Thursday, February 04, 2016

Trying to Figure Privilege and Hard Work

I teach about privilege in most of my classes.  In talking about privilege, students always want some credit for their own or their ancestors' hard work.  This is fair enough.

I am working on a table showing how to think about the relation of privilege and hard work.

This is my half-baked idea.  Comments welcome.

Hard Work

Most Power
Low Status
High Status


Mac said...

Could you leave it in the oven a little longer? Maybe sprinkle some butter and sugar on it.

You pose a very interesting question--one that resonates with our times. I would really like to see how it works out.

Right now, however, I see very little relationship between some of the terms, although hard work ought to bring more power and higher status than slacking off. The essential question is, "What do you define as privilege?"

I was the first person in my family to graduate from college (although my Mom received her RN) and went right from there into the Marine Corps and into combat. I am white and of Irish and Scots-Irish descent. My dad was a HS grad, served in the Navy in the South Pacific in WWII (at sea from Sep 1940 to Nov 1944) and came back home to the farm just in time for farm prices to collapse at the end of the Truman administration. He lost the farm, but went to work for Eastern Airlines (Operations) and we never suffered--except when the Flight Engineers' union struck (to protect their union and its leaders rather than for the good of the rank and file members) and the whole line was shut down for 3 months. Dad died when I was 17 and my Mom put me and my younger brother and sister through college pretty much on her own. She never complained.

I went to High School in a building built for 1200 that housed almost 2000. Our Chem labs were right out of the 30s, and the shop classes built the "wave tables" we used in Physics. Classes were large--my class was the first of the baby boomers--and yet we learned. Nobody told us that just because there were richer districts across the River in St Louis, we could be excused for failing to do our best.

So, am I privileged? Sure. I'm an American citizen--no greater privilege than that. Have I served my Country in war and peace? Yep; no greater privilege than that. Have I led Marines in combat? Brother, there is no greater honor or privilege than that in this or any other universe. Can any American citizen willing to work hard aspire to those privileges? You betcha!

But: Am I unduly privileged, have I been allowed an unfair advantage based on the color of my skin rather than the content of my character? I would say not. I suspect, however, that you might say that all of the above is irrelevant to your thesis. That is why I need a better working definition of how you classify "privilege."

I honestly look forward to where this voyage of discovery may lead.

Victoria Wheeler said...

I'm curious about the placement of "pity." I would actually think pity would apply in the condition of hard work but no privilege. That seems to be the case where people actually feel pity. Otherwise they're "moochers."

Gruntled said...

Mac, the kind of privilege that social scientists and analysts mean is "unearned advantage" which comes from how other people treat you. Thus, if black men are routinely followed in stores, and white men are not, that is a privilege for the latter. Conditions you earn for yourself, such as being a Marine, are not privileges in that sense. Often we privileged people (and I am about as privileged as it gets) do not realize the advantage that others accord us, but simply think it normal.

Victoria, I have been wrestling the most with what to say about that lower-right box. I think the response of care for the disadvantaged who do not work hard is pity; the response of those who view justice as getting back in proportion to what you put in regard them as moochers because they don't work hard, but the same would apply to the privileged who do not work hard. I don't know what the distinctive "proportionality" view is of disadvantaged non-workers. In practice, I think the "proportionality" view of justice denies the existence of privilege.

Mac said...

Professor: Because "privilege" is a sociological term of art, divorced from the real-world understanding of privilege. I'll leave that to the academy.

I'm really looking forward to seeing how this works out. I have to say, however, that when I hear academics say I was a success only because of the color of my skin and should therefore be discounted and perhaps even punished, I am as offended as a man of color would be (is) to hear that his success was similarly a result of his color and a societal decision to reward (over-compensate) him simply for that genetic happenstance.

The research that you and your fellows conduct may result in a whole new way to understand human interaction. I just hope that those of you on either side of the issue do not turn upon one another or "eat your young." Judge Robert Bork, who could have been one of the greatest Justices to ever sit on the Supreme Court, was torn apart by the Democrats in Congress because he ventured into the academic game of written intellectual skirmishing, a game that, happily, often has a steel sharpening steel effect on both sides of almost any subjective area of endeavor.

The back-and-forth about the type of privilege you posit may not resolve anything, but it most assuredly cannot hurt. I look forward to seeing where your thought, study, and research takes you.

Gruntled said...

Mac, this is a trollish, deliberate misrepresentation of what the privilege conversation is about: "when I hear academics say I was a success only because of the color of my skin and should therefore be discounted and perhaps even punished, I am as offended as a man of color would be (is) to hear that his success was similarly a result of his color and a societal decision to reward (over-compensate) him simply for that genetic happenstance."

AN unearned advantage (which you surely have) is not the ONLY reason for your success, and no one but you said so.

Mac said...

I am not trying to be trollish (??). I will grant you that it might have been better for both of our blood pressures if I had spent more time honing my “trollish” (tongue firmly in cheek) response: I allowed emotion to let me take your first response personally, and I do sincerely apologize.

It may also be that language fails us; maybe the English language needs different words for the singular versus the plural "you." Finally, my legal education probably affects my response. You are not the first person—nor “surely” the last—to complain that due to the unique, yeah, that’s the word I’ll use, the unique way of thinking that is spliced into us in 1L, we can ruin a perfectly lovely discussion.

May I try again?

Gruntled said...


Mac said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mac said...

I should have taken typing rather than slide rule!

Thank you.

I am having some intellectual difficulty wrapping my arms around the issue you have posited. Whether or not I agree with your definition of privilege, it is necessarily the only permissible definition, if we are to have meaningful discourse. I concede that I do “surely have” the characteristic of being a white man, and, conditionally, that “… black men are routinely followed in stores, and white men are not, [so] that is a privilege for the latter.” I’m sure you have data—I just haven’t seen it. Sorry. Lawyer.

I also concede that in the past, white men were granted a huge legal advantage, individually and collectively. I suggest, however, we have done about as much as can be done, absent a totalitarian solution, to resolve that objective discrimination. Oh, there is the continual tinkering in the legislatures and courts with the civil rights laws to define or expand the definitions of conduct that is civilly unacceptable—to ban, and in the most extreme cases, criminalize, disparate treatment based on traits over which a party has absolutely no control, e.g., creed, sex, race, and gender self-identification. We may differ as to whether “mere tinkering” is enough or whether full-scale “remodeling” is required, but we have made huge strides against improper objective discrimination in my lifetime.

What is left, then, is a look at how the amorphous “they” in our society treat individuals. I understand that the “unearned advantage” study is aimed at quantifying and remedying subjective mindset, at the cumulative, not individual, political and economic cause and effect of “unfair advantage, and that it goes further than overt discrimination. It will look at the motivation of a white American of 2016 who gives or receives the subjective advantage, even if the recipient is innocent and unaware. It looks at the admissions counselor who admits a white student of exact equal qualification, the hiring manager who hires the white job applicant instead of the equally qualified Hispanic applicant. It is subjective: attitude, predisposition, emotional preference, that little, inexplicable tug of the heart that says "I like this one better. I'm not sure why; I just do."

Perhaps, that is the crux of our disagreement, if disagreement there be. Assuming that one person or group of persons subjectively granting to another person an “unearned advantage is something that needs to studied, I stand four square for academic freedom. But I do not think that you and your peers undertake such inquiries for absolutely no purpose other than to scratch an intellectual itch. Having identified a problem, surely you will seek a solution.
Should you find that such an advantage exists and that the effects thereof are economically and socially measureable, you have identified a societal problem. What next?

As attorneys, whether politicians or officers of the courts, we are routinely expected to find, enact, or impose remedies for such “wrongs.” And I am not certain just what a constitutionally permissible remedy might be.

Certainly, the results that some might desire could be objective. By way of example only, redistribution of wealth (“reparations”) or objective quotas rather than subjective goals in, e.g. college admissions or hiring could be legislated. However, reparations to individuals or a class who were never actually slaves and quota systems are probably unconstitutional—the first for want of “standing” and the second on fifth and 14th amendment grounds (due process). And even if such remedies were allowed, that does not stop a parent from teaching his or her child the exact opposite. The mindset is not remedied.

A problem without a solution is a boil festering on the societal spirit. I just don’t see how we remedy what people think and feel and almost instinctively do in our constitutional republic.

Mac said...

I woke up about 10 minutes ago--0545--and realized I got so far out in front of, and probably 90 degrees or more off course from, your start point that the ship may now be docking in downtown Duluth rather than headed for Tahiti as intended. Sorry. (The good news is that we got less than an inch of snow.)

I'll just watch for awhile and let others play. Please pass the Doritos.

Best regards.


ceemac said...


I think your sociological use of the term privilege is running into the same problem that your use of the term establishment did a few years ago in your call for a new Presby Estblisment.

Both words carry a lot of baggage in popular culture that is not included use the use of the term by sociologists.

Along the lines of:
Establishment= "good ole BOYS network"
Privilege= at birth guaranteed admission to Centre (Sewanee, Yale, etc) no matter how well I do in school because of my last name.

Gruntled said...

Yes, we always face a dilemma of either making up new, precise words, or using popular words which also have other meanings.

Still, there is now an established discourse, which is spreading into popular culture, that "privilege" is the word to describe the unearned advantage that dominant groups are given by others, just because they are visibly members of that dominant group. White privilege and male privilege are the two most important and widespread kinds of privilege. Good-looking people are accorded all kinds of unearned advantages as well, especially women. Class advantage is harder for strangers to see, so is less likely to be accorded.

It is also worth noting that the specific "privilege" you cite - "at birth guaranteed admission to Centre (Sewanee, Yale, etc) no matter how well I do in school because of my last name" - is not only not privilege in the sense I mean, but is also not a real thing. Yes, legacies have an advantage, but that is a considered advantage among known actors, which also has to be supported by some level of earned achievement. No one has at-birth guaranteed admission to any selective college.