Tal Fortgang, the Princeton freshman become famous overnight as the “Poster Child of White Privilege” because of his published screed defending his exalted socio-economic status as his natural right due to merit, has brought the issue of privilege vs. just rewards of individual merit once again forcibly into our consciousness, as he has been embraced by conservatives and vilified by liberals/persons of the left as exemplary on both sides of “That’s exactly what I’m talking about!” Even down to Fortgang’s claim that his fortuity to be born of already socio-economically exalted ancestry was somehow even a special merit of his which he earned through hard work himself! Never mind, of course, the recent talk at Princeton’s commencement by a Princeton graduate, Class of 2012, Michael Lewis, where he emphasized that success invariably has a strong element of luck and advantage about it, and that it is a duty of those who are become successful not to feel selfishly entitled to it, but to help others not so fortunate. Lewis’s notable speech provoked an interview with him on PBS that was posted on the web-sharing site Upworthy: http://www.upworthy.com/....
Fortgang took special umbrage at those who’d admonish him to “Check his privilege,” certainly among them being his fellow Princeton classmates. Which is sardonic in itself, as anyone able to attend Princeton in the first place came to be there because of privilege. Princeton is not only an elite, hard-to-get-into school, it is also an expensive one, and unless one attends solely on the basis of full scholarship, well beyond the needs of most families of college-age children to afford. Those at Princeton who admonished Fortgang to “Check his privilege” were able to do so because, same as Fortgang, they were the beneficiaries of socio-economic privilege themselves!
Which brings up another “ism” in the discussion of “privilege,” one that deserves equal status as a factor in determining “privilege” vs. “un-privilege” along with racism and sexism, but sadly, is missing from most discussions of “privilege”: classism. We in the U.S. like to think of ourselves as a homogeneous “middle-class” society where sharp rifts and cleavages due to socio-economic factors such as one’s parents’ occupation and income didn’t consign one to a similar socio-economic status regardless of hard work or even being able to attend a state university. We in the U.S. supposedly all have a chance to live the American Dream, and this is especially true if one is a white male—and now, due to the relaxation of barriers imposed formerly by race and gender, is increasingly true for African Americans, Hispanics, and women as well. We can all be upwardly mobile, so the American Dream myth goes. And by singling out for redress barriers still imposed by race and gender, we can make the American Dream even more of a reality for those of darker skin color and of female gender. Never mind barriers still imposed by socio-economic class, because in the U.S. they hardly exist in the first place, and in any case, are definitely not insuperable.
Never mind that discrimination against persons on the basis of race, skin color, or gender almost always have a strong class component about them. Never mind that such persons fighting the barriers of race and gender invariably find themselves up against the “invisible” barrier of class origins, and class status as a working adult, even one college-educated. After all, anyone can now do it, once race and gender barriers are eliminated, or at least attenuated, for after all, the good ol’ U.S.A. always was, and still is, a classless society, not one with major socio-economic rifts and cleavages due to occupation and income (those nasty Marxist “relations to the means of production”!).
But the fact is, socio-economic class does matter, and matters very much, even where racial and/or gender discrimination is the supposedly causative factor. It does indeed make a crucial difference whether one is born African American into a family that is already financially successful, or whether one is the daughter of parents already financially well-established. And whether such families are able to afford the tuition at Princeton, or whether their children must attend a cheaper, less-renowned, college or university for their higher education. And that certainly means it does matter whether one’s father is a factory laborer or a factory manager, and it does matter where one does graduate with that college diploma. And that means it will indeed matter what one will be able to do with that education, and whether one will work at Wall Street or pound the streets looking for work on some Main Street in some middling city or town. This is the class reality of the U.S. today, though we don’t like to even acknowledge it, much less own up to what it means: stagnant or downward mobility, massive income disparities and ever-increasing inequality, the pervasiveness of class structures and norms throughout our society, from the organization of work and its rewards through media images and the nature of schools and who gets to attend them—and was analyzed extensively in a very seminal book, The New Class Society, written by two able sociologists, Robert Perrucci of Purdue and Earl Wysong of Indiana University Kokomo, published in 1999 by academic publishers Rowman and Littlefield. But this important book was given little attention when published precisely because it was so penetrating, and its message so disturbing to the orthodoxy that we are all in an essentially classless “middle class” society. An orthodoxy also called into question by a book that has become the surprising best-seller of 2014—Thomas Piektty’s Capital in the 21st Century.
All this, of course, has a direct bearing on notions of “privilege” and “luck,” this latter bringing us right back to Michael Lewis’s interview on PBS where he recounted his luck, as he called it, at landing his first job after graduation as a Wall Street derivatives trader: he’d been invited to a dinner party where the woman who sat next to him was the wife of the head of a Wall Street investment bank! A double luck of Lewis, for surely only a graduate of Princeton would be invited to that kind of dinner party in the first place. Certainly I, a white college-educated male, and thus supposedly “privileged” beyond my own capabilities, would not be invited to such a party, what with my living not on the East Coast but in lowly Indianapolis, and having only attended Michigan State University and eventually graduating from Indiana University. My “luck” would simply not be of such empyrean sort—because of the different sort of “privilege” I would have as a college-graduate male with an entirely different kind of class status and origin!
And though I’m a nationally-published writer and poet, especially in left and alternative publications where I’m among a very small number of writers who does not have a Ph.D. and is not connected to academia, I must relegate this side of me to mere hobby status and make my living as an unskilled laborer in Brain Drain Indiana because that is how I’m officially classified by Indiana’s WorkOne “state employment agency”—as an unskilled laborer with no relevant work experience because I haven’t spent years driving a forklift or have a CDL license, merely a university degree in economics! And at present, I earn $9.50 an hour in a warehouse job through a temp agency—and ever since September 2001 have been able to find work only through temp agencies. And yet I’m a supposedly “privileged white male college graduate;” but does what I’ve indicated above even remotely sound like real, palpable “privilege”? And yet, I’m far from alone in being a white college grad so “privileged.” For my lot is very much the same as several other white college grads I know—which makes all this traditional, non-class, abstract talk about “privilege” on the left and in liberal circles sound very much indeed like cant.
Which means “privilege” itself always has a strong class component, that classism is every bit as relevant as racism or sexism. And yes, while there may be psychological components to any sense of “privilege,” “dis-privilege,” sense of entitlement or of discrimination, at bottom for any meaningful concept of privilege is the socio-economic, or class, status of the persons feeling so fortunate, meritorious, or aggrieved. What on the left is aptly called the intersectionality of race, gender, and class. And means that “privilege” and “dis-privilege” are class factors as much as they are psychological, racial, and gender ones; and indeed does mean that white maleness in and of itself does not automatically consign one to a pedestal of “privilege.” That, by looking at class as a significant factor in determining and defining “privilege,” it does indeed mean that not all white males are equally “privileged.” Not by a long shot.