what is privilege?

What do we mean when we say “privilege,” in a political or social context?

Here are some valid everyday uses of the word: “It is a real privilege to be here tonight.” “Playing football is a privilege, not a right.” “I feel privileged and grateful to be enrolled at this college.”

A privilege seems to be some kind of benefit or desirable standing that not everyone has. Some privileges are perfectly appropriate. They create meaningful and worthy categories, such as membership in a given organization or the right to practice a particular profession. According to Elinor Ostrom’s hugely valuable research on how people manage common pool resources (such as fisheries and forests), one of the general principles is the need for clear boundaries between insiders and outsiders. The insiders have the privilege to, for example, fish in a common pond. If everyone has that right, all the fish will be taken.

The problem is unjust privilege. Teaching Tolerance says, for example:

white skin privilege is a transparent preference for whiteness that saturates our society. White skin privilege serves several functions. First, it provides white people with “perks” that we do not earn and that people of color do not enjoy. Second, it creates real advantages for us. White people are immune to a lot of challenges. Finally, white privilege shapes the world in which we live — the way that we navigate and interact with one another and with the world.

Several empirical claims are implicit here: (1) certain advantages accompany whiteness in the US; (2) these advantages persist even when no one deliberately endorses them; and (3) whites tend not to acknowledge their privileges.

Built into those claims are moral premises: (1) It is OK to make distinctions, but not on the basis of race; (2) earned advantages are justifiable but unearned ones are not; (3) it is better to be conscious of privilege.

I happen to share these six propositions–on the whole–but they are controversial. From the left, Bill Mullen writes in Socialist Worker that the concept of white skin privilege divides working-class coalitions, makes racial identity look fixed and inevitable, conceals the underlying cause of racism, and blocks the only path that he believes in, which is economic revolution. A left critic might also reject the assumption that earned privileges are acceptable because they come from talent or hard work. Although there’s a big debate about what this statement implies, John Rawls insists that “no one deserves his place in the distribution of natural endowments” (Theory of Justice, 17).

From the opposite end of the spectrum, David Horowitz asserts that white skin privilege is a radical leftist myth, and “black skin privilege” is the real problem today because official policies that acknowledge race favor people of color.

Meanwhile, people who endorse the use of the phrase tend to talk about other forms of privilege as well. Race is said to “intersect” with gender, sexual orientation, citizenship status, and social class to create webs of privilege.

We will not soon conclude these debates; but some conceptual clarity may help. I think “privilege” is being used to mean unjust advantage, and that raises the question of what constitutes justice. Distributive justice is a whole topic unto itself. Allowing skin color to predict social outcomes is unjust, but preventing that does not fully satisfy justice. Getting what you earn (and only that) would be one definition of justice–not mine. Getting all that you need to meet your potential would be another definition–but I don’t think it’s possible, since human potential is unlimited. Having an equal share of the society’s rights and goods would also not be my definition, for a variety of reasons, including the fact that I don’t mind if other people have much more than I do (for I have plenty). Assuring everyone a reasonable minimum sounds good, but that it is compatible with profound and invidious inequality above the line.

Despite the difficulty, I’d argue that one must first develop a theory of justice before one can identify “privilege” in the negative sense of that word.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.