Overcoming “Liberal Privilege”


I’m tempted to read Ashley Stokes’s op-ed in the Providence Journal as a very clever satire of the way in which people would expect somebody who studied “urban sociology” in college to respond to David Carlin’s controversial essay on the subject of “white privilege.”

Stokes rattles off “a quick reference list” of examples of what “white privilege” means in America, today.  Some of the points that she makes — those that are on specific issues — contain fair points and should be part of our national conversation about race, but other points are simply outbursts that would dissipate like smoke at the slightest breeze of objection.  Here’s one:

White privilege is having an interaction with law enforcement and being able to walk away with your life.

Even accepting Stokes’s premises, this sentiment is so exaggerated as to be rhetorically useless.  Obviously, almost all non-white people who interact with police live to tell the tale.  The incidents of people dying at the hands of police are major news splashes because they are rare compared with the number of interactions.  But a more subtle statement wouldn’t serve Stokes’s indignation.

Or consider this one:

White privilege is reminding people to remember Pearl Harbor, the Alamo, the Boston Tea Party and both world wars, but then asking why black people can’t seem to put slavery behind them.

Perhaps there are Americans who wish to erase the memory of slavery, although I can’t recall having ever heard from them, but far more common is the belief that we should remember slavery in exactly the same way as we remember wars: to learn from history, overcome its challenges, and not repeat it.

More profound, however, are the areas in which one would hope Stokes can see how she engages in just the sort of narrow racial thinking that she attributes to “white privilege”:

White privilege is no one assuming your success in education or your career is from athletic scholarships or affirmative action.

This entire discussion began with a front-page news story claiming that white people benefit by their skin color and remain almost generally ignorant of the ways in which that’s true.  Beyond assuming that any success in a white person’s life must be the benefit of “athletic scholarships or affirmative action,” the shibboleth of “white privilege” assumes that any success at all in a white person’s life comes from the privilege.

On the grand scale, this sort or racial determinism is simply a way to divide Americans along imaginary — or at least superficial — lines for the personal and political gain of race hucksters and progressives.  On the individual scale, though, I’d propose that “liberal privilege” is about being able to skip all evidence and logic and go straight to presuming to offer unquestionable “reference lists” for people who disagree.  Most of all, it’s a way for liberals of all races — whether Ashley Stokes or Mark Santow — who were raised in privileged circumstances to look down their noses at those who weren’t.

Stokes acknowledges the adverse circumstances of Carlin’s own childhood, but she gets it wrong.  It’s not “unfortunate” that “Americans of all backgrounds have similar stories of struggle.”  Experience with struggle helps to make us stronger, and overcoming adversity fulfills the grand drama of our lives.

What’s unfortunate is that liberals like Stokes and Santow push a cultural narrative in order to belittle the accomplishments of others, like Carlin.  Worse is that they then use the same narrative to discredit the others’ suggestions about how to overcome adversity while telling those who continue to face it that it can’t be overcome apart from a divisive ideology and without the election of a particular political party promising handouts, quotas, and moral absolution.