Truth and Privilege

What you see depends on where you stand. This isn’t to say that reality is completely subjective, but merely to point out that how you perceive reality is based on where you stand within the complicated structure that is our universe. In politics we are biased by the parties we support and the groups we are loyal to. This doesn’t mean truth goes entirely out the window, but it is stretched and distorted by the lens through which we view it. This is a somewhat glum epistemology (theory of what we can and cannot know), but there is at least one bright spot. If we want to approach the truth, we can ask other people what they see from their perspective and make a good faith effort to keep in mind as many perspectives as possible when figuring out reality. 

In our political discourse, it can be extremely difficult to filter out distortions and figure out what is true about our society. Some of it can be done by metrics (it simply is the case that we have less economic mobility than much of Europe), although even then there are enough different economists and statisticians with a political interest that it can be tough to know who to believe. 

So, before voting, I think it’s worth considering which groups of people favor each candidate. Here are the factors that make you most likely to vote for Romney:

  • Gender: Men (+9)
  • Age: 65+ (+11), Romney also does well with 30-49 (+6)
  • Income: $90,000+ (+8)
  • Race: White (+17)
  • Education: College or some college, but not post-graduate (+5)
  • Highly Religious (+23)

So the statistical Romney vote is an older or middle-aged white male with a high income who is highly religious. This is also very nearly the definition of privilege in the United States. The basic take away from this is that if you stand in a position of privilege what you see is much more likely to correspond to Romney’s viewpoint. When it comes to privilege, very few have put it as well as San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro:

Mitt Romney, quite simply, doesn’t get it. A few months ago he visited a university in Ohio and gave the students there a little entrepreneurial advice. “Start a business,” he said. But how? “Borrow money if you have to from your parents,” he told them. Gee, why didn’t I think of that? Some people are lucky enough to borrow money from their parents, but that shouldn’t determine whether you can pursue your dreams. I don’t think Gov. Romney meant any harm. I think he’s a good guy. He just has no idea how good he’s had it.

Part of privilege is being oblivious to it. As Peggy McIntosh put it in her classic article on privilege: “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks.”

Republican rhetoric has focused on equality of opportunity. The problem is that unless you are a rich white male of the dominant religion, you don’t currently have an equal opportunity in the United States. You don’t have equal access to education, to health care, to start-up capital, or to any of the other things that allow one to climb the socio-economic ladder to success. 

You should really read all of Julian Castro’s speech (or watch it), but I’ll settle for quoting just one more paragraph:

Of all the fictions we heard last week in Tampa, the one I find most troubling is this: If we all just go our own way, our nation will be stronger for it. Because if we sever the threads that connect us, the only people who will go far are those who are already ahead. We all understand that freedom isn’t free. What Romney and Ryan don’t understand is that neither is opportunity. We have to invest in it.


The best predictor of a child’s success in the U.S. is their parent’s level of education. There are programs that can help children succeed regardless of their family background. WIC and Head Start are two of the best. There are also two of the many that have been cut by the U.S. House of Representatives. (The Senate and the President prevented those cuts from becoming law). The only reason to cut those programs and use the money to finance a large tax break for the wealthy is a complete lack of awareness of the role of privilege and opportunity in the United States. 

It’s not a problem for me that Romney is privileged (I’m a white christian male with highly educated parents, and so also quite privileged), but it is a problem that his policies reflect a lack of awareness of the role of privilege in his life and the lives of his close associates. The only demographic group that favors Romney is the most privileged group. That didn’t happen by chance, and by itself ought to make one pause and reconsider one’s perception of the issues facing the United States and the proposed policy solutions of each candidate. What you see depends on where you stand; and Romney remains blissfully unaware that he’s seeing everything from a highly privileged position. 


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