In 1989, sociologist Peggy McIntosh penned a famous essay that propelled an ideological movement well beyond the ivory tower and into political discourse, pop culture commentary, and workplace seminars. It is now part of our modern lexicon.
“White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” listed 50 examples of struggles white people don’t usually have, or perks of being the majority race, from being able to “see people of my race widely represented” in media to never being asked “to speak for all the people of my racial group.” These examples, according to McIntosh, are how “privilege” manifests.
Yet white privilege theory, even as McIntosh conceived of it nearly 30 years ago, is far from benign. The danger this essay poses is not in acknowledging that the 50 occurrences McIntosh mentions do happen and can frustrate the efforts of black Americans and lead to feelings of being in the “out-group,” but in the surrounding commentary. It lays the groundwork for how white privilege theory is supposed to change our thought processes and economic systems.
Acknowledging the 50 examples in themselves can help us be more charitable and sensitize us to the disadvantages blacks still often face, but that was only a small part of McIntosh’s goal. A closer look at the rest of the “knapsack” essay reveals a system of thought that, at best, runs counter to traditional Western ideas of individual justice and personal merit:
‘I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day…’
‘My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person.’
‘The pressure to avoid [white privilege] is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.’ (emphasis mine)
McIntosh advocates for a “taxonomy of privilege” and sees many of her examples as indicative of “conferred dominance.” When she says she sees “unearned advantages” as a type of “oppression,” she’s employing the language of neo-Marxism.
What Is Neo-Marxism?
Briefly, neo-Marxism divides the world between oppressor and oppressed and identifies a system, or systems, by which the oppression takes place. In classical Marxism, the oppressed were the proletariat, the oppressors were the bourgeoisie, and the system of oppression was capitalism. The Marxist framework has been adapted to categorize and pit against each other various group identities, all toward the end of establishing socialism.
In gender, for instance, the oppressors are heterosexuals, the oppressed LGBTQ+, and the system of oppression is “heteronormativity.” In race, whites are oppressors, people of color the oppressed, and “white supremacy” is the system of oppression. In reading social justice literature, one quickly realizes “white supremacy” is the “conferred dominance” McIntosh refers to, which is sustained by a generally meritocratic system (capitalism).
As this celebration of Marx’s philosophy in the pages of The New York Times stated, “Racial and sexual oppression have been added to the dynamic of class exploitation. Social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, owe something of an unspoken debt to Marx through their unapologetic targeting of the ‘eternal truths’ of our age. Such movements recognize, as did Marx, that the ideas that rule every society are those of its ruling class and that overturning those ideas is fundamental to true revolutionary progress.”
Neo-Marxists are asking for a fundamental shift in our frame of mind, and ultimately, society. McIntosh sees meritocracy as more than problematic. It’s actually a “myth,” because some “doors are open to certain people through no virtues of their own.”
The existence of “unearned” opportunities or wealth is seen as such a severe critique of our system it warrants a disbelief in an idea foundational to the American dream: that we can rise or fall based on our own hard work, talent, intelligence, or other individual merits. Put another way, McIntosh encourages us to reject the idea that outcome is primarily determined by individual inputs (like work ethic, cooperation, and intelligence) largely unaffiliated with race.
Capitalism Is Bad Because It’s About Merit
For some neo-Marxist thinkers, overthrowing capitalism is the only way to end racial oppression, as they see it. According to sociological theorist Edna Bonacich, “Capitalism is a system that breeds class oppression and national/racial conquest. The two forms of exploitation operate in tandem. They are part of the same system that creates inequality, impoverishment, and all the other host of social ills that result. I believe that you cannot attack racism without attacking capitalism, and you cannot attack capitalism without attacking racism. The two are Siamese twins, joined together from top to bottom.”
“We need to engage in struggle against [the government and capitalist class],” and push for changes to “deprive the ruling class of their power and privilege,” she declared.
Privilege theory has always been about destroying the idea of the meritocracy so socialism can be ushered in. Now, capitalism is not a perfect meritocracy—far from it. Privileges like growing up in a two-parent household, being able to attend a good school, or having social connections to access comfortable employment give some people advantages over others. Neo-Marxists perceive those advantages not just as inherently unfair, but as power used to oppress the less advantaged (disproportionately composed of minorities), and that means capitalism is incompatible with racial justice.
Discrimination and Privilege Are Now Inseparable
A critical step in promoting white privilege theory has been to change the definitions of discrimination and prejudice to fit neo-Marxist ideas about how resources are distributed, which promotes redistribution as a remedy for racial “oppression.” No longer is prejudice about individual negative behavior toward minorities, but passive participation in the “in-group” (in this case, the white majority).
In a write-up of an NPR interview with the creators of the Implicit Association Test, a highly popular although now-discredited attempt to probe hidden racism, sociologist Nancy DiTomaso told NPR, “Discrimination today is less about treating people from other groups badly, and more about giving preferential treatment to people who are part of our ‘in-groups.’” In essence, white people are “privileging” each other.
Mahzarin Banaji, co-creator of the IAT, said, “The insidious thing about favoritism is that it doesn’t feel icky in any way,” also noting that, “that kind of act of helping towards people with whom we have some shared group identity is really the modern way in which discrimination likely happens.”
“When we help someone from one of these in-groups, we don’t stop to ask: Whom are we not helping?” she explained. Banaji accepts the premise common to leftist strains of thought: the economy is a fixed pie and everyone gets a slice.
For instance, this Huffington Post article in defense of affirmative action reads, “Because wealth and property are finite and produced by labor — accumulation by some can only happen through disaccumulation of others.” According to this premise, by giving resources to one person, you are actually depriving someone else of those resources, instead of working cooperatively to create even more wealth that eventually positively affects many economic actors of a variety of races. Banaji says she isn’t recommending people “stop helping their friends,” but that we should distribute more of our resources to people outside our “in-group.”
It is good and moral to give time, energy, and money toward helping the less fortunate. The danger is in the erroneous belief that every time you help someone who looks like you, you are working against a person of color.
The belief that helping your white friends and neighbors constitutes discrimination lays the groundwork for racial divisiveness and redistributive solutions based on the “fixed pie” model. Driving a wedge into that crack in logic is the emphasis WPT places on the “unearned advantages” of whites instead of the relative disadvantages of blacks.
This is not just potAYto-potAHto semantics. Instead of targeting policies and processes that put blacks at a disadvantage (i.e. individual bigotry, being excessively pulled over while driving, longer sentencing for black males) and gathering support for reforms that bring about more equality under the law, privilege theory is designed to instill whites with the idea that they didn’t earn what they have. While advocates for WPT often insist this isn’t about making whites “feel guilty,” the inevitable conclusion of a white person who accepts WPT is that they have gained what they have through an unfair system that “preferences” white people. They have what McIntosh calls “unearned power.”
As Bonacich put it, “we are caught up in the values of careerism and survival in the system,” and “in protecting ourselves, we become a part of the system of oppression, and thus accomplices to the crime.”
A properly convicted or “woke” white person will conclude he is guilty of participating in the unfair system, of playing on an unlevel playing field that other whites have distorted, not by deliberately excluding blacks, but by privileging other whites. Whether he walks around with his head hung low or vocally “confesses” his privilege is beside the point. Advocates of WPT have shifted the focus away from denouncing and disempowering racist behavior (as traditionally understood), to seeking to disempower whites as a class because as a group they are responsible for “oppressing” blacks.
If you sufficiently degrade the idea that our pseudo-capitalist generally rewards by merit (usually productivity), you degrade the idea that what we have is truly “earned.” The idea of unearned privilege therefore undermines support for the meritocracy.
This Undermines the Idea of Private Property
Ultimately, the idea of unearned privilege unwinds belief in private property, opening the door for Marxists to fashion policies that undermine property rights so resources can be redistributed. A belief in “unearned advantages,” leads to a disturbing question: if we cannot truly earn what we have because we’ve been given advantages, then does it really belong to us? Have we, in effect, taken out a mortgage for our success?
Eula Biss penned an essay for The New York Times arguing that white Americans have in fact taken out a “mortgage.” White guilt is white debt, she argues. We feel guilty because we haven’t paid it off.
We feel guilty not because we personally have behaved in a racist manner, but because we’ve indirectly benefited from this country’s history of very real oppression, though we have participated in none of it: slavery, Jim Crow laws, and racist housing policies chief among them. “I’m more compelled by a freedom that would allow me to deserve what I have. Call it liberation, maybe. If debt can be repaid incrementally, resulting eventually in ownership, perhaps so can guilt.”
President Obama reflected a similar sentiment during the 2012 campaign, though in the broader context of opposing tax cuts:
If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.
His words reflect the Marxist ideology that you can’t take credit for what you own (Obama’s affiliations with Marxists throughout his career are well documented), because “somebody else made that happen.” White privilege theory is undergirded by the very same idea. WPT leads to white guilt, which leads to a belief that you don’t truly own what you have.
This is a dangerous road to take. We are already traveling down it via broader societal consensus on entitlements, which by definition entitle one American to another American’s money. Taxation is theft, but hardly anyone acknowledges this. Instead, there’s broad support for affluent citizens to “pay their fair share,” which indicates a belief that these citizens aren’t chiefly entitled to the fruits of their own labor, but someone else, someone poorer, has a greater claim to their wealth.
The more we redistribute, the more we come to think of someone else’s assets as being on loan from a larger pot of money meant to serve the collective. Undermining property rights through white privilege theory greases the hinges on the door to enforcing outcome equality via redistribution. This is not just a tinfoil hat conspiracy theory. Privilege theory is already leading to more redistribution—not just of wealth, but of speech and opportunities like college admissions or job applications. Here are some examples of this.
It should come as no surprise that white privilege and censorship, both gaining traction on college campuses, go hand in hand. Many advocates for WPT seek to redistribute speech through “progressive stacking.” Speaking slots are not assigned by who signs up to speak first. Rather, the “stack” is rearranged by “facilitators” so that “marginalized groups” are given better slots or more speaking time.
According to an Occupy Wall Street activist, “A progressive stack encourages women and traditionally marginalized groups to speak before men, especially white men…’Step up, step back’ was a common phrase of the first week, encouraging white men to acknowledge the privilege they have lived in their entire lives and to step back from continually speaking.” Last year, a University of Pennsylvania TA admitted she uses progressive stacking in her classroom.
The emphasis on white privilege in college campuses, together with animus toward pro-individual rights, pro-free market thinking, has even led student senators at the University of California at Berkeley to seriously suggest “reallocating all College Republicans funding to the Black Student Union,” on the basis that the College Republicans had violated “lead center rules during Free Speech week” last September (even though the event had been cancelled).
According to Campus Reform’s report, they did not cite any details about which rules they had violated. Such a blatant redistribution of funds based on race would not have occurred as a valid idea to these senators apart from the influence of privilege theory.
The idea of redistributing opportunities to remedy “systemic racism” reached the policy level decades ago in 1961, when President Kennedy started the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This was long before “white privilege” cascaded into the public consciousness, but it is justified as a remedy for it.
Although it is never billed as such, affirmative action is essentially a method of redistributing jobs or academic slots based on racial or gender quotas (in countries where it’s legal) or “targets” (meaning it is a goal to hire X many minorities, but not a “mandated outcome.”) While the Supreme Court has ruled against strict quotas in America, it has allowed universities to factor race into their admissions decisions.
To demonstrate how affirmative action artificially boosts minorities, thereby “redistributing” according to race, see this Princeton study, which attempted to quantify the weight given to race in college admissions.
Being African American instead of white is worth an average of 230 additional SAT points on a 1600-point scale, but recruited athletes reap an advantage equivalent to 200 SAT points. Other things equal, Hispanic applicants gain the equivalent of 185 points, which is only slightly more than the legacy advantage, which is worth 160 points. Coming from an Asian background, however, is comparable to the loss of 50 SAT points.
So while the authors noted that weights given to legacy students or athletes sometimes have a greater effect than weights for ethnicity, it is clear that with affirmative action, the individual scores of the applicant are secondary in importance to artificially equalized outcomes.
In cases where white candidates are more qualified on individual merits than minority candidates, yet minorities (apart from Asians) are given a “bump” because of race so they receive the position or admission instead of more qualified white candidates, this is a redistribution of opportunity. Opportunities are redistributed from white candidates to non-white candidates via a biased selection system.
Forty years ago, affirmative action was meant to “level the playing field” that had been tilted because of the racial injustices we had built into law. Today, it is about correcting for “white privilege” as much as “promoting diversity,” and it will only gain more traction as the theory gains more adherents.
The concept of “disparate impact” in government policy also serves to promote redistribution. I described the policy in an article in 2015:
Disparate impact is the idea that policies can have a disproportionate and adverse effect on minorities. For example, let’s say that a certain housing policy was not intended to cause racial disparities in types of housing and allows all people with equal qualifications an opportunity to live in a single family house. Despite its universal standards for applicants, if it nevertheless leads to white people aggregating in suburban neighborhoods made up of single family homes, and Hispanics and blacks aggregating in low income apartment housing, the theory goes that this ‘disparate impact’ can constitute racial discrimination.”
The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that disparate impact claims, which have been allowed under the Civil Rights Act, can now be brought under the Fair Housing Act. This means local governments are now liable for disparate impact claims, regardless of whether their policies were meant to discriminate against protected classes like race or age. The court affirmed HUD’s long-held interpretation of the Civil Rights Act, and effectively permits HUD to intervene in cases of “a facially neutral practice that has a discriminatory effect.
Essentially, plaintiffs can demand that housing be redistributed because non-equitable outcomes, although unintentional, can be legally viewed as “discriminatory.”
This is exactly what white privilege theory advocates asked for. The authors of a 2001 report titled “Persistence of White Privilege and Institutional Racism,” compiled by the Transnational Racial Justice Initiative, argues that the focus “on intention versus injury is clearly designed to protect white privilege and make challenges to this system prohibitive.” The report points to federal housing policy as a specific example of how white privilege creates “injustice.” It calls for exactly what the Supreme Court has recently ruled: that disparate effects should be treated as discrimination.
This idea is closely associated with Banaji’s sentiments that “discrimination” is about preferencing your in-group rather than showing bigotry toward blacks because of their race. It’s not about motive, it’s about effect. The tendency of people to aggregate themselves and their resources around people similar to them must be corrected by “redistributing” housing (and even people holding affordable housing vouchers) among communities of varying densities of whiteness or blackness.
This is a very serious ruling, considering how strongly we are biologically and culturally pulled toward communities of our own ethnicity. Babies show a facial recognition bias toward their own race (or the race they interact with the most), and this bias continues into adulthood, especially if their own race makes up the majority of the people they interact with.
It isn’t likely this tendency will diminish outside radically rearranging family structures (discouraging monoracial parents, for instance), the ethnic compositions of classrooms, and the larger local community. If removing the wiring for in-group preference is politically untenable, progressives are left with simple outcome redistribution to remedy the problem, which they now have the power to do via claims brought under the Fair Housing Act.
In short, it is a remedy by diktat, using the force of the federal bureaucracy to reshape local policy toward more equitable racial outcomes. In fact, one of the goals of the AFFH (Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing) rule is to make every grant-recipient community reflect the racial proportions of the larger region in which they are found. HUD has therefore treated candidates for affordable housing as “ethnic units” to be redistributed toward this goal of racial proportion, and the SCOTUS ruling validates this goal.
It Is Unfair to Blame Groups for Individual Choices
There is a kernel of truth to the idea of white privilege as it is often understood by less ideological, casual observers: that white people generally have an easier time getting on in the world than black people do. But white privilege theory as originally conceived was never confined to simply acknowledging that the average white person doesn’t face the same disadvantages as the average black person (if we can speak of “average” at all, given that every individual is unique) and encouraging cultural sensitivity and justice for victims of racism.
It was always couched in neo-Marxism, identifying whites as oppressors and blacks as the oppressed, placing blame on the entire white “class,” regardless of its members’ individual behavior or circumstance, for perpetuating a system that produces disparate outcomes on the aggregate between whites and blacks. To acknowledge white privilege in the way McIntosh did, the way “social justice warriors” and left-leaning college professors do today, is to tacitly accept the oppressor/oppressed framework. To promote true white privilege theory is to advocate for the dismantling of the system of oppression: capitalism.
While hardly anyone outside self-professed socialists would acknowledge this is what is happening, we see the dismantling of meritocracy and individual rights all around us. White privilege theory seeks equality of outcome, not merely the equal dispensation of individual justice. That goal can only be reached by redistributionist policies that violate the principle of local governance, treat people as ethnic “units,” limit individuals’ opportunities based on race, suppress freedom of speech, and restrict the freedom to keep and control one’s own money.
Although forfeit of property is generally confined to money (via taxation) and we deem our other property “safe” from confiscation, the logical conclusion of white privilege theory is that we can never truly earn what we have, as long as we’ve been the beneficiaries of in-group preference, so our possessions do not really “belong” to us. Given other precedents by which government tells us what we can and cannot do with our property, this fundamental rejection of property rights, in the minds of enough bureaucrats and judges, would further imperil their justification under law.
We would do well to acknowledge the disadvantages African Americans and other minorities face, and to work to mitigate those disadvantages. We should be less prone to leaning on stereotypes, for example, and more generous with our individual resources in helping the marginalized, particularly people who have been tangibly victimized. But to accept white privilege theory as the Left promotes it is to accelerate our journey down the road to socialism. As Walter E. Williams wrote, “Which way are we headed tiny steps at a time – toward greater liberty or toward more government control over our lives?”
Those who wave off the warnings of Jordan Peterson, Jonathan Haidt, and others who warn about the infiltration of Marxist thought in higher education may not fully grasp how dangerous this ideology is. Communism, its ideological spawn, has led to the deaths of nearly 100 million people in the last century. Collectivist ideologies nearly conquered the globe.
Instead of tacitly accepting the theories that trickle out of the universities, we should critically examine and compare them to the ideas that gave rise to the human flourishing of the West— individual liberty and natural rights—to see if they are compatible. In the case of white privilege theory, it clearly is not.