Privilege and Invisibility

January 17, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

It has been months since I felt the need to scream with a blood-curdling cry at some commie, partisan subordinate (i.e., most of the [Voting] section staff until recently). And I feel like the people I now work with are all complete professionals. What a weird change. Granted, these changes are nice in many respects, but bitchslapping a bunch of [Division] attorneys really did get the blood pumping and was even enjoyable once in a while. I think now it's all Good Cop for folks there. I much preferred the role of Bad Cop. . . . But perhaps the Division will name an award for me or something. How about the Brad Schlozman Award for Most Effectively Breaking the Will of Liberal Partisan Bureaucrats. I would be happy to come back for the awards ceremony.
That’s a memo (June 2006) from Brad Schlozman, a Justice Department official.

The Bush administration tried to turn the Justice Department into a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican National Committee. That’s obvious to everybody. Well, almost everybody. What’s interesting is that those most responsible for politicizing Justice seemed to think that they were being anti-political. Schlozman seems to have seen his hiring policies as getting rid of politics, taking Justice out of the hands of partisans and returning it to “real Americans.”

There’s a broader lesson here: Privilege – of race, gender, class, ideology, or anything else – works best when it’s invisible. As soon as people become aware that some groups enjoy privileges denied to others, the game is half over. To maintain their position, the privileged groups will now have to resort to obvious forms of power. It’s much easier if the system goes unquestioned.

Also, those who benefit most from privilege are usually the last to notice it. They cling to the idea that the system is neutral. Things that work in favor of the dominant group are “natural.” It’s only those who point out the privilege who are playing politics. For example, the Bush tax cuts, in the Republican view, were right and good – letting people keep their own money. To point out that the tax cuts disproportionately benefitted the wealthy was to engage in “class warfare.” Similarly, although nearly all the people Schlozman hired had ties to the Republican party or conservative groups, he saw himself as getting rid of “partisan bureaucrats” and replacing them with “complete professionals.”


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. It is a very good description of why we need to be aware of our privileges, something I've been struggling with how to voice.

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks for the comment, Pitseleh. Comedians often can make us aware of things we let pass unnoticed. In the political sphere, Stephen Colbert does a great job of it.

Dan said...

Cool post Jay.

And yes, privilege is the necessary flipside to discrimination. If some are down, others are up.

I'm a white man and witness unearned privileges bestowed on me simply because of the color of my skin every day. The next logical step is to follow through and reject this privilege as much as possible. A task easier said than done but one that must be done nonetheless.

Keep up the great writing and observations.