In America, it has become accepted wisdom to blame “white privilege” for the injustices and inequalities that minorities face. The argument is simple: being white is socially advantageous, whereas being black and Hispanic is a major social handicap. In leftist antisemitic fringes, the notion of “privilege” has been extended to Jews, who are said to profit from their Jewishness in contemporary America.
These leftist fringes are entirely right. There is a Jewish privilege in America. It starts with the fact that the average Jewish child is more likely to grow up in a family with a sizable bookshelf and that discusses current affairs at the dinner table. When the child grows up the privilege is accentuated by attending synagogue services where critical thinking is prized. During adolescence many Jewish youngsters attend schools and summer camps with children raised in like-minded families, raising the breadth of their horizons and the bar of their ambitions…
In other words, to be raised as a Jew means to be endowed with a privileged human and social capital.
The difference between the leftist anti-Semite and the sensible human being is that the former views this Jewish privilege as unfair, whereas the latter sees it as legitimately earned.
Virtually all Americans are descendants of poor people. Very few well-off people in feudal Europe, Asia or Latin America left lives of unearned privilege to start from scratch in America. In other words, America is one of the few societies in the world whose social pyramid historically mirrors merit more than any other trait. It can be argued that social disparities could be narrower; it can be argued that rich dumb kids have an advantage over smart poor kids, but it is hard to argue that America rewards ancestry more than merit.
This sheds a new light on privilege. The rhetoric about white privilege ignores the reality that whites in America are often bearers of values and attitudes analogous to those that allowed Jews to succeed. The proof of this is that in America, East Asians who are not white and Armenians, Indians and Nigerians who are also not white, yet share similar values are also disproportionately successful and “privileged”.
The claim that even Africans and Asians can be viewed as privileged in America will make many a liberal wince. And yet, well-educated and industrious Africans and Asians in America are doubly privileged: Firstly, on accounts of the social and human capital they possess. Secondly, and most importantly, for living in a capitalist and free society that rewards agents who make rational decisions.
This rationalism allows hard-working and well-educated individuals to succeed in America more than anywhere else in the world. And that is the reason woke rhetoric about white privilege is irrational. By ignoring the fact that for historical reasons whiteness correlates with social and human capital, it attributes to racism and bigotry problems that can only be addressed by narrowing the breach in social and human capital between different groups.
Lambasting “white privilege” will not narrow this breach. Neither will showering money on inner-city communities unless these funds are targeted in ways that boost the social and human capital of these communities. More importantly, any rhetoric that fuels resentment and nurtures guilt rather than instilling ambition and promoting self-empowerment is bound to fail and tear society apart.
Privilege is not immoral. What is immoral is denying others the opportunity to acquire the social and human capital needed to succeed. This is the reason America should cherish social and human capital to the detriment of racial demagoguery.
Rafael Castro is a graduate of Yale and Hebrew University, who can be reached at [email protected]. This article is a modified version of a piece that originally appeared on the website of Shabtai, the Jewish Society at Yale.