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Privilege: A Means to Do Good

In a recent talk for Marketplace One, Anthony Bradley provides some good insights into how we should approach privilege, pointing to a truth often brushed to the sidelines by conservatives and libertarians: it exists, and it matters.

Watch the video here:

Indeed, in our meritocracy—imperfectly merit-centric though it may be—one is prone to assume that one’s status or success is primarily the result of one’s efforts (i.e. that the system works). This is similar, no doubt, to the way that living in a “free society” provides the immediate illusion that one is actually free.

But although our efforts certainly play a part in how well we succeed in life—and although they may indeed be a primary factor in some or most cases—are we really to ignore where we came from and how that came to be? After all, isn’t our ability to triumph and overcome obstacles only inspiring insofar as it contrasts with whatever little amount of privilege we have in the first place? What are “obstacles,” anyway, if not things that don’t come easy? Do we marvel over the relative accomplishments of John D. Rockefeller’s children as much as we marvel over the striking ascendance of Rockefeller himself? Should we?

Bradley states the common misconception as follows:

“What happens in the context of race and class privilege is the misunderstanding that ‘I have what I have because I’m awesome’—when in fact, you have what you have because someone did some stuff before you were born.”

After countering some common manifestations of such assumptions, Bradley points to an element that the other side seems to miss. Whereas the pro-capitalism crowd likes to pretend class privilege is a non-issue, the Marxist crowd likes to pretend that such privilege determines our very actions. If you are born poor, you are incapable of becoming wealthy, because if you are born wealthy, you are incapable of not exploiting the poor.

“Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property,” writes Marx in the Communist Manifesto, “just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class, made into law for all, a will whose essential character and direction are determined by the economic conditions of the existence of your class.”

The solution? Revolution against the inevitably self-affirming pose of the bourgeois enslavers.

Various subsets of this thinking take the same approach to race (one of which Bradley discusses at length in his book, Liberating Black Theology), positioning humans in an bleak, deterministic world where bigotry and prejudice cannot be overcome without forceful revolution, coercion and top-down direction. Once again, the rise of one necessitates the destruction of the other, and thus, the “good” must be manufactured for all our sakes.

Yet the privilege we are born into, no matter what it looks like, need not be seen as a bad thing. As Bradley says in the video, “it is what it is:”

“So the question is, “what are you going to do about that privilege?” Do you use that privilege for your own disgusting self-aggrandizement and self-promotion? Or do you use that privilege to help some other folk who don’t have that privilege?”

As I harped away in my previous post on communitarianism, we are not robots doomed to be programmed by some Mother Brain of selflessness (Harry Reid?). We are free agents, who, with the proper moral foundation and spiritual empowerment, are capable of enacting significant good on behalf of others. Our privilege—no matter how big or how small—gives us a means to do good, whether in our families, businesses, churches, or charity.

There will always be privilege, and unless we recognize the opportunities we were afforded (or denied), we will never be able to orient our lives in a way that serves others and maximizes privilege for those around us and those to come.

The revolution may be “marginal,” as economists say, but at least it will be actual.

Note: For some of the “stuff” people did for me before I was born, see my recent post on fair trade. In America especially, we would do well to recognize our place of privilege and remember how it came to be.