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White Privilege 101: Here’s the Basic Lesson Paul Ryan, Tal Fortgang and Donald Sterling Need

A refresher on how privilege works, and why race and gender matter.

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Before going any further, I want to quote from McDonough’s article, where she references a sampling of the information already out there:

It’s likely that Fortgang will have the opportunity at Princeton to learn about the racial wealth gap, the  legacy of red-lining, the  unemployment rate among college educated men of color versus their white counterparts, the  convergence of racism and sexism that leaves women of color disproportionately impacted by domestic violence, the  gender pay gap experienced by black women, the  deadly violence faced by black children and the myriad other manifestations of racism in the United States. Basically all of the things that he will never have to experience as an extraordinarily privileged white man.

Two Lenses

In what follows, I’m going to refer to some of the same kinds of data, but I want to do it through two particular powerful, specifically focused lenses. They are lenses Tal Fortgang would never dream of putting on, for they would show him everything he’s hiding from. And for all his unacknowledged privilege, he is vastly the poorer for it, just as those who condemned Galileo were all the poorer for refusing to look through his lenses as well. They are lenses that will allow us to see, very clearly, the injuries of race and gender that he mocks as mere conspiracy theories — but also, how to heal them as well.


The first lens is a very broad one, a legal theory perspective known as “ situationism,” a social science-based realist approach (not to be confused with the philosophy associated with the  Situationist International) that is opposed to the inherited pre-scientific conceptions of human nature and rationality as a foundation for law, public policy and related fields. It’s perhaps most readily grasped in terms of what it’s against: dispositionism. Most of us unconsciously see the world in dispositionist terms: People are who and what they are because of their dispositions, or characters.

For example, if you’re fat, it’s because you’re lazy, gluttonous or both. In a stable, uniform social environment, all other things being equal, a dispositionist explanation for things may well make a good deal of sense. But we don’t live in a stable social environment, much less a uniform one, and all other things are almost never equal. In this case, obesity in the U.S. has skyrocketed in recent decades, yet there’s no good reason to think that laziness or gluttony has changed anywhere near that dramatically. If anything, we’re more obsessed with health and fitness. Instead, what has changed is the social, economic and cultural s ituation in which we live — not least the profound changes in our food industry, and the advertising that goes with it.

That doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as laziness or gluttony. Situationism does not exclude the very existence of dispositions and dispositional differences. It merely provides us with a broader perspective, so that other, less obvious factors can be taken into consideration. The  Situationist blog, established by  Harvard law professor John Hanson, is a source of frequent reports and brief updates on related, multi-disciplinary research across a wide range of topics, among which race and gender are just two examples. Just as the situationist perspective allows us to see dispositionist explanations in a broader perspective, it also allows us to see the particular influences of racial and gender situations as part of a broader story about the many complexities of the human condition.

Perceptual Segregation

To get more specific, I would now like to take up the second lens I mentioned earlier. It’s the concept of “Perceptual Segregation,” first set forth in a  law review article of the same name , by University of California, Berkeley, law professor Russell Robinson. Robinson doesn’t use the explicit language of situationism, but the analysis he engages in nonetheless fits nicely into that broader framework. Put simply, Robinson argues that the very different frameworks in which most blacks and whites are raised and live give rise to very different experiences of the world, even when they are physically present in the same place together. Because their life situations remain highly segregated for a large part of their lives, their resulting perceptions of the world remain segregated as well — although in a way that white people usually don’t even see. In that paper, Robinson writes:

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