Privilege and Luck

I was walking across the bridge in the picture above once when I felt a slight rumble and looked behind me to see an Amtrak train coming over. “Ah, Stand by Me,” I thought. I climbed onto the metal support to the side of the track, the conductor slowed down the train, and the passengers gaped out the window at me sitting on my knees a foot away from their window. I was stupid, I was lucky, I was sixteen.

But was I “privileged” not to be run over by the train?

It has been undoubtedly noted many times before, but “Privilege” is used often to denote concepts that are much better understood as “Luck.”

“Privilege” implies an advantage that is explicit, formalized in rules or law, and could be largely emended through a change in policy. “Luck” conveys that the advantage is simply outside the holder’s control.

Whites had “privileges” in Apartheid South Africa, in the Jim Crow South, in the Indian Raj. Many or most whites have advantages and luck in the contemporary United States. These advantages may be systematic (though I am dubious that the poorest of the poor in rural Appalachia have them in full, Chris Rock notwithstanding.) They may be the result to a degree of discrimination or historical legacies of discrimination, of the “social construction of race” rather than of underlying biological difference. But they are still less well understood as privilege than luck.

If I won the Powerball, the government would tax much of my winnings, but they wouldn’t accuse me of “Powerball privilege.” Doing so would correctly be understood not as a blow against inequality but as a (likely ineffective) attempt to redistribute status in lieu of wealth. Moreover, it is the wealth that can be redistributed, not winning the Powerball itself. Some of the results of luck can be taken from Peter and given to Paul, but Peter cannot be made into Paul, nor Paul into Peter.

Because our baseline assumption is that groups will be equally represented in most settings in the absence of discrimination, we have a hard time letting sleeping dogs lie: if the absence of policies explicitly favoring one group or another produces inequitable outcomes, we invent new policies to redress the imbalance.

The result is something like the Bolivian Tree Lizard episode of the Simpsons, with each solution generating another crisis to be solved.

Tyler Cowen suggests in a recent book review that examining own luck might engender a feeling of gratitude, making us more generous (or not). But calling luck privilege is about turning that feeling of gratitude into guilt. This does no one any good, except perhaps the priests of the new guilt-focused religion.

As Paul Goodman said,

No good has ever come from feeling guilty, neither intelligence, policy, nor compassion. The guilty do not pay attention to the object but only to themselves, and not even to their own interests, which might make sense, but to their anxieties.

I am grateful for my luck, that among other things,  I didn’t get hit by that Amtrak train, that spring day a couple decades ago, that I could crawl back off the iron support as the train passed, walk the remainder of the bridge, dust myself and go on being stupid and sixteen. Life and youth are full of privileges, but few of us can freely bestow those gifts and take them away. Guilt for that or any other of the many blessings of many days would do no one any good.

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