White privilege is real, but not in the way the Left thinks

“White privilege” is an idea that has only recently risen to national prominence. It amounts to a nasty accusation: Whites have undeserved advantages that they have stolen from people of color. But history says something quite different: The most important factor in relative white prosperity is the fact that some profound changes in human life that gave us modernity began with them.

White privilege is real, but not in the way the Left thinks
College life.
College life. Group of students are walking in university hall and chatting. Harbucks/Getty Images/iStockphoto

White privilege is real, but not in the way the Left thinks

“White privilege” is an idea that has only recently risen to national prominence. It amounts to a nasty accusation: Whites have undeserved advantages that they have stolen from people of color. But history says something quite different: The most important factor in relative white prosperity is the fact that some profound changes in human life that gave us modernity began with them.

Throughout history, settled ways of life have been jolted and changed by discoveries and innovations. Agriculture is an obvious example. But of all the innovations that have changed our lives for the better, none have been so profound, so complex, and so far-reaching as the one that has been taking place since the late 18th century. For millennia, life had changed relatively little, but science and technology suddenly went into high gear. This was not just one change, but a whole series in which one led to the next, and then the one after that. They included the Industrial Revolution, the steam engine (which gave us railways and steamships), electrical energy (which meant new machinery of all kinds), modern medicine, the internal combustion engine (which gave us cars, trucks, and buses), radio, television, computers, the internet, and much besides.

What’s unique about all of this is that precisely because one innovation always led to another, the way that people lived kept steadily advancing over 200 years. The cumulative impact on human life has been astonishing. Average life spans have now more than doubled, diseases that once devastated entire countries have been tamed, populations that were always on the verge of severe hunger are now adequately fed, and economies are so strong that many now live as only a privileged few once did.

But aside from all these material factors that make lives longer and better, there was another important change of a different kind: People who had known next to nothing about other cultures began to know a great deal about them. Modern people can travel large distances by road, rail, or air, and they also get information by books, television, newspapers, and radio. But when for most travel was on foot, TV and radio had not been invented, and literacy was enjoyed by only a few, the great majority of people knew next to nothing about other countries and their inhabitants. Under those conditions, everyone naturally thought tribally: They trusted those they knew and were suspicious of those they knew nothing about. If that makes them sound racist by modern standards, how could they have been otherwise? The sense that modern people have of a common humanity was only made possible by the conditions of modern life.

This series of changes had to begin somewhere, and that was mainly among Western Europeans and their North American cousins. Individual strands that fed into it came from other times and places, but this was where everything suddenly came together to set in motion the most profound changes in human life ever seen. Because the changes started with Europeans, they obviously enjoyed its benefits first, and their economic and political development surged ahead of that of other peoples. Some of that initial advantage lingers today, both in European societies and in people of European descent, because the improved circumstances of earlier generations inevitably affected succeeding ones.

But this has nothing to do with an illegitimate, stolen “white privilege.” In fact, critical race theory has things backward: Other groups have benefited greatly as the changes spread to them. Life spans have increased everywhere in the world, and European technology is now in widespread use. The whole world now has cars, trains, computers, iPhones, expert doctors, literacy, and so on.

We can be sure that the initial disparity between different population groups will close eventually. It has already narrowed considerably. The only sensible response of those who were not in the innovator group is therefore to grab the changes with both hands, master them, and go on armed for better things. That’s certainly what Asian Americans are doing. They are now overrepresented in colleges and universities as well as in many other places — even in symphony orchestras. And outside the United States, Asians are doing much the same: Toyota now sells more automobiles in the U.S. than Ford, and the Korean firm LG ranks highest in customer satisfaction here across all appliance categories. According to Barron’s, Taiwan Semiconductor is now the world’s most important chip maker. This is to be expected: People who are catching up develop a head of steam that soon propels them beyond everyone else.

But if this is a normal response, why isn’t everyone doing it? Well, African Americans do suffer from one serious disadvantage. For them, there is indeed now an oppressor class. No, not whites: Their oppressor class is the radical Left. Radicals tell them to see these far-reaching changes not as the development of modernity that benefits everyone, but as white supremacy, which they should reject. Logical reasoning is white hegemony at work. The very idea of “getting the right answer” is white oppression. To read the thinkers and writers who were deeply involved in the development of modernity would be to bow to white dominance. That is how radical leftists obstruct black progress.

LG didn’t achieve its market dominance by abandoning logical reasoning and adopting woke mathematics, and planes crash if their designers don’t “get the right answer.” If in the distant past Europeans had looked at the world this way, they would have rejected agriculture because it was invented by Asians. It’s in everyone’s interest to master the basis of modern life, regardless of where it came from. In disparaging modernity as whiteness, radicals promote their own destructive political agenda, not the interests of African Americans.

John M. Ellis is a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the chairman of the California Association of Scholars, and the author of several books, the most recent of which is The Breakdown of Higher Education: How It Happened, the Damage It Does, and What Can Be Done.

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