How White Privilege Theory Encourages The Destruction of Property
Minneapolis is burning, but more shocking than the sudden plunge into chaos are the ideologues who excuse and defend the pillaging of American businesses. The frequently uttered retort, “It’s just property,” isn’t just thoughtless, it’s the expression of a doctrine that undermines property rights, one of the founding tenets of our republic.
The property damage serves to “emphasize the upside-down values of the usual order of things,” where property is a greater concern than people, writes Steven W. Thrasher in Slate. “Property destruction for social change is as American as the Boston Tea Party.”
Leave aside that these riots have led directly to more deaths, including black deaths, and the absurd idea that fighting police brutality requires burning down a Target or a family home. The false dichotomy of lives or property has far more to do with how the pillage apologists view property rights in general than any coherent calculation for how property theft and damage are saving black lives.
Thanks to privilege theory quickly taking over American discourse on race, sympathy for looters and vandals, and antipathy for cops who protect property, has nowhere to go but up. Thought leaders who buy into the rhetoric of privilege and oppression as if white privilege theory is merely an eye-opening teaching tool will only have themselves to blame when extensive property crime becomes the new normal in their cities.
As the national conversation induced by the protests rocketed from police brutality to “white privilege” and “structural oppression,” the theory that vandalism and looting can strictly be attributed to opportunism and bids for attention is increasingly implausible. A constant stream of rhetoric paints white people as oppressors of black people, pressuring observers to excuse, justify, or keep quiet about property crime for fear of showing their “privilege.”
The sympathy for looters and vandals is more than social pressure, however. It stems directly from privilege theory’s natural conclusions. Contrary to popular belief on the right, the central problem of privilege theory isn’t that privilege “doesn’t exist.” It certainly does.
The problem is the belief that the “unearned advantages” of those who are white, straight, or male means whatever they’ve earned can’t rightly be called their own. Advocates of White Privilege Theory (WPT) believe the success of privileged groups isn’t earned, it’s mortgaged. As I wrote in 2018:
White guilt is white debt, [Eula Bliss] argues. We feel guilty because we haven’t paid it off. We feel guilty not because we personally have behaved in a racist manner, but because we’ve indirectly benefited from this country’s history of very real oppression, though we have participated in none of it: slavery, Jim Crow laws, and racist housing policies chief among them. ‘I’m more compelled by a freedom that would allow me to deserve what I have,’ writes Bliss, ‘call it liberation, maybe. If debt can be repaid incrementally, resulting eventually in ownership, perhaps so can guilt.’
As long as people are participating in a system that privileges them over other races, their benefits are undeserved and unowned. It follows that they shouldn’t have any “rights” to whatever property their unfair advantage has allowed them to claim.
If the invalid beneficiaries of capitalism can’t really “own” property, then looting a coffee shop is just a “repossession,” a direct wealth transfer back to the people who “really earned it” or deserve it. It’s like having a car you’ve skipped payments on — you don’t have the right to complain about something you don’t own being repossessed. Thus, we arrive at the mantra, “It’s just property.”
The redistributive rationale for looting isn’t new, even if WPT is. That’s all the more reason to be wary of privilege theory’s influence — it fits neatly within long-standing Marxist ideology. Academics have long recognized that property crime is more than an expression of blind rage or the unleashing of man’s depravity.
Rather, as Olga Khazan writes in The Atlantic, one can draw a conclusion from a 1968 study that widespread looting could be “interpreted as a kind of mass protest against our dominant conceptions of property… in it, we see a bid for [its] redistribution.” Others, Khazan notes, have seen looting, such as that in Ferguson, Missouri in 2015, as “retribution for the economic exploitation of black communities.”
A deep-seated hatred of “bourgeois property” colors leftist retorts to complaints about smashing, torching, and vandalizing commercial zones. True believers of WPT (as opposed to those retweeting #privilege memes and woke apologies) don’t just want you to apologize for your privilege—they want to overthrow the system they blame for generating and maintaining oppression: capitalism.
“Capitalism is a system that breeds class oppression and national/racial conquest,” wrote sociologist Edna Bonacich. “I believe that you cannot attack racism without attacking capitalism, and you cannot attack capitalism without attacking racism.”
The indictment of other minorities who seem to benefit from capitalism further exposes the anti-capitalist roots of privilege theory, and it’s consistent with the pillaging of minority-owned and white-owned stores alike. Where conservatives might point to immigrant entrepreneurs as evidence minorities can “pick themselves up by their own bootstraps,” Bonacich sees them as “middlemen” oppressors, “oppressing those beneath them for the benefit of those above.”
Hatred of police vastly disproportionate to the level of police brutality actually experienced also fits the anti-capitalist modus operandi. From the Marxist point of view, police — who defend the capitalist system with force — are even more guilty than the capitalists themselves. As Thrasher explained in his Slate article defending the burning of a police precinct, “The real looting is happening with wealth transfers towards the ruling class, and endured police intimidation and abuse to do it.”
Most Americans don’t believe capitalism should be completely overthrown, likely including most people expressing solidarity with Black Lives Matter. But while promoting WPT may help some people realize it’s harder to be black in America than to be white, buying into the theory’s full conclusions, many others are going to do what the memes and blue checkmark elites tell them to do: “educate” themselves.
A Google-driven education on WPT will lead them directly to the understanding that unearned advantages mean the system is inherently unfair, and whatever a privileged person possesses may be repossessed by those who need or deserve it more: the poor and racial minorities.
Maintaining the integrity of property rights doesn’t just require adequate policing. We must treat privilege theory as a threat to the American promise — not equal outcomes and wealth, but equal opportunity. We have a long way to go in fulfilling that promise, but adopting white privilege theory will not help us get there.