Understanding Privilege in America Today

© Josh Sager – September 2014

The inequality of “privilege” is a very important issue, but one that is often extremely uncomfortable to discuss. While it is a chronic problem, the mainstream political discussion in the United States only ever truly addresses it when events like the police shooting of a black teen in Ferguson, Missouri, force it into the public eye.


The term “privilege” refers to systemic social biases that give certain segments of the population preferential treatment over others. This bias can manifest in many ways—from criminalization to employment discrimination—and can be based around any demographic distinction, including race, language, religion, class, gender, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation. The bias that accompanies privilege is truly insidious because it is often based upon unconscious bias and the collective stereotypes that many people take for granted.

Examples of real life privilege in American life are numerous. A person is taking advantage of privilege when they are able to participate fully in society while…

…not having to anglicize their name in order to have their resume considered by an employer.

…not having to conceal their degree from a traditionally minority college to get a job.

…not having to carry their official documents with you to prove that you are a citizen of their own country.

…not getting paid less than somebody else who does the same job, simply because they have two X chromosomes while the other person has an X and a Y.

…not having to worry about losing their marriage rights because some religious politician manages to pass anti-gay laws.

…not having to give their kids “the talk” where they explain how not to get beaten or shot by police when they inevitably get pulled over or “stopped and frisked.”

…not having to fight against the assumption that they were given their achievements through “affirmative action” or “reverse racism.”


Types of Privilege in the USA Today

Racial privilege in the United States gives white people preferential treatment over all other races, most of all black and Hispanic Americans. This bias makes it easier for white Americans to achieve employment and to avoid unjust persecution by law enforcement officials.

For example: Studies have shown that people with traditionally white names are 50% more likely to get a job than people with traditionally non-white names, even when the content of the resume is identical. Additionally, while blacks and whites use drugs at virtually identical rates, black Americans are several times more likely to be arrested for drugs than whites (the police focus their suspicion on blacks and away from whites). Once arrested, black people are far more likely to receive draconian sentences, including the death penalty, than whites even when they commit similar crimes.

county_distribution_disparities (1)

Gender privilege in the United States is divergent between economics and law enforcement. Men have privilege in the job market and are often paid more than women, while women tend to have an advantage when dealing with law enforcement (they are less likely to be arrested or seen as a threat).

For example: Women, on average, are paid only a percentage of what men earn for doing the same work—the actual percentage varies based upon industry, and tends to become more extreme at the higher ends of the income spectrum (it is most pronounced at the CEO level).


Graph by MotherJones, using 2012 data

Sexual privilege in the United States is heavily biased in favor of heterosexuals and against LGBTQ Americans. The degree of privilege is highly dependent upon region, as there are areas where LGBT equality is advancing far faster than others (ex. Massachusetts has legal protections and marriage for homosexuals, while Mississippi has legalized job discrimination based upon sexual orientation).


Economic privilege in the United States manifests as an advantage given to those from wealth, both in opportunity and in the criminal justice system. Wealthy people have disproportionate access to good schools (most public schools are funded through property taxes) and other institutions that assist in achieving success in life, thus have much higher chances of success in life.

In issues of criminal justice, the rich have a massive advantage in the United States. Not only do police treat residents of wealthy areas better than residents of poor areas (ex. “stop and frisk” in NYC is targeted at poor communities of color and not rich white areas), but the criminal justice system has regularly let rich defendant escape justice. Just recently we have examples of rich Americans being convicted of underage rape and not getting sent to jail because the judge thinks that it wouldn’t be a good experience for them, and even escaping manslaughter/DUI/robbery charges because their wealth made them incapable of assessing the consequences of their actions (“affluenza”).


Reacting to Privilege

It is uncomfortable for many Americans to talk about the issue of privilege, particularly if they belong to a privileged group. Because people want to see themselves as deserving of their success, the recognition that some people have an unfair advantage over others tends to disturb those who have previously attributed their relative success purely to their own work.

Personally, I am a white male heterosexual who grew up in an upper middle class suburban family in a rich area (Lexington, MA). Both of my parents are teachers with college educations, and I was able to go to Boston University for free because of my father’s professorship; additionally, my family is very generously paying for my master’s degree program so that I don’t have to take out student loans. In short, I am living in a nexus of privilege—I have never been harassed by the police for my race, looked down on for my sexual orientation, been unfairly denied employment for my gender, or paid less than another person for similar work.

Being born into privilege doesn’t make me, or anybody else, inherently immoral, or undeserving of our achievements. That said, it requires us to recognize that we were given great advantages that have made life easier for us than it has been for many of our fellow Americans. In the figurative race of life, we have run on even ground while many others have had quicksand laid in their path for no fault of their own.

Unfortunately, many people with privilege have fallen into the toxic mindset of assuming that their privilege is deserved and that the USA is a pure meritocracy. They think that anybody who hasn’t achieved similar results to them (ex. a good job and a clean criminal record) is either lazy or less deserving than them. This mindset perpetuates inequality and leads many with privilege to destroy the very measures that could rectify the consequences of privilege.


Moral people with privilege must reject this false mindset and work towards raising up those with less privilege to a higher level of opportunity. They must actively fight against bigotry based upon race, gender, religious affiliation, or sexual orientation while working to ensure that those with less economic privilege are given help from the government. In effect, moral people who have benefitted from privilege must work towards destroying the very system that gave them such an unfair advantage.

It is impossible to fully eliminate privilege (there has always been social stratification) and any change will happen in the long-term, but change must be pushed relentlessly to ensure that we continue on our slow trek towards greater equality.

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