05/09/2014 11:51 am ET Updated Jul 09, 2014

The National Review 's Mistranslation of Privilege

It seems the folks over at the National Review are in need of a better translator.

This week, in an editorial titled "The Banality of 'Privilege'," the National Review joined the chorus of voices opining on Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang's rebuke of privilege. Equating political correctness and checking privilege as tools of the "liberal thought police," the editorial board quickly reaches the conclusion that "the two phrases translate into standard English identically: 'Shut up.'"

I beg to differ.

Last time I checked the liberal thought police dictionary handed to me at the beginning of orientation week, the phrase "check your privilege" was defined as a reminder to be aware of others' perspectives and experiences.

When I am asked to check my privilege, or when I ask someone else to check his or her privilege, the intention is not for the conversation to end. Rather, among those who agree to not be offended by reality, it serves to stimulate a discussion and increase its validity. To check one's privilege is to recognize the world that exists beyond one's own individual experience.

Privilege exists, and in its editorial, the National Review appears, at first, on track to acknowledge that reality.

No sensible person among us is so blind as to believe that [America] is anything like a pure meritocracy. It is absolutely true that not all of us start off at the same place in life, that some of us must overcome serious obstacles and deficiencies simply to obtain a decent life, while others of us enjoy sundry financial and social inheritances that place us far ahead of where most others start.

If only they stopped there.

The Left's conception of "privilege" is categorical -- one enjoys "privilege" if one is a member of a privileged class, regardless of one's personal circumstances -- but the facts of life are personal and particular. Educational and economic outcomes are strongly correlated with such factors as whether one's parents were married and stayed married, their attachment to full-time employment, etc.

The facts of life are certainly personal and certainly particular. And it is particularly more difficult for someone to gain employment in this country if they are black or brown. Not being hired over a white person because the name on your resume sounds African-American seems personal to me. So does a higher chance of not being responded to by a professor because of your race. As does having to live in fear of being racially profiled by police on your campus -- something my black and brown friends at the University of Chicago know all too well in a way I, as a white male, never will.

This is not to say there are no whites in our country that suffer from poverty, no whites who receive substandard educational opportunities that make it harder to succeed in this country despite their best efforts. No one who is thinking critically about the idea of privilege should be saying that.

The point of Mr. Fortgang's essay -- the part that drives the Left to rage -- is that such advantages as this particular young man from suburban Westchester County enjoys are much more the product of the sort of family he comes from, and the opportunities that they enjoyed in the United States, than they are of ethnic and sexual features. Mr. Fortgang's grandfather is a standing rebuke to the entire concept of white-male privilege: Imagine the sort of moral illiteracy it takes to behold a Jewish refugee from the Nazis who has arrived with no money or connections on foreign shores to live among people who did not, let us remember, universally welcome the Jewish influx, and before the Siberian frost has even been brushed off his shoulders, to point at him and cry: "Lucky you!"

But, to take a line from the article in question, there is still a much more interesting conversation to be had here. Namely, that in accusing the Left of "moral illiteracy" the National Review's editorial board betrays that it is grossly illiterate when it comes to understanding not only what the meaning of the phrase check your privilege is, but the very concept of privilege itself.

This editorial board, and much of the Right, appear to erroneously believe that the past disadvantages of a group, Jewish immigrants in this case, like Mr. Fortgang's grandparents, mean that Mr. Fortgang himself cannot possibly be privileged or have achieved success through the advantage of privilege.

I don't disagree that the determination and tremendous spirit that marked the escape from fascism and arrival of Mr. Fortgang's grandparents in America were large factors in determining their success. I also don't disagree with objections by conservatives that Jewish immigrants in America faced heavy discrimination upon arrival.

But eventually in America's rich history of marginalization, the structural advantage of being white, eclipsed the structural disadvantages of being Jewish. All the while, structural disadvantages of being black or brown have persisted in this country.

Mr. Fortgang is white; I am white; and our successes have both been bolstered by our white privilege and our socioeconomic status -- whether or not both of us will admit to that fact.

It is not the Left that is telling the Right to shut up. It is the Right that wishes to silence liberals for explaining that the advantages or disadvantages into which one is born have a large influence on an individual's outcome in society -- a truth the authors of this article claim to believe, but whose reasoning reflects disbelief.

So, please check your privilege. I'll do the same. I'm not asking you to shut up, I'm asking you to take a step back and get closer to the truth.