Is America Ready and Prepared for Angry, Privileged, Young White Men Like Princeton's Tal Fortgang?
There is a phrase that floats around college campuses, Princeton being no exception, that threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them. “Check your privilege,” the saying goes, and I have been reprimanded by it several times this year. The phrase, handed down by my moral superiors, descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, 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.
“Check your privilege,” they tell me in a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world...It was their privilege to come to a country that grants equal protection under the law to its citizens, that cares not about religion or race, but the content of your character... It’s not a matter of white or black, male or female or any other division which we seek, but a matter of the values we pass along, the legacy we leave, that perpetuates “privilege.” And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Social media, a slow news cycle, and being a white victimologist wunderkind in the Age of Obama does have its advantages. Moreover, being a privileged white male victimologist wunderkind at Princeton University, who can use his privilege to get some shine, while also denying the existence of empirical realities such as white racism and white privilege, is some Three-Card Monte 3D Star Trek chess gamesmanship.
There is also a beautiful ugly irony at work in Fortgang's essay: he is denying the existence of white privilege and he is Jewish, a member of a group that recently earned their "whiteness" in the second part of the 20th century. His ancestors in the United States knew a great deal about the realities of white supremacy and white privilege. Many of them were not even be able to gain admission to an Ivy League institution because of a anti-Jewish quota system.
One of the powers of Whiteness is its ability to create amnesia among white folks. Fortgang is an object lesson in that fact.
I am loathe to feed Tal Fortgang's ego by rewarding how he successfully trolled too many folks with his essay in Princeton's student newspaper. But, Fortgang (and those on Fox News and elsewhere who are enabling him) is the future-present of white racism and white supremacy in the post civil rights era.
One of the causes of the Great Recession was how rent-seeking, corrupt, casino capitalists and Wall Street hustlers, were able to game the system with the knowledge that there would no real consequences for their destructive behavior.
Many of them likely went to business school and/or majored in finance or a related discipline while undergraduates. These criminals had a liberal arts education. But somewhere along the way, they may not have taken courses in philosophy or ethics. If so, said financial gangsters did not internalize a sense of justice, a sense of linked fate with other people, or the basic principles of secular humanism and the Common Good.
Allowing for those in the financier and plutocratic classes who are sociopathic (I do not mean this as a mere turn of phrase or fun play on words; I encountered one such person in a classroom who proudly announced that his goal in life was to be fabulously wealthy, he would lie and cheat to that end, and destroy anyone that got in his way. I told this student that the poor have to eat and he would be the meal) it is readily apparent that too many students simply check off the mental boxes to get a grade and do not reflect upon or internalize knowledge as a means towards critical self-reflection. As the university becomes more of a trade school and degree mill those outcomes will be increasingly common.
The inverse of a student who does not learn or internalize material in the best spirit of how it is taught or intended is the person that takes information and uses it for contrary or ethically problematic ends.
In college, one of my favorite professors was a direct and politically conservative sociologist who happened to be white. One of his favorite students knocked on the office door one day several years after graduating. My professor-mentor was happily surprised as his former student shared how all that he learned in the former's classes on social inequality had been put to good use. The professor was initially pleased because he had a transformative impact on a (then) young student. His hopes were soon deflated and broken as the now adult professional explained how he used all the information about redlining, housing segregation, job discrimination, and the like to make lots of money as a real estate agent who discriminated against people of color.
Cut from the same mold, young students such as Tal Fortgang are the new face of white racism and white supremacy in post civil rights America.
Of course, racism has evolved and changed over time. But, as revealed by measures such as wealth and income inequality, residential segregation, school performance, as well as the persistence of institutional white supremacy in the legal system and job market, Jim and Jane Crow were simply replaced by a multicultural elite class that serves as the human paint and veneer on a white supremacist society where race still over-determines life outcomes to the advantage of white people.
The post civil rights generation has learned the language of anti-racism and white supremacy. In the same moment, white supremacy and overt racial animus has migrated from the frontstage of American life to the backstage, and other private spaces. Tal Fortgang is one of many white students, and some deluded and self-hating people of color in the same cohort, who have learned the language of anti-racism well enough to be conversant while using it to advance the cause of white supremacy.
They are young Padawans--Star Wars day was last weekend, please indulge me--who are tempted by the Dark Side to challenge their masters. I worry that many of the supposed Jedi Masters have become weak and rusty in their skills because they have been surrounded for too long by all too willing students, trained like Pavlov's dogs to respond with "politically correct" and "anti-racist" slogans.
Tal Fortgang's essay is easily gutted by a basic appeal to the facts of American history, and how the arbitrariness of who is considered "white by law", have over-determined upward mobility and life success in the United States for centuries.
Tal Fortgang's claim on his fore bearer's "hard work" as somehow being his own, and somehow making him virtuous and righteous in comparison to others not so lucky, is the very definition of white privilege as a type of unearned advantage. Like so many other white folks drunk on white privilege, Fortgang is either unable or unwilling to see how people of color encountered challenges and difficulties at least, if not not more so, than his ancestors in the ideal-typical "hard times" white ethnic myth that he so easily recycles.
What Tal Fortgang, and so many other white victimologists and white racism deniers of all ages are unable and unwilling to accept (although they know it to be a visceral truth), is that the real power of white privilege and white supremacy is not seen among the outliers, those white folks of "good breeding" and money that would have inevitably succeeded, materially or career-wise, in life.
By comparison, the profoundly ugly and grotesque power of white supremacy and white privilege is seen in the middle part of the distribution and on its low-trailing end.
Historically, white supremacy's most socially deleterious power, and what so many white folks are desperately clinging to in the United States, is white racism's ability to elevate mediocre, failing, low-skilled, degenerate, unmotivated, and otherwise sub par white folks to the level of "respectability" and "middle class" over people of color who are in almost every way superior to them.
The successes of the civil rights movement and the Black and Brown freedom struggles have moderated (and in some ways limited) the ability of white human mediocrities to always, all things being equal, succeed in America.
Tal Fortgang will have a Princeton degree, as well as the benefits of his family's material resources, social capital, and other assets. Part of Tal Fortgang's skill set will also be the ability to use the language of "multiculturalism" and "diversity" to protect and advance white privilege. Tal Fortgang would be a much more dangerous foe if he learned to camouflage his racist speech. I am sure that his mentors are giving him that advice in the present moment.
Are black and brown Americans, progressives, liberals, and reasonable centrists, ready and prepared for ostensibly "anti-racist" 007's who are really double agents for white supremacy? I doubt it. In a moment of changing racial demographics and constrained job opportunities, young people like Tal Fortgang are America's phantom menace.