The most striking innovation in the world of diversity in recent years has been the labeling of mainstream American culture as the domain of “white privilege.” Recall Obama’s 2008 speech distancing himself from Reverend Jeremiah Wright, in which he rejected the “view that sees white racism as endemic.” In little more than a decade and after two terms of an Obama presidency, reverend Wright’s view is now widely accepted among diversiphiles as true. This has been accompanied by efforts to dismantle English-language terms that enunciate the ordinary state of affairs. Sexuality as experienced by most men and women takes the form of attraction to the opposite sex. The tendency of a society to prefer such reproductive-friendly couplings has been vandalized with the word “heteronormativity.” The idea is to suggest we are oppressed when the culture treats opposite-sex attractions as right and proper. But “white privilege” is the more encompassing term of opprobrium. It is meant to suggest that merely by being categorized as white, individuals enjoy freedoms that are denied to non-whites. Whites move more fluidly through most situations, from the workplace to the supermarket. White interactions with police or state authorities are less fraught with tension. In educational settings, whites are assumed to be intelligent until they demonstrate otherwise. Whiteness confers a “benefit of the doubt” that a member of a minority group seldom enjoys. This unearned privilege seems to the white person natural. It is just the way things are, and he therefore is puzzled when others express resentment of it. His attitude is, “I didn’t ask for any privilege. The same rules apply to all. Why are you complaining?”

Once the accusation of white privilege is launched – and it is an accusation – it is difficult to dislodge. The purpose is to shame the white portion of society in an effort to make whites more willing to accept the forms of social reorganization called for by diversity. White privilege is above all unfair, and a simple demand for justice requires that it be abolished. To abolish it, white people must renounce their privilege.

But can they?

The catch-22 of white privilege is that, once a white person is humbled into accepting how unfair his privilege is, all he can really do is commit to a life of abject apology to his moral betters. This posture of repentance does in fact appeal to some people, though the psychology of it is not as straightforward as just a readiness to defer to non-whites as opportunity arises. That’s part of it, but another and perhaps larger part involves the status maneuvers among other whites. The “woke” white person who puts aside white privilege in front of other whites has a claim of superior moral standing. Declaiming against white privilege has become, for some whites, a status marker. Doing so puts one well outside the “basket of deplorables” and serves as a membership card in the world of enlightened diversiphiles. It has, for example, been taken up by a number of white presidential candidates as a way of appealing to voters. The notion of “white privilege,” like many such ideological gifts, is most at home on college campuses, some of which now offer courses on the topic, sometimes based on a “Whiteness Studies” program. Does “white privilege” actually exist? What exists is what is left of a society that has the codes of etiquette and the ordinary manners of an enduring social order. That this order can be traced to the European origins of the United States means that it was formed to a large degree by people who were white. Any social order imposes a degree of conformity on its participants. If someone persistently declines to accept the rules, he will “sink.” And over the centuries many descendants of the white European immigrants who created mainstream American society did indeed sink out of sight. They sunk into the urban underclass; they lost themselves in gold rushes; they went whaling and disappeared as beachcombers on Pacific islands; they became foot soldiers in wars on the frontiers, or cowboys destined to short trail drives. “White privilege” was no privilege for most Americans, except that it was an exemption from the chattel slavery of the South. And even that was a thin line. Most Americans, white as well as black, Asian, Native American, and so on, were not especially prosperous or privileged during our agrarian past or in the age of industrialization. The wealthy were privileged, but the privileges of an Andrew Carnegie or Cornelius Vanderbilt were not based on white privilege. They were based on tremendous talent, cunning, and energy.