I recently read an article, republished from the Princeton Tory on the Young Conservatives website and authored by Princeton Freshman Tal Fortgang. In it, Tal rebuts the (apparently) pervasive phrase “check your privilege.” This is an instruction that, Tal says, he often receives as a white male. In his words, it is designed to make him “feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.” Okay, well, that really makes some inferences, but I get what he’s saying. This seems like a phrase that is supposed to single out stereotypically “affluent” individuals through gender and racial factors, reminding them that they, unlike others, somehow have it "easier than most."
I haven’t heard this phrase a whole lot, but it appears to have ruffled a lot of feathers, and for good reason. Again, Tal’s words: “I do not accuse those who “check” me and my perspective of overt racism, although the phrase, which assumes that simply because I belong to a certain ethnic I should be judged collectively with it, toes that line.”
I agree with this assertion 100%. Making assumptions about anybody because of their gender and ethnicity is generally a bad move. Also known as prejudice, this type of thinking and behavior often create oppressive environments, whether they be in the arena of free speech, religion, or any of the whole gamut of individual liberties.
Of course, I don’t know the specifics of Tal’s run-ins with this reprimand; he doesn’t specify the context of hearing the words “check your privilege.” Maybe he was flaunting a loaded forearm of Rolex hardware from behind the wheel of his Ferrari California, but I doubt it.
However, I could could see this phrase, following a terribly uninformed decision-making process, violating others’ personal rights or ability to function in their larger society, even in deceptively subtle yet important ways. As Tal states: “The phrase…descends recklessly…and aims laser-like at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness, and the nerve I displayed in offering an opinion rooted in a personal Weltanschauung.” Somebody is trying to de-legitimize his opinions simply because of his appearance, thus harming his ability to participate in the public forum. That’s substantial, and worth noting. I’m not exactly weeping buckets for the guy, but it sounds like an irksome situation.
However, after relating his frustrations to the reader, Tal carves a path that I am less willing to follow.
Most prominently, he begins constructing a caricatured, straw-man version of (though he never drops the word, carefully hewing to a thinly-veiled “they,” this pronoun’s antecedent being “those who ‘check’ me") liberal political ideology:
“Furthermore, I condemn them for casting the equal protection clause, indeed the very idea of a meritocracy, as a myth, and for declaring that we are all governed by invisible forces (some would call them ‘stigmas’ or ‘societal norms’), that our nation runs on racist and sexist conspiracies. . . check your privilege and realize nothing you have accomplished is real.
“But they can’t be telling me that everything I’ve done with my life can be credited to the racist patriarchy holding my hand throughout my years of education and eventually guiding me to Princeton.”
Well, Tal, since you appear to have conjured a massive amount of somewhat crazed assumptions from this one phrase, I am actually skeptical that “they” are telling you anything of the sort.
Pardon my tone, but let’s review some of this. Tal sees this phrase, "check your privilege," as connoting belief in “racist and sexist conspiracies.” According to New Oxford American, a “conspiracy” is "a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful.” Well, it’s pretty easy to dismiss the concept that our nation is fueled by a massive, conscious, and secret plan to maliciously and/or criminally oppress people of certain races or genders. See, I can dismiss it too. Anybody can, because that idea is pure bullshit. Coincidentally, Tal is also seems to be the only person who has encountered this notion.
That idea, apparently, is all that Tal can imagine when people (even if in a terrible and wrong manner) start to discuss the role of race and gender in the lives of our citizens. Just because there’s not a conspiracy surrounding these issues, doesn’t mean we should flippantly dismiss them, as Tal does, using an extreme caricature of many people’s actual political thoughts.
In other words, Tal, we listened to your problem. Now it’s time to slow down, close your mouth, and actually examine how race and gender affect Americans’ lives. I’ll shut up, too, because now I’m also interested. How do different gender and ethnic groups experience different aspects of life in this country? Are there differences? If so, what are they? Hopefully we’ll all be a little more educated after this. Let’s look at the data:
Starting with the day we are born, there appear to be different American experiences that are dependent upon, or at least associated with, ethnicity:
According to a CDC release from last year, you are least likely to die as an infant if you’re born to a mother of Asian or Pacific Islander ethnicity. Meanwhile, the infant mortality rate for those born to Black, non-Hispanic mothers is more than double that of children born to White, non-Hispanic mothers.
Alright, so say we safely make it out of infancy. One major issue that might follow is how well we are taken care of - fed, for instance - as children. A great metric for this is food security, or insecurity, in a household. The USDA, which researches in this field, has some helpful definitions:
- Low food security (old label=Food insecurity without hunger): reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.
- Very low food security (old label=Food insecurity with hunger): Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.
This chart, from the USDA’s research, demonstrates variations in household food insecurity by ethnic group:
It seems like race does, somehow, play a role in how well Americans eat.
This very impressive CDC report from 2011 outlines a litany of issues in American life that vary by race and gender. Included:
(U.S. 2009 data, populations only older than eighteen unless otherwise specified. I did not include all listed ethnic groups from the report, only the three largest groups in the U.S.)
9.7% of males live below the federal poverty level.
13.4% of females live below the federal poverty level.
8.4% of the White, non-Hispanic population lives below the federal poverty level.
20.6% of the Black, non-Hispanic population lives below the federal poverty level.
19.0% of the Hispanic population lives below the federal poverty level.
Inadequate Housing ("Inadequate housing is defined as an occupied housing unit that has moderate or severe physical problems (e.g., deficiencies in plumbing, heating, electricity, hallways, and upkeep). Examples of moderate physical problems in a unit include two or more breakdowns of the toilets that lasted >6 months, unvented primary heating equipment, or lack of a complete kitchen facility in the unit. Severe physical problems include lack of running hot or cold water, lack of a working toilet, and exposed wiring.")
4.9% of males live in inadequate housing.
5.5% of females live in inadequate housing.
4.1% of the White, non-Hispanic population lives in inadequate housing.
7.8% of the Hispanic population lives in inadequate housing.
9.0% of the Black, non-Hispanic population lives in inadequate housing.
Unhealthy Housing (“The CDC has defined unhealthy housing as the presence of any additional characteristics that might negatively affect the health of its occupants, including evidence of rodents, water leaks, peeling paint in homes built before 1978, and absence of a working smoke detector.”)
22.5% of males live in unhealthy housing units.
24.6% of females live in unhealthy housing units.
22.7% of the White, non-Hispanic population lives in unhealthy housing units.
24.2% of the Hispanic population lives in unhealthy housing units.
28.3% of the Black, non-Hispanic population lives in unhealthy housing units.
Health Insurance (18-64 years old, 2008 data. Of course, pre-ACA, but still interesting.)
22.2% of males do not have health insurance.
17.3% of females do not have health insurance.
41.6% of the Hispanic population does not have health insurance.
14.6% of the White, non-Hispanic population does not have health insurance.
22.1% of the Black, non-Hispanic population does not have health insurance.
Drug-Induced Death Rate (2007 data)
15.8/100k males die from drug inducement.
9.3/100k females die from drug inducement.
16.9/100k of the White, non-Hispanic population die from drug inducement.
15.4/100k of the Black, non-Hispanic population die from drug inducement.
9.5/100k of the Hispanic population die from drug inducement.
Coronary Heart Disease Deaths (2006 data)
103.1/100k females die from coronary heart disease.
176.5/100k males die from coronary heart disease.
134.2/100k of the White, non-Hispanic population die from coronary heart disease.
161.6/100k of the Black, non-Hispanic population die from coronary heart disease.
106.4/100k of the Hispanic population die from coronary heart disease.
Homicide Rate (2007 data)
2.7% of the White, non-Hispanic population are homicide victims.
23.1% of the Black, non-Hispanic population are homicide victims
7.6% of the Hispanic population are homicide victims.
Diabetes Rates (2008 data)
8.1% of the male population has diabetes.
7.7% of the female population has diabetes.
7% of the White population has diabetes.
11% of the Black population has diabetes.
10.7% of the Hispanic population has diabetes.
This report is just chock-full of information, and I didn’t include several of the categories, some of which were hard to format the same way as the ones I have shown, and some of which were a little obscure. However, I recommend looking at it; suicide rates, motor vehicle deaths, and binge drinking rates are all in there. Most of the time, the Black population seemed to fare the worst in these categories, with the White population doing the best and the Hispanic population middling. There are exceptions, however, e.g. binge drinking.
Okay, so next up: Education. This will draw from a 2010 USDE report.
Retention Rates (2007 data)
13.9% of males have repeated a grade at some point, K-12.
8.9% of females have repeated a grade at some point, K-12.
8.7% of the White population has repeated a grade at some point, K-12.
20.9% of the Black population has repeated a grade at some point, K-12.
11.8% of the Hispanic population has repeated a grade at some point, K-12.
27% of the White population meets readiness benchmark scores.
3% of the Black population meets readiness benchmark scores.
10% of the Hispanic population meets readiness benchmark scores.
5.3% unemployment rate for the White population.
11.4% unemployment rate for the Black population.
7.5% unemployment rate for the Hispanic population.
Update, Sept. 10: one more metric - Socioeconomic Mobility
This source (2012 data) has some well-defined parameters for "success" at each given stage, as relevant to the second graph:
One more metric I wanted to look at: Income
Alright, I could probably go on in this vein for a while, but I’ll stop there. What I’ve gathered from the data is: it’s time to blow the lid off this conspiracy!
Okay, okay, just kidding. There are very consistent trends across most of the demographic metrics I’ve viewed that demonstrated White populations typically outperform Hispanic populations, both of which dramatically outperform the Black population. As far as gender performance, the margins are much smaller and sometimes reversed, but men appear to perform better most of the time. So race is somehow tied up in changing how different ethnic groups in America live the American life, for better for worse.
What I don’t want to do here is diminish any of Tal’s accomplishments. Princeton is obviously a highly selective and rigorous university, ranked #1 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report, so to say Tal didn’t have to both work extremely hard his entire life and exercise great talents to get where he is would be dumb.
What I do want to do is illustrate that, in ways I don't fully understand, race appears to play a critical role in many facets of Americans’ lives. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just the way things are right now. Instead of whitewashing and dismissing a conversation like this, as Tal does, (possibly fueled by his frustration with the “privilege” label) we should take moments like this to ask the important questions of why the broadly diverse phenomena of racial (and to a degree, gender) disparities occur, and what, if anything, can alleviate such racial.
Also, I know the main point of his article was to explore the heritage of his grandparents’ experience during the Holocaust, which I really had no issues with and didn’t attract any disagreement from me.
So, that’s my reaction.