We all like to think that our position is due only to our own skill, our own ability, and yet we know that cannot possibly true. Regardless of our political opinion, it is simply a point of logic that without a great social system that created roads, educational facilities, and in general the whole economic and social thrust of society, we would be as nothing. Clearly those in other societies had at least as much merit and skill as us, yet throughout history living standards have obviously changed. The reasonable question is not, “Is success socially defined?”, but rather “Is this social definition based in justice?” To be intellectually honest, I should put my own life under examination and see how much justice was involved.
My parents were both white professionals with college degrees. But privilege is not a simple thing. For the first eight years of my life, my mother was a homemaker and my father a small and somewhat lazy businessman, both involved with a spiritual community. Yet my parents could still turn to their parents, who had homes and saved income, if they truly needed help, and I never went to school hungry or couldn't get a toy I really wanted. Moreover, when my father, after probably a decade of barely working, was able to parley his connections and MIT Math diploma to almost immediately get cushy management jobs in programming firms and become upper-middle class, while my mother became a rather successful translator able to work less than forty hours a week and continue taking care of the house and providing for my needs, it implicated me in privilege no matter my preference. Privilege is more than a high salary; it is connections, resources, educations, acculturations, and accesses that can surpass and even replace a high salary. Why wasn't a black candidate who had actual recent work experience hired over my father? Not least because there weren't many out there thanks to educational inequity, but that can't explain everything. Rather, that even those qualified black candidates had not made good with the bosses in the past (owing to not attending elite colleges or not having rich and well-connected parents), so their work experience was almost irrelevant. Even my parents' relatively hardtack beginnings were nothing compared to the reality of the truly poor in this country.
Early on, teachers recognized that I had a certain degree of talent and intelligence that put me into the “gifted” track, the position in the educational hierarchy involving extracurricular activities, spelling bees, honors and AP classes, debate clubs. Though my community was white enough as it was, in retrospect the honor track was even more white than usual. Even Northwestern University recognizes this fact; this is why they have pioneered an approach wherein they look at the context of the student's life, including economic and educational opportunity, in order to evaluate the “objective” indices of GPA, SATs and AP scores. It should be elementary that a student who went to a school without AP or honors courses should have their grades looked at differently. Yet few colleges have the resources or ability to perform such analysis with each application. Inaction sustains the system just as much as action: like the Red Queen's Race, one has to run as fast as one can to stay in the same place.
And what of my friends in high school? Those jocks, geeks, preps and emo kids who all spent their weekends drowning their sorrows with liquor and weed? Did any of them face consequences for illegal activity? Or rather was it, as I remember from a football meeting (long story short: I was in Football PE but not on the team), covered up and “forgiven” on the rare occasions it was even detected? Did anyone go to prison when the cops finally busted parties that had over a hundred people attending, including Sacramento gang members? Yet those excuses and those courtesies, while wholly proper (indeed, drugs should be legalized), are only extended to the whiter and richer among us. When Rush Limbaugh (who even admitted that “[T]oo many whites are getting away with drug use”) was caught abusing Vicodin and Oxycontin, he went to a rehab center, almost a health spa, not federal prison1. This anecdotal piece of evidence generalizes. As the Sentencing Project reports (“Crack Cocaine Sentencing: A Racist Policy?”), “The 100:1 quantity ratio in cocaine sentencing causes low-level crack offenders to receive arbitrarily severe sentences compared to high level powder cocaine offenders. The quantity distinction has also resulted in a massive sentencing disparity by race, with African Americans receiving longer sentences than the mostly white and Hispanic powder cocaine offenders.” And it's not just crime where white offenders consistently get their excuses listened to and their habits made unproblematic by institutional fiat. Gregory Squires' piece, “The Policy of Prejudice”, establishes that, “mystery shoppers' [were matched] in terms of the structure and value of their homes, their incomes and occupations, and other socioeconomic factors. The only difference was the racial composition of the neighborhoods.. when testers from white areas called to inquire about the availability of insurance agents generally attempted to sell them a policy. But when callers from minority areas inquired... [agents] discouraged the callers from pursuing a policy with them.” (147-148).
And what about my male privilege? I can't isolate many concrete incidences when being male helped me, but that is just as much the problem as anything else. As Steven Lukes argues in his three-dimensional model (Power: A Radical View, page 366 in the reader), “...the bias of the system can be mobilized, recreated and reinforced in ways that are neither consciously chosen nor are the intended result of particular individuals' choices.” How many times did I stand idly by when a sexist joke was made? When a female companion of mine was made uncomfortable but pretended to be “fine with it” precisely because of the consequences of not being fine with it? Recently, friends of mine created a “point system” as an incentive for them (quite geeky friends, to be fair) to engage with women. The “point system” did not offer incentives for what men call “playing” (and what with women we call “sluttiness”, owing to differential sex roles, often called “The Madonna and the Whore” in the literature), but it still had not occurred to most of them how disturbing many might find it that women were being reduced to “points”. My debate partner in high school was a Latino girl one year younger than me, and I can't imagine how many times I must have tried to force a submissive relationship, especially in the male, white and rich-dominated world of competitive high school debate (luckily, if nothing else, she was a spirited woman, and would not take that crap). And recently, after having read “You Just Don't Understand” by Deborah Tannen, I had come to realize that the way I had perceived my mother as supposedly interrupting me was created by gender, race, and geographical reality, and in fact she had just wanted to assist or to handle other topics (though admittedly she still did try to change the conversation a lot). To quote, “Women and men feel interrupted by each other because of the differences in what they are trying to accomplish with talk... Nothing is more disappointing in a close relationship than being accused of bad intentions when you know your intentions were good, especially by someone you love... And a left jab meant in the spirit of sparring can become a knockout if your opponent's fists are not raised to fight...” (122). More subtly, Arlie Hochschild in “The Second Shift” describes the phenomenon wherein women (women like my mother or any wife or girlfriend I might potentially meet and become involved with) work just as hard (incidentally typically still making less, as they are not perceived to be the primary breadwinners) during the day and then work an additional eight hours a day spread out among the week, typically meaning late nights, early mornings or weekends. That means that any woman I live with is highly likely to be more stressed and poorer than I am, a major advantage. Yet is it an advantage I really want? Is it worth it to have someone in your house who is too tired to do anything? The institution makes that choice for me, the cost of privilege.
Arguably, all this is nothing compared to American privilege, or imperial privilege, or the substantial advantages that come from living in the most economically and militarily powerful First World nation. Walton's chapter on The World System describes the history of European colonial plunder and economic control, then goes onto point out that, “The new stage is no more favorable to the underdeveloped nations of the periphery than the last two. On the contrary... they may be less obliging in particular ones.” And make no mistake, these systems of class, race, empire and gender are united. Anton Foek offers a poignant example in “Sweatshop Barbie”: “I cannot help thinking of Cindy Jackson... who has had 19 cosmetic-surgery operations to make herself look like Barbie – at a cost of some $165,000. I wonder what Jackson would say if she could see these sick and dying women and know how brutally they have been exploited in order to make dolls for First World children. Pramitwa, Sunanta and Metha have never heard of Cindy Jackson, but my guess is that they are glad not to be in her shoes.” The terms of trade are increasingly being rigged for the already powerful. Going to a relatively elite university like UC Davis virtually insures contacts, expertise, social standing and a perception of skill and ability that guarantees ostensible success. And once I'm in that position of success, I am quite likely to not only see my class grow richer and stronger, but also not be knocked out of that class. Robert Reich describes the well-known statistics that describe enhanced global inequity: The poorest fifth of American families became 8% poorer and the richest fifth became 13% richer, and this inequity generalized across the world, both inbetween and internal to nations. Reich makes clear that this problem is structural: “The conservative tide... certainly has many causes, but the fundamental change in our economy should not be discounted... It is now possible for the fortunate fifth to sell their expertise directly in the global market, and thus maintain and enhance their standard of living, even as that of other Americans declines.” And this has also manifested as a lack of social mobility as well.
Now, I am admittedly not always a recipient or beneficiary of privilege. My parents were once poor, and still are not in the highest echelons of society. Being involved in the activism I have been doing has led to death threats (but not actual assault or death), punitive responses from school officials (though not the same degree as “problem students”, disproportionately poor or black), and have been misquoted and misunderstood by journalists and people who can only hear limited parts of my arguments because of the script of the society.
But even my lefty principles and action implicate me in systems of privilege. I'm not just talking about how movement leadership tends to skew upwards in terms of class and race, as Lipsky in “Protest as Political Resources” indicts. Rather, that if I express opinions, my opinions are not taken to be emblematic of a group as such, a privilege not afforded to blacker individuals; when I do express my opinions, it is likely they will get a far more attentive audience than the same opinions expressed by those less privileged; and expressing my opinions is not likely to actually end up harming me. Consider Dave Chappelle's comment in his stand-up Showtime special, “For What It's Worth”: “I almost protested the war [in Iraq] to begin with, almost. Until I saw what happened to those Dixie chicks. I said, 'Fuck that'. If they'll do that to three white women, they'll tear my black ass to pieces.” Of course, Lipsky's comments are quite relevant, particularly about the skewing upwards of protest organizers.
And do I have to be involved in activism? Is it a matter of survival for me? Not especially. Actually, the things that I propose, like tax equalization across school districts, progressive taxation, full employment, etc. are likely to harm me. If I quit, or “sell out”, does anyone besides a small and insular group care? Indeed, doing so might give me more opportunities, as I join the ranks of David Horowitz and other former lefties who “saw the light” and get book deals and conservative think tank funding. Further, what makes me, and all those other rich and/or white leftists out there, think that success is possible or necessary? Why should I have to convince someone that doing the right thing might have good consequences? Shouldn't they do it anyways? Leftists despaired when the Iraq war was declared despite incredible resistance. This was ignoring that any protest before a war began was historically unprecedented, let alone principled international opposition. But hadn't the Iraqis fought for their rights for decades, and blacks against segregation and slavery for centuries? What made us think that a few years camping on college lawns and shaking some signs would stop a war machine of that magnitude with that degree of social backing? In short: The famous propensity of the Left to conceptually snatch defeat from the jaws of victory is also implicated in classist and racist biases, that the notion that we can fix anything we see is an illusion that only those who have had relatively easy lives can maintain.
I even have the option to use a different language to speak about race (or class or gender or empire or...). As Blauner indicates in “Talking Past Each Other”, whites often speak about race and racism as a problem that occurs when overtly racist people behave in a particular way, that “Whites saw racism largely as a thing of the past. They defined it in terms of segregation and lynching, explicit white supremacist beliefs, or double standards in hiring, promotion, and admissions to college or other institutions”, as contrasted with the black language of racism as a combination of history, governmental and economic policies, and acculturation practices.. Now it is quite true that whites often hold illusions about even those things, but the point is that blacks could understand, indeed had to understand, the complex interplay of forces that create “institutional racism”, whereas a white man or woman could afford to live in ignorance, as it might never affect them.
Had even a bit about my class, or race, or gender been different, my life would have been radically different, and likely for the worse. Had I been in a black neighborhood, chances would be much higher that I would be going to a poor or underfunded school even if my parents were well-off, like one of those schools Kozol describes in “Savage Inequalities”; and even if I went to a rich school, I would likely be tracked into remedial or non-honors classes. My radical activism would be simultaneously necessary to survive and often punished. Were I a woman, many of my successes would be viewed as “bitchy”, and my already often competitive attitude would be magnified; moreover, I would face lower wages and my educational possibilities would be artificially circumscribed by sexist pressures leading to certain majors and certain occupations. Were my parents less rich, they could not have afforded to pay for the high school debate that almost assuredly secured my place at this university, the camps and the flights and the long trips to Los Angeles.
My whole life has been corrupted, tainted and made impure by the presence of inequity and domination, just as surely as the victims of that inequity and domination. My position at this university, and this university, are no less implicated. This is not a reason to feel guilt. If anything, it is a reason to feel rage. But the most important thing: to act.
1. Michael Bradley, “Stoned Rush Limbaugh Makes Hypocritical History By Demanding Harsh Penalties For Other Drug Users”. http://www.bradleyreport.net/commentary/StonedRush.htm