Monday, September 22, 2008

Unpacking whose privilege?

As expected, whiteness studies is beginning to be picked up and run with by rank and file leftists.

What is it? It's a field of studies based on the theory that whiteness was socially constructed to maintain the unearned privilege of whites.

The theory is steadily increasing in influence and it's not difficult to imagine it going mainstream.

We should do what we can to resist this process. The theory suggests that it is the very fact of being white which is a problem, and not just any particular kind of behaviour or attitude.

The claim is that all whites benefit from "white privilege" at the expense of the non-white other; in other words, there is an unjust system of privilege built into the way society operates through which whites are given privileges and advantages denied to others.

If you are white and you believe this theory you are going to be mightily conflicted in your identity and affiliations. You will not have a healthy regard for your own tradition - there will be no celebrating your part of the world's ethnic mosaic.

The best you will be able to do is to act against your own identity and your own kind (one whiteness studies professor has written that "treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity").

I have written a detailed criticism of whiteness studies elsewhere; I'd like to focus in this post on just one particular problem with the theory.

Whiteness theorists usually focus on just two races: whites and blacks. As blacks, on average, are worse off in some respects, it might seem plausible to talk about white privilege and black oppression.

The theory becomes much less plausible if we allow Asians into the picture. Asians do better than whites in certain important social outcomes. How is this possible if a system of white privilege exists in society? Why, if society is a system of white privilege, should whites be privileged in comparison to blacks but disadvantaged compared to Asians?

It's not difficult to find evidence of better social outcomes for Asians. In the US, for example, Asians do much better than whites in gaining entrance to university (college) courses:

Asian Americans, though only 4 percent of the nation's population, account for nearly 20 percent of all medical students. Forty-five percent of Berkeley's freshman class, but only 12 percent of California's populace, consists of Asian-Americans. And at UT-Austin, 18 percent of the freshman class is Asian American, compared to 3 percent for the state.

An even more telling statistic is provided in a book titled Asian Americans by Pyong Gap Min. In this book (p.66) there is a table in which the earnings of white Americans are compared to native-born Asian Americans. An Asian American male with the same level of experience and education as a white American male receives a 4% bonus in earnings - for women the gap rises to 17%.

If mean earnings remain unadjusted for education and experience, then the discrepancy is even more pronounced: in 2000, native-born Asian American men recorded a 14% bonus in mean earnings compared to white American men, and the gap for women was 32%.

Unsurprisingly, Pyong Gap Min concludes that:

there is no clear evidence that native-born Asian American men systematically face a net racial disadvantage in terms of wages, earnings or occupational attainment.

It's a similar story when professional outcomes are looked at. Pyong Gap Min provides a table (p.68) listing the percentage of Asian Americans in each profession.

In the year 2000, 4.1% of America's population was Asian American, but Asian Americans were 13.6% of doctors and dentists, 13.2% of computer specialists, 9.9% of engineers, 6.1% of accountants, 8.7% of post-secondary teachers (such as uni professors) and 6.9% of architects.

So Asian Americans are privileged compared to white Americans when it comes to jobs, earnings and education. But why? Does Pyong Gap Min resort to accusations that "Asianness" is a social construct designed to systematically oppress others?

Not at all. He ascribes part of the success of Asian Americans to stable patterns of family life:

educational attainment is strongly affected by parents' emotional encouragement and financial support. Hence, high educational attainment amongst Asian American youth reflects in large part the heavy investment of Asian parents in their children. (p.70)

On p.71 he provides a table showing the percentage of each American ethnic group living in a two parent family and mean family income. There is a correlation between family stability and income level. Asian Americans have the highest percentage of two-parent families (73%) and the highest mean family income ($77,000). White Americans were somewhat lower on both counts (67% and $70,000). African Americans fared much worse in both areas (40% and $45,000).

Pyong Gap Min is not bound by any political ideology and is therefore free to look to the strengths of his own community in explaining Asian American social advantage.

For whites, though, it is not a stable family life or self-disciplined work patterns which are held to create success - but rather an unearned privilege bought at the expense of everyone else. We are held to a different standard - singled out as having a uniquely bad role in human society.

We shouldn't accept this characterisation lightly. It is a kind of vilification, one which will become more serious as whiteness theory is accepted more widely in society.


  1. So, they will have to conveniently overlook the "hillbillies" of Appalachia in there study, I guess.

  2. I'm sure you have seen this site, - but if you haven't. It's strange but doesn't appear to have been updated for almost a year, perhaps whiteness studies are dying out.

  3. Whiteness studies is simply anti-white racism, on the lines of theories about Jews controlling the world through the interntaional banking system, etc. When I was born the US was 90 percent white -- and most non-whites were concentrated in the South. Many states were 98-99 percent white. Who on earth was there in those communities to "steal" "privilege" from? For most of my life, I competed against other white people in work and school, not against "people of color."

  4. Regardless of the revolutionary hatred-agitation against whites, it is black privilege that is enshrined in our law (here in the US). Whites are officially disadvantaged.

  5. Thanks for the comments.

    Sfw, whiteness studies is still alive and kicking. There's a major academic conference taking place in Melbourne in December. It's backed not only by ACRAWSA, but also by history departments at Melbourne and Monash Universities.

    What's worse is that ordinary leftist activists seem to be adopting the theory. For instance, the YWCA in America has posted YouTube videos about white privilege and has formally adopted the theory as part of its racial justice programme.

    I noticed too some Brisbane "progressives" chose to use whiteness theory to analyse the US election campaign.

    Whiteness theory is likely to become influential because it fits the larger structure of left-liberal thought. If you are an individualist liberal and you are confronted by a majority ethnicity, you have to explain why such a thing so inconveniently exists.

    You won't want to consider its existence to be natural, as that would give it legitimacy and permanency.

    So you'll call it a social construct as that makes it malleable and impermanent.

    But left-liberals go on to ask why the social construct arose in the first place. Typically, left-liberals explain social constructs in terms of power relations - in terms of privilege and oppression.

    So whiteness theory slots into an existing framework of left-liberal thought.

    You are going to hear a lot about "white privilege" in the years ahead.

  6. I think the success of East Asian's in the American and Australasian education systems has been a significant factor in the rise of the liberal right among males in their 20s and 30s.

    From a right liberal perspective Asian success shows that the hard working individual can succeed if they try hard enough.

    Interestingly, libertarianism is very strong in areas like New Zealand and California, where they are a high proportion of East Asians.

    Ironically though, libertarianism seems to have little appeal to Asians themselves. East Asian politics tends to be much closer white nationalist politics with its emphasis on developmental economics, limited immigration and strong law and order policies.

  7. "Does Pyong Gap Min resort to accusations that "Asianness" is a social construct designed to systematically oppress others?

    Not at all. He ascribes part of the success of Asian Americans to stable patterns of family life"

    While family formation surely has something to do with relative success of the individuals, perhaps IQ also has some effect on the aggregate success of the individual races.

    I recall reading somewhere that the average 'g' of Asians is higher than that of Caucasians and both were higher than the African.

    Now I know that it's political dynamite to utter such heresy, but if this fact is true, I think it would go a long way toward explaining apparent privilege--expressed in this case by higher salaries--of some groups compared to others.