Privilege, Risk, and Harm

Trump’s victory has triggered a spate of post-hoc analysis about what went wrong. One of the major narratives to take root is that Trump’s win was fueled by a rejection of PC culture and identity politics broadly.

I’m agnostic on this point. I see a lot of reasons to think it might be correct in some way, at least from talking to Trump voters themselves, but I also think the narrative is probably a lot more complicated than “liberals hurt my feelings”.

At the same time, having taught hundreds of college students over ten years, I can say that certain aspects of liberal America are grating on the average person, none perhaps more than the concept of privilege. Calls to “check your privilege” are one of the mainstays of left wing politics and one of the most often cited examples of those politics in conservative and libertarian circles.

Privilege as a concept is attractive to liberals because it describes something real about the world. I receive a variety of benefits from being a well-educated white woman that other people do not get. And these benefits are based almost entirely on luck. Of course, I’ve worked hard and I’m not going to undermine the importance of hard work. But there are things I haven’t worked for: I’m less likely to be pulled over by police, I’m less likely to be beaten by police if I am pulled over. I’m less likely to die violently, be incarcerated, live in poverty, miss out on a job or have my apartment application rejected on the basis of my race.

Privilege, however, is a pretty blunt instrument for talking about those kinds of benefits, largely because it ignores a lot of the nuance of what provides opportunity in our society. White friends of mine who grew up in dirt poor rural environments and who watched many of their friends die in car accidents or drug overdoses or end up in prison have a hard time taking seriously the idea that they are especially privileged in any way. They may have slightly more positive interactions with police, but then again, those interactions may still end very badly.

Privilege is also used as a (not quite) literal blunt instrument by those on the left. The concept came up in one of my post-election classes when a bewildered conservative student said that she had been told “check your white girl privilege” by a friend while discussing the election on Facebook. She didn’t respond because she didn’t even know what she had been accused of. Most of my students, including liberal students, have similar stories.

As a result, I’ve tried to think about ways to talk about what we mean by privilege that might more accurately (and less explosively) represent what it really is that we’re getting at when we talk about why some people have significantly harder lives than others based on factors outside their control.

One possible contender is to talk instead about risk. To take myself as an example, because I’m a white heterosexual married woman with a PhD I am at much lower risk of negative interactions with law enforcement. I’m at much lower risk of dying violently than my male counterparts. For a long time, I was at lower risk of my marriage not being recognized and therefore losing custody of my kids than same sex couples. I’m at lower risk of being violently targeted for my race. All these examples represent real harm that is more likely for some people than for others.  It’s the same information as the privilege discussion, but I think the language of risk is better for a few reasons.

Here’s what I like about the language of risk:

Risk roots us in facts. Instead of talking about generic opportunities, I can talk to my students about research done on resumes with traditionally black names and those with traditionally white names. We can talk about implicit bias and how it affects the way people get internships, jobs, and a host of other opportunities. I can have them read Radley Balko’s work and have them picture themselves living in a town where they are literally targeted by police because they are poor. I can talk about the risk of arrest, of conviction, of incarceration. Risk gives us specific harms to think about and target.

Risk forces people to be specific. Instead of talking about generic white privilege, risk forces us to talk about concrete experiences and to try to understand the other side. Risk forces us to think about the intersectionality, as progressives say, of our identities. As a woman, I may be at greater risk of being sexually assaulted, but at lower risk of dying violently, than a male counterpart. That’s a more specific assessment than my generic “privilege.”

Risk also makes it clear that we’re talking about real harms, not just generic advantages some people have that others do not. Risk of death sounds much more like the harm it is than the term privilege can convey.

Risk also does a better job proving the epistemic point the language of privilege is supposed to. “Check your privilege” is meant, however poorly it accomplishes its goal, to force people to recognize the accidental benefits they receive just by having the “right” color skin (or whatever other privileged status one inhabits). Unfortunately, that epistemic point backfires when the word is used to target people whose own experiences are much more complex than the person hurling the word around is aware of. The person hurling the term privilege around is the same person who has no idea that the person on the other end is mentally ill or grew up in foster care or was abused as a child. Privilege is far too broad to be epistemically useful because it assumes far too much knowledge on the part of those attaching “privilege” to various identities and lives.

Risk doesn’t do everything it might need to, admittedly. It’s doesn’t fully capture the benefits many (not all) white families received from discriminatory housing laws or mortgage lending practices, for example. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argued a few years back, part of the reason the average white family has close to 20 times the assets as the average black family is precisely because after ending slavery, white people then took away black votes and black land, and prevented black Americans from owning property through discriminatory lending, redistricting, and zoning laws for generations. Those effects persist. I’m not sure risk encapsulates that history.

Risk is also less catchy, which is both a feature and a bug. It’s a feature because it forces people to think clearly about complex issues and tease out the real risks and benefits of various identities in a pluralistic society. It’s a bug because it takes a lot of mental work that people are disinclined to do. But since part of teaching requires getting my students to do that mental work, I think it has pedagogical benefits, even if it doesn’t take off in the broader society. The catchiness of privilege, is, of course, part of the reason it can be used as a bludgeon to shut down discussion, which is also one of my main concerns with the concept.

The other thing that risk, perhaps, doesn’t capture that privilege does, is that the kinds of risks we’re concerned about in this context are those that are socially caused. My family history of heart disease, while it might cause me some misery later in life, is different from the chronic stress-caused damage that the poor experience. Similarly, my friend’s risk of death might increase because of her penchant for sky-diving, but that’s a risk she’s voluntarily taken on.

Whether or not the language of risk is the right angle to take, I think it’s obvious that we need alternatives to the language of privilege because, whatever else it does do, it gets in the way of communicating complex ideas about harm in our society and it interferes with people’s ability to recognize the harms that laws and institutions cause to vulnerable populations. The question then is how to talk about these harms in a way that demonstrates the depth of the problem to those from a variety of political backgrounds. Is risk enough? Are there better words out there?

  • Sean II

    Risk is a better concept than privilege, but you’re not quite home.

    For example: the reason why you, Lauren, are less likely to get shot or tased by a cop is because they are less likely to be assaulted by you.

    So whose risk are we talking about? Your low risk is simply a reflection of their low risk.

    Likewise, your risk of being refused a residential lease is low simply because landlords understand that, with an employed white lady, their risk of ending up with a bounced rent check and a trashed apartment is low.

    Again, whose risk are we talking about?

    No doubt you can see where this leads. Both concepts – risk and privilege – should be discarded, because both are morally loaded to create the impression of unjust victimization.

    The correct terms here are: statistical disparity, and statistical discrimination.

    • Janet Bufton

      But that’s the point of the post: the concept of risk isn’t as all-encompassing and one-dimensional with a right side and a wrong side the way that privilege is. The fact that if I am white then I am both less likely to be shot or tased by police *and* less likely to be involved in crime doesn’t make either fact nonsense, nor does the fact that the police officer, because of their job, is at a higher risk of encountering violent people acting violently.

      You’re right in identifying a major problem that plagues privilege – it’s insufficiently complex – but you’re imposing that problem on risk without showing that it’s a problem with the word. We talk about risk all the time without worrying about reducing it to a single variable or the people it applies to to victims. It’s true that if that’s what people mean by risk, the term is just as much a problem. But you’re the first person I’ve encountered who uses it this way.

      • Sean II

        Ah, I see. Here’s the missing piece:

        According to the last couple editions of Newspeak, the word risk has been getting just a little bit pregnant.

        You see this most clearly when it’s used in the eternally clunky form of “at risk teens” (or whatever), where the phrase “at risk” is pretending to have no idea where the risk might have come from, and indeed where the phrase can mean anything from “fucked over by poor protoplasm” to “fucked over by systemic racism and proto-fascist patriarchal heteronormocapitalism”.

        When you hear those words, it’s not crazy to imagine you’re about to be stalked by a new & dreadful social engineering program.

        Think of it this way:

        The problem with “privilege” is that, as typically used, the word has the effect of blaming every statistical disparity on a form of injustice.

        The problem with “risk” as a substitute word is that it has the effect of making these statistical disparities sound as though they just arose out of nowhere.

        Both approachs are misleading and wrong. Most statistical disparities are pretty well explained as products of stereotype accuracy.

        So we should just say that, and use language that helps keep it nice and clear.

        • Lauren Hall

          I’d disagree that “most” statistical disparities are the result of stereotype accuracy, but to the rest of your point: I probably should have clarified that my goal here is not necessarily philosophic rigor, but instead to find a way for people of different political beliefs to talk about complex issues. Particularly when it comes to identity politics, people seem incapable of having decent conversations. So in order to get to your second point at all, namely, how many of these disparities are caused by social, institutional, or structural set ups and which are functions of actual patterns of behavior, you need to keep someone in the conversation long enough to get there.

          • I think you just said something important: “when it comes to identity politics, people seem incapable of having decent conversations.” I agree. Why do you suppose that is? My personal explanation is that identity politics are by their very nature divisive and contentious.

            Or, as a smart man once wrote (white and privileged as he might have been 😉 ) “all collectivist doctrines are harbingers of irreconcilable hatred and war to the death.”

            I believe this smart man was right.

          • King Goat

            Isn’t it a bit collectivist to treat individual members of a group differently based on higher statistical averages of X in that group, especially if even given that disproportion the large majority of members of said group don’t exhibit X?

          • Sean II

            Not at all.

            The collectivist thing here is using force to prevent people from noticing patterns and making choices in response to them.

            The collectivist thing is saying “we decree you may not act upon the fact that a disproportionate number of Xs are Ys, because most Ys and not Xs, and we wouldn’t want to offend the collective Ys…”

          • King Goat

            It’s not about offending, well at least with some, rather it’s about that whole liberalism tenet, ‘judge people as individuals’ stuff, like what those dead white guys Enshrined in the 14th Amendment.

          • What was it that I said that led you to believe that my answer to that question is anything other than yes?

          • King Goat

            Ryan, nothing one way or the other. Sometimes, even on the internet, questions are just that.

          • I guess so. But there’s another person in this conversation who is specifically making the claims you were asking me about. And since I’m not that person you can reasonably infer why I might be curious that you chose to ask me specifically about that. At any rate the answer to your question is yes.

          • King Goat

            Oh, I know how Sean feels about it, that’s why I didn’t ask him. I had no idea one way or another how you stood, hence the question. Thanks for the answer.

          • Gotcha. Sean II and I agree about almost everything. Race relations and immigration are, I believe, our only two differences.

          • Sean II

            We should work on finding a third issue for disagreement.

            What kind of music do you like?

          • Ohhh that’s a good one actually, because I like progressive rock and atonal / impressionist orchestral music. Almost nobody likes that stuff. Let our differences emerge!

          • Sean II

            What are we talking here, like John Cage?

          • Schoenberg, Varese, Stravinski, Glass, and the “out there” Russians. 🙂

          • Sean II

            Great, now I have Pruitt Igoe stuck in my head.

          • King Goat

            “atonal / impressionist orchestral music”

            Jesus, you’re far worse than a racialist ;).

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          • Sean II

            “I’d disagree that “most” statistical disparities are the result of stereotype accuracy, but to the rest of your point.”

            Okay, put that to the test.

            Name a couple current disparities or stereotypes you think are clearly the result of wrongful discrimination, prejudice, structural set-ups, etc. Pick what seem like the most egregious examples you can find.

            And then let’s discuss.

          • King Goat

            I don’t know about Lauren, and I’m not sure if it’s the most egregious, but one we’ve talked about comes to mine: the NYC stop and frisk program. In 2011 over 600,000 people were stopped and frisked by police (these actions would be assaults if performed by anyone else). Most of them were black, presumably under the idea ‘hmm, I think given what I think about group statistics that if I search individuals in this group it’s likely I’ll find some evidence of a crime.’ But here’s some fun facts about the program: in nine out of ten stops the justification given was something other than suspicion of violent crime, in nine out of ten they didn’t result in even an arrest or summons, and they were more likely to find weapons on the whites they stopped than the blacks (even though they were clearly stopping less people in the more-white neighborhoods where weapons found from searches were more likely to have occurred!).

          • Lauren Hall

            Sean II: Two (or three) come immediately to mind. The fact that resumes with traditionally black names are less likely to receive interviews compared with identical resumes with white names. Another related example is that employers are more likely to hire whites *with* a criminal record than blacks without a criminal record (with equal qualifications). Both of these examples are at least, on their face, counterexamples to your argument that the greater risks blacks face are usually or mostly caused because blacks themselves are riskier in some way. The second seems to clearly fly in the face of that contention. A white person with a criminal record is much more clearly a risky hire than a black person without one.

            Another example is the fact that black people are 8x more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite similar rates of use. The latter one of course has to do in large part with greater police presence in black neighborhoods, which is of course due to greater rates of poverty and crime in those areas, but the disparity itself is worth thinking about. A society in which some people are arrested at wildly higher rates than others for the same crimes would seem to at least require investigation.

          • Sean II

            Perfectly reasonable choices, and both have interesting answers. I’ll respond in order:

            1) Hiring Bias – This is essentially a racial version of the “woman make .77 on the dollar” myth. In the sense that the first and best answer is a “no cash on the table” argument.

            Meaning: if employers really were in the habit of foolishly foregoing more productive black workers for the sake of pro-white bias, anyone who wanted could launch a guaranteed get rich quick scheme tomorrow, by preferentially hiring those highly productive and (because neglected by the labor market) lower priced blacks.

            You’ll notice this never happens. Which is doubly odd, because it did happen in the past. This is precisely what many factory employers did in the first half of the last century, during the Great Migrations. They seized the opportunity to turn other people’s prejudices into cash.

            So why don’t present day employers use the same trick, to nail down an easy surplus by hiring mistakenly overlooked black workers?

            Answer: because there is no such surplus, because those employers know something we don’t.

            They look at the totality of the hiring picture, the big three of cognition + conscientiousness + conformism, and experience has taught them that a Kyle is overall a more profitable bet than a Kadeem (yes, it seems, even if Kyle has a distant DWI on his sheet).

            In other words: employers know that there is no cash on the table, because the relevant information has already been priced in.

            Another way to know this: liberal employers behave the exact same way as redneck conservative ones. Kadeem can’t get hired in Portland any faster than he can in Podunk (quote the opposite, indeed).

            Bottom line: your account is inconsistent with much of what we know about market behavior, AND it’s internally inconsistent because it finds the same amount of hiring bias everywhere, without respect to known differences in racial attitudes.

            2) I think you answered your own question here, i.e.

            Blacks are enormously more violent than any other ethnic group. Which means that police – especially in big cities – spend most of their time and effort either patrolling black areas, or protecting rich whites from violence at the hands of young black men.

            Making a case for robbery or burglary is hard work (something cops hate far more than they do any race or creed of people). Making cases for dope possession is easy.

            So guess what happens? Urban police departments exploit dope laws as a kind of “get Capone on tax evasion” strategy for suppressing violent crime. They don’t catch the robber for robbery, but sometimes they can catch him for buying a 50 of boy afterwards.

            That is, they drive around looking for “thugs” (young black men of a certain type) and then use whatever means present themselves to deter, harass, search, arrest, etc.

            Nothing pretty about it, to be sure.

            But ugly as it is, it still qualifies as “behavior based of broadly accurate stereotyping and statistical discrimination”.

            What it does not qualify for is “behavior explained by racism”… because here again, why would you see the exact same behavior in liberal cities as in conservative towns? Why would you see the exact same profiling behavior among black cops as whites, etc?

            I could go on, but that’s probably more than enough to make it your turn.

          • King Goat

            I’ll let Lauren respond here except for one point that’s an especial peeve of mine, this whole ‘even in liberal cities the cops…’ bit. This is a kind of ecological fallacy. There’s no reason to assume that in a city that has a majority of ‘blue’ voters that the police reflect that. Police have long been disproportionately from certain sub groups demographically and politically which may or not be representative of the overall political majority of a city. I mean, NYC is a pretty liberal place, but have you heard the head of the police union talk?

          • Sean II

            The cops don’t need to be liberal as long as the city is. Political pressure on police chiefs is enormous, so if the people of Portland wanted to, they could easily influence the behavior of their cop hirelings.

          • King Goat

            “they could easily influence the behavior of their cop hirelings.”

            With all due respect, this betrays some ignorance of how the criminal justice system works. Reformers have been trying to tame police discretion and their conservative leanings since the ‘traditional era’ of policing, and as most scholars in this field will say, good luck with that. There’s a ton of scholarship to the effect that this is tilting at windmills, it’s too built into the nature of the field (which doesn’t yield to much direct supervision of the day to day work), the socialization of the job and the demographic as well as (you’ll like this) the personality types drawn to the work. To work some police administration history into one of my favorite Watchmen quotes: “If O.W. Wilson at Berkeley couldn’t kill it, do you really think it would work for some shlub at Portland city hall?”

          • Sean II

            You’re wrong. But don’t feel bad: so are most “scholars” of policing, at least half the time.

            For one thing, cops aren’t all that conservative once you control for demographics. Just about what you’d expect for a group that skews so heavily male.

            Black cops are slightly more conservative than blacks on the whole, but that’s really just a function of Conquest’s First Law. They see firsthand how flawed the official narrative is – i.e. they discover the secret that in real life nearly all defendants are guilty, that the kid who was just “minding his own business” almost never was, that no amount of easily impressed Netflix subscribers can change the fact that Stephen Avery raped and murders Theresa Halbach…shit like that.

            In any case, the argument is not “liberal cities can make conservative cops think like liberals”.

            The argument is “liberal cities can impose a work cost on behavior they don’t like…and if there’s one thing cops reliably respond to, it’s incentives to shirk”.

            Good example: DWIs. Urban cops avoid these like the plague, because it’s maximum paperwork for minimum stat value (an unintended consequence of inflating drunk driving penalties, BTW).

            If Portland or any other liberal city wanted to, they could easily use this same principle to tamp down on just about any police activity they don’t like.

            Shocking reason why they don’t do this: because they don’t want to.

          • King Goat

            Yes, if you control for the fact that cops tend to disproportionately come from conservative demographic groups they’re not that conservative! This is somehow supposed to undercut my point about your ecogical fallacy?

            And your black cops point shows that there really is no inconvenient fact that you won’t try to attach a ‘just so’ story to rationize away.

            And your DWI example is, which is an example of the police getting around a political proritization, is again, supposed to undercut me, or you?

            Look, even in blue cities the police are a conservative institution, working to undermine and bypass political directives they find counterproductive and silly (just as in red counties the social workers and teachers will be two of the blue-est groups around).

          • In other words: employers know that there is no cash on the table, because the relevant information has already been priced in.

            It’s worth noting that the relevant information in this case might simply be that the employer is afraid to introduce a Kadeem into a workplace full of Kyles, for fear of creating a difficult work environment for either Kadeem or Kyle. In that case, it would be a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy.

          • Sean II

            Possible…but that describes no group of people I’ve seen in 30 years of workforce participation.

            Most whites jump at the chance to have a black friend or a black colleague, provided they can find agreement on basic values.

          • Well, you yourself mentioned conformism. When one colleague comes from a very different background from all the others, it can be difficult to conform. I say this as someone who has been pushed out of jobs (especially low-pay, low-skill jobs) on the basis of religious differences.

            Since I moved to Texas, I’ve become aware of a curious method used to discriminate against people. Sometimes employers will initiate a casual conversation that touches on weekend activities. The correct answer in this scenario is to mention football and extra-curricular activities administered by one of the local mega-churches. The combination of these activities avoids officially prohibited forms of discrimination while signalling allegiance to a particular socio-political tribe. Many don’t hire outside this tribe, period. That’s how it works around here, at least.

          • Sean II

            I think that falls under “basic values agreeement”.

            Just try saying: “Texans only pretend to care about football and Jesus as a proxy for…”

            Hard to do without laughing. I’ve never met a Texan who wouldn’t marry his daughter to a Kilngon, as long as that Klingon could throw a block.

          • King Goat

            Blacks are disproportionately good at throwing blocks, so there should be lots of this around. Do you know a lot of white Texans who have daughters married to black men and are happy with it? Because I lived in Texas for a while and I don’t know any.

          • We’re kind of both hitting the same point. Texans are fine with racial minorities, so long as they’re mega-church-attending, football fans. The point is, they’re discriminating against non-Christians, i.e. religious minorities.

            And this is a particularly useful example since all the major companies that have moved into Texas from other states are hiring the usual swath of well-educated South and East Asians and capitalizing on that surplus you mentioned in your earlier comment. The Texas Old Boys Network is falling, albeit slowly, thanks to the market. But the discrimination still exists, that was my point.

          • We are, after all, dealing with a state where local school districts and councils would rather accept and pull together close to $60m for a football stadium that was unusable for nearly 18 months after completion because of defects, than put that money directly into education. Now that’s what I call a religion…(Google “Allen TX football stadium”)

          • King Goat

            “Well, you yourself mentioned conformism. ”

            Well, anecdotes (which can be especially influenced by ideological filters) can sometimes weigh stronger than even previously offered theory. Especially when they do the work of validating those filters!

          • Lauren Hall

            I actually doubt that much thought is going in to the hiring process, particularly since in many companies (admittedly not mom and pop type businesses) it’s usually an administrator doing the initial run through of applications. A lot of it seems to be implicit bias where people are making gut-level decisions. It’s not that employers are carefully weighing the costs and benefits of hiring a minority person, it’s that they look at Kareem and then at Kyle and decide to push Kyle’s application to the top. The same kind of pattern was found in symphony orchestras where orchestra directors found female players to be less qualified than male players until the auditions were done blind, at which point the sex difference in ability disappears.

            Moreover, the resume example was experimental, so we’re talking about identical resumes. The cognition and conscientiousness part of that then seems to fall flat unless, as you yourself admit, people are discriminating against individuals for the traits they believe the broader group to possess. Certainly any decent individualist should push back against that kind of behavior. I’m not even talking about making it illegal, just doing more work in HR hiring, for example, to show people how these biases work into their decision making.

            I have more on this, but it’ll have to wait until classes are done.

          • Sean II

            1) “I actually doubt that much thought is going in to the hiring process…”

            Strange response. My whole point is that employers don’t have time for a complicated thought process when hiring, and therefore resort to the best and cheapest heuristic available. Not sure where you got the idea that my argument calls for reflective meta-cognition on the part of employers, but it certainly does not.

            Consider: let’s say you have five minutes to choose between three names when you can only interview one: Tammy Lynn, Tamesha, & Temperance.

            You choose Temperance, obviously. Because she sounds posh. But that is NOT a prejudice, even if the underlying resumes look identical in other respects.

            Why? Because everyone knows that the kind of qualities an employer is looking for run in families. Everyone knows the kind of family that would name you Temperance is overall healthier than the kind that would saddle you with a punch line name like Tammy Lynn or Tamesha.

            This is broadly reliable information, available without delay and virtually without need for conscious thought.

            2) “Moreover, the resume example was experimental, so we’re talking about identical resumes…”

            Absolutely not. The resumes are NOT identical. The names are different, and names contain information. Pretty significant information as it turns out.

            In fact those experiments are of hideously poor design.

            They ignore the quite obvious fact that, given a tie, employers will look for any heuristic available to break it. They pretend names like DeMaricus or Dwayne are only arbitrarily different from names like Daniel or Desmond.

            Wrong. Most names reliably betray a class origin. They announce things like: “Hi, I’m Dwayne. Pronounced dee’-whain. Even though I got good grades just like my rival Desmond, you can tell my family hasn’t been long off the farm. That’s how I ended up with a name that causes people to instantly picture me in a NASCAR hat, the minute they hear it. But hey, don’t worry: it’s not like children tend to resemble their parents more and more as they get older.”

            Except…yeah, it is like that. And this again is something everyone knows. People who have no idea what DNA stands for still manage to grasp the concept that heritability increases with age. Because that’s one of life’s more obvious facts (the sort which people only ever fail to see after being blinded by a heavy dose of ideology).

            In this context, for employers, that means something roughly like “Okay, sure, DeMaricus and Tammy Lynn look pretty good on paper now. As good as Desmond and Temperance, to be sure. But time is scarce, interviews are miserable (and mostly non-revealing), and so I must choose. What can I use to help me? Well..I do have one thing: there’s a fair chance that, somewhere along the line, DeMaricus and Tammy Lynn will revert to the kind of behavior which we all associate…with the kind of families…who would give them that kind of name. So Desmond and Temperance it is.”

            3) “Certainly any decent individualist should push back against that kind of behavior.”

            Why? What individualist about telling other people how they should make decisions, what heuristics they may or may not use, when making decisions with scarce time and precious information, when they have skin in the game and the researcher judging them does not?

          • King Goat

            Of course, the ‘social project’ here is to try to get people to not judge individuals by group membership.

          • Sean II

            “Of course, the ‘social project’ here is to try to get people to not judge individuals by group membership.”

            We’ve been over this a bunch of times, and it’s way past tedious. But damn if I’m not about to say it again anyway:

            We are all being judged by group membership, all the time. There is no getting away from it.

            College graduates vs non. Veterans vs civilians. People with credit scores above 700 vs people below. People with long gaps in their employment history vs people without them. People who drive hybrids vs people who drive trucks. People who say “let’s unpack that” vs. people who would like to murder them. People who signal fashion obedience vs people who don’t give a shit. Radiohead fans vs people who are not in cults. White males over 40 with 10+ pack years of smoking vs. everyone else. And so on.

            There are smart arguments on all sides of this debate, but the one you keep pushing – “why can’t we all just get along by judging each other as individuals” – is one of the dumb ones.

            Individual judgement is prohibitively expensive in almost any real-world situation. Even in something as intimate as the search for a mate, people end up having to rely heavily on group membership cues through the crucial early going.

            Indeed we usually only get enough information to start judging people individually after we’ve taken them on…as friends, spouses, employees, Uber drivers, whatever.

            Which means “let’s just judge people as individuals” is a bullshit idea. No one does that, because no one can. It’s not fucking feasible.

            Clearly, what you really mean is that you think certain groups should be off limits in the game of group discrimination. You’re okay with education status, but not okay with race. You’re okay with sex in some contexts, but I’ll bet not in others. Maybe you’re okay using age as a factor in the decision to prescribe statins, but you don’t like it being used as a reason not to hire people.

            That’s fine. But please just say that. Specify which forms of group discrimination you would allow, and which you would not.

            Just say: “Yeah, okay, in general group discrimination is obviously not going anywhere. People need it and couldn’t get through life without it. But certain forms are evil, and these we must prohibit.”

            But for the love of god stop pretending that “I’m for individual judgement (and hence against all forms of group discrimination)” is any kind of viable option here. It isn’t.

          • Theresa Klein

            Just because something is hard, doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. Saying it’s okay to be prejudiced because it’s easier is just moral and intellectual laziness.

          • Sean II

            Who in the world is saying that?

          • Theresa Klein

            Sean, you are literally arguing all over this thread that using “cheap heuristics” to make judgements about people based on skin color is morally permissible.

          • Sean II

            Ugh, you’ve understood nothing.

          • Theresa Klein

            Consider: let’s say you have five minutes to choose between three
            names when you can only interview one: Tammy Lynn, Tamesha, &

            You choose Temperance, obviously. Because she sounds
            posh. But that is NOT arbitrary, even if the underlying resumes look
            identical in other respects.

            Why? Because everyone knows that the
            kind of qualities an employer is looking for run in families. Everyone
            knows the kind of family that would name you Temperance is overall
            healthier than the kind that would saddle you with a punch line name
            like Tammy Lynn or Tamesha.

            This is broadly reliable information,
            available without delay and virtually without need for conscious effort.
            It comes from the handy reservoir of: shit we all just know.

            Are you or are you not saying that it is OK to prefer to hire someone named “Temperance” based on “cheap heuristic” assumptions about what kind of people name their daughters Temperance?

          • King Goat

            Sean and the naturalistic fallacy seem to go together like chocolate and peanut butter.

            If we were Cro Magnons having this debate around the clan fire Sean would be arguing “Every clan everywhere kill strangers, so of course it’s ok to keep killing strangers and we should keep doing it, anyone who say different blind to how world works!”

          • Theresa Klein

            My whole point is that employers don’t have time for a complicated thought process when hiring, and therefore resort to the best/cheapest heuristics available.

            So it’s possible to form a cheap heuristic that says blacks are likely a worse bet than whites. That does nothing to negate the unfairness of the fact that for those black people who are *not* statistically average they get treated as if their blackness was the only important “heuristic” with which to judge them by.

            “Cheap heuristics” are, in other words, just another word for “prejudice”.

            Also, one could form all sorts of heuristics which correlate likely performance to all sorts of different variables. Unfortunately, skin color is a “cheap” and “easy” variable to use. It may not be the most accurate one. If someone thought they could tell what your job performance would be based on your hair color, how would you feel about that?

          • Sean II

            No worse than I feel about all the other ways people judge me, when time is short and cost of information is high.

            Anyway I covered this point pretty throughly in a response to Goat on this very thread this morning.

            Read it. It’s the one with three blocks of bolded text.

          • Kurt H

            “Cheap heuristics” are, in other words, just another word for “prejudice”.

            Hiding racism behind fancy sounding words is basically half of Sean II’s posts, with most of the rest being a similar dance about gender.

          • King Goat

            “So it’s possible to form a cheap heuristic that says blacks are likely a worse bet than whites.”

            It’s interesting to note that one hundred years ago you could, and many did, say the exact same thing about the Irish. I’m not just saying that people had cheap, inaccurate heuristics about the Irish. I’m saying that a time traveling Sean could make the exact same argument, because the Irish really were the subject of over half of the arrests in NYC (and other major cities). It was just an easily proven fact that the Irish were more violent, more criminal, a worse bet, involving ‘more risk’ to be one’s neighbor, date, employee, etc. than other groups. I want to be clear about this: it’s not that people were making this up by prejudice, it was that by every metric that Sean can invoke today regarding blacks, i.e., arrest, crime report, etc., data, the Irish were as disproportionately criminal as blacks are today. According to Sean, people should have kept discriminating against them, it was all rational based on his criteria after all.

            And yet, someone today, a mere 100 years later (a blip historically), who advocated for avoiding the Irish in employment, dating, living arrangements, as rational, morally justified decisions based on risk and cost, well it’s just unthinkable.

          • j_m_h

            Isn’t the question to be asked there — have the general statistics and individually observed anecdotal information people use in making judgements with limited specific information changed over the 100 years?

          • King Goat

            I don’t know. I do know the information Sean uses re: risks regarding blacks. Arrest and crime report data, as well as the ‘what everyone knows’ type (‘everyone knows you don’t walk through certain majority black Baltimore neighborhoods at night’).

            My point is that all of those metrics told the exact same tale about the Irish 100 years ago. Again, I’m not saying the data then was made up. The Irish really were disproportionately the subject of more arrests, more crime reports, and ‘everyone knew’ they shouldn’t walk down Irish neighborhoods at night. And, I want to be clear, *they weren’t wrong then*.

          • Lacunaria

            Are you arguing that the Irish still have the same statistical profile? If not, then the answer to j_m_h’s question (as I understand it) is, “yes, their statistics have changed over the 100 years”.

            It sounds like your point is that Sean cannot be a racist because he would apply the same logic independent of race.

          • Lacunaria

            How accurate would that hair color heuristic be and who’s paying?

          • Theresa Klein

            What’s individualist about saying “Sorry, dude. But we’re gonna need
            you to go ahead and risk your business by hiring Tammy Lynn and
            DeMaricus because there’s an important social project – much bigger than you and your petty little shop – which stands in need of a push”?

            That sounds collectivist, if anything does.

            What the heck is “collectivist” about saying “Try not judging people based on the name their parents gave them?”

            My God, the horror that we should expect others to treat one-another as individuals…. so collectivist of me.

          • Sean II

            I’ve already explained this, all too clearly. Here’s one last clue for you:

            “Let’s just all judge each other as individuals” is a statement that belongs in the same category as statements like:

            “No one should get paid less than they’re worth.”

            “No one should have to work in an unsafe environment.”

            “Health care is a human right.”

            Find the common element in those statements and you’ll understand what you’re missing.

          • Theresa Klein

            No, it’s actually a completely different category entirely.

            Your three phrases are statements of positive rights to vague and undefined material goods.

            “Let’s try to judge one-another as individuals” is a social norm governing how we ought to behave towards other people. They aren’t in the same category. They aren’t even in the same class.

            Society has evolved norms like “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” precisely because they are needed to counteract the natural tendency of humans to use “cheap heuristics” to judge one another. In fact, this social norm is a fundamental component of Western liberal individualist culture. You want to get rid of the norm against judging people based on their last names and looks? Say hello to rampant tribalism and identity politics.

            To compare those phrases, you’re basically saying that being a decent human being to other people is a burdensome imposition upon you, because it’s harder to be unprejudiced than to be prejudiced. Well, then you can shut up about being called a racist, too. If we ought not to have a social norm about treating people as individuals, then why would be have a social norm about civility or respect? Just go whole hog tribal , it’s easier.

          • Sean II

            Nope. Wrong. You’ve missed it again.

            What is it about this concept, that makes it so elusive for you? This a major gap in your understanding, and it’s making you blind.

            Look again at these two statements:

            “No one should get paid less than they’re worth.”

            “Everyone deserves to be judged only as an individual.”

            Theresa, how did you fail to notice that these statements have the same content?

            “Everyone should get paid what they’re worth” means “everyone’s paycheck should be based solely on an accurate, individualized judgement of what each person is worth. No cheap guesswork, no group discrimination, nothing but individual assessments of the value produced by individual contributors.”

            It’s just another way of saying: “Everyone deserves to be judged as an individual”, applied specifically to matters of compensation.

            Now, what would happen if a company actually tries to implement this idea? What would they have to do?

          • david.mathers@ccc.ox.ac.uk

            ‘And one of those things is: the kind of kid who actually gets arrested for a widely tolerated crime that millions of others get away with is probably something undesirable’

            You’re “probably” here reveals a lot about your character I think (i.e. raging just world bias.) It’s obviously true that someone who gets caught is somewhat more likely to have traits that will make you get caught. Maybe those traits are also bad, though that’s a little less obvious. And yes, you can have fun liberal-baiting with this because most liberals will deny it. But there is absolutely no reason to think that the people who get caught are usually, as individuals significantly different in character from those who don’t. It could easily be *mostly* a matter of luck who gets caught, with behaviour/character only influencing it around the edges. Or it could not be. But the fact that you think it’s just obviously the first is just a leap to the assumption that if a bad thing happened to someone, they probably deserve it. (Which is the anti-thesis of “liberalism” in the broad sense in which both a bleeding heart libertarian and a European social democratic are liberals, but Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and your average mega-church preacher are not.)

          • Sean II

            I thought that too, the first time I learned the definition of schlemazl.

            Me: “But Dad, I don’t get it. You blame the waiter for spilling the soup because it’s his job to be careful. But how is it fair to make fun of the guy the soup landed on? He was just sitting there. He didn’t do anything wrong.”

            Dad: “Ha, they never do!”

          • Dan045

            Sean, as a lurker, I just wanted to say I find your posts very thought provoking.

          • Sean II

            That’s very kind of you to say. Thank you.

            It’s funny that what I’m saying here should be so controversial. I mean, the people on this board are supposed to be such rabid fans of the free market, yet many seemed to have lobotomized a little spot in their brains to stop them from seeing the answer to questions like this:

            Imagine two firms go into the same tightly competitive racket, at the same time. Widget sales, whatever it is.

            Assume the two firms are exactly alike in all respects save one…

            Firm A follows a “no schlemazl” hiring policy. The HR team believes that people who present as innocent victims of chronic bad luck are often just culpable victims of their own poor preparedness. “Got a sad story about how your last few bosses spilled blame on you to cover their mistakes? No thanks, piss off, we’ll pass on your application, buh bye.” Indeed, even the act of admitting you have a sad story to tell is all it takes to end your candidacy with Firm A.

            Firm B follows a “benefit-of-the-doubt” hiring policy. The HR team here puts justice first, by assuming that bad luck is real, and that people ought not be punished for falling victim to it. “Got a sad story about how your resume fails to capture your true talents thanks to a series of bad breaks? No problem, we’ll give you a chance to prove yourself. Welcome aboard!” Indeed these guys can’t wait to hear your sad story, because to them it represents an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life.

            Okay, so the question is: which firm goes out of business first? Yeah, it’s Firm B – the one which tells people that bad outcomes are okay as long as you have a pathetic excuse. The one which follows a policy of NOT discriminating against habitual life-course losers. That one.

            Verily this should not be too difficult for any fan of the market to grasp, because in real life almost every firm behaves like Firm A, just about all the time. Telling bad luck victim schlemazl stories is the surest way to ruin an interview, anywhere you go.

            Not for nothing, it’s also a great way to ruin a first date.

            Almost as though people have some weird evolutionary impulse to shun schlemazls.

            But of course we know that’s crazy talk.

          • Dan045

            “… yet many seemed to have lobotomized a little spot in their brains…”

            It’s the implications they flinch away from. One of them being that these issues may be with us for a very long time, another is that the political efforts to help may be making things worse, not better.

          • King Goat

            Equivocation. The ‘bad thing’ that happens to people here isn’t ‘was late to work many times because of a streak of bad luck with cars, child care arrangements, etc.,’ it’s ‘being arrested for a crime everyone commits.’ Given there’s a history of government agents consciously targeting minority groups, from Quakers in colonial New England to the Irish in the 19th century to gays trying to hang out at Stonewall in the 70s it’s no obvious truism that groups that get arrested more for petty offenses ‘deserve’ it rather than they’re just this era’s target d’jour.

          • Sean II

            Quakers? Now you’re just pandering to the crowd.

          • King Goat

            Of course, the New England authorities stereotypes of the Quakers could have been accurate, we know how they love to sow their oats.

          • There are plenty of studies that purport to show that the hiring processes of most employers are so dysfunctionally useless that throwing darts at a board with candidates’ names stapled to it would be more effective. As Ryan confirms (and I live in Texas so I know of what he speaks), hiring most of the time is a face-fitting exercise (“will this guy or gal fit in”, hence the subtle attempts to skirt the legality of personal questioning before and after formal interviews.

          • JVC

            Sean, your comments are more interesting than most of the articles on this website. Do you have a general citation for your claim that factory employers were hiring minorites preferentially during The Great Migration?

          • Nkaplan

            You are assuming that the social justice warrior types are interested in having an intellectual conversation. That would be nice, were it true. Unfortunately for them (and for us) their highly ideological forms of speaking – the language games in which they are engaged – are used specifically to evade rational discussion.

            The response – ‘check your privilege’ – when given to a rational argument, is not intended to be a form of intellectual engagement – it is a obvious resort to the ‘genetic fallacy’ in its crudest form. 2 second’s thought is enough to work that out. The person who utters such nonsense thereby evinces an intention not to engage in serious discussion.

            I fear, therefore, that a minor reformulation of language would not even begin to assist, for it doesn’t get to the route of the problem: ideologically motivated dishonesty and close-mindedness.

          • Sean II

            “I fear, therefore, that a minor reformulation of language would not even begin to assist…”

            A point in your favor: that never works.

            No matter what you put on the euphemism treadmill, people always end up seeing – and responding to – the underlying reality.

            Indeed, euphemisms are often actually worse.

            Call someone a fat, and you’re at least paying them the backhand compliment of thinking they can handle straight talk.

            But call them “metabolically challenged”, and you’ve added the insult of suggesting they can’t handle the word “fat”.

            Not you’re just hitting them with two slurs: “You’re fat…and fragile!”

    • Theresa Klein

      the reason why you, Lauren, are less likely to get shot or tased by a cop is because cops are less likely to be assaulted by you.

      Are they? Compared to who? There are individual black people who are probably even less likely to assault a cop then Lauren Hall. But they get *categorized* as the higher risk individuals because they happen to have the same skin color as the higher risk individuals.

      My point is that black people essentially have to go through life being punished for the sins and weaknesses of other black people who they have no relationship to or control over. Should the physical similarity of your appearance to other people really matter to how you get treated by law enforcement? If red-heads were statistically more likely to assault cops would that make it okay for cops to treat all red-heads as potential cop-assailants? Don’t you think that would get old, day after day, having others treat you as if you were the statistical average for your hair-color when in fact, you have nothing to do with other red-heads and can’t do anything about it?

      Heck, I know women who hate that – having guys make assumptions about them based on the “blonds are dumb” or “blonds have more fun” generalizations. But for black people it’s all the time, and it’s everywhere. it affects everything from police interactions to renting apartments to service in restaurants to hailing cabs to being followed around in malls and department stores.

      • Sean II

        “There are individual black people who are probably even less likely to assault a cop then Lauren Hall…”

        No doubt there are. Just as there are brilliant people who for various complicated reasons never went to college.

        So…should we ban the use of education status in job selection because it’s unfair to those people?

        Or how about credit scores? Some people end up with bad ones after an improbable series of mistakes by other parties.

        Should we foresake the use of credit scores to protect them?

        And so on…

        • Theresa Klein

          Nobody is born with a bad credit score. Skin color is something you can’t choose and can’t change.

          • Sean II

            Well sure they are. Everyone starts out with a bad credit score…in the form of a no credit score. We all end up having to prove our way out from a starting point of suspicion and doubt.

            Not a great example for you. But really there are no good examples, because the larger theory you hint at is untenable.

            You seem to think we can have a principle against using innate characteristics to discriminate.

            Not possible. Too many of the things that matter in life are mostly innate: beauty, intelligence, personality, time preference, criminality, etc.

            Refrain from using those, and you end up with nothing worth using.

            No…the only save here is you have to come up with a theory which says “innate characteristics in general are fair game, but race is off limits for some special reason”.

          • Lauren Hall

            Sean II, your responses make me genuinely curious about a few things:

            First, if for the sake of argument it is indeed the case that black people are more likely to be violent, are less likely to be conscientious, and so on, where do you think those differences come from?

            Second, is your argument then that we just can’t do anything about racial prejudice? I understand that part of your point is that those heuristics point to something meaningful about the world, but in many cases they are actually false positives. Either way, is your overall argument that we just throw up our hands and say “people are going to do what people are going to do”?

          • Sean II

            1) “…is your overall argument that we just throw up our hands and say “people are going to do what people are going to do”?”

            No, of course not. There is no need for fatalism, and we absolutely should not resign ourselves to it.

            When people do things that are wrong, it’s perfectly fine that social pressure should be applied to stop them.

            But, Lauren, in the course of doing this…those who apply such pressure must make very sure that they are actually right. They must make sure they are not blinded by ideology, sitting in judgement over people who in fact see reality more clearly than they do, know much more than they do about the subject under discussion, and who have real skin in the game, while their would-be judges theorize from a safe distance.

            Lately, the people who apply social pressure have been skipping that very important step. They’ve been so anxious to apply social pressure against wrong-doers (and wrong-talkers, and even wrong-thinkers) that they have not actually bothered to know what the hell they’re talking about.

            They have been quite wrongfully blaming others for thoughts and actions which are not actually wrong.

            You yourself have provided an example, right here in this thread. You have talked with evidently great moral confidence of matters of you don’t properly understand. And you’re judging other people wrongfully as a result.

            2) “First, if for the sake of argument it is indeed the case that black people are more likely to be violent…”

            That, right there, is a perfect example. The racial difference in violent crime is one of the most robustly documented statistics in all of American life. Blacks commit more of it. A lot more.

            If you’re saying “…for the sake of argument…” about that glaring fact, this means you must be unaware of it.

            And if you’re unaware of it, if you haven’t even studied the UCR data (which ought to be square one in any discussion of this subject), if you haven’y done your homework, then what the hell are you doing having any strong opinions about policing, crime, and criminal justice in America?

            3) “…where do you think those differences come from?”

            I’m not sure. Because at this early date no one really has the right to be.

            But half or more of those differences probably come from the same thing that accounts for half or more of all human differences.

            Crime is strongly heritable. It runs in small families, so it very well might run in large ones too. And that’s what races are: large families.

          • CTN

            Given historical problems with racism and eugenics it’s right to be cautious in talking about these issues. But sensible caution now turns into censorship and disdain for anyone speaking candidly. It’s gotta be difficult if you’ve got a university position and you’re using your full name.

            Some of these issues can be approached from the side. Maybe we can all agree that, statistically, males are more disposed to violent crime than females. If this characteristic turns out to be largely hardwired, what are the implications? Or how about those fictitious red-heads.

            Showing my ignorance: what’s the “UCR data”?

          • Sean II

            UCR = uniform crime report. It’s the big FBI database on crime in the US.

            “It’s gotta be difficult if you’ve got a university position”

            No doubt about that. You really can’t blame academics who choose to keep silent or avoid this topic.

          • Lauren Hall

            “That, right there, is a perfect example. The racial difference in violent crime is one of the most robustly documented statistics in all of American life. Blacks commit more of it. A lot more.

            If you’re saying “…for the sake of argument…” about that glaring fact, this means you must be unaware of it.”

            No, I’m not unaware of it. What I’m unaware of is any high quality, well regarded research that says that controlling for a wide variety of variables, black people *all else being equal* are more violent than whites. Telling me that black people commit more crime than white people doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know, which is *exactly* my point. Black people are also more likely to live in poverty, less likely to have access to decent schooling, less likely to go to college, and more likely to experience discrimination precisely because of the heuristics you mention above. Does that make it perhaps more likely that they will have fewer access to resources overall and may turn to crime (like other poor people) to get access to them? All your discussion above has demonstrated to me is that black people are more likely, for a variety of reasons, to live in resource-poor environments.

            I’m also not unaware of the research on genetic differences in violence, particularly recent research on violent crime and particular sets of genes. If there is a genetic difference in violence between the races, I’m willing to look at the data. And I also know that such data is hard to come by because scholars are targeted for doing work on racial differences. None of that is a good thing. But right now the data doesn’t exist for the arguments you’re trying to make.

          • CTN

            “…that black people *all else being equal* are more violent than whites.”

            You’d aim to show this only if it were plausible that what best explains the greater violence is the black skin color itself. But who thinks that?

          • Kurt H

            You’d aim to show this only if it were plausible that what best explains
            the greater violence is the black skin color itself. But who thinks

            Somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 million Americans according to a poll taken in early November. 🙂

          • Sean II

            You’re an idiot.

          • Sean II

            1) Well I think everybody hoped poverty would turn out to be the cause of crime, but it isn’t.

            Even after controlling for SES, blacks commit much more violent crime.

            And crime utterly fails to follow predictions made by the “poverty causes” hypothesis…in a sense that is much bigger than race. It goes curiously down during recessions, frustratingly up during boom cycles, etc. Indeed the United States’ biggest crime wave – running from 1960 to 1990ish – coincided with one of history’s most incredible leaps forward in living standards.

            Now, within each ethnic group, it IS true that poverty and crime overlap, in the sense that criminals are much more easily found among the poorest members of that group.

            But guess what? The parsimonious explanation for this has always been that the kind of trait equipment – low IQ, low impulse control, psycopathy – which causes people to engage in the self-destructive behavior of crime also causes people to engage in various behaviors that keep them poor.

            For this point is crucial to remember: the best social science we have is twin/adoption studies, and the strongest finding across ALL such studies is: genes account for most, chance (aka non-shared environment) accounts for some, and shared environment (aka the thing everyone actually means when they say “environment”) accounts for little or nothing. You see this same pattern again and again.

            It follows: because poverty=>crime is a shared environment hypothesis, it is the extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence. It is claiming to be some weird exception to everything else we know about human behavior.

            2) “But right now the data doesn’t exist for the arguments you’re trying to make.”

            That’s just dead wrong. Google “heritability + crime”. There is already good work out there, and some especially interesting stuff lately.

            Or if time is scarce and you need an efficient search path, just read all you can from Brian Boutwell. He’s like a one-man hub for info on this topic.

            3) Two statements you made above seem strange to me. Let me stitch them together and I think you’ll see why:

            “I’m unaware of any high quality, well regarded research that says [X]…and I also know that such data is hard to come by because scholars are targeted for doing work on [X]…”

            Those two statements were about a five sentences apart in your comment. They sound very odd when put right next to each other.

            You won’t budge until you see something “well-regarded”, but you know there is a taboo at work which prevents positive regard from being bestowed on any evidence that ends up supporting the despised idea (even as that same taboo demands nothing from its own preferred explanation, and forgives it a long series of falsified predictions).

            There is a slightly comic resemblance here to someone in 1937 Moscow saying: “I will not entertain doubts about Lysenkoism, because…well, just look, no one important has published a well-regarded paper arguing against it for nearly ten years. Those few who have spoken against it are not, ahem….as it happens, well-regarded.”

          • King Goat

            Can you cite a twin study in which the twins were split up between impoverished parents in inner city neighborhoods like you find in inner city Detroit or Chicago and middle to upper class parents in suburban neighborhoods which then found genes “account for most?”

          • Theresa Klein

            Also, twin studies by definition assume identical pre-natal environments.
            pre-natal nutrition is at least as important as nutrition in infancy.
            Pretty hard to do a twin study with different pre-natal nutrition – unless you’re talking cloning donor eggs and using different surrogate mothers, and then letting one of them do drugs and not eat healthy which would kind of be unethical.

          • Kass Belaire

            re: height, that would show up as a lower heritability, but higher shared environment effect. It doesn’t, I think, show up like that in the behavioral genetics work on crime. Of course, prenatal environment is a confounder, and adopting parents aren’t representative of all SES. If you’re a very poor weirdo with a rap sheet who doesn’t blink, you’ll have trouble adopting.

          • Theresa Klein

            Lately, the people who apply social pressure have been skipping that
            very important step. They’ve been so anxious to apply social pressure
            against wrong-doers (and wrong-talkers, and even wrong-thinkers) that
            they have not actually bothered to know what the hell they’re talking

            They have been lazily blaming others for thoughts and actions which are not actually wrong.

            Or maybe those people aren’t actually judging people for the *thought* that perhaps (say) blacks commit more crime. They are blaming people for acting on it in individual encounters with individual black people where the only discriminating factor is the person’s race. For just assuming based on race alone, that a person is likely to be a criminal, and changing their behavior towards that individual as a result.

          • Theresa Klein

            Everyone starts out with a bad credit score…in the form of a no credit score.

            Yes, and to repeat, you can change your credit score. You can’t change your skin color.

            You seem to think we can have a principle against using innate characteristics to discriminate.

            In general, I think we should strive for a society where people are given a chance regardless of whatever superficial characteristics they are born with. Just because something is “easy” (i.e. using “cheap heuristics”/prejudices) doesn’t mean it’s morally just.

          • Lacunaria

            I agree with your desire to elevate evaluating individuals, but just because something is “easy” and statistically-based does not mean it is morally unjust either — and that often seems to be the assumption and explicit dynamic nowadays where society is forcing a (non-individualist!) racial bias under the assumption that it is more justly accounting for a racial bias in the other direction.

            So, I think the argument ultimately has to shift to Sean’s cost/benefit grounds in practice. i.e. if you can propose feasible individualist strategies that will result in better cost/benefit outcomes for the employer (or whomever), then they should be using that. Indeed, they would be stupid not to do that.

            As I read him, Sean’s point is that giving random people an equal chance is a cost and that it is not immoral to include that cost in your moral calculations.

      • CTN

        “If red-heads were statistically more likely to assault cops would that make it okay for cops to treat all red-heads as potential cop-assailants?”

        If red heads were 30 times more likely to assault cops than brunettes it’d be hard to require a cop to forget that salient fact.

        • Theresa Klein

          How do you know red-heads *aren’t* 30 times more likely to assault cops. We’re known for our fiery tempers after all.

          Perhaps there are all sorts of things that are correlated to the likelihood of cop assault, but we only correlate things to skin color instead of paying attention to different variables.

  • I don’t object to the contents of this post, however, I think there is a chance that adopting new language to describe the same phenomenon – a phenomenon that has been widely rejected for good reason – will potentially just repeat the problem all over again.

    Think of it this way: My wife has probably been in the right when we’ve argued more often than I have, so during our next disagreement, there is a good probability that she’ll be right then, too. But how fruitful is it for her to announce this fact in the middle of our argument?

    Whatever language we choose to use, these concepts will be objectionable whenever they are used to discount arguments on any grounds other than the facts. Whether we attach the word “privilege” or the word “risk” to the notion of discounting a white male’s argument through the ritual magick of insufficient deference to lived experiences, we are still left with a handy rhetorical tool that can be used to shame the opposition.

    It’s that shame we ought to be arguing against, not the specific lexicon used to evoke shame. Arguing in good faith is fundamental to human relationships. Anything that undermines good faith discussion is a subversion that ought to be rejected.

    • CbyN

      If I’m in the backseat of your car and you two are arguing about which way to go, I’ll probably take her side.

      • Sean II

        No, you should say “Ryan is at risk for high reluctance to use other party or device-assisted route mapping”.

        Sure, he’ll still get lost, but think of the self-esteem we can spare him by using this de-stigmatized language!

        • CbyN

          I have often argued with my Google navigation algorithm, and using my own rigorous validation methods consider myself to have statistically distinguished myself against it.

          • Sean II

            Stay woke, my brother.

          • For my part, I consider myself virtually indistinguishable from an algorithm.:P

          • Sean II

            In that case, I respect your dignity as a Trans-AI personoid.

    • Emma K

      The concept of privilege (or risk, as is being used here) is used clumsily as a tool of shame. I agree that it is often used as a way to shut down a discourse one does not agree with. However, this is not its true purpose and is not where it is useful as a tool in discussion.

      Privilege is meant to be a way to recognize the differences of lived experiences, not to shut down the opinions of others. Asking someone to consider their own privilege means to think about the ways in which their perspectives have been influenced by factors of race, class, gender, etc. Being privileged does not make one’s experiences or opinions invalid.

      “these concepts will be objectionable whenever they are used to discount arguments on any grounds other than the facts”
      Again, privilege shouldn’t be used to discount arguments (I know it is, and this is problematic). However, it can be used to question the validity of said facts, which as we know are not immune to bias. It can be used to question the context in which facts were created, the interpretation of the facts, and their use in public life. Most importantly, we can ask questions about correlation and causation, about whether statistics legitimize discrimination. Privilege is a useful, if general, tool to see if facts match up with lived experience, and how those facts may be culpable in perpetuating discrimination.

      • Everything you describe here can be accomplished with concepts other than privilege. The main attraction of privilege as a concept is that it supersedes facts. The whole notion that I enjoy “extra” by my not having been shot by a police officer is a contorted way to view the world. If police brutality is a problem – and I believe it is – then we ought to talk about the police being brutal, not about how it’s unfair that white men like me get shot by police at a lesser rate. The problem with privilege is that it turns a discussion about a specific problem into a vague and general complaint about race-relations. Why would we want to have that discussion when simply restricting the power of police forces (start with the Patriot Act) will make much more real-world headway than our sitting around declaring ourselves “allies?”

        So I don’t think privilege is as useful as you think it is. I think it actually obfuscates important issues and turns them into social problems that can’t be solved through policy. That would be a mistake, as my one example here hopefully illustrates.

    • Lauren Hall

      Ryan, that’s just my point. I’m trying to come up with ways that conservatives, libertarians, and progressives can talk about these issues without anyone resorting to a verbal shame cudgel. Risk is my attempt to do that. It’s admittedly imperfect, but it doesn’t carry the moral load of privilege.

      • Right! What I was trying to get at is that this might not be a messaging problem, and it’s become almost a stereotype of the left, when their messages fail, to think that they just haven’t been properly understood. Obama has been a classic example of someone who thinks people would totally be on his side if he could just explain himself better, if he could just fix the messaging problem.

        But it’s possible that people understood the message and still rejected it. In that case, rephrasing the message won’t help. There is nothing especially objectionable about the word “privilege.” We ought to be more vocal about what the real problem is: arguing in bad faith. Emphatically rejecting the use of academic jargon to shout down opposing arguments would be far more persuasive here than developing a new set of jargon that hopefully discourages those who argue in bad faith from arguing in bad faith.

        So, good idea: using neutral terminology whenever possible. GREAT idea: always and everywhere demanding that people either argue in good faith or excuse themselves from the discussion. I think your idea is a good one, but I think what we need is a set of norms that demands more from people. I don’t think new terms goes far enough.

        • Lauren Hall

          I’d agree that norms are a big problem in discussions of this kind. I got a great response from my students by talking about criminal justice reform through the lens of some of Balko’s work, but I did it without using any jargon or identity vocabulary, instead just presenting them with facts and trying to get them to think through the problem. Obviously though, these are students who are a somewhat captive audience, but more importantly they’ve had me over the course of a semester and know that I’m operating in good faith and genuinely want to hear what they think. There’s not enough of that good faith going around. Of course, that good faith requires trust, which is something neither side of this debate has any of. That in itself might be the biggest problem.

          • It certainly sounds like your students are lucky to have you as an instructor. Perhaps if there were more like you, our collective levels of good faith would be at healthier levels.

          • imogen88

            I’m new to this site, but I had to chime in here that I agree with you. There is very little good faith anymore. As someone who identifies as independent, if not possibly libertarian democrat or bleeding heart libertarian (I believe that power corrupts whether its the government, corporations or oligarchs, and that the organization matters less than ever), I find it so difficult to have a discussion with people of either party in good faith anymore. I have been drawn to libertarian sites because the majority of the discussion is intelligent and respectful, and intending to find compromise and solutions, rather than just insult, bicker and refuse to acknowledge fallacy in our beliefs or assumed truths.

    • King Goat

      “My wife has probably been in the right when we’ve argued more often than I have”

      If your marriage is like mine this perception may just result from resigned acceptance of power differentials 😉

  • Those who have less privilege or risk, should not blame those who have more. The only ones to blame are their parents who created them. Life is not a destination. It is a journey. Where you start from is not important, you can still have a fulfilling and enjoyable adventure. Take life as it comes and enjoy the challenges. Take credit for what you do, don’t blame others for what you don’t do.

  • sandy

    You’re still avoiding the core of the issue.

    “Privilege theory” is, when it comes down to it, a just a way to lie with statistics and make it sound intellectual.

    It always goes like this: They take a correlation between a broad statistical category of people and some positive or negative outcome, and pretend without further evidence that it
    a) represents a direct causation, and
    b) applies as an innate property to every single individual in that category.

    They then call this (non-existent irrationally derived) innate property, “privilege” or “lack of privilege”.

    • Lauren Hall

      I don’t think it’s dishonest, but that’s precisely the difficulty I’m trying to tease out. When I talk about criminal justice reform with my students, there’s no way to talk about it that does not involve talking about racial disparities. I need a short hand to talk about those disparities before we dig into why they exist (which I agree has to be the second part of the conversation). Some kinds of risk we will find to be non-discriminatory in nature (or at least not the kind of discrimination we care about) while others will be. It’s keeping people around long enough to have that second half of the conversation that I think is important.

      • geoih

        As Sandy says, correlation is not causation. Do you really think you’re less likely to live in poverty because you’re white. Isn’t it more likely that it is because you are married and have a Ph.D. (and your spouse is likely similarly educated)? Do you think a black or Hispanic married Ph.D. is more likely to live in poverty than you?

        It seems to me the major complaint is the collectivization of individuals based on superficial qualities, but that is exactly how you’re phrasing your arguments and thus legitimizing, even promoting, the practice you’re arguing against. As long as the first step in the process is to categorize somebody by skin color, gender, ethnicity, etc., instead of by Tom, Dick or Mary, then we’re just going in circles.

        • Lauren Hall

          No, I’m more likely to have a PhD because I’m the child of upper middle class college-educated parents. Whiteness is correlated with all those things, but is not, of course, determinative of those things. As many analyses have demonstrated, black Americans have fewer assets than white Americans, due in part to a long history of loan and housing discrimination. Fewer assets, in turn, makes it more likely that someone will fall into poverty and living in poverty makes it less likely that you will get an education and get out of poverty. I never said any of this is determinative based on race. But some of it, particularly the discriminatory policies that got us here in the first place, clearly were based on race and have had important effects even decades later.

          • geoih

            But the implication is that the people today, who had nothing to do with the policies of the past, must now pay for them, simply because of this correlation.
            Since you were generous enough to use yourself as an example, so will I. One of my siblings and I live in the same town, our children are roughly the same age, and go to the exact same schools. Yet my sibling’s children receive preferential treatment, while my children are docked for their “privilege”, simply because my sibling chose to have children with a “minority”, while I did not.
            I highly doubt I’m the only person living with such a situation. This is one of the very predictable outcomes of the present diversity policies of your correlation, and why using it to justify the whole privilege argument is false.

          • Lauren Hall

            Nope, I actually don’t support modern day discriminatory policies to make up for the past. They do more harm than good. I don’t think anyone should get benefits on the basis of race, gender, etc. What I am trying to do is figure out a way to highlight disparities in outcomes that we may be able to do something about through non-coercive means. Particularly when it comes to police brutality against minority populations, some reasonably simple fixes might be eliminating the drug war, enhanced police training on the “rules of engagement” with civilians, demilitarization of police, etc. These policies would benefit both black and white Americans, but they would disproportionately benefit black Americans because black Americans are at greatest risk from these policies.

          • Sean II

            “Particularly when it comes to police brutality against minority populations, some reasonably simple fixes might be eliminating the drug war, enhanced police training on the “rules of engagement” with civilians, demilitarization of police, etc. These policies would benefit both black and white Americans, but they would disproportionately benefit black Americans”

            Ten years ago I believed this just about exactly, yet nearly every word of it is wrong.

            Starting with the scope of the problem – it disappears once you control for crime.

            Including the hoped-for effects of ending the drug war – it will actually make our prison population blacker.

            Including the part about police “rules of engagement” – prior reforms already pushed this approach to the point of diminishing returns, for there are only so many way to write a rule saying “deadly force is a last resort”.

            Including “demilitarization” – this debate will produce little more than a cosmetic fix (they’ll ditch the BDUs and paint the armored cars white).

            But most of all what’s wrong is the part about this “disproportionately benefitting blacks”. It won’t. The big threat to black safety is crime. Blacks are many times more likely to die by violence than whites, and many, MANY times more likely to die by private than state violence.

            To the extent that the current reform movement accomplishes anything, it is likely to do the opposite of what you hope – i.e. it will make blacks less safe by way of de-policing, while leaving whites snug in their bubbles.

      • Theresa Klein

        But why talk about “racial” disparities, why not “income-status-disparities” or other variables that are correlated to imprisonment?
        How do we deconstruct race as a social construct if we’re constantly correlating things to race and talking about racial differences?
        We should be talking about how different groups of black people are different, and different groups of white people are different. We should be decorrelating things, and cross correlating them in different directions. Not coming up with more generalizations across all white people and all black people.

        • Lauren Hall

          Sure, I think that’s a better way of doing things. That’s partly why I like risk better than privilege, because I think it’s more easily applied to particular variables. When I hear privilege used, it’s almost always as a way of lumping together white privilege or abled privilege or whatever, which doesn’t get at the root of the issue. I would be fine decorrelating and cross correlating things, but my progressive friends strongly resist that because it dilutes the power of the privilege argument.

    • Theresa Klein

      They take a correlation between a broad statistical category of people and some positive or negative outcome, and pretend without further evidence that it
      a) represents a direct causation, and
      b) applies as an innate property to every single individual in that category.

      Right. It’s effectively *exactly the same thing* as police treating ALL black people as potential criminals because of higher crime rates among blacks.
      Why do we choose “race” as the broad statistical category with which to make correlations?

      • Sean II

        No one proposes to treat all black people as potential criminals.

        That’s a total straw man.

        Frankly, it’s something Goat would say.

        • Kurt H

          No, they just promote policies and cultural attitudes that make that the de facto result and then when the obvious results happen you can declare this outcome to be “objective” and “fair.”

        • Theresa Klein

          “No one proposes to treat all black people as potential criminals.”

          Well, that’s what your “cheap heuristics” which we can’t do anything about would entail.
          The cheap heuristic is to look at skin color and assume potential criminality.

  • CTN

    Pointing to generic privilege might be just as useful, and just as distracting, as pointing to any particular risk or disadvantage. In anyone’s life, particular risks will offset other particular advantages. If, in the overall balance, a certain man is highly advantaged relative to others (generically “privileged”), I won’t cry much over the one or two particular risks he must also navigate.

    • Lauren Hall

      Right, but in the context of particular kinds of policy issues, like the drug war or policing, particular kinds of risk do matter. This is less a philosophical question than a genuine question about how to talk to people about disparities in outcomes between different groups of people. As a political scientist, I have to have these conversations with my students. Perhaps other people don’t have to use these words at all.

      • Theresa Klein

        Wouldn’t it be more enlightening to look at different groupings within the black community and see how they correlate to risk? Why are we treating blacks as if they were a single homogenous group?

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  • Ben Kennedy

    One of the best ways to communicate around these issues is to refrain from trying to identify institutional and cultural causes, and simply share the experiences of other people. Frankly, every culture and institution both helps and harms everybody – attempting to boil it down to a simplistic framework like “privilege” is pointless

  • Swami

    “Privilege as a concept is attractive to liberals because it describes something real about the world.”

    Privilege is a negative concept because it applies to an unjust system of different rules being applied to people. It is an extreme example of rule inegalitarinism. With emphasis on the “in”. The very word privilege is rooted in “private law”.

    However in progressive usage it is converted to apply to what could better be described as “fortunate”. Thus “check your privilege” has the effect of requiring the fortunate (as defined by the accuser) to operate under different rules than the unfortunate thus it is essentially a plea for PRIVILEGE of the accuser. Thus we have a subtle twist of using the term privilege in a disparaging way to argue for person privilege. IOW, I am privileged (that is get to operate under different rules of argumentation) because you are “privileged” (that is fortunate). This is so screwed up I can’t believe anyone would fall got it. But we do, so like a good meme, it flourishes as it is a very effective rhetorical strategy.

    The only way the concept applies at all is if the privilege comes from the fortune of not being discriminated against by anyone. But again, the term is being perverted. Suddenly not being unfairly discriminated against is an argument for now operating under different rules of argumentation. Your opinion doesn’t count (unfairly) because you aren’t a part of a socially sanctioned group of people who may have been discriminated against. This is especially odd when you consider that short people, ugly people and dumb people are massively and constantly discriminated against and demonstrably so, yet they are not allowed to demand separate rules of argumentation for being ugly. “You pretty people should check your privilege”.

    Let me spell it out another way. The privilege argument spins around stereotyping the person making the accusation (I am X therefore I was discriminating against) and stereotyping the accused (you are Y and thus have not been discriminated against) and thus justifying further discrimination and privilege

    Risk doesn’t get it either. The reason is because in many cases you are just stereotyping risk groups and assuming causation. You are creating arbitrary risk classes based upon certain features that ignores actual causation. You are just playing to the identity politics camp.

    How about this as a recommendation…. Let’s ask everyone to play by the same rules. Let’s not try to manufacture reasons to create new privilege and unfairness based upon rhetorical arguments on the past. When we see disparate results, let’s not assume correlation implies causation by our favorite factor, but instead actually take a look at behaviors and goals which may impact the results.

    “Check your privilege” is a cancerous way of thinking, and doesn’t need to be replaced by “check your risk” or anything else. It belongs in the trash can.

  • When I hear “[adjective] privilege” I usually think in this framework:

    What are examples of (1) unearned benefits that (2) apply to much if not all members of a given group, (3) but to the exclusion of everyone else?

    As others have pointed out, many instances of *1* are just synonyms for raw success.

    Tumblr’s reasoning doesn’t seem so solid to me when looked at in that 3-point framework.

    Very balanced post by the way!

    • CTN

      If most members of a given group achieve raw success of a certain kind, then nearly all members of that group will likely gain a valuable reputation in that regard. Plausibly, most individuals in the group will tend to gain from that valuable reputation–prior to the individuals earning that reputation for themselves. If, for the individual, that’s an unearned benefit, then there should be many examples that fit your 3-point framework.

      Who is Tumblr?

  • Theresa Klein

    Unfortunately, that epistemic point backfires when the word is used to
    target people whose own experiences are much more complex than the
    person hurling the word around is aware of. The person hurling the term
    privilege around is the same person who has no idea that the person on
    the other end is mentally ill or grew up in foster care or was abused as
    a child. Privilege is far too broad to be epistemically useful because
    it assumes far too much knowledge on the part of those attaching
    “privilege” to various identities and lives.

    This is a great paragraph. The problem with identity politics is that it assumes that far too much is encapsulated by race, or by the identity groups that current society conventionally groups us into – race, gender, sexuality, religion. Identity politics assumes you can know a lot about a person by looking at which of those identity groups they belong to – but you really can’t. Those groupings do not account for the myriad other kind of experiences people have, which shapes who they are. Mental illness, foster care, child abuse, poverty – none of these things are accounted for in the identity politics narrative. So people hurl the word privilege around based on these rather broad groupings of people, thinking they can know what another persons experiences are based on skin color, when in fact they are being just as ignorant as a white person making broad stereotypical generalizations about blacks backs on race.

  • David Harrell

    What went wrong?
    It’s pretty obvious – especially since old-school, class lefties like Thomas Frank had been warning the Clinton “liberal” gang to STOP acting like elitist assholes constantly insulting half of their fellow Americans. They just couldn’t stop it. Or, they thought they’d filled up the sanctuary cities (and the voter rolls) with enough Latin immigrants, legal and illegal, that they could actually get away with openly hating the present majority of the country because of, you know, “we’re browning America and you can’t stop us — nah nah!”

    You could feel the arrogance, contempt and hate beaming through the TV or the page from these people. They were really just full of themselves.
    Hubris is pretty easy to see for every one but the guilty party. How are these supremely arrogant people still scratching their heads, still denying, still making up excuses? Such is the vice of human pride. It causes blindness.

    “but I also think the narrative is probably a lot more complicated than “liberals hurt my feelings”.
    That is a poor way to characterize (or caricature) the sentiment. Personally speaking, so-called liberals haven’t hurt MY feelings – this is far from my first rodeo; I don’t have any feelings left to hurt! But I am offended *for* my fellow Americans whom they insult — Americans who are patriotic, love their country and their constitution, and maybe are even guilty of being people of faith. I am also offended (in the sense of exasperated and incredulous at the stupidity) by their presumption to own, and to paternalistically speak for, people of color such as myself. I am getting a little tired of being lectured by white “liberal” friends that by challenging patently ridiculous slander spewed out by certified slander machines like Sleazy Pieces of Lyin’ Crap, I am defending a “racist” president-elect who’s all but a card-carrying KKK member, and that I need to start believing the MSM/SPLC and start thinking right. I go back to the 90s and I watched the Clintons cook up this “white scare” the first time around (including blaming Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh for the Oklahoma bombing) and wish I had time to educate these people even just a little bit.

    The calls to “check your privilege” were aimed at one segment: whites in general, and white males in particular. They were not attacking “privilege” in general – -thee’s merit in that – they made it a hatefest exclusively about white people (in some cases, white men). That takes a legitimate argument and turns it into a mere political club to whack your opponents with. They thought that was a winning strategy – but it lost, bigly. (Electorally, and probably popularly as well – the dimensions of the fraud committed appear massive.)

  • David Harrell

    As to the main question here, a discussion of privilege would benefit “bigly” by looking at not only definitions, but derivation! The word “privilege” has specific roots and has come down to us in legal terminology with specific meanings. Much of what the left talks about as “privilege” does not fit within the specific definition. (Unequal outcome is NOT synonymous with privilege.)
    You can’t debate something pro or con without precisely defining it.

    • Kurt H

      I kind of agree that privilege in this context is a valid concept with a sloppy word chosen to describe it. However, I think that renaming it would mitigate very few of the attacks on the concept, since by-and-large people who object to privilege terminology are not really doing so on the basis of semantics. The semantic argument is just a smokescreen for not wanting to admit the existence of unearned bonuses and penalties that accrue to members of various social categories.

      • David Harrell

        Sure they are — the vagueness of usage is one reason why the charge so often lacks credibility.
        When ALL persons of a particular category — such as a skin color — are alleged to have this ill-defined, thing called “privilege,” framed as some kind of nebulous, vaporous, almost invisible entity that exists nowhere but everywhere — even in white trailer parks riddled with welfare and meth addiction — that is a big problem.
        (As I heard one caller to “Washington Journal” on C-SPAN say: “Any more of this ‘white privilege’ and I’ll be in bankruptcy.”
        Hanging entire social movements and huge policy shifts on such nebulous terms leads to demonization and persecution of the wrong targets.

        • Kurt H

          See response to Theresa above.

      • Theresa Klein

        The semantic argument is just a smokescreen for not wanting to admit the
        existence of unearned bonuses and penalties that accrue to members of
        various social categories.

        How do you decide which “social categories” are important determinants of “bonuses” and “penalties”? Why are race, gender, sexuality, and religion deemed the important dividing lines, as opposed to (say) left-handedness, geographic area of birth, whether you were a nerd in high school or not, socioeconomic status, favorite color, or any number of hundreds of other variables?

        Is race really THAT large a determinant, compared to other factors? Do you really think that just looking at those narrow categories – race, gender, sexuality, religion, you can add up some sort of advantagedness score that can tell you something meaningful about a random stranger?

        • Kurt H

          The important measure is not the overall advantageness score, but the marginal score. The same comment applies to David’s response. Holding other factors constant, being white is advantageous. That’s the only point being made.

          Replying to this argument by saying that some white people live in squalor misses the point. If a person living in poverty is also black, they will face greater difficulty changing that situation.

          • Theresa Klein

            The marginal effect could be very small compared to other marginal effects. What is the marginal effect of race compared to (say) being abused as a child?

            Most of the time when the word “privilege” is thrown around, the implicit assumption is that the marginal effect of race is somehow larger or more important than all the other factors. It is almost always being tossed around in ignorance of other factors that may vastly outweigh the advantage of race for any given individual.

          • Kurt H

            It could be small, but to be perfectly honest if you went around giving non-abused white people the choice between either being turned black or having been abused, I think you’d get a lot of people picking the abuse. Now I agree that such a choice shouldn’t be a hard one. Everyone should choose black over abuse. But they wouldn’t because being black has noticable consequences that, unlike a history of abuse, cannot be mitigated with therapy.

            Now there are some cases, criminal justice for example, where blackness becomes very salient, perhaps even the most salient factor in a situation. What I often see is cases where the impact of race is obvious and undeniable where critics of the privilege concept start working overtime to find other relevant factors. It’s like they’re afraid of race ever being a relevant factor.

          • Dan045

            “…It’s like they’re afraid of race ever being a relevant factor…”

            It’s worth asking whether (and to what degree) race is a factor after you control for those other factors. If the root cause is racism then presumably we need one set of tools. If the root cause is something else then singling out a few encounters with the police out of tens of Billions to fit a narrative is wasting time.

            We could spend decades trying to reform the justice system and failing to see any results when the root issue might be as simple as lead paint or preschool.

        • David Harrell

          AFAICT, I’ve faced a lot more discrimination based on the fact I’m a nerd than on the fact that I’m black!

    • imogen88

      Etymologically, a privilege (privilegium) means a “private law”, or rule relating to a specific individual or institution. When we use the word privilege, perhaps it should be more clearly defined that there are laws that affect some differently than it affects others.

  • Boulder Commonsense

    It used to be that people talked about the “underprivileged” since the focus was on helping those that were less fortunate than most of the public. The switch to talking about the treatment that middle class white people receive as “privileged” seems counter productive when instead their treatment should be viewed as “normal” and the goal should be for everyone to receive that sort of treatment.

    Describing something as a “privilege” implies it is special treatment that can be taken away because it is over and above what should be expected. The use of the term “privilege” provides a rationalization for dragging people down, rather than giving others a hand up. It is lowering the goal for how people should be treated, which allows them to shout down say a white male and not respect their views, because they imply basic respect is a “privilege” that can be taken away. Those who are underprivileged can be jealous of those who have more, but rather than productively attempting to seek to see that happen, the “privilege” claims provides an excuse for many to engage in the counter productive approach of rationalizing tearing down those who are better off instead.

    The constant hunt for “privilege” to tear people down is a destructive phenomenon, and those who engage in it need to be called out for their desire to lower the bar for how people are treated. Its similar to the mindset of some socialists who would are less concerned with raising up living standards for the poor, than ensuring the well off are taken down. Many would rather everyone be poorer as long as they are equal (neglecting to consider the reality that in the real world socialist/communist systems lead insiders to get special treatment rather than that leading to equality, unless they merely aren’t admitting they are the ones that wish the special treatment)

  • JW Ogden

    I prefer talking about disadvantage rather than privilege or risk. To me it seems more forward looking and therefore rectifiable.