Action for Privileged White Males
There is a tacit assumption that we live in a utopian meritocracy where we all
get what we deserve, the cream always rises to the top, hard work always
translates into material success and the mysticism of the invisible hand of the
marketplace irons out all the details. The reality however is somewhat more
mundane. The unpleasant truth about our so-called “democratic” capitalist system
is that the most important determinant of material success is the contingency of
our birth. Your socio-economic background and the financial status of your
parents play the central role in your life’s chances – not the genetics of your
intellect, physical prowess, psychological make-up or moral integrity. These
latter attributes certainly deal you a better hand but their impact pale in
comparison to the significance of the former. As a mind experiment, speculate on
the prospects of a man with George Bush’s limited intellect, addictive
personality and unsavory character traits. Now think about what his fate would
be if, rather than being born with the proverbial silver spoon, he was born into
poverty in a ghetto with no father and a crack head mother?
Some political philosophers such as the recently deceased Harvard professor John
Rawls in his magnum opus A Theory of Justice (1971) argued that, if we
demand a just society and if the foundations of our society are based
exclusively on inherited genetic attributes and even if all the other
contingencies of our birth are discounted, it is still seriously flawed. Why,
Rawls claims, in a society that seeks justice, should the contingency of our
inherited genes be a fair criterion for success or failure? Rawls proposed the
idea of "original position", a mental exercise whereby a group of rational
people must establish a principle of fairness (such as distribution of income)
without knowing beforehand where on the resulting pecking order they will end up
themselves. They might be a rich billionaire like John D. Rockefeller or they
might be a slave in the Sudan, so the debate should take account of both
possibilities. This is the 'veil of ignorance', which apparently no
contractarian political philosopher had thought of before. Rawls used this
device to argue that the optimal arrangement will be to "maximize the welfare of
society's worse-off member", which effectively justifies an egalitarian
"no-substitution" social welfare function. Rawls died in 2002 at the age of 81.
The recent piece below by Robert Jensen I thought was exceptional and one of the
best I have read in recent weeks.
If his argument is correct, it takes a major step to a better understanding what
is systemically wrong with the workings of our world and why so many incompetent
scoundrels end up in positions of power.
Is Bush a
Racist - Or Just Another Soulless Son of Privilege?
By ROBERT JENSEN
George W. Bush has been unfairly tagged with
the label “racist” in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
It’s true that the response of the government -- at all levels, but especially
the federal government and it’s feeble emergency agency -- was inadequate and
incompetent, and that the poor suffered the most, and that the poor of New
Orleans are disproportionately black. It’s also true that Bush displayed an
appalling lack of basic human compassion in his slow reaction to the suffering.
But our president is almost certainly not an overt racist. He’s just a
run-of-the-mill overly privileged American who appears to have no soul. I’m
reasonably sure he doesn’t harbor ill will for anyone based solely on race.
Instead -- like many people in similar positions and status -- he’s incapable of
understanding how race and class structure life in the United States. His
privilege has not only coddled and protected him his whole life, but also has
left him with a drastically reduced capacity for empathy, and without empathy
one can’t be fully human.
This is not a partisan attack; such a soulless existence is not a feature of
membership in any particular political party. Nor is it exclusive to men. Though
we tend to assume women will be more caring, this deficiency among the
privileged crosses gender lines; probably the most inhuman comment by a public
figure after Katrina was made by the president’s mother, Barbara Bush. After
touring the Astrodome stadium in Houston, where many who were displaced by the
disaster were being warehoused, she said, “And so many of the people in the
arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this -- this is working
very well for them.”
In our president all we see is an extreme version of a more general problem in
an affluent but highly unequal society, in which people on the top have
convinced themselves they are special and therefore deserve their positions.
For his entire life, Bush has sat on the very top of the privilege pile. He is
white in a white-supremacist society; a heterosexual man in a patriarchal
culture; born into wealth in a capitalist economy; and a U.S. citizen in a world
dominated by his nation. In the identity game, it’s hard to get a better roll of
The downside to all this for folks like Bush is that privilege doesn’t guarantee
intelligence, empathy, wisdom, diligence, or humanity. Privilege allows people
without those qualities to skate through life, protected from the consequences
of being dull-witted, lazy, arrogant, and inhumane. The system of privilege
allows failed people to pretend to be something more.
And, unfortunately, that system often puts those failed people in positions of
power and forces everyone else to endure their shortcomings.
That’s probably the most pressing race problem in the United States today -- a
de facto affirmative-action program for mediocre middle- and upper-class white
men that places a lot of undeserving people in positions of power, where their
delusions of grandeur can have profound implications for others.
If the deficiencies of George Bush and people like him were simply their
problem, well, most would find it hard to muster much sympathy. But they become
our problem -- not just the United States’, but the world’s problem -- when such
folks run the world.
Let’s go back to Bush’s resume. Whatever one’s ideology or evaluation of Bush
policies, it’s impossible to ignore how race, gender, class, and nation
privilege have worked in his life. By his own admission, Bush was a mediocre
student, gaining access to two of the most prestigious universities in the
United States (Yale and Harvard) through family connections, not merit. His
lackluster and incomplete service in the Texas Air National Guard during the
Vietnam War was, to say the least, not the stuff of legend that will be told and
retold around the family hearth.
After that he went into the oil business, where he also failed. He then used
money he had managed to take out of a failed oil endeavor to buy into the Texas
Rangers baseball team, his one great “success” in the business world. From
there, despite having no relevant experience, he was molded by Republican Party
operatives into a successful gubernatorial candidate. After a thoroughly
uninspired first term, he was re-elected governor before moving on to the White
House, where the most successful public-relations team in U.S. political history
has kept him afloat despite two illegal and failed wars, a frightening rise in
the national debt, tax cuts for wealthy that have contributed to the gutting of
the already weak social safety net, and most recently the criminally negligent
response to Hurricane Katrina.
Welcome to the United States of Meritocracy. How is it that a society can hold
onto fantasies about level playing fields and equal opportunity when every day
we turn on the television sets and see Smiling George the Frat Boy President?
The problem, of course, isn’t limited to Bush; he’s a fraud, but only one of
many. In my life I have worked in offices of the federal government, non-profit
organizations, for-profit corporations, and universities. In each, I have seen
mediocre white men rise to positions of power for reasons that have more to do
with the informal networks based on identity than on merit. No doubt, as a white
man, my own career has been aided by this system. I also have seen women and
non-white people advance by playing a similar game, but far less often and
typically only when they internalize the value system of the dominant culture.
That does not mean there are no white men who are talented and hard-working or
who do not deserve the success they have achieved. It is only to recognize that
this system of unearned privilege will regularly put into positions of power
people who are unfit for the duties they take on.
That means -- independent of the strong moral argument for equality and justice
-- subverting a system of white supremacy and white privilege is in all our
interests. In fact, the fate of the world may depend on it.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of
Texas at Austin
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