Tal Fortgang, a Princeton freshman, created waves this week with an essay in Time Magazine entitled, “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege.” In it, he references his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, who worked hard to build a business in New York City, send his kids to Jewish day school, and then on to City College of New York. His father took his CCNY education seriously, got into a top graduate school, worked long and hard, and built the professional life and career that enabled him to be in a position to afford Princeton when Tal, through plenty of hard work of his own, earned his admission there.
Later in the essay, Fortgang writes “Those who came before us suffered for the sake of giving us a better life. When we similarly sacrifice for our descendants by caring for the planet, it’s called “environmentalism,” and is applauded. But when we do it by passing along property and a set of values, it’s called “privilege.” (And when we do it by raising questions about our crippling national debt, we’re called Tea Party radicals.) Such sacrifice of any form shouldn’t be scorned, but admired.”
Yet when Tal’s father was growing up, Jewish day school tuition was not comparable to the toniest prep schools in the area, and City College (then nicknamed “Harvard of the Proletariat”, the “poor man’s Harvard”, or Harvard-on-the-Hudson) was FREE. Today, many people (I will call them “the unprivileged”) will never get the education that will allow them entry into Princeton because of the pitiful state of public education in their communities. Those same people will also struggle to afford (either outright or through debt) City College, which now runs over $3,000 per full-time semester. Many of those people also value education, have strong work ethics, and strive to pass on the most elevated values to their children. They are not Holocaust survivors, though many have difficult stories involving their own families’ experiences with discrimination and/or immigration. The difference, though, is that their grandchildren will most likely continue to struggle economically.
Fortgang is indeed privileged because he was raised with a background that allowed him to get into Princeton and, more importantly, gave him a launching pad for a career trajectory from where things will have to go very wrong for his children to not have the same opportunities that he enjoyed. By “raising questions,” he is effectively justifying policies that make it ever harder for those born into less fortunate circumstances to follow the same upward path that his own father and grandfather traveled. Because of people who think like him, City College tuition will continue to go up, public investment in education and opportunity will continue to decline, and Jewish day school tuition will continue to be far more crippling to Jewish working-class families than the national debt will ever be.
Fortgang recognizes that in his immediate past, someone sacrificed something for him to live a better life. In contrast, he will sacrifice nothing for his children to continue to live that better life. The data shows that incomes for upper-class families continue to rise, increasing at rates far faster than those in the lower economic strata, which have been at best stagnant and are too often moving backwards. That contrast is the very definition of privilege.
“Checking privilege” means recognizing that not everyone had the opportunity to be there. It means being grateful and humble, not apologetic. It is realizing that the difference between the Princeton freshman and the struggling sales floor worker is not a reflection of the quality of the choices they made or the moral integrity of their backgrounds, but may simply be a the result of each maximizing the opportunities available to each of them.
In many ways, then, “checking privilege” is similar to the most enlightened formulations of “Am HaNivchar (the concept of the Jewish people as ‘Chosen Nation’).” A Jewish people self-absorbed and smug in its ethnic, moral, or spiritual superiority to the rest of the world is of no use to anyone. On the other hand, a Jewish people driven to fulfill its mission of “a Kingdom of Priests,” both humbly and nobly in service to humanity, is a potentially unparalleled force for good in the world.
Fortgang alleges that his critics are trying to delegitimize him because of the privilege his family sacrificed so much to give him. In fact, they may be more upset at watching it all go to waste.