Thursday, 17 March 2016

The Concept of White Privilege Does More Harm Than Good

'White privilege' and its cousins have achieved enormous prominence on the American left, from which it now seems to be spreading around the Western world. As a slogan it has an undeniable rhetorical power. But from a moral perspective it is flawed: at best mistaken about the core problem of racial injustice and at worst racist in its own right. At the political level it is divisive - arguably deliberately so - and thus incapable of supporting the consensus needed to build a just society.

Political Correctness Disclaimer
I am going to criticise the concept of white privilege and its use in quite strong terms. I am going to do this even though I am white and even though (actually, because) I support the overall cause of ending racial injustice in America and elsewhere. Some may find this combination incomprehensible or even illegitimate. For reasons of political correctness you may not be used to receiving honest criticism, only attacks by the asshole right. But I am not Rush Limbaugh. I am not even a player in America's political melodrama. I am just trying to get things right. You are welcome to disagree with my arguments and we can discuss that in the comments. But please do read them first.

I. Misdiagnosing Racial Injustice

You may have never used the N-word in your life, you may hate the K.K.K., but that does not mean that you don’t harbor racism and benefit from racism. After all, you are part of a system that allows you to walk into stores where you are not followed, where you get to go for a bank loan and your skin does not count against you, where you don’t need to engage in “the talk” that black people and people of color must tell their children when they are confronted by white police officers. (George Yancy, Dear White America)

White privilege is a very particular, very American account of racial injustice constructed upon its peculiar history of slavery and Jim Crow. That whether or not they choose to acknowledge it, white people are the complicit beneficiaries of systematic racism.

The first problem with this perspective is that it understands injustice in relative rather than absolute terms. I.e. in terms of the unfairness of the relationship between racial groups. Specifically, it is unfair that the members of one racial group, 'whites', enjoy special privileges - such as feeling safe in their interactions with police or having job applications judged on their merits or shopping without being followed by the security guard - which are denied to the members of certain racial groups (especially, hispanics and African Americans). 

Although this state of affairs is clearly unfair, fairness does not seem the best moral frame for understanding and condemning it.

The fairness view suggests the problem of racial injustice has to do with distribution: some people get more rights than others. Call this the birthday cake view of social injustice: the problem is that white people are like those greedy birthday kids who think they deserve to have more cake than anyone else at the party and to win every game they play. One can see in this the left's traditional anti-capitalist tendencies: the reduction of all injustice to distribution problems and the 'intelligent design' assumption that because one group does better than others from unjust arrangements that must be why they exist.

I don't deny that there are some distributional aspects to today's racial injustice (such as in the public education system). But civil rights and dignity are not like a birthday cake, where one person's gain is another's loss. The whole point of them is that everyone can enjoy them equally at the same time. Despite the moral and legal victories of the 1960s civil rights movement that obviously hasn't happened yet: in practise black and hispanic Americans are still routinely misrecognised as 2nd class citizens. That is the central problem to be addressed: not that some people are treated better than others but that some citizens are still treated as less than equal.

White privilege misdiagnoses contemporary racial injustice by implying that civil rights are scarce goods distributed according to status - like an Ivy League degree or a New York rent-controlled apartment - and that it is because white people enjoy more rights that other ethnic groups do not. But what is never explained is how whites as a whole are supposed to benefit more from living in an unjust society rather than a just one. The idea that white people have some rational collective interest in suppressing black people just makes no sense, any more than keeping women out of work made men better off or keeping other countries poor would make America richer.

Take America's police forces, especially implicated in today's racial injustice. If the police don't respect the rights of civilians then we are all liable to mistreatment, even if that tends to fall more heavily on some than others (such as because of various stereotypes police officers of whatever skin colour have developed, especially about young black men's dangerousness, or because poorer areas are more heavily policed). No one is really safe no matter what colour their skin: America's police also shoot far more white people than other Western countries'. They also seem to have a license to loot travellers (I choose my driving routes carefully when I visit.) The glaring mistreatment of ethnic minorities is an important symptom but it is the underlying disease - the militaristic 'hero' ethos, the abysmal training except in the use of firearms, the adversarial attitude towards civilians, the lack of legal accountability, etc - that needs treating with the kind of institutional reform proposals set out by Campaign Zero.

White privilege locates the cause of contemporary racial injustice in the putative moral beliefs of the people who do better under it, i.e. whites. They should renounce their racist white supremacy values and work to change or overcome the values of other racist whites (i.e. Republicans). However reasonable this was in 1960s America, this approach is as relevant today as section 5 of the Voting Rights Act*.

II. A Better Account: Racial Bias not Racial Supremacy

The character of racial injustice has changed dramatically over the last few decades. Public morals in most Western liberal democracies have moved definitively against racism as a moral doctrine (though it persists in many other countries). Racial superiority is no longer an acceptable moral view even for private individuals, let alone politicians or government employees. There are few unabashed racists left to convert to the principle of racial equality or shame out of office, and diminishing returns to the effort. The supposed seat of contemporary racism, the Republican party, while morally repugnant in a number of other ways, long ago renounced racism and has fielded multiple black and hispanic presidential nominees in recent elections. (Even Trump, who hardly represents the views of the Party establishment anyway, sought and achieved endorsement by Ben Carson.) The persistence of racial injustice cannot be explained by white supremacists holding the reins of power. The moral challenge is no longer about establishing the principle of racial equality, but of fulfilling our joint responsibility for properly implementing it.

A better explanation of contemporary racial discrimination is what I will call 'racialism', taking a person's race as salient and then assessing their personal character and abilities by reference to stereotypes one holds about that race (try an Implicit Association Test to find out yours). Racialism is a huge problem, but it is not the same kind of problem as racism proper. In particular, it operates behind the back of individuals, whether below their conscious reasoning (subconscious stereotypes) or beyond it (in the way institutions like the criminal justice and education systems work). It is thus not directly reachable by moral suasion.

It is also incorrect to see racialism in terms of race relations as the white privilege view encourages, a matter of just terms of engagement between separate ethnic groups. First, racialist prejudices are also common among the very groups who suffer most from discrimination (as Jesse Jackson famously noted, and as George Zimmerman tragically demonstrated). Second, although the Ferguson police force was extremely white, most organisations with institutionally racist policies - like the NYPD's stop and frisk - have many black and hispanic employees. Racialism is not just a problem of moral conversion for white people but a collective challenge to overcome the effects of prejudices, and thereby, eventually, the prejudices themselves.

What the politics of racial injustice should be about is not who is to blame for it but how to fix it. In America and elsewhere we need a greater general awareness of the subconscious character of the prejudices most of us carry around with us and how they can distort our judgement (and on other matters too, such as gender and sexuality). We need to change laws and policies based on racial stereotypes. We especially need to reform how government and commercial institutions 'reason' about cases. Institutions often have decision rules which multiply the effects of prejudices by using biased judgements as the input for other biased judgements. Standardised algorithmic procedures and racial blinding (e.g. anonymising school and police records) can ameliorate that. So can efforts to check for unknown biases in the way institutions operate by looking at inequalities in outcomes and then tracking down the decision rules at fault.

We all share a moral responsibility for advancing such political reforms, a responsibility whose demands are proportional to our opportunity to influence the process, not the colour of our skin. We all also bear an individual responsibility to curtail the influence of our own prejudices on our judgements. Even if we can't directly get at the prejudices themselves, once aware of them there are countermeasures we can take, such as trying to explicitly reconstruct the reasoning behind any judgement that would be consistent with prejudice. These moral responsibilities, and who holds them, are different from those proposed by white privilege. They are oriented to solving the problem.

III. A New Moral Doctrine of Racism

At best, white privilege misdiagnoses the sociology and moral character of today's racial injustice as I explained above. At worst though it introduces a racist moral doctrine of its own. White privilege is not merely racialist - a prejudice about what white people tend to be like and how they behave (say, richer and more likely to vote Republican). It is an essentialist moral doctrine about whiteness: all white people are morally complicit in white supremacy whether or not they realise it and no matter their own moral beliefs. Such an assignment of moral standing by race is abhorrent.

I don't want to make too much of this. Most mainstream uses of the concept of white privilege don't emphasise this aspect. But it is always there, built into its underlying worldview, and has much to do with its political divisiveness. And it does appear in the insult-driven underbelly of social media 'activism' and in poorly organised protests like the one recently at Dartmouth, apparently on the principle that turnabout is fair play, or at least a legitimate awareness-raising device.

IV. Justice or Elections?

White privilege can be a powerful rhetorical device for raising awareness of injustice, that not everyone gets to live in the world you do, a world that more or less works according to high school civics class. In this use, it can draw attention to the fact of continuing racial injustice even after the legislative successes of the civil rights movement and a black president. But it is a poor choice for such a purpose since it explains that injustice in exactly the wrong way and its product is a divisive and pointless fight over moral blame rather than solidarity around a collective moral challenge.

At least, it is a poor choice if you care about ending racial injustice. Political philosophers like myself tend to jump all too easily to ideals of public deliberation and collective action, forgetting that actual democratic politics is quite a different matter than just doing ethics on a bigger scale. There are political gains to be had from divisiveness, from framing a problem in such a way as to divide people into different camps of us and them. For some people those gains, including the leadership role they may acquire by controlling the framing, are more important than solving the problem itself. (Sometimes,though rarely, the politics of divisiveness takes over entirely, as in Northern Ireland.)

Indeed, from over here in Europe, the political function of white privilege in America seems mainly to be a red flag to wave at Republicans and make them mad. See how they splutter with outrage at the paradox of being accused of racism because of the colour of their skin! Of course, baiting Republicans is lots of fun (see the popularity of the Daily Show even outside America; my students love it). But it is hardly likely to turn them into allies, which is what you need to make big changes in a country as politically divided as America.

But in the politics of divisiveness antagonising potential allies can pay off. Racial injustice is a real problem. Here you have the Republicans apparently in denial of it. Hence, they must be evil racists. Hence, ethnic minorities should recognise that the only party that cares about them is the Democrats. Hence, they will be more motivated to come out and vote at elections, to keep the evil people out of power. (Naturally, Republicans do similar things, e.g. there are more votes in stirring controversy about climate change than in fixing it.) 

The tragedy of this adversarial approach is that it destroys the popular consensus that already exists for ending racial injustice. White privilege challenges its targets to either admit their racialised blood guilt or deny that there is racial injustice in America. Many people would rather deny that there is any problem at all than assume an impossible personal responsibility for slavery and every time a cop shoots a black kid playing in a park. The result is that America is embroiled in a ridiculous partisan debate about whether or not racial discrimination even exists, rather than focusing on what everyone claims to agree on - racial equality - and then working backwards from there to make it a reality.

Should the left focus on advancing the political consensus or motivating their political tribe? Grass roots activists like Black Lives Matter should understand that those goals don't necessarily go together, and consider carefully whether a racially divisive account like white privilege is a good foundation on which to build their campaign for a better world. What kind of victory could it possibly achieve?

*Republican legislators don't pass Voter-ID laws and similar shenanigans to exclude poor black voters because they are black, but because they tend to vote Democrat. It's still wrong, but it isn't motivated by a doctrine of racial superiority. It's a different threat to democracy than Jim Crow - which the VRA was written to stop - and it needs a different kind of response, such as a positive constitutional right to vote and independent electoral commissions.


  1. One additional aspect that seems to be present with "white privilege" is that, in addition to promoting racial divides, it also appears to promote class divides.

    One thing I've seen a few times is a dialog that goes something like:

    * High status white person A to low status white person B: You possess white privilege, and you should acknowledge it!
    * Person B: Huh? What does that even mean?
    * Person A: That because you're white, you're less likely to have experienced [list of 20 items, none of which person A has ever experienced]
    * Person B: Umm, I've experienced nearly everything on that list
    * Person A: You still possess white privilege
    * Person B: WTF
    * Person A: (sneering contempt)

    In such a dialog, it never even occurs to person A that the items in his list may be affected by other things than race, even though this is painfully obvious to person B; the result is usually that person B perceives person A as introducing "white privilege" as a way to dismiss B's lived experiences, cuasing B to reject the entire white privilege concept; and person A ends up later talking about person B with a certain form of contemptuous sadness, similar to the kind of sadness you can sometimes get from deeply religious people who learn that some family member or friend won't accept Jesus into their heart or something like that.

    Freddie deBoer has a pretty striking essay "it eats everything" about how upper-class white kids are being taught the white privilege concept and associated language, so that they can avoid being seen as racists and can wield this language to display their moral superiority over people who aren't familiar with such language, enabling the use of such language as a class marker rather than as a genuine awareness-raising thing, as a form of virtue signalling and moral snobbery.

  2. "I am not Rush Limbaugh. I am not even a player in America's political melodrama."

    You are now :)

  3. I have been giving a lot of thought of late to the obscene monster wormed in the underbelly of the United States. A worm that Donald Trump and others have summoned from its fetid lair. A thought occurred to me, which may, or may not have any validity or relevance to the subject matter of your blog. I ask only for your consideration of this fledgling idea, please be unsparing in your criticism. Thank you in advance.
    "American Psyche: The Deep Roots of Fear, Racism and Xenophobia in the United States"
    Statement: Stolen goods are never really yours – the (subconscious) fear, that which you easily stole from others can easily be stolen from you.
    Statement: Relationships built on betrayal cannot endure.
    Modern white America was born from invaders who stole the land from the indigenous people.
    The settlers/colonists were fearful of the indigenous people, they had to marginalize, kill, and contain the rightful owners. In order to consolidate their victory, they tore other people from their ancestral lands, enslaved and subjugated them.
    The prize was “The American Dream”.
    Look at people in the rest of the world. They inhabit lands which their ancestors settled in antiquity, their roots are intertwined with the very land they inhabit. All other people are rooted to their land.
    Modern day America is an illusion, an alien dream imposed on a land that did not give birth to the dreamers. The land itself will shake off those dreamers, the interlopers.
    The “American Dream” is derived from betrayal, subjugation and genocide. This is the blood-deep, subconscious root of American fear. America, was it ever really ours? That is the fear that lives deep in the psyche of many white Americans. That I would suggest is the subconscious root of hatred, racism and xenophobia in white America. It is a matter of record that middle-aged white American males are committing suicide in unprecedented numbers - fear transmuted to anger, finally into despair. One thinks of Gollum holding on to his "Precious".

    1. I’m afraid this is a nonstarter.

      1. War has been part of the human condition for a long time. Europeans did not invent the idea of conquering territory and subjugating/exterminating those living there; Aboriginal American peoples did it too. The Europeans, including the original hispanics, were just the most successful in recent times, for reasons explained rather better by Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’ thesis than some pathological racial malevolence.

      2a). Autochthony is a dangerous fantasy: all peoples came from somewhere else and from a mixture - including aboriginal Americans. No one sprang out of the soil. Many people feel that a people’s relationship to the land has a special moral significance. That intuition though needs a better and more nuanced moral justification than a contest over original possession can provide. (Anne Stiltz has some interesting work on this ‘ethics of occupancy’ - see e.g. her talk at the Carnegie Council a couple of years ago).

      2b) In any case, by your logic, black and hispanic Americans are also not autochthonous to America’s land and so don’t belong there any more than white people.

      3. America has its problems and moral failures. But it is doing better than most countries by most measures. That's why so many people from other countries still want to immigrate.

    2. Thank you for your reply and I take your points.

      I do have a tendency to mix metaphors and that does not serve me well. I will try and steer clear of hyperbole and reframe the thought. Is it possible that fear is what largely drives xenophobia and racism and modern day white America? Is it possible that some of that fear is a human transgenerational response* to the experience of our recent ancestors, as opposed to a primordial fear?
      In reference to autochthony, I do not take this as a moral signifior, but rather in its other sense "the quality of belonging to or being connected with a certain place or region by virtue of birth or origin", again I would ask could this be evidence of a transgenerational response in the white population? So, slowly backing out of the rabbit hole, rather than taking a moralistic view, I am asking the question as to what (if any) is the role of epigenetics in modern white America? Now of course, you may take the view that human transgenerational response is mostly nonsense, and I don't know enough about the subject to take a position on the subject. So that being said, I thank you for indulging my half-baked ideas, and I very much appreciate your time and considered response. Such discussions are a rare treat for me and I am learning a lot from your writings.

      *Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and
      neural structure in subsequent generations
      Brian G Dias
      & Kerry J Ressler

    3. @Anonymous. A biological transgenerational guilt mechanism to explain contemporary fear/hate of the other doesn't seem very plausible.

      It also doesn't seem necessary. An easier and well-travelled route is to link the economic precarity of modern life in America with political fear and anger. Fear of losing your fingerhold on the American dream if you reach out to help anyone else up. Anger at whoever did this to you, like the dastardly Chinese or Mexicans who stole your 1950's job for life and the US governments who let them. At least, that's how I think of Trump's core supporters.

    4. Again thank you for your response and thoughts. As an American citizen I have a front row seat to the (horrifying) ugliness that is unfolding and seems to be gathering momentum in this Presidential race. Maybe I am clutching at straws in an effort to understand the depth of racial hatred that has been revealed, I feel that only when one understands the factors at play can one begin to combat and hopefully eradicate racism. Strange and troubling times.

  4. Education is a massive issue though.

    There are “our schools”, that is light-skinned (white, yellow) middle and upper class private/faith based schools, and “their schools” which are funded with property taxes on white middle and upper class property owners and teach usually almost only to dark-skinned (brown, “red,” black) children.

    The goal of most politicians is to undermine “their schools” because most voters and nearly all campaign donors are light-skinned (poor dark-skinned citizens don’t vote much, and a lot of dark-skinned people can’t vote as they are immigrants) and want lower property taxes and less competition from the children of the dark-skinned classes for entry to “good” universities.

    Middle and upper class mothers (“soccer” moms, “helicopter” moms. “tiger” moms) have very sharp elbows in promoting their own interests by maxing the value of their investment in their children by restricting competition.

    Indeed, since public schools in the most densely populated parts of the USA have mostly dark-skinned students. The idea is to make it harder for them to go to good universities even if they are more apt, capable, or intelligent than dumber or more ignorant light-skinned student from private/faith schools.

    The overall strategy is to have a two-tier school system: first-class private/faith schools which are university prep schools for light-skinned students, and miserly funded second-class public schools which are holding pens for dark-skinned students until they are steered into unemployment or minimum wage service etc...

    Creating a two-tier system of *maths* is in this respect a really clever technique: first-class maths to be taught in private/faith schools to light-skinned students, and second-class maths to be taught in public schools to dark-skinned students.

    That’s exactly the opposite: this is being done to create an explicit two-tier hierarchical system right in the curriculum between schools attended mostly by richer light-skinned students and poorer dark-skinned ones.

    The whole light-skinned middle and upper classes who feel that they have a strong interest in creating a visible, clear “branding” difference between first-class “our schools” and second-class “their schools”.

    1. I can't quite follow your argument. A quick review of the statistics shows that America spends more on primary and secondary public education than most countries (about $13,000 per pupil per year). Only about 10% of students go to private (non-public) schools. About half the enrollment in public schools is white.

      The local funding component does vary indirectly by race, but not quite as you explain it. Reliance on property taxes have the corollary that poorer areas - where black and hispanic Americans are more likely to live - generate significantly less funding per student than the average. In contrast, just about every other other OECD country directs more spending to pupils in poor areas because they have greater needs.

      But maybe money doesn’t explain the difference in outcomes. Maybe it’s the institutions. Newark for example is a classic case of failure - the subject of a Zuckerberg philanthropic intervention - but its per pupil spending is above the national average ($22,000).

  5. I think this claim needs more support:

    "But what is never explained is how whites as a whole are supposed to benefit more from living in an unjust society rather than a just one."

    It's actually well recorded historically both in the US South and in South Africa how those on top can benefit from living in an unjust society. Your oppositional case seems to be built on the "self-correcting equilibrium theory" of economics (hence the reference to women entering the workforce) but said theory is very contingent on both factors and time span. (i.e. I may have benefited from women entering the workforce, but the economic upheaval involved definitely affected the lives of both my grandmother and grandfather.)

    1. @Metatone. The economistic perspective is counter-intuitive at first because it focuses on absolute rather than relative gains. The question is not how well white people can do in a racist society compared to the people held down at the bottom. The question is whether white people should rationally prefer such a society to one with racial and gender equality. Then it should be fairly obvious that a society in which a large number of people never have a proper chance to develop their talents and bring them into the labour market will be poorer in the long run. You can see this in action in your own example of the American South, which was a stagnant economic backwater throughout Jim Crow. White people in the American South are much richer without Jim Crow than they were with it.

    2. What if relative position is just really important to people? This seems a perfectly plausible view of human nature.

      You can try to define this out as irrational as you like, but a) it's a preference in itself, rationality doesn't enter into it and b) so what if this preference were in some sense deficient? It could still be a correct explanation of why people do what they do.

    3. @Anon 21:03

      Good point, well made.

      That was the argument explicitly made by Southern politicians in defence of their peculiar institution, such as John Calhoun: "among us, white men have an equality resulting form a presence of a lower caste, which cannot exist where white men fill the position here occupied by the servile race". As Adam Smith noted, slavery probably never made much economic sense, its main attraction was allowing some people to feel better about themselves by dominating over others.

      But in the time since Calhoun spoke, and especially following the civil rights movement, America has turned quite decisively towards the liberal view (of Adam Smith). Oppressing others to feel better about yourself is now rightly seen as both morally despicable and as fostering pathetic self-delusions in place of real accomplishments. i.e. It is an irrational preference, like addiction to heroine, that harms those who hold it.

  6. Thank you for this excellent piece. I am a union member at the University of Minnesota, and have in past decades spent many years in labor and other social justice movements. I am white and male, and I personally sacrificed income, status, and privilege to do this activism, due to my commitment to (generally) liberal-radical politics. I recently had to go to diversity and equity training because I'm a lead worker (the equity seems to regularly get lost), and this "white privilege" concept is taught at length. I find it deeply flawed for the reasons you explain.

    I also would point out that in the real political world of grassroots and union organizing, this idea would make it so that both poor and working class whites and blacks could never unite into unions, institutions that contribute a lot to attacking racial injustice. This brings me to another important point which you (sort of) alluded to: all white people do not benefit from racism. I would point out they often act against their own interests because of racial prejudice. This is often the case in union organizing, sometimes employers will actually use the idea that black workers are lazy when talking to white workers, and tell white workers that's why the blacks want to join the union, the union will protect those lazier workers. When white workers buy into this, they are hurt by their own racial prejudice.

    Your point about police brutality is also correct. The fact that police can with disturbing regularity shoot African-Americans and Hispanics doesn't gain me anything as a white male. It makes the standard for police use of force lower, potentially making it easier for that to be used against me.

    As someone (generally) on the left, I don't see how this idea helps build our movement at all.

    Excellent discussion.

  7. This is really thought out. I've written the other perspective (it's an easy read) but I'd love to hear your thoughts on the points I make

    1. These seem like contributions to the slogans genre of white privilege. Some are thought provoking. But others are merely provoking.

  8. I dislike the very term 'white privilege', and getting into discussions over it with rather more left wing individuals just turns into a huge semantic quagmire that makes me frustrated and exhausted. I tend to check out from such discussions...

    I dont feel this way from reading your article. How you present an idea really does matter!

  9. As a leftist, and an older white guy I am utterly bewildered that when I raise to speak about universal humanity I am told to "check my privilege" and sit down.

    I am glad to read your cogent (and fearless) response.
    There are a great many of us who would like to make a better world for all humans, period. The world doesn't need a black-only civil rights movement. (Who are they trying to convince, anyway?)

  10. Excellent post! I think the main point can be advanced without relying on counterintuitive (albeit sound) economic arguments to the effect that discrimination is ultimately contrary to the interests of all groups. Although there is evidence that, for example, Jim Crow depressed white as well as black wages in the South, let us concede that still existing racial discrimination in the labour market benefits some whites who have jobs they would not have in the absence of such discrimination. The point remains that the concept of "white privilege" conflates two very different phenomena. In one, A is better off that B because of the oppression of B. In the other A is better off than A would have been but for the oppression of B. The employment discrimination example is an instance of the latter. The "birthday cake" model makes some sense in that context. But the privilege I enjoy because I don't experience harassment driving of shopping "while white" is of the former kind. I don't benefit from that "privilege" in the sense that I am not better off than I would be if nobody was arbitrarily stopped. I also happen at the moment to enjoy not-being-kicked-in-the-nuts privilege, which obviously has much different ethical and political implications than can-kick-others-with-impunity privilege. So, without discounting the relevance of the relative/distributive implications of "privilege" in all contexts, it is, as you point out, politically counterproductive to use a blanket expression that implicitly sweeps all racial discrimination and oppression into the zero-sum basket.
    We should name the bad thing. If I get a bigger piece of cake, then the problem is plausibly the unfairness of how well off I am. But if some people are being kicked, the main problem is not how unfair it is that other people are not being kicked.


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