them, are different from those proposed by white privilege. They are oriented to solving the problem.
III. A New Moral Doctrine of Racism
At best, white privilege misdiagnoses the sociology and moral character of today's racial injustice as I explained above. At worst though it introduces a racist moral doctrine of its own. White privilege is not merely racialist - a prejudice about what white people tend to be like and how they behave (say, richer and more likely to vote Republican). It is an essentialist moral doctrine about whiteness: all white people are morally complicit in white supremacy whether or not they realise it and no matter their own moral beliefs. Such an assignment of moral standing by race is abhorrent.
I don't want to make too much of this. Most mainstream uses of the concept of white privilege don't emphasise this aspect. But it is always there, built into its underlying worldview, and has much to do with its political divisiveness. And it does appear in the insult-driven underbelly of social media 'activism' and in poorly organised protests like the one recently at Dartmouth, apparently on the principle that turnabout is fair play, or at least a legitimate awareness-raising device.
IV. Justice or Elections?
White privilege can be a powerful rhetorical device for raising awareness of injustice, that not everyone gets to live in the world you do, a world that more or less works according to high school civics class. In this use, it can draw attention to the fact of continuing racial injustice even after the legislative successes of the civil rights movement and a black president. But it is a poor choice for such a purpose since it explains that injustice in exactly the wrong way and its product is a divisive and pointless fight over moral blame rather than solidarity around a collective moral challenge.
At least, it is a poor choice if you care about ending racial injustice. Political philosophers like myself tend to jump all too easily to ideals of public deliberation and collective action, forgetting that actual democratic politics is quite a different matter than just doing ethics on a bigger scale. There are political gains to be had from divisiveness, from framing a problem in such a way as to divide people into different camps of us and them. For some people those gains, including the leadership role they may acquire by controlling the framing, are more important than solving the problem itself. (Sometimes,though rarely, the politics of divisiveness takes over entirely, as in Northern Ireland.)
Indeed, from over here in Europe, the political function of white privilege in America seems mainly to be a red flag to wave at Republicans and make them mad. See how they splutter with outrage at the paradox of being accused of racism because of the colour of their skin! Of course, baiting Republicans is lots of fun (see the popularity of the Daily Show even outside America; my students love it). But it is hardly likely to turn them into allies, which is what you need to make big changes in a country as politically divided as America.
But in the politics of divisiveness antagonising potential allies can pay off. Racial injustice is a real problem. Here you have the Republicans apparently in denial of it. Hence, they must be evil racists. Hence, ethnic minorities should recognise that the only party that cares about them is the Democrats. Hence, they will be more motivated to come out and vote at elections, to keep the evil people out of power. (Naturally, Republicans do similar things, e.g. there are more votes in stirring controversy about climate change than in fixing it.)
The tragedy of this adversarial approach is that it destroys the popular consensus that already exists for ending racial injustice. White privilege challenges its targets to either admit their racialised blood guilt or deny that there is racial injustice in America. Many people would rather deny that there is any problem at all than assume an impossible personal responsibility for slavery and every time a cop shoots a black kid playing in a park. The result is that America is embroiled in a ridiculous partisan debate about whether or not racial discrimination even exists, rather than focusing on what everyone claims to agree on - racial equality - and then working backwards from there to make it a reality.
Should the left focus on advancing the political consensus or motivating their political tribe? Grass roots activists like Black Lives Matter should understand that those goals don't necessarily go together, and consider carefully whether a racially divisive account like white privilege is a good foundation on which to build their campaign for a better world. What kind of victory could it possibly achieve?