First in the series: Organize the White Working Class!
“ . . . their (the poor “whites”) own position, vis-a-vis the rich and powerful . . . was not improved, but weakened, by the white-skin privilege system.”– Theodore W. Allen, Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race, 1975*
“The ‘white race’ is the historically most general form of ‘class collaboration.”- Theodore W. Allen, Taped Interview with Chad Pearson, SUNY-Albany, May 13, 2004,*
The time is ripe.
At no time since the ’60s has social movement activism created such rich opportunities to oppose racism and engage white people in a struggle over what it means to be white and a worker in America. And that engagement will be most successful in the world’s best classroom: movement building, organizing, and activism.
Like many times in our past, Americans of African descent have led the way. The new civil rights movement, the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore, the BlackLivesMatter movement, and the resistance to Trump’s reemergent racism, has given birth to an array of new organizations and political projects. Like no other single scholarly work, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in The Age of Colorblindness has rallied the troops and identified the enemy.
Over the past few decades, the American people have created a vast militarized penal system that is now the most powerful institutionalized racism in the US. And like the forms of institutionalized racism that preceded it, the penal system functions as an effective form of social control. Discriminatory and militarized policing, on-the-spot executions, slave-like prison labor, mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipeline, restriction of trial by jury, lengthy and mandatory sentencing, predatory fine, fee and debt traps, and its gigantic sweep and size constitutes nothing short of a preemptive war against the most potentially rebellious parts of the population: the young, people of color, the poor. If you favor social change then the vast militarized penal system must be confronted. It controls us all black and brown and white.
The new civil rights movement has challenged white activists to confront white racism at a time of economic and workplace conflict. The never-ending recession of 2008 has intensified wealth inequality across the board with the upward redistribution of wealth falling hardest on Americans of color.1 Good full-time jobs are going and in all likelihood, they are not coming back.
There is a widespread understanding that the economy and political system are rigged. One of the main rigs is the class line: corporate power now controls the economy and government wielding both great wealth and global political power. Once the insatiable demand for power and profit drive government, representative democracy fails and can no longer deliver significant economic benefits to everyday people. Yet, Occupy and the Sanders campaign, the resistance to Trump and other social movements have revealed the discontent of millions of white people who have the capacity to create progressive social movements and even make history.
But the working class has deep flaws that have until now proven fatal: it is divided. Race, gender, sexuality, age cut us up in many ways. If history is a guide to action we can retell a crucial part of the tale by making a challenge to white supremacy central to our organizing efforts. To do that, white people must combat the system of white privilege that has long been the primary means by which racism has been nurtured and sustained. Those white privileges are institutionalized in a complex web of arrangements in housing, education, health care, law enforcement, election procedures, and voting that further rig the system against people of color. But because white or male privileges have been so deeply entrenched for so long they often appear as seemingly neutral measures of merit, at least to white people. How do we shine a light on this blindspot?
Resistance and action are the best paths to revelation. Institutionalized racism is historic and collective and cannot be addressed through individual repudiation alone. You can’t just give it up, even if you want to, except through joining the social moments for change and organizing at the point of privilege. The purpose of these privileges is to keep us all in line. White organizers and activists who challenge the system have taken the first crucial step in repudiating privilege. Many organizing projects await and all of them are difficult and challenging. We can expect no easy victories.
Organize Our Own?
As the ’60s revolution came up against the wall of institutionalized and interlocking obstacles, civil rights organizers experimented with Black Power and Women’s liberation. Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Jo Freedman, Shulamith Firestone, and other authors of “To the Women of the New Left” offered up some hard-won knowledge.2 They told a sometimes bitter but compelling truth: organizers were most effective working within their own communities.
Speaking to the Organization of Afro-American Unity, Malcolm X put it this way.
Now if white people want to help, they can help. But, they can’t join. They can help in the white community, but they can’t join. We accept their help….They can…work in the white community on white people and change their attitude toward us.3
“Organizing your own” was not a call to white separatism, but a way to lay the basis for coalition movements in which working-class whites saw their own destiny bound up with that of black folks. In Black Power and White Organizing, Anne Braden, a legendary southern white civil rights organizer, wrote:
Certainly the inherent needs of poor white people are reason enough to organize—they, like poor black people, are ill-fed, ill-housed and lacking in opportunities for education, medical care, political expression, and dignity. But I think what we are recognizing is that these white people will never be able to solve these problems unless they find ways to unite with the black movement seeking the same things.
My purpose is not to present false either/or choices. The organizational forms we create are up to the local situation and local actors. White organizers can make contributions in multi-racial groups, coalitions, unions, as well as in community groups among the white working class. But one way or another, we white organizers must reconsider ways of talking and organizing around white supremacy and white privilege.
Luckily for us, we can follow the work of the great white working-class intellectual, Ted Allen, as our north star. Next we will look at the strategic implications of his classic work: The Invention of the White Race.
*Both quotes cited in Jeffrey B. Perry, The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight against White Supremacy p. 2 and p. 5
- Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter To Black Liberation, 27 and 28.
- See Chapter 8, Sara Evans, Personal Politics. “Women of the New Left” cited by Evans p. 200.
- Malcolm X, By Any Means Necessary, 58.
Ted Allen and the Invention of the White Race
Second in the series: Organize the White Working Class!
This article also appeared in CounterPunch.
There is no better place to start organizing than with political strategy inspired by Theodore W. Allen’s classic book: The Invention the White Race: Volume I Racial Oppression and Social Control and Volume II: The Origins of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America.
Before we continue, a word or two about Ted Allen.
Ted Allen was a working-class white man without college training but with a long history of activism and a deep determination to uncover the truth about how racism came to be in America. Allen was a Marxist and used a class-based analysis to guide his study. Jeffrey B. Perry continues Allen’s work today, and you should view his presentations on Allen’s legacy.
The power of Allen’s ideas comes from his unmatched devotion to research. He spent more than 20 years digging deep into the colonial archives of Virginia and mastered what is, arguably, the most extensive body of evidence ever produced on race in early colonial America. Allen contested and bested some of the most acclaimed historians in the field. The working-class reader cannot help but revel in the fact that a worker without a degree kicked Ivy League butt.
But getting class identity jollies aside, Allen’s work is such a useful guide to action because he did what no other historian did. Allen created an argument that might help us discover a truly political strategy to fight racism among whites based on empowerment, class solidarity, community interest, and self-interest, rather than relying on morality, guilt, and shame. In other words, Allen innovated a revolutionary approach to fighting white racism and white privilege.
The Invention of the White Race
What Allen discovered transformed our understanding of race in America and can transform our organizing practice and activism. He shocked readers with a startling finding:
“When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no “white” people there; nor according to colonial records would there be for another sixty years.”1
Oh, yes, there were English and Irish, but nowhere in the colonial record is there evidence that law or society granted special privileges to people based on European origin.
The white race and white identity were “invented,” Allen argued, by the ruling elite of Virginia, in order to divide laboring people in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676. The white race was constructed and used as a political instrument to divide and conquer.
How did this come to be?
By 1620 or so, a system of unfree labor became the dominant labor system in Virginia. The system was essentially slavery, some “bond-laborers” had time-limited contracts, but most servitude was open to interpretation by custom. A majority of these bond-laborers were Europeans.
The archival evidence is clear, as well, that the role of African and African Americans was “indeterminate.”2 From 1619 to the years following Bacon’s Rebellion, the status of black people was contested in the courts and in the fields. Africans held a variety of social and economic positions: some were limited term slaves, some free, some endured lifetime bondage, while others were property holders, even including a few slave owners.
It was not until after Bacon’s Rebellion, or the second phase of Bacon’s Rebellion to be precise, that law and society created a new custom of racism, and for that to happen, the white race had to be invented. What was the trigger?
“[I]n Virginia, 128 years before William Lloyd Garrison was born, laboring class African-Americans and European-Americans fought side by side for the abolition of slavery. In so doing, they provided the supreme proof that the white race did not then exist.”3
The Rebellion occupied the capital of Jamestown and pointed the way toward freedom for everyone, by contesting the rule of the oligarchs who had grown rich on slave labor and land stolen from the natives.
“[I]t was the striving of the bond-laborers for freedom from chattel servitude that held the key to liberation of the colony from the misery that proceeded from oligarchic rule…4
After the rebellion was suppressed, law and custom began to shift. Europeans were increasingly designated as “white” in the historical record, and given privileges that conferred a “presumption of liberty” while blacks were increasingly subjected to legal and cultural limits to their freedoms. Whites were encouraged to view blacks with contempt and see their inferior social positions as proof of innate inferiority.
Allen summarized the early system of white privilege as “simply the right to be free.”
All authorities agree…that the conditions of the masses of white industrial and agricultural workers, North and South, were abominable in the decades before the Civil War. Still they had their white-skin privileges: The white worker was an actual or potential citizen, with citizen’s rights; the black had no rights. The white, as possessor–if not immediately, then within a definite time–of his own person, had legal freedom of movement; the black did not own himself. The white, if bound by indenture, debtor apprenticeship, or in some other manner, might still succeed in escaping into the free-moving white world much more easily than the black worker. As possessor of himself, the white workers could–even though not always immediately– take a better job, if he could find one; the black had no such chance. The white worker, if opportunity afforded, could learn to read and then study as a means of improving his lot; the black worker was forbidden by law even to learn to read. The white worker could aspire to become a farmer, a merchant or an industrialist; the black had only flight, revolt, revenge to dream of. At this point, the white skin privilege of the white worker was simply the right to be free…5
The white race, white supremacy, and black subordination were all products of the same historical period in which the slave system was recreated as a racist system to prevent the threat of united action by the people. Today the new oligarchy still relies on their ability to divide and conquer.
Here is Allen’s legacy and challenge to us: racism is historical, it is the product of human activity. If it was then, it is now. Racism was founded on a system of privileges designed to win working-class white people’s support for slavery. And so it is to white privilege that we must look if we want to free ourselves from being the tools and fools of the rich and powerful.
We must be pawns no more.
- Allen, Invention of the White Race Vol. II p X
- Invention of the White Race Vol. II p 178
- Invention of the White Race Vol. II p 214-21
- Invention of the White Race Vol. II p 212
- Can White
Workers Radicals be Radicalized? p176 in Revolutionary Youth & The New Working Class/Lost writing of the SDS.
Third in the series: Organize the White Working Class!
White Skin Privilege
White privilege is a thing. It’s just not the same thing the corporate Democrats use to boss us around with. The concept of white privilege was not invented by some liberal university professors. In fact, the concept of white privilege was invented by a white man: a radical activist and historian who never went to college.
Writing for the John Brown Commemoration Committee in 1965, Theodore Allen innovated the discourse on “white skin privilege.” In 1967 he co-authored “White Blindspot” and in 1969 published “Can White
Workers Radicals Be Radicalized?”
According to Jeffrey B. Perry,
Allen’s work influenced the Students for a Democratic Society and sectors of the “new left” and it paved the way for the “white privilege,” “race as social construct,” and “whiteness studies” academic fields.1
In our deep past, white privileges were granted by a “presumption of liberty” to white people that were simultaneously denied Blacks.
We can track that presumption of liberty straight to today’s “presumption of innocence” that we are all supposed to enjoy but are all too often denied Natives, Blacks, other people of color, poor people, and those that do not conform to gender or sexual social norms. The vast militarized penal system all to often deprives people of color the “presumption of liberty:” the right to be innocent until proven guilty and to enjoy the equal protection of the law as demanded by the Constitution. As the presumption of guilt becomes normalized it effects everyone including the white working class.
Unlike liberal interpretations of white privilege used to attack dissent, Allen’s understanding was that white privileges are contrary to the long-term political and material interest of white people. The benefits, bribes, and appeals to white people do have a real value, which is one reason they work, but that value is far less than the value that would be produced by class solidarity and cross-racial action to raise wages, win political power and establish justice.
In 1969 Allen wrote:
The white-skin privileges of the masses of the white workers do not permit them nor their children to escape into the ranks of the propertied classes. In the South, where the white-skin privilege has always been most emphasized and formal, the white workers have fared worse than white workers in the rest of the country. The white-skin privilege for the mass is the trustee’s privilege, not release from jail, merely freedom of movement within it and a diet more nearly adequate. It is not that the ordinary white worker gets more than he must have to support himself and his family, but that the black worker gets less than the white worker. The result is that by thus inducing, reinforcing and perpetuating racist attitudes on the part of the white workers, the present-day power-masters get the political support of the rank-and-file of the white workers in critical situations, and without having to share with them their super profits in the slightest measure…2 [emphasis added]
To this day, “The white-skin privilege for the mass is the trustee’s privilege not release from jail…” Some of the prisoners can control other prisoners but never challenge the warden.
Look at mass incarceration today. According to a Pew Research Center study 2010 US incarceration rates for white men are 678 per hundred thousand and 91 per hundred thousand for white women. The incarceration rate for black men is a staggering six times greater than white men, and almost three times higher for black women. (4,347 for Black men and 260 for Black women). Yet, white men and women are incarcerated at rates much higher than those of comparable countries.
The US rate for white male incarceration alone is far greater than every other European incarceration rate for total prisoners of all classes, races, and genders. And the Russian incarceration rate skews the statistic as it towers above every other European country at 439 per hundred thousand. The average rate for European Union members was 135 in 2006. US white women, for example, are incarcerated at higher rates than the total of all classes, races, and genders for an astounding 20 European counties.
The penal system captures the effect of white privilege in a nutshell. “You got more than the blacks don’t complain.” But so much less than justice, freedom, or democracy would demand. Yet our relative privilege allowed us to consent to the war on drugs and the “get tough on crime” politicians that aimed at Blacks first but who ultimately created an authoritarian police state that now aims to make even the exercise of constitutional rights a criminal act. We all lose, including losing our rights to a trial by jury that the Bill of Rights claims to protect. The new penal system also got tough on working-class whites as it garrisoned the entire country with a militarized force dedicated to protecting the established order.
The Psychic Wage
The wage harder to put a price on, and one of the most serious remaining obstacles to overcoming racism is what W.E.B Dubois, the great American thinker, called the “psychological wage.“3 The psychological or psychic wage is that highly coveted sense of personal, spiritual, and moral superiority we are taught to derive from our skin color.
This psychic wage is collected, in part, by an imaginary connection with whites of high status. White privilege creates vertical solidarity that connects working-class whites to the power and glory of the rich, strong, and celebrated white elites, even though our overall political and economic interests are shared by working-class people of color. White workers are exploited by the boss and sent to die in their wars daily. Our privilege gives us the delusion that we are not who we truly are.
James Baldwin, the black writer, and visionary, put it this way:
[A]s long as white Americans take refuge in their whiteness—for so long as they are unable to walk out of this most monstrous of traps—they will allow millions of people to be slaughtered in their name, and will be manipulated into and surrender themselves to what they will think of—and justify—as a racial war. They will never, so long as their whiteness puts so sinister a distance between themselves and their own experience and the experience of others, feel themselves sufficiently human, sufficiently worthwhile, to become responsible for themselves, their leaders, their country, their children, or their fate. They will perish…in their delusions. And this is happening, needless to say, already, all around us….But the American delusion is not only that their brothers all are white but that the whites are all their brothers. [emphasis added]
Whiteness and privilege distance us from our “own experience and the experience of others.” You may feel connected to a Trump or a Clinton or an Obama or aspire to become a general or a billionaire, but to them we are but chumps and pawns.
Solidarity — Horizontal or Vertical?
Yes, it is the privileges whites have that disrupt horizontal solidarity, but when those bribes are eroded, even partially, by debt, poverty, the long term decline of wages, poor health, drug addiction, and hopelessness, their hypnotic power weakens. Young whites in particular have come to see the transparent truth that the system is rigged against them, and perhaps above all, that the scientific forecast of life on our planet is so poisoned and precarious that no amount of privilege will save them.
These changes in consciousness are signs that we might again cross into revolutionary territory. The unending recession of 2008 has forced whites to choose. Cling ever harder to the psychological wage, hate, and white supremacy, or join the movements toward social reform, revolution, resistance, and love.
In a broader sense, it is the corporate power that is creating a crisis in privilege as a form of social control. If the corporate state can no longer allow any meaningful improvements in the lives of everyday people — and impose only austerity and growing poverty — we can expect that both the Democrats and Republicans will increasingly turn to the psychological wage as the remaining form of compensation, bribe, and appeal. In different ways perhaps, Trump, Clinton, and Obama have nonetheless resorted to the vertical solidarity of nationalism and/or corporate forms of political identity to block the political space that should be occupied by struggles over economic democracy, equality, ecology, and peace.
The vertical solidarity of white privilege should make us very wary of other forms of vertical solidarity that have been a typical tool of the elites. Tokenism and machine politics establish a political and spiritual connection when people identify with the managers of war and empire because they share the same gender, sexuality, color, class or national origins. The degree to which there was uncritical feminist support of Clinton —and many feminists did oppose Clinton — is the measure of how psychic wages can operate to protect the existing order. The unfounded belief by some liberals that Obama is a civil rights leader — and many in the new civil rights movement do criticize Obama — shows the degree to which the vertical solidarity that has so damaged white people, and the social movements, will have a similar effect if offered to others, even those historically exploited and oppressed by the established order.5
Privilege, vertical solidarity, and the psychic wage remain potent means of maintaining social control at home and empire abroad. In the same way white privilege blinds white people to their own invented identity and the depth of racism, imperial privilege blinds all of us to the ongoing imperial project with its constant bloodletting and profit-making that has become our way of life.
Our best move is to take on the most deeply entrenched form of privilege: white privilege. For that, we need to organize the white working class.
It’s Not Academic.
Debates continue over Allen’s assertion that the white race and white privilege was invented as a conscious and deliberate act of the oligarchs. Was it that, or the general outcome of the historical conditions of the time? The key argument for activists, however, is that white racism is not itself innate and therefore can be changed. History is made by human action. Sometimes human acts are conscious, even conspiratorial. Other times we contribute to change through a multitude of human decisions; local and global, visionary, and parochial.
But the political world is not an academic debate. It is up to us to prove that white racism is not innate in white people and that racism can be changed by activism.
- The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight against White Supremacy p 8-9
- Ted Allen, Can White
WorkersRadicals be Radicalized p. 175
3. W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction [New York, 1935], pp. 700-701.
5. For more see Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, Chapter 3.
Fourth in the series: Organize the White Working Class!
Reclaim The Discourse on White Privilege
The idea of White privilege is an indispensable tool for teaching white people how we had been blinded and bribed into becoming the tools and fools of the elites. In 2016 it got converted into a way to demand obedience to the machine — the Democratic Party in particular — and silence working-class discontent and resistance. The not very hidden message is that the corporate order is working for 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 privileges. 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 defines 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 deep 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 the Democratic party uses of privilege and their justification for war and empire.
Radical White Workers During the Last Revolution
Fifth in the series: Organize the White Working Class! This post also appeared in Counterpunch.
White Working Class Organizing in the ‘60s and ‘70s
“Poor whites are here today…to make ourselves visible to a society whose continued existence depends on the denial of our existence. We are here today united with other races of poor people, Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans, Indians, and Black people in a common cause. That common cause is Freedom!”
Peggy Terry, The Poor People’s Convention June 1968
Yes, our common cause is freedom. The question is: how do we make that real? We will never know until we know our history. The long-lost story of anti-racist, radical white working class activism has been restored by Amy Sonnie and James Tracy in their invaluable book: Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times. Get it and read it now. The articles that follow are deeply indebted to their work.
During the 1960s and 1970s, radical activists set out to organize the white working class. They linked the pursuit of working-class interest and economic democracy with anti-racist organizing. They discovered and helped others realize, that white supremacy and racism are not a friend to white people but one of the main obstacles to fulfilling our own destiny as a free people.
The context was the last revolution. The civil rights, black power, feminist, student movements, and community organizing set the stage for working-class whites to make important contributions to the democracy movements of the time. While these efforts were initiated by various groups, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), radicalized working-class youth, and the Black Panthers, they all eventually depended on the leadership of working-class communities.
The organizers had been deeply radicalized by the social upheavals of the time. Yet, their own working-class backgrounds often placed them on the margins of the New Left. But the activists knew the white working-class had enormous untapped potential. The movement to stop the War in Vietnam, fight the bosses, and win the battle against racism needed the hard work and political vision that everyday working people could help provide. The organizers were radicals, many were communists, but virtually all were inspired by third world nationalism abroad and the Black Panthers at home.
The Emergence of White Working Class Radicalism Fits Recurring Patterns in the Social Movements of the 60’s.
“Black Power” emerged out of the civil rights campaign as an attempt to found an independent, self-reliant movement with its own sources of power, leadership, and inspiration. Black power aimed to create a mass base mobilized around a growing consciousness of African-American identity and history. To do this black power advocates first suggested, then demanded, that white activists leave what had been a multi-racial civil rights movement. The white activists, despite their best intentions, brought with them subtle forms of white supremacy that inhibited the emergence of black leadership. Black Power advocates like Stokely Carmichael wanted white radicals to “organize their own” in a strategic division of labor much in the same way Black Power was trying to organize their own people. 1
Women active in the civil rights and student movements followed a similar path. Deeply troubled by the sexism and male domination of the movements they devoted their lives to, women struck out on their own to start the modern women’s movement. They went massive by focusing on consciousness-raising efforts. In millions of conversations with each other, women discovered that the everyday personal problems they experienced were rooted in institutionalized forms of oppression they identified as patriarchy and paternalism. The personal became deeply political.
The other pattern, set by the Black Panthers, was an attempt to solve one of the enduring problems of organizing. How do organizers that aim at fundamental social change engage everyday people? Their answer was to create self-reliant, community-controlled service programs. This approach became known as “Serve the People” but was more tellingly called “Survival Pending Revolution” by the Panthers themselves. Best known for their free breakfast program for school kids, they also provided educational programs, legal and health services, programs for senior citizens, and free food for the poor of their community. And they became infamous for community self-defense against police brutality.2
The Panthers initiated an intermediate program that took evolutionary steps toward a vision of revolutionary change. The service programs were one part of bridging the gap. The other was bringing revolutionary politics within reach. One way the Panthers did this was by emphasizing universal values. “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace.” Such values need little explanation, are not open to endless debate, and are self-evident.
The Panthers also drew their revolutionary ideals closer to the people by merging staunch anti-capitalism with a transformed version of American traditions. Beneath the glamour of the black beret and intense drama of asserting their 2nd amendment rights, the Black Panthers were studied revolutionaries. Huey Newton’s book, Revolutionary Suicide remains a classic, tragic, part of American revolutionary thought.
The Panthers learned from revolutionary efforts around the world but also laid claim to the ideals of the original American revolutionary colonists applying them to blacks oppressed within the modern American empire. The last and longest part of the Black Panthers’ 10 Point Program: What We Want/What We Believe — their “major political objective” — called for black self-determination by quoting, at length, the words of the American Declaration of Independence.
However history may judge the outcome, the Panther’s model was widely influential for community organizing of the period and still shines a light we can follow if we dare.
And so it was, and so it is, with radical white working-class organizing.
In Chicago, the SDS sent college students, armed with anti-imperialist ideas and Marxist theory, into poor communities. The working class owes these students an enormous debt. The SDS provided the spark and the broader domestic and international context to the problem that workers faced. But, like women and the black power activists before them, white workers chafed under the often unconscious but still stifling cultural biases and assumptions of the student movement. The classism of affluent students limited the full potential of white working-class communities. The students had the skills, education, resources, and upbringing that allowed them to take leadership roles. Like women and black power activists, white workers eventually asked the students to stand down and set out on their own to form organizations based on their own culture and political agenda.
Next: Community organizing by Chicago’s Jobs or Income Now (JOIN) set the standard for white working-class activism.
- Hillbilly Nationalists p 27
- Hillbilly Nationalists, p 68-69
Jobs or Income Now!: JOIN and White Working Class Leadership
Sixth in the Series: Organize the White Working Class!
Yes, that is Harry Belafonte visiting JOIN in 1965. Peggy Terry is on far right.
JOIN and The Emergence of White Working Class Leadership.
Jobs or Income Now (JOIN) was a Chicago community organization started as the brainchild of the SDS’s Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP). In their view, poverty was not the result of individual failing but of political inequality. Since poverty was political, JOIN had to confront the Democratic Party political machines that controlled Chicago.
In their day-to-day work, JOIN came to follow the example of the Black Panthers by combining a service model with consciousness-raising. They provided direct assistance to the community on basic issues such as education, health, and housing while teaching about racism, class exploitation, and war.
Hillbilly Nationalists tells the story of JOIN through the life of Peggy Terry, its most visionary leader. Terry was a poor southern white woman who had been drawn into the civil rights movement as a volunteer for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Terry’s motivations were noble but at first were limited to moral politics. She viewed her work as a sacrifice to “help black folks get their freedom.”1 Terry thought she had to give up her own interests to help and could see no good from organizing poor whites.
Terry’s transition to working-class hero began at the urging of civil rights leaders. When she met Martin Luther King, he asked her about her own exploitation as a poor white woman and how other poor whites might be organized into the civil rights movement. These were things she had not considered. Monroe Sharp, Terry’s comrade in CORE, marched her into the JOIN office. “This is where you belong….You have to know who you are before you ever know who we are,” Sharp said. And so with the guidance of African American leaders, Terry turned to her own community.2
Terry already lived in a working-class neighborhood sometimes called “Hillbilly Harlem.” With JOIN, Terry made the fusion of anti-racism and class interest her work.
JOIN learned that people found the promise of jobs or income too utopian, so they began instead by listening to community members about what they saw as their most pressing needs. Imagine that! What they found led to activism around police brutality, welfare rights, tenants unions, and rent strikes. As they confronted the power of landlords and politicians, they began coalition work with Black and Latino groups. They offered public education about the ruthless Daly machine that ran Chicago. JOIN used their newspaper to address issues of international importance, including national liberation movements, the anti-war movement, and movements for women’s rights and civil rights.
As elements of the civil rights movement evolved into black power, these white workers found that “organizing your own” made sense. In fact, JOIN was one of the few organizations in the U.S. already heading down that path.
By 1967, local leaders asked SDS members and other outside volunteers to leave JOIN. “We believe the time has come for us to turn to our own people, poor and working-class whites, for direction, support, and inspiration, to organize around our own identity, our own interests.”3
But unlike the degraded forms of identity politics now used by the Democratic Party to protect the existing power structure, JOIN’s identity politics — like that of other social movements of the period — was rooted in participatory democracy and an organizing method designed to empower people and challenge power.
“No matter what background a person comes from…the role of the organizer, their primary job is to find people to whom they can pass on their abilities, their skills. The job of an organizer is to organize themselves out of a job.”4
The self-determination and self-interest of these poor white people did not imply separatism or racist white nationalism, but just the opposite. JOIN members attended the Poor People’s March and went on to claim a role for working-class whites in the struggle against racism and economic exploitation.
Terry addressed a crowd of 50,000 at the June 19, 1968, Solidarity Day rally.
“We, the poor whites of the Unites States, today demand an end to racism, for our own self interest and well being, as well as for the well being of black, brown, and red Americans, who, I repeat, are our natural allies in the struggle for real freedom and real democracy in these, OUR, Unites States of America.”5
Our common cause is freedom, and Terry showed us how to make it real.
Peggy Terry for Vice President
The final episode in the remarkable history of JOIN was its support for the candidacy of Peggy Terry to run as Vice President on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket in 1968. With Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver as Presidential candidate, they sought to take on Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey.
But for Terry, the real work was to contest the candidacy of George Wallace, the segregationist and loud-mouthed racist running for President as an independent. Terry’s audience was the working-class whites that Wallace appealed to with a potent mix of economic resentment and racial hatred. In words that could have been spoken today Terry went after Wallace:
“His “little man” appeal has won over many white workers who are tired of their union’s cooperation with big corporations. But Wallace is not the answer to their problems. He is just another kind of boss.”6
Wallace, who went on to win five southern states, had tapped into the toxic blend of racism and economic misery that has long been part of American history and American demagoguery. It is the same seam of bigotry and resentment that Trump is trying his best to mine.
The Peace and Freedom Party may not have had the funds, staff, or media coverage necessary to win, but they discovered a truth we dare not ignore. Unless the labor and social movements can create a compelling alternative to racist resentment and class exploitation, the Trumps and Wallaces of the world will find a base among the white working class. JOIN took up the long hard struggle that awaits anyone willing to change the world.
Decades later, JOIN’s history is still a useful and usable past. Organizers with the courage and stamina to engage the white working class should consider the basic insights underlying JOIN’s work as a guide to action.
- Racism is against the self-interest of the white working class.
- People of color are natural allies in the struggle for freedom and for economic democracy.
- The important task of “organizing your own,” should be guided by the ideals of participatory democracy and self-determination.
- Serve the people.
- Let the people decide what should be done and at what pace.
- Organizers can be indispensable as catalysts and facilitators but the people must provide the leadership.
- All citations from Amy Sonnie and James Tracy, Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power. p 20
The Young Patriots, The Original Rainbow Coalition and Rising Up Angry
Seventh in the Series: Organize the White Working Class!
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the social movements crossed over into revolutionary territory. The victories and the failures of the civil rights movement, massive urban rebellions, the intensification of the Vietnam War and anti-war movement, the assassination of MLK, the emergence of a new feminism, the revolt of soldiers and veterans, the stunning militance of the Stonewall rebellion and gay liberation, and the emergence of a mass environmental movement meant that people were moving toward solutions outside of the existing order.
In the white-hot heat of the time — as the movement simultaneously approached the revolutionary threshold and the deeply entrenched power of the established order — working-class whites joined with the Black Panthers and Young Lords in the original “Rainbow Coalition.” Inspired by Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Bob Lee, a group of “dislocated hillbillies” with organizing experience in JOIN’s police brutality committee founded the Young Patriots.
Modeling themselves on the Black Panthers, the Young Patriots envisioned two parallel tracks: Serve the people with local programs designed to meet the need of the community and repurpose white nationalist sentiment to revolutionary goals.
While the ideology and iconography of the Young Patriots may seem jarring by today’s cultural standards, remember the immense influence of third world nationalism on virtually all sectors of the American left of the period. The Young Patriots saw Appalachia as a kind of white homeland, an internal colony of the U.S. They adopted the rebel flag in an attempt to transform its meaning.
Imagine young white working-class revolutionaries sporting rebel flags and making common cause with the Black Panthers and Young Lords. That is exactly what happened, and that was totally badass. A meeting between Young Patriots and Black Panthers was captured in the documentary American Revolution 2.
The story of the Young Patriots so challenges liberal norms of identity politics that it virtually disappeared from historical accounts of the period until Hillbilly Nationalists retold the tale. The Young Patriots attempted something remarkable: the radical transformation of white nationalism and its symbols into the carriers of revolutionary consciousness.
“The south will rise again,” they claimed, “only this time in solidarity with our oppressed brothers and sisters.” “From historical experience, we know that the people make the meaning of a flag…This time we mean to see that the spirit of rebellion finds and smashes the real enemy rather than our brothers and sister in oppression.”
Like JOIN before them, they saw racism as opposed to the interest of the white working class. William “Preacherman” Fesperman put it this way:
“Let racism become a disease. I’m talking to the white brothers and sisters because I know what it’s done. I know what it’s done to me. I know what it does to people everyday….It’s got to stop, and we’re doing it.”
Despite their high ideals and multi-racial coalition work, the first Young Patriots were a short-lived experiment. With their teachers and allies, the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, they were the target of local and national police surveillance and repression by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. In 1969, Fred Hampton, Chicago’s best know leader of the Panthers and the Rainbow Coalition was assassinated in a pre-dawn raid. The repression worked, and precious organizing energy was consumed on defense and survival.
But if we see the Young Patriots and the original Rainbow Coalition as a failed but inspired attempt to make history — at the high watermark of the last revolution — there remains much to be learned. The struggle of the Young Patriots offers us an essential lesson: revolution requires the transformation, not rejection, of existing cultural traditions. The Young Patriots tried to transform southern white culture.
The Rainbow Coalition also transformed the integrationist strategy of the civil rights movement. “Organizing your own” did not rule out, but instead enhanced multi-racial work. The original Rainbow Coalition demanded each partner have the confidence and political independence that was only possible when each could first stand alone and strong in their own communities. Under the conditions of self-determination, a true meeting of equals became a practice not just a theory or hope.
Coalition work between distinct racial organizations was another, perhaps more practical, path to the utopian vision of the “beloved community” King envisioned for America’s future. Maybe integrated organizations underestimated the depth of racism —conscious and unconscious — and wished away racism with the shortcuts of good intentions, superficial outreach, and moral yearnings. The Rainbow Coalition based its unity on sturdier stuff: each group needed independent power as a precondition for a movement that could begin to practice political equality and mutual respect.
Rising Up Angry
Hillbilly Nationalists also tells the story of three other organizing efforts. As the Young Patriots declined a new community organization in Chicago, Rising up Angry, returned to a style more like JOIN but still informed by the radicalism of the Young Patriots.
Rising Up Angry celebrated working-class culture and placed culture and consciousness at the forefront. Influenced by the writings of James Forman, Amilcar Cabral, and others and compelled by the practical needs of day-to-day organizing, Angry knew culture mattered and sought to amplify the revolutionary tendencies within existing working-class culture.
Angry viewed gang members and streetwise “greasers” as potential allies. Angry also saw soldiers and veterans as a source of resistance and knew it made sense to honor the warrior while opposing the war. Angry help provide legal counseling for AWOL soldiers and attracted veterans to their organization. In 1972, Angry joined in a national day of coordinated actions “Armed Farces Day” and drew 3,000 to the Chicago demonstration.
Angry ran a health clinic, organized tenants’ unions, and supported abortion rights, all of which brought women and women’s issues into clearer focus as a mainstay of Angry’s work. As the women’s movement accelerated, Angry’s women took leadership roles and led consciousness-raising groups with working-class women and men.
In the pages of their newspaper and in a short film, Trick Bag, Rising Up Angry took an anti-racist message to their community. Like all the working-class projects in Hillbilly Nationalists, Angry went beyond moral politics to argue that racism against people of color weakened working-class power and was against the self-interest and psychological well-being of white workers. And Angry did not turn away from physical confrontations with the hard-core racists.
Angry combined radical, anti-racist, feminist, and working-class identities and interests in a single organization without getting bogged down in an endless debate about the “agent of history” or the “primary contradiction.” And they avoided, or at least blunted, the kind of debilitating internal division and splits that chase people away.
Rising Up Angry practiced an early form of what we now call “intersectionality.” But instead of simply seeing how people are divided into distinct sections, they learned that the lines of power that divided people were also paths of resistance along which determined activists could push back. Class was the central organizing principle for Angry’s work, but even the communists who contributed so much to Angry learned that class consciousness would flourish best if not grasped too tightly.
Class rarely stands naked. Instead, it is clothed in culture and perceived with the complex and contradictory states of mind that are the hallmarks of human consciousness.
*In addition to the account presented in Hillbilly Nationalist a well-argued and well-documented article by Patrick King offers a short history of the Young Patriots.
- All citations are from Amy Sonnie and James Tracy, Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times, 74
Community Organizing in Philly and New York
Eight in the series: Organize the White Working Class!
In Hillbilly Nationalists, James Tracy and Amy Sonnie shows the hidden depths of working class resistance and organizing. The pathbreaking work of Chicago’s white workers in JOIN, The Young Patriots and Rising Up Angry, was soon followed by similar organizing projects in Philadelphia and New York.
October 4th Organization (O4O)
O4O looked to Philly’s revolutionary past for inspiration. On October 4, 1779, rioters broke into food and clothing warehouses to redistribute supplies hoarded by businessmen intent on driving up prices. O4O called for jobs or income and pressured the political machines to give working class communities their fair share of city resources.
The ‘70s were hard times for many American cities including Philadelphia. Too often, white workers retreat to the comforts of white supremacy and racial resentment as compensation for economic misery and stress. O4O provided an alternative to racism with a one-two punch: community and workplace organizing.
Their opponent was a rising star of the New Right: Mayor Frank Rizzo. Rizzo had climbed out of the ranks of the police department and marshaled the insecurities and resentments of Italians, Irish, Poles, and Greeks to scapegoat their conditions on the city’s growing black population.
O4O accepted the white ethnic identity of its community but tried to repurpose it with narratives of resistance, finding examples in European or immigrant history as well as in the rich labor history of interracial solidarity in Philly’s once-booming garment industry.
As with most white working class activism, class was the point of contact, but issues of racism were close behind. The cutting edge of the class/race mix was a unifying issue: police brutality. When a young white man was killed by police without indictment or consequences, organizing began in earnest. The campaign against police brutality stressed common ground with communities of color and mounting spirited demonstrations, some of which were suppressed with violent police attacks on peaceful protesters. The O4O launched the “People’s Bail Project,” an educational effort that reached out to the community with information about their rights with respect to police and the penal system. 1
While there is much to learn from each episode of organizing chronicled by Sonnie and Tracy, O4O is remarkable for its attempt to bridge the gap between community and workplace. O4O was based in Kensington, an old industrialized town known for its poverty and mean streets. O4O members organized in their own workplaces, supported strikes, demonstrated at the unemployed office, reaching directly to the rank and file. By working the border between workplace and community, O4O broadened the horizon of working class resistance. O4O also offered a class analysis of the economic crisis that unions too often failed to deliver. Workplace/community organizing was the best counterpunch to Rizzo’s thinly veiled racist campaign to enlist the support of white workers in his nasty crackdown on hippie-radicals, Black Panthers, and other threats to the social order.
White Lightning used the direct service model combined with anti-racist, anti-war, and radical politics characteristic of other white working class efforts inspired by the Black Panthers. Based in the Bronx, White Lightning matched community self-help for drug addicts with opposition to the so-called war on drugs, which they rightly understood as a war on the poor.
Like O4O, White Lightning faced the rise of the early new right. In Philly, it was conservative Democrat Rizzo. In New York, it was liberal Republican Nelson D. Rockefeller and his campaign to ramp up incarceration as the answer to drugs.
We now know that the Nixon administration secretly used the war on drugs for political purposes. They wanted a method, acceptable to the political center, that would target the black community and hippies as a flank attack on the civil rights movement and the new left.
White Lightning’s focus on beating drug addiction, providing legal assistance, and fighting for decent housing took them into otherwise conservative neighborhoods. Rather than repeating the New Left’s easy condemnation of white racism, they engaged it. By pushing the direct interest of whites and offering alternative white identities rooted in political resistance, White Lighting hoped to build a bridge to struggling communities of color. That bridge was already under construction. White Lightning worked in coalition with black and latino organizations around health care services for the Bronx including a long and successful struggle to remake Lincoln Hospital from “the butcher shop” into a modern medical facility. 2
While these efforts met with partial success at best, they point a possible way forward for organizers of the working class: multi-racial, multi-sectoral coalition building on one hand and long term organizing among white workers on the other. That is a daunting task, but who said this would be easy.
Trump’s election and the Democratic collapse shows that the liberal shame and blame, hollowed out identity politics, inverted privilege arguments, and general condescension toward working people is a miserable failure unless your aim is to preserve the existing order. Needless to say, White Lightning organizers were not Democratic Party liberals but revolutionaries that challenged power.
Attack Trump we must. But, to do that best, we should follow the lead of our ancestors: White Lighting, O4O, Standing Up Angry, Young Patriots and JOIN. Let’s create compelling and viable alternatives to white identity, austerity, and corporate power, or the right-wing will. Organizing is the only way.
Real revolutionaries always contest turf and never abandon their people.
- Hillbilly Nationalists, 142
- Hillbilly Nationalists, 153
Whiteness Won’t be Wished Away
Ninth in the series. Also at CounterPunch
White Workers Have Double Consciousness
White workers have at least a dual identity — we are both workers and white. The history of white working class community organizing as told by Amy Sonnie and James Tracy in Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times suggests that on-the-ground organizing requires us to engage white identity. We will not succeed in “organizing our own” unless we reckon with the whole person as they actually live and think.
In most radical working class or marxist thinking, class is the primary factor cutting across all other positions such as race, gender, sexuality, or empire. In this view, class is not really an identity but a relation to production, that is to say an objective fact waiting to be discovered as science discovers nature. This approach imagines workers as economic beings that should react rationally to their class interest, if only explained or experienced in just the right way.
I do not dismiss the important work done by socialists or others in addressing race issues. Instead I hope to reflect on history and enrich organizing method and strategy for anyone aiming to confront the way that race and class are tangled and intertwined. Most socialist groups today do highlight the struggles of women, gays and lesbians, blacks and latinx people and embrace “intersectionality” but organized around class as the “primary contradiction.”
The liberal Democratic Party version does the opposite. Class more or less disappears from liberal conceptions of intersectionality and identity. If the Democrats were to put class into the mix, then it might lead to a kind of identity politics subversive of the two-party system itself. Once class is invisible, poor whites become objects of immense condescension; deplorable failures with no excuse other than their own stupidity and laziness. After all, we enjoyed all the privileges but are still losers. Right?
The history in Hillbilly Nationalists suggest a different approach. Class does cut deep sure enough, just not all the way to the bone. JOIN and Young Patriots and Rising Up Angry appeal to white workers not simply as workers but also as “dislocated hillbillies.” O4O and White Lightning tapped into the rich reservoir of European and immigrant labor history. Music, breaking bread, hanging out at the pool hall, street gangs, even the pop culture identities of “greasers” carried class consciousness for those who know how to translate one language into another.
Organizers face a long and winding road. We travel back and forth between class and cultural identity. That road turns around race every bit as much as class. For white workers, class interest will lead the way to other things. But, race is so deeply a part how class works in the U.S. that it is impossible to separate the two.
People of color, gays and lesbians, sexually minorities, the young, soldiers and veterans, environmentalists — whatever their class background — may find ideas other than class more inspiring and other roads more compelling. And, there is lots of evidence to suggest that there is a transformative core to the ideals behind every social movement. Each vantage point is as equally indispensable to the revolutionary project as is class consciousness. We must use all the means — all the forms of consciousness — at our disposal.
There is nothing more important than finding what Peggy Terry called “our natural allies in the struggle for real freedom and real democracy.” We can begin by seeking unity without uniformity and honoring the path each person takes to political life.
Once we shift our vantage point, even partially, from abstract analysis to on-the-ground activism, culture and consciousness come to the foreground and cannot be denied. When we take up the revolutionary act of taking to strangers, we find pretty quickly that there is no uncomplicated point of engagement. It’s rarely class interest pure and simple. All the deep contradictions of our culture and history govern the organizing encounter.
To dismiss white identity is to take our eyes off one of the main obstacles preventing working people from building the power we need to transform America into a democracy free of war and corporate power.
Waves of Revolution, Waves of Whiteness
In American history our revolutionary traditions have been kept in check and elite rule restored by wave after wave of white identity politics.
As Ted Allen taught, the white race and racism, invented in tandem, were the reaction to a peoples’ uprising that was both multiracial and cross-class. During Bacon’s rebellion, people of African and European descent — united by a shared experience of servitude and hard labor — joined forces and occupied Jamestown the capital of Virginia colony. With the help of free but landless people and a few small land owners, they rose-up against slavery. After the elites crushed the rebellion, the white race was invented and the solidarity on which revolution depends was crushed as well.
After 1776 — when the ideal of equality was at least put on the agenda of history — whiteness and slavery betrayed the promise. We lost the chance again in the 19th Century when millions of Irish — fleeing their own horrible oppression — migrated to the new republic but wasted their fighting spirit. Our ancestors sold their class struggles short by settling for whiteness as their meal ticket and assimilation into the “white mans country” they newly called home.
After the revolutionary phase of the Civil War and Reconstruction destroyed slavery and challenged white supremacy, Jim Crow and Klan terror once again restored white identity as the permit that granted political participation. In the end even the mighty Populists succumbed to racial division.
The transformative revolution of the mid-twentieth century destroyed Jim Crow’s legal segregation and challenged empire. For the first time in our history anti-racist ideas gained acceptance by millions of white people. But in the following decades a vast militarized penal system — operating under cover of crime fighting and colorblindness — targeted people of color, reinventing Jim Crow and slavery.
Trump now openly invites us back to white indentity by scapegoating immigrants, blacks, latinos, natives and women to divert our attention from the real culprits: empire, corporate power and mass incarceration.
Whiteness Won’t Be Wished Away
We have a daunting history no doubt but we have had our revolutions and we shall have another. For now there is deep discontent among white workers. The corporations with their insatiable drive for power and profits, the empire with its multiple and endless wars, the two-party system with its frauds and fakers and a labor movement too often timid, too often hobbled by blind obedience to the machine, have led us to down the road to political and environmental disaster. It is time for white workers to rise up.
For organizing purposes — and that is the only purpose that really matters — class should be engaged as both a relation to production and a form of identity. And engage we must because the Republicans, KKK, and fascists clearly understand that white identity exists.
Ignore white identity and we surrender that ground to the right. Organize white identity around class issues and anti-racist action and we step closer to the day when whiteness itself will be overcome. All the wishes in the world will not make whiteness go away, it must be transformed through the hard work of raising consciousness and raising hell.
The job of the organizer is to help white people discover that our self-interest is undermined by our own racism. If you want working class rebellion, then work on racism. If you want racial justice, then work on class exploitation.
If we can transform ourselves we can change the world. Listen to the words of the great civil rights anthem sung by the great working class hero Bruce Springsteen:
The only thing we did was right
Was the day we started to fight
Keep your eyes on the prize
1 Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White
2 W.E.B. Dubois, Black Reconstruction in America
3 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
Tenth in the Series: Organize the White Working Class! This article also appeared in CounterPunch.
The white working class is ready. Are you?
The 2016 Democratic primary gives us a way of assessing the potential for organizing among white workers. This may sound surprising since the corporate media created a narrative about how white workers supported Trump in the general election. But clear-eyed observers such as Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr, Mike Davis, Bill Fletcher, Jeffrey St.Clair and Jake Johnston have countered that story.
It was the Democrats that abandoned the working class with Trump merely holding on to the Romney electorate as Clinton underperformed Obama in almost every demographic including white workers. The corporate story about white workers in the general election obscures a far more important story for activists and organizers. In order to reverse the drift toward war and corporate rule, we will have to launch bold and aggressive campaigns that replace the discredited corporate forms of identity politics and meritocratic thinking typical of the Democrats.
The Clinton machine tried to assemble an unconvincing coalition, bringing working people and urban professionals together to support a fundamentally corporate and imperial agenda. This project failed, and will fail again, but that failure can open the door to grassroots democracy. The Sanders campaign strongly suggests that victory is possible. If activists and dissident political movements can offer visionary leadership and mount determined organizing drives then millions of white workers will join the movements for social justice and economic democracy.
While an overall analysis of the primary or general election is beyond the scope of this article, we can learn a good bit by looking at “Greater Appalachia.” By this I mean the region of the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to northern Alabama. I realize this is not the typical way of describing Appalachia.
Greater Appalachia is however appropriate for assessing the political potential of the white working class because this region is demographically far whiter than the rest of the country, solidly working class, and ethnically more Scots-Irish.
Southern Appalachia is a region of stubborn poverty. Central Pennsylvania, Upstate New York and New England, outside of the metropolitan areas, have, like the rest of the country, never recovered from the 2008 crisis. These areas are also distant from the urban political machines which have long histories of producing votes for machine politicians.
The electoral map of the 2016 Primary in the New York Times captures the general trends. From northern Alabama to Maine, it shows that Sanders was very competitive where he did not win outright. Where Clinton did win, it was by narrow margins. It is reasonable to assume that had the DNC not rigged the primary for Clinton or the media not presented Clinton as the “presumptive nominee” or elevated Trump with billions in free publicity, Sanders would have done far better. Sanders voters in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York voted later in the primary season persisting in their dissent long after the narratives of Clinton’s “inevitably” were widely circulated by party elites and corporate media.
Clinton did worse and Sanders better in the Appalachian region of every state.
“The Democratic primary exhibited an even starker division between each state’s Appalachian and non-Appalachian regions. While Clinton won every state except West Virginia, she performed worse in every state’s Appalachian region and Sanders easily won Appalachian Kentucky and North Carolina. Sanders also came very close to victory in Appalachian Maryland, Ohio, and Virginia despite Clinton easily winning the remainders of those states. Clinton won by a comfortable margin in southern Appalachia outside of North Carolina, but still performed dramatically worse than in the rest of those states.”
If we move north, we see support for Sanders in the rural upland regions of Central Pennsylvania and Upstate New York.
While the definition of Appalachian Pennsylvania is unclear, the core of the majority white working class mountain region that follows the ridges of the Appalachian chain in central Pennsylvania voted for Sanders. In three of the central state mountain counties where Clinton does win – Fulton, Bedford and Union – the machine wins by razor thin majorities. “Sanders, for his part, performed strongly in the rural parts of the state, winning rural voters 50-48 and carrying Central Pennsylvania 50-49.”
In upstate New York, Sanders wins all but three counties. In the Catskills, just outside of suburban NYC, Sanders wins Sullivan Country 56.1 to 43.9, Ulster County 62.6 to 37.4 and Dutchess County 51.5 to 48.4.
As a general indication of class consciousness, in NY, “Clinton won voters who said Wall Street does more to help the economy, Sanders won among those who said it hurts the economy.”
It is interesting to note that many counties in New York flipped from voting for Obama in the 2008 general to Trump in 2016. Fourteen NY state counties flipped from voting for Obama twice to voting for Trump. Was this a sign of bigotry unleashed by Trump? Or was it the deep disappointment in Clinton, who, as former Senator from New York, had failed to keep her promise of jobs and economic development? Or both? We need more evidence.
Sanders went from strength to strength in New England, where he took three of four counties in Western Massachusetts and won all of Vermont, all of New Hampshire, and all of Maine.
The story is not just that Bernie would have won, although all the polls agree. The story is that win or lose, the Sanders campaign shows us what might be. And that assessment is positive enough to encourage anti-racist, union, community organizing, anti-war and environmental movement building among the white working class.
Young Workers of America Unite!
Young workers face the economic crisis head on. If the Sanders campaign is any measure, then young white workers and young workers from all backgrounds are fired up and ready for change.
Organizers, listen up!
- Young Women Voted Differently than Older Women
Young women (ages 17-29) who participated in the Democratic Super Tuesday primaries favored Sanders 57% over Clinton 41%.
- In North Carolina, almost three-quarters (72%) of Democratic youth supported Sanders.
- In Missouri, Sanders received overwhelming youth support at 78%.
- Young Ohio voters supported Sanders 81% to 19%.
- Young people in the West Virginia continued to support Sanders far more than the presumptive Democratic nominee. Young voters, ages 17-29, favored Sanders 70% to 25%.
- In Maryland, Sanders received 68% of youth support.
- In Michigan, young voters went for 81% for Sanders. “Michigan mirrored early majority-white states where Sanders received extremely strong support from young people.”
- New York “Overall Sanders won among voters age 18-29 in the Empire State, capturing 65% of this demographic.”
- In Pennsylvania, Sanders swept younger voters with a stunning 83-17. These numbers are so lopsided we can say with confidence that Sanders did well with young white workers.
- Young Democrats Want More Liberal Policies and an Honest Nominee On Super Tuesday, 44% percent of young Democratic primary voters, compared to 28% Democratic voters of all ages, wanted to see more liberal policies rather than a continuation of Obama’s policies. White youth were the most likely to choose this answer….Finally, young Democratic primary voters were more likely (32%) than other age groups to name Income Inequality as the most important issue facing the nation, though “Jobs and Economy” continues to be their top priority (41%). [emphasis added]
In the 20 states for which we have data, nearly 2 million young people have voted for Senator Sanders, almost three times more youth votes than any other candidate in either party….More youth have voted for Senator Sanders than for Clinton and Trump combined.
Since I am using electoral data as a general indicator of what is possible, the white working class, the young white working class in particular, is ready for change.
The corporate order — in all of its extremism and excess — is in decline and disarray whether managed by an Obama, a Clinton or a Trump. Corporate politics can only offer more of the same: perpetual war and global empire, mass incarceration and mass surveillance and the hollowing out of all of our once democratic institutions from elections, to unions, to the Bill of Rights, to education. The crazy corporate crusade to pillage the planet and impose inequality and austerity cannot be sustained.
Things fall apart; the extreme center cannot hold.
As the white working class — and the whole working class — becomes increasingly unmoored from its tethers, some will soar and some will crash. But as the great organizer Ella Baker said: “Give light and the people will find a way.”
- I make no pretense at offering a comprehensive analysis of the complex historical trends, cultural characteristics, and demographics that make up the either the traditional core of Appalachia, lying south of the Mason-Dixon line, or the northern upland regions of Pennsylvania, New York, and New England.
- The Daily Kos article cited above uses a broader definition of Appalachian Pennsylvania much more favorable to Clinton.
- Apologies to Yeats, The Second Coming