Academic journal article Review of Constitutional Studies

Middle-Class White Privilege

Academic journal article Review of Constitutional Studies

Middle-Class White Privilege

Article excerpt


My children wake up each morning in comfortable, warm beds in a safe neighbourhood within walking distance of an excellent public school. They are the beneficiaries of an excellent health insurance program and already have a trust fund for their college education. My son's daycare centre is equipped with computers, climbing equipment, art supplies, books and hundreds of toys. Although my son is developmentally disabled, he receives outstanding and free intervention services from the school district on a virtual one-on-one basis. My daughter's public school has a computer lab and classes with only twenty children. Our house is filled with books and educational toys, as well as two computers. If my daughter decides to apply to Harvard University someday, she can take advantage of the alumni preference for children of alumni even though I am the only person in her family tree who attended Harvard.

In American culture, none of those advantages are called "affirmative action" by middle-class whites. (1) If, at age eighteen, my daughter has higher standardized test scores than another teenager, few middle-class whites would complain that she had an unfair advantage. And, if upon graduation from college or graduate school, she has a better academic record than another student, few middle-class whites would complain that she had an unfair advantage. In my middle-class circles, no one has ever cautioned me to think twice about taking advantage of my race and class privilege on behalf of either of my children. (I would probably be criticized if I failed to.) It is presumed that I will use my financial resources to buy opportunities for them. In other words, my daughter's race and class privilege is unlikely to cause her to have to face stigma or prejudice later in life within the middle-class circles in which she is likely to operate. (2) Stigma and prejudice face African-American but not Caucasian beneficiaries of race-based affirmative action. (3) Harvard President Derek Bok commented on this distinction in 1985 when he asked why whites resent affirmative action for blacks but do not express "similar resentments against other groups of favored applicants, such as athletes and alumni offspring." (4) In the words of Patricia Williams, "affirmative action for the children of Founding Fathers just doesn't seem to carry the stigma." (5) This well-accepted social principle within the dominant culture (6) reflects the emerging acceptance of law and economics in our legal and political culture.

Law and economics is winning. The work of law and economics scholars like Richard Posner and Richard Epstein now dominates antidiscrimination law. (7) This field of law uncritically helps perpetuate devices that assist propertied whites gain access to educational institutions or employment settings but seeks to destroy comparable devices that assist African Americans. While hiding behind principles like efficiency and personal autonomy, this field of law actually reflects disturbing and stereotypical attitudes about race. As we will see, black employment is inefficient whereas white employment is efficient.


The two key principles of law and economics are efficiency and personal autonomy, (8) which are strongly reflected in the work of Richard Epstein. For example, he argues that government interference in the marketplace through antidiscrimination law actually harms rather than helps disadvantaged groups in society. With respect to people with disabilities, he argues that the source of their mistreatment at the workplace lies in "government interference with the control of their labor. Like everyone else, the disabled should be allowed to sell their labor at whatever price, and on whatever terms, they see fit." (9) Similarly, in the educational context, Richard Posner has argued that an affirmative-action program designed to attain proportional representation of racial minorities is inefficient because it distorts the results of pre-existing personal preferences: "[T]his sort of intervention would, by profoundly distorting the allocation of labor and by driving a wedge between individual merit and economic and professional success, greatly undermines the system of incentives on which a free society depends. …

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