Fourth in the series: Organize the White Working Class!
Reclaim The Discourse on White Privilege
If we want to organize the white working class to oppose both racism and our own exploitation then the concept of white privilege is indispensable. White people have been blinded and bribed into becoming the tools and fools of the elites. The corporate Democrats continued that game when they converted the idea of white privilege into a way to demand obedience to the machine and silence working class discontent. The not very hidden message of the Democrats is that the corporate order is working to the advantage of white workers. Period. Try organizing with that rap. How do we talk to white people about white privilege? Start by reclaiming the discourse.
Start with the fact that the white working class is in fact ruthlessly exploited but by virtue of our class — or even our gender, age, sexuality or military status — but not because of our race. White people are also victims of mass incarceration. Black men in the US are six times more likely to be in prison than white men. That is white privilege. Yet, white men are five times more likely to be in prison than all races, classes and genders in the European Union. That’s white privilege too. Get it? Divide and conquer. Class exploitation and mass incarceration are so extreme in the US because the working class is divided: white privilege is the thin edge of the wedge.
White privilege discourse was misappropriated from the social movements to undercut support for Sanders and the Green Party in the 2016 election. Dissenters were widely attacked as privileged. The twisted logic of this argument: only the privileged can afford to revolt and the truly oppressed will just have to take what is handed out and be content with more of the same. In this upside-down privilege, dissent is rooted in privilege and obedience in oppression.
Progressive writers responded to the Democrats in a number of insightful articles. Take a look at articles by Patrick Barrett and Deepa Kumar, Kate McMahon, Morgana Visser and Danielle Decourcey. Perhaps the most useful outcome of this debate was Rashna Batliwala Singh’s and Peter Matthews Wright‘s argument about “Imperial Privilege.”
Indeed, so pervasive is this particular form of privilege that it is not limited to the “usual suspects,” e.g., militarists or right-wing politicians. Imperial privilege makes it possible for even the liberally-inclined to turn a blind eye to the toxic footprint of U.S. militarism at home and abroad; to fall silent at any mention of the homicidal decisions of an American President; to exclude such matters from public political discussion and to prevent them from influencing their voting patterns in any way.
Imperial privilege is the hidden model for the Democratic Party’s attempt to discipline dissenter by demanding we “check our privilege” by endorsing the status quo as a “humanitarian” gesture and a “duty to protect” the less fortunate.1 They act as if they know what the people they are “protecting” want for themselves. It’s a lot to presume.
At what point in the future would this duty to protect allow for risk, struggle, and revolution? Never. Instead liberal privilege is a study in safe logic. For the Democrats, privilege became yet another social control discourse with the same aim as the “lesser of two evils.”
Privilege discourse is further weakened by confusing power with privilege. We all commonly refer to the Koch brothers, George Soros, Bill Gates, or the Clintons and Trumps as privileged. But that is not quite right. They have real power and real wealth. They do not need or have privilege. Privilege is a means of dividing the people, it is the payoff poor whites or poor men or everyday people earn in return for our identification with and support for the powerful.
Are Privileges Earned or Unearned?
The liberal or Democratic Party version define privilege as unearned benefits or unfair advantages, but its logic only holds within the meritocratic view of our economy that is so central to maintaining order. The idea of merit teaches us that people get what they deserve and work for. “What you earn is what you learn,” Bill Clinton claimed, and the “Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages” Democrats still insist it’s true.
White men can pull themselves up better because we are born to boots and bootstraps. There is truth to that of course, but it is a less than useful reference point for organizers aiming at social transformation. Faith in merit smuggles into privilege discourse some of the basic cultural assumptions that rationalize the existing order.
The true nature of the corporate economy is to distribute wealth according to political power not individual merit. Meritocracy and the ideas of Social Darwinism that came before it tells us that the world is a true and transparent regulator of merit. The good and worthy rise; the weak and stupid fall as competition sorts thing out. But given an equal chance, the argument goes, people of color, women, or working class people can rise through the ranks to claim their individual success. If enough individuals earn enough wealth then the problems of race, class, gender or sexuality can be solved. Can they not? We are treated to a parade of celebrities, athletes, and politicians, to prove the point.
Faith in merit disappears class struggle by suggesting we are all just individuals performing in some magical free market. This is total bullshit.
Meritocratic beliefs make it easy to view the white working class as lazy deplorable failures. After all, we are white. With that privilege in hand, what could stand in our way? Class? What is that?
From an organizing perspective, it is precisely our privileges that stand in our way.
While there is nothing wrong with a little utopian thinking of a visionary kind, merit and the free market is the corporate utopia and should not be the basis of our strategy. Real benefits for the people are won in struggle not earned by hard work. And it is white privilege that disrupts our ability to organize effectively because it routinely recreates racist ideas and divides us from our allies: Blacks and natives are poor, we are told, because they deserve it and deserve our contempt as well.
These ideas of merit and hard work are also part of the “protestant work ethic” and are an essential element of the American mythology of exceptionalism. Unlike every other country in the world where someone’s fate is largely determined by the accidents of birth — their race, class, sexuality or gender — America is a land of opportunity outside the normal course of history. The white working class tends to be either invisible or unworthy to those confident that the US is exceptional because we fly in the face of the cherished myth.
The liberal version of white privilege appears to take on racism but fails because it props up the existing order by limiting our understanding of the deeply historical and systematic nature of racism and white supremacy.
If instead we look at the past to see how power works, history reveals a far more devastating critique of privilege than simple unearned benefits. Whites do in fact earn their privileges and in the worst possible way. We earn privilege by the betrayal of fellow workers and fellow humans. The soldiers and veterans we send into dubious battle, we stab in the back. We betray our true fellow Americans. By our disloyalty, we forfeit our place among “we the people.”
And betrayal is far harder work than we dare admit to ourselves. High stake betrayal wounds even the perpetrator. Betrayal deeply and grotesquely deforms our spirits. The blind spots, denials, and airs of moral superiority we adopt to cover the wound have become the basis of a white character willing to strike again. This is in all of us. It makes us weak. And then we pass our deformed humanity to our children in silent acts of acquiescence to the established order even if not in overt racism. At the end of the day, we have betrayed ourselves and our own.
Privilege is for Pawns
My purpose is not to shame and blame but to reveal a liberating truth: white supremacy and white privilege hurts white people. It undermines our capacity to fight for democracy. It undercuts our economic power. Racism diminishes our own spirits and humanity. Racism must be fought for our own good. White privilege makes us pawns in their game.
White privilege is chump change. Don’t be a chump.
We can return our 30 pieces of silver as Judas returned the price of his kiss. And with all of our blind spots and flaws, we can start working with white people to oppose racism. Let’s start by listening carefully to white workers and fighting for our needs and interests. We do not have to be perfect; we just have to be activists.
If we bring patient listening skills and anti-racist perspective to all of our struggles, we can help white people discover that racism is against their interests. If we do this, we can earn a distinction the future will thank us for. Perhaps we can stop being white all the time and through and through. Maybe we can become European-Americans and take our rightful place as revolutionaries and equals among the rising ranks of “we the people”.
- I use “duty to protect’ and “humanitarian” to highlight the underlying similarity between Democratic party uses of privilege, and their justification for war and empire.