The people who occupy positions of power (broadly defined) in the United States tend to be white, male, straight, and (profess to be) Christian. This can be confirmed by even a cursory look at who holds positions in government, business, and academics. Membership in these groups seems to confer a degree of advantage relative to people outside of these groups. Obviously, people can belong to some of these groups rather than all of them. For example, a white woman could be a lesbian atheist. At this point I need to pre-empt some obvious straw man attacks on my claims.
First, I am not claiming that membership in one or more of these groups guarantees that a person will enjoy a position of relative power, such as being among the wealthy or the influential. I understand there are many white, straight, Christian men who are suffering under brutal poverty and struggling to make ends meet. Second, I know that people who are not members of these groups who enjoy great success. Put bluntly, I am aware that Oprah and Beyonce exist. What I am claiming is modest: membership in one or more of these groups confers relative advantages while being outside of one or more of these groups can confer relative disadvantages. I will illustrate what I mean with an analogy from gaming.
Imagine a basic game rule: to succeed at something (such as getting a job or hitting a monster with a sword), you need to roll a specific number or higher on a die. This represents the apparent role of chance in life. In most games, you can get pluses and minuses to your roll, based on various factors. For example, if your character is related to the king, you might get a plus when rolling to talk the city guard out of arresting you for the bar fight. If your character belongs to an unpopular band of rebels, you might suffer a significant minus when rolling to convince the city guard to not simply kill you and dump your body in the river when they catch you speaking out against the king.
Looking at real life like a game, membership in one or more of these groups would confer a plus on many rolls and not being in these groups might confer a negative on many rolls. To address likely straw man attacks, I am not claiming that being in one of these groups always gives an advantage in every conceivable situation. Nor am I claiming that being outside of these groups confers a disadvantage in every conceivable situation. What I am claiming is that a person gains more advantages from being a member of these groups relative to other groups and this is consistent with there being specific cases where membership in one of these groups might not yield an advantage or even be a disadvantage. For example, a white male would be at a complete disadvantage when trying to secure a literary prize for minority female authors. But that same white male would tend to enjoy numerous and broad advantages relative to minority women. Pointing out a few examples in which white, straight, Christian men do not have an advantage (or might actually be at a disadvantage) does not refute the general claim that membership in these groups confers general advantages in the United States.
It is important to note that I am taking these advantages and disadvantages to be, as I have said, like pluses and minuses on random rolls rather than factors that always decide the outcome of events. As a made-up example, imagine that getting a good job required rolling a 15+ using a 20-sided die. Imagine that for a variety of reasons race and sex are factors that are relevant to hiring. Put in entirely made up game terms, imagine that being a man and being white each confer a +1 on the roll. A white man would make the roll with a +2, a black man would make it with a +1, a white woman would roll with +1, and a brown woman would make the roll at +0. Any one of them could succeed (0r fail) on the roll. But imagine hundreds, thousands or millions of people trying to get good jobs: these small relative advantages will have a significant impact on the overall results. If the relative advantages are larger, the impact will be even more significant and will result in a noticeable difference when one considers large numbers of people. This is, as I noted above, what our civilization looks like. As such, it makes sense to believe that membership in certain groups confers meaningful advantages in life. Again, these advantages do not guarantee success, nor do they utterly exclude others from succeeding—they just rig the rolls, to go with the gaming analogy.
Interestingly, there are those who claim that the members of the above groups (straight, white, male, Christian) are the real victims today—not the groups who seem to be underrepresented in positions of power. I will turn to this subject in the next essay in this series.