When Jordan Peterson recently tweeted out a copy of Home Depot’s ‘white privilege’ memorandum given to its staff, it rightly caused a stir: Yet another corporation’s diversity, equity and inclusion staff parroting a simplistic academic theory.
The memo offered the usual assumption that one’s skin colour explains incomes and opportunities, or not. It includes the claims that if your skin colour is white, you’re privileged.
Home Depot’s memo, which originated in its Canadian division, offered the usual disclaimer that this accusation of privilege didn’t mean that those whose palette is pale might not have had a hard life. It’s only that “your skin is not one of the reasons that makes it harder.”
The theory of white privilege first began in academic circles in a 1989 essay from Peggy McIntosh, a professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. The essay wasn’t academically rigorous; it was pure opinion devoid of statistical analysis of the sort economists such as Thomas Sowell have engaged in. In McIntosh’s essay, one evidence of privilege (she listed 26) was if you could find Band-Aids that were the same colour as your flesh.
McIntosh’s theory circulated in academia and spread widely in popular culture and corporate messaging after the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. It became standard for corporations, governments and even some journalists (who should be more skeptical about simplistic cause-and-effect claims) to uncritically accept that any differences in economic outcomes between cohorts and measured in averages must be due to racism.
Thus white privilege and systemic racism are assumed as real things even in 2022 in prosperous liberal democracies.
Personal bigotry is not the same as systemic racism
Systemic or institutional racism occurs when institutions discriminate based on race, ethnicity or gender. A problem for the privilege theorists is that Canada and other countries in the Anglosphere reformed and moved away from systemic, institutional racism more than half a century ago.
For example, Ontario passed a law in 1951 (the Fair Employment Practices Act) to ban religious and race discrimination in the workplace. In 1954, the province also made it illegal to discriminate in lodging based on religion or race (the Fair Accommodation Practices Act). In 1960, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and the rest of Parliament gave the right to vote to Indigenous Canadians. In the United States, the 1964 Civil Rights Act also attacked institutional racism, as did other reforms.
Thus, institutional, systemic discrimination was attacked root and branch – as far back as seven decades ago. These days, when people use the term, they’re often vague. They assert it’s hidden, or they wrongly conflate it with personal prejudice, which, while odious, isn’t the same thing as institutionalized racism.
As Brown University economist and social scientist Prof. Glenn Loury wrote, the “invocation of ‘systemic racism’ in political arguments is both a bluff and a bludgeon.” It allows those who use the term to invoke “shadowy structural causes that are never fully specified” and ignores how “disparities have multiple, interacting causes, ranging from culture to politics to economics.”
Black American intellectuals versus privilege theories
Some claim privilege exists because of the lingering effects of past discrimination or, worse, evils such as slavery. However, in an American context, economists such as Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, and other black intellectuals such as Loury, Shelby Steele, and John McWhorter, have long shredded this presumed cause-and-effect link. They instead note that other factors matter to economic outcomes: family dynamics (two parents or one parent at home; whether parents read to their children), cultural assumptions, faith practices and even geography.
The education link to incomes is useful. Sowell offers the example of Washington, D.C., schools in 1899, where three were for white children and one was for black children. In 1899 – one generation after slavery – the students in the black school regularly scored higher on standardized tests than students in two of the three white schools. It wasn’t until the 1950s and liberal education reforms that the black students’ scores began to fall.
The problem with white privilege theory is its assumption that much or everything in terms of economic outcomes (income, employment and wealth) can be explained by racism, institutional or even personal prejudice. Except the data don’t support this claim. Other factors matter and usually much more even in the cauldron of extreme prejudice that was America in 1899 and to a lesser degree in 1950.
Parents, education, even geography are keys to income and wealth
This is why it also matters when 2019 U.S. census data shows that only 13 percent and 23 percent of Mexican and black Americans respectively have a college degree, but 61 percent of those of Korean ancestry and 79 percent of Taiwanese Americans do. One would expect the latter two groups to have significantly higher median incomes – and they do.
Or consider the effect of geography as rural areas worldwide show lower incomes than citizens in cities. In Canada, 39 percent of Indigenous Canadians live in communities with fewer than 1,000 people, while only 19 percent of other Canadians live in such small communities. Many of these Indigenous communities are First Nations reserves. Those are often rural and far from additional educational, economic and employment opportunities, to say nothing of the collectivist structure of most reserves, which prevents the accumulation of wealth as a result of owning property.
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Once you account for such details and compare Indigenous and non-Indigenous incomes, this too rebuts the systemic racism charge. The data offers hope that similar choices will result in similar incomes. The 2016 census data showed that a young Indigenous Canadian (age 25 to 34) with a bachelor’s degree or above who worked full-year, full-time, had a median employment income of $43,445, $99 higher than non-indigenous Canadians with the same characteristics, who earned $43,346.
So education levels and geography matter to incomes.
White privilege was real – in 1850
It’s not that white privilege or systemic racism have never existed. A southern U.S. plantation owner in 1850 with slaves obviously benefited from their forced slave labour. Indigenous Canadians and those of Asian ancestry were actual victims of institutionalized prejudice before the 1950s and 1960s reforms. But Canada in 2022 is not the south of the mid-19th century nor even the nation that wrongly restricted individual liberties based on colour, ethnicity and ancestry before the middle of the last century.
The entire artifice of assumed modern privilege, including Home Depot’s memo, is a parroting of an academic theory that understands neither what leads to incomes and wealth in 2022 nor anything about economies in liberal democracies.
Economies even in more prejudicial eras aren’t some fixed pie that new arrivals take a piece from. They’re the equivalent of homes that everyone helps build brick-by-brick. That includes Indigenous arrivals 20,000 years ago or my grandmother, who arrived in Canada in 1927 as a 16-year-old fleeing Europe’s destructive cauldron of identity politics, and recent arrivals from every corner of our planet.
How ironic that Home Depot’s Canadian division is now promoting identity politics via the white privilege theory, which wrongly assumes modern incomes and success are linked to skin colour.
Mark Milke is president of The Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy, a new think-tank set for launch later this year. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.
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