Princeton student Tal Fortgang / Fox News
By now, you’ve probably heard about Tal Fortgang, the white male Princeton freshman who’s taken the phrase “check your privilege” to the next level. He’s actually claimed to have checked his, and in an article that’s now gone viral, he admits that he has privilege but insists it’s nothing to apologize for.
His family’s story, he writes, is one of triumph against all odds: His grandparents, survivors of the Holocaust, came here as penniless immigrants and had to work their way up the socio-economic ladder. They passed on their hard-earned privileges to the next generation, who passed them on to Fortgang. So the privileges he now enjoys are to be celebrated: If anything, his family’s tale proves that the American dream is attainable. “It was their privilege to come to a country that grants equal protection under the law to its citizens, that cares not about religion or race, but the content of your character,” he says.
Fortgang and I are similar in a lot of ways. I grew up in the Jewish day school system, I attend an expensive university and my ancestors arrived here in the United States as penniless immigrants, albeit a long time before his. I grew up thinking that it was to their hard work that I owed my privilege.
But, inspired by Fortgang, I’ve decided to check my privilege as well — and sorry Fortgang, but you’ve cut your inquiry short. Our Jewish families’ climb to success had everything to do with race.
Fortgang’s thoughts are a common trope among descendants of European immigrants, as NYU Jewish history professor Hasia Diner told me. What he forgets, however, is that there’s one reason European Jews were able to come to the U.S. under the Displaced Persons Act: because they were white.
And once here, they didn’t face the same sort of discrimination in the job market as non-whites — a job market that, let’s not forget, was booming in the wake of the war. It was actually a pretty good time to come as an immigrant (a white one at least).
“While no doubt they had positive personal characteristics, they came into a society that was utterly stacked against a vast number of people, in which being white mattered more than almost anything,” Diner said.
What’s more, I presume Fortgang’s family didn’t make it in America all on their own.
The U.S. government, afraid of granting entry to a population that would become dependent on the state, only permitted immigrants with sponsors — oftentimes host organizations that would provide housing, furniture and even psychological support for Holocaust survivors. “They certainly weren’t struggling for basic necessities,” Diner said.
Now, I wouldn’t call poor immigrants relying on communal support “privileged.” But they did lay roots in a country where they had considerably more privileges than other members of that society, and for one specific reason: whiteness, a privilege we continue to reap today.
Fortgang and I were born white. We’ll never know what it feels like to be discriminated against for the color of our skin. We’ll never know what it feels like to be profiled by police in our own neighborhood or by the TSA at the airport. We’ll never know what it feels like to be discriminated against by our professors or by our employers. Growing up in a predominantly Jewish community, I don’t even know what anti-Semitism feels like.
That doesn’t mean we won’t have problems; everyone does. But privileges have to do with structural discriminations that work against certain people and in favor of others — a point lost on Fortgang. The same structural factors that work in our favor now and offer Fortgang and me the leg up are, as I’ve learned through my inquiry, the same structural factors that worked in favor of our ancestors and helped facilitate their climb up the ladder of success.
In my own family, like so many other Jewish families, government assistance through the G.I. Bill was also of great help. Karen Brodkin, author of “How Jews Became White Folks,” calls the G.I. Bill “the most massive affirmative action program in American history.” So it’s deceptive for libertarians — which is what Fortgang appears to be — to use this article as a rallying call.
If there’s any lesson to be learned from the Jewish immigrant experience, it’s that structural discrimination is real, that some people unfortunately have a leg up merely because of their race and that sometimes people actually do need government and community support to push them ahead.
The self-made, hard-working man narrative is nothing but a myth.