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Is “White Skin Privilege” the Key to Understanding Racism?

Capitalism is in a slow, grinding crisis, and has been for some time. Its main victim continues to be the multi-racial working class, that vast majority of the world’s people who own nothing except their ability to work. It is against this background that the latest corporate-owned media discussions of race and racism are taking place.

On the right (Rush Limbaugh, Fox News etc.), little effort is made by pundits and prominent politicians to distance themselves from their openly racist followers. At the same time, they try to sell the idea that racism is really a thing of the past, arguing that if there are inequalities, it is the fault of the victims themselves and not the systemic lack of opportunities. Those most victimized are blamed for their personal failings or those of their families. If a broader indictment is made, it is called a failure of “their culture.”

In the clearest indication of how far our public discourse has moved to the right, on what poses as “the left” of our corporate media (such as MSNBC), there is the usual outrage about the latest racist statement from someone like Donald Sterling, owner of the LA Clippers. But like their right-wing “opponents,” talk of racism is generally disconnected from any discussion of history, economic conditions, and especially class.

Instead of providing a context for understanding present-day racism by at least mentioning the continuing poverty and institutionalized discrimination that have persisted for more than a century of post Civil War history, the “left” media shifts the focus onto “white skin privilege.” Any assessment of the role played by big capital’s control of our economy is rarely made. Discussion of the benefits capitalists derive from continued racism is, of course, completely off limits. One of the goals of big business — from plantation owners who organized the KKK in the post-bellum South, to the huge monopolies of today — was and is a docile, cheap labor force. And a major tool for achieving this has been to keep workers divided by insuring that racist ideas were consistently and widely disseminated. If overt racism is less prominent today, its legacy of suspicion, hostility and division is still present and continues in the form of covert appeals to race used by the Republican Party since Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” The Republican Party today may be home to many more overt racists like Cliven Bundy. I believe, however, that the idea of “white skin privilege” emanating from the generally pro-Democratic so-called “left” of the corporate media, as an explanation for the persistence of racism in fact leaves its real function unexplained, while spotlighting instead another divisive difference.

Is there in fact such a thing as “white skin privilege”? If so, in what does it consist? For answers, these questions require at least the sketching of a fuller historical context, which I set out below. Current discussion of “white skin privilege” generally ignores the importance of class in understanding past history and present conditions. The focus is kept instead on “race,” a concept with a long history of being used to divide people with the same class interests, pitting one against another based on superficial skin coloring and ignoring their actual positions in our society and economy. Anti-black racism is, of course, not the only idea used in this way. Anti-immigrant propaganda also aims to divide and pit one group of working people against another, as does sexism. Nor is it uncommon these days to find promoted in our corporate media the idea that what an older generation of workers has managed to win in struggle, like Social Security or Medicare, comes at the expense of the following generation. The reader can no doubt think of many more ways in which “mainstream” media seek to divide people; it seems to be their primary job.

Arguments over which group is the most victimized are worse than useless; they promote divisions that damage workers’ efforts to organize in their own interests. I don’t doubt that this is why the right has recently begun to pitch the idea in the media that somehow fundamentalist Christians and homophobes are suffering discrimination. That said, it seems obvious that no other group in the post-World War II US has suffered as much from the deeply rooted, long term endemic racism in our society as black Americans. The current manifestations clearly testify to this fact on an almost daily basis. Obviously other people of color in the US have been subjected to harsh treatment at the hands of the United States government, the army, the police, and sometimes elements of the majority white population organized as vigilantes. Native Americans were massacred and their lands taken from them; Mexicans in the Southwest after the Mexican War also lost control of the lands on which they lived. And the post-Civil War American working class, made up of a variety of immigrants, seemed ready-made for divisions when joined by the influx of white Americans already long indoctrinated with racist ideology at the end of the 19th century. To the German and Irish immigrants in the 1840’s, the Chinese brought in to build the Central Pacific railroad, Japanese on the West Coast, Jews and Italians in the East, were added native-born whites driven off their small farms in large numbers by depressed economic conditions. Racism denied industrial jobs to black workers for many years, except for a few given work in the lowest paid menial positions. I have no space to go into all this here. Consult any decent American history textbook, such as the two-volume work Who Built America? Suffice to say that the primary systemic function of racism in all of these cases was to keep “different” working people from coming together in any kind of political organizations that could challenge capitalist power.

Let’s make clear who continues to benefit from these divisions. The growth rate of the world economy has been slowing since the late ‘sixties; manufacturing jobs have been disappearing overseas; and the never-ending quest for profits has shifted from actually making things, to the so-called FIRE sector: finance, insurance, real estate. The economy (read corporate profits) now depends on getting people into debt, and creating “bubbles,” inflated values in such areas as housing that led to the mortgage backed securities fiasco which collapsed the housing market and eliminated some 13 trillion dollars in value overnight. And instead of reflating the economy by spending to put people back to work and restore their purchasing power, the government gave the big banks responsible for the collapse trillions of taxpayer dollars. The corporate-owned media that provides the populace with its “information” has been unable to ignore the resulting sharp inequalities, though any sustained discussion of the reasons behind this have of course been ignored or grotesquely distorted.

The US government today is firmly in the grip of the largest financial and energy interests in the country, regardless of which party is in power. The vast majority of the people in the world who must find work in order to go on living, and are forced to sell themselves on labor markets controlled by the big money players, face a bleak future, especially in the global South. Here in the US, our corporate masters play the game with statistics, trying to convince the public that the employment picture is getting better by systematically leaving out the large numbers of those who have given up looking for work. The name of the game for big business is “austerity” — not for them, of course, but for workers everywhere, employed or otherwise. In the US, corporate capital has waged a long-term battle to dismantle workers’ unions, won in a century of struggle. They have been helped by the big capital’s shipping overseas of manufacturing jobs that were highly unionized, as well as the systematic defunding of those agencies of the government tasked with the oversight of collective bargaining – the National Labor Relations Board is in the back pockets of big business. This process arguably began with the post-World War II anti-labor Taft-Harley Act, and picked up steam at the start of the eighties under Ronald Reagan, whose breaking of the Air Traffic Controllers’ union sent the signal that big business, after being on the defensive through the sixties and early seventies, was firmly back in the saddle. High unemployment and the threat of moving jobs overseas pitted workers, already divided by race and increasingly unorganized, against one another for fewer jobs, thus insuring that wages would not rise to cut into corporate profits. Any government spending, however modest, that might help workers or create jobs was attacked, but never the spending that benefits big business such as agricultural subsidies, oil depletion allowances, or the always-increasing budget for the military-industrial complex. Corporate taxes have been kept low (or in some cases non-existent) while the tax burden has been shifted onto small businesses and workers. The latest move of our pro-capitalist Supreme Court has been to eliminate any restrictions on big money in politics. These are the policies of the Republican Party and its leaders like Paul Ryan, which the Democrats have had almost no success in opposing, and little will to do so.

Is the Democratic Party any kind of alternative? It poses as the “friend” of the “middle class” (a buzzword that obscures the anti-working class nature of all of these policies since “we are all middle class in America”), while doing little to protect workers from big capital’s assault. How can the Dems seriously oppose big business when it is the source of most of their campaign money? It was the Democratic Leadership Council that decided that the strategy for the party should be to embrace big business. Bill Clinton sponsored the harsh welfare “reforms” that right-wing Republicans had been clamoring for. He also embraced their on-going push for “de-regulation” by repealing the Depression-era Glass-Steagal Act. This opened the door to the bank abuses that caused the collapse of the economy in 2007-8. In 2008, when Barack Obama won by a solid majority vote and the Dems had a majority in both Houses of Congress, they might have pushed for higher taxes on the rich. They might have re-regulated or even nationalized the big banks. They could have proposed a jobs spending bill paid for by even modestly increasing the taxes on the very wealthy. They might then have successfully sponsored a bill to raise the minimum wage. All of this would have helped to restore demand in the economy. Instead they chose to put their efforts into the Affordable Care Act. Its passage handed the insurance companies new crops of enrollees and a new source of revenue. And it gave the Republicans a target that allowed them to recapture the House in 2010. This pro-insurance legislation was in lieu of a single-payer, Medicare-for-all universal health care program that every other developed country in the world has for its people. These health care programs operate at half the cost of the US’s corporate dominated, profit driven system.

Furthermore, Obama has continued the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush: the failed war in Afghanistan, NSA spying, the Guantanamo concentration camp, drone strikes. Now the latest US imperialist machinations in Ukraine have enabled the far-right, neo-Nazi elements in a bid to detach the region from its long, historic connection to Russia. Behind this is the US goal of tightening NATO’s grip around Russia in a new “cordon sanitaire” that seeks to insure that Russia does not emerge again to challenge the US’s bid for global hegemony. This in turn has raised the specter of a war with a nuclear-armed state that should be alarming to every sane person. From the Democrats we get “progressive” rhetoric and reactionary actions. I’m old enough to remember when Lyndon Johnson ran as the “peace candidate,” then went on to escalate the disastrous Vietnam War.

All of these latest corporate profit-driven moves, abetted or disguised by a supine media and political sideshow, threaten the livelihoods, opportunities, and lives of workers here and everywhere. Our big business rulers represent only a tiny minority of our population. The short lifespan of Occupy Wall Street, before massive police repression brought them to an end, at least left us with a convenient label for this all-too-powerful “one percent” of the population, though the real core of monopolists is even smaller. Nevertheless, this oligarchy rules over us by controlling the economy. Their political lackeys call them “the job creators”, but of course never hold them responsible when their “free market” fails, workers are laid off and jobs disappear! We are now in a new Gilded Age, but with even more unambiguous plutocratic control of the institutions of the state, the police powers, and the major outlets for disseminating information/propaganda – the mass media and the educational system. The United States is a wholly owned subsidiary of big business power.

There should be no underestimating the scope of this power – nor of the danger it poses to the lives and livelihoods of the vast majority of the world’s people. But if those who are most victimized by this are to have any hope of protecting themselves from the conditions created, literally, by the day-to-day operations of capitalism in the endless quest for private profits throughout the world, they need to understand where the possibilities of countervailing power lie. Ruling class power has only ever been successfully opposed with the broadest and most inclusively organized mass movement, and understanding the role racism plays in interfering with this is of vital importance for the multi-racial working class.

Such understanding will not be easily achieved for the reasons I just outlined: especially media monopolization. People are angry about the suffering and injustice in their lives, but when they turn to the media for answers, they are more likely to find the angry right-wing talking heads ranting about the government and minorities, on talk radio and Fox News, and almost daily on the rest of the TV news shows. What passes for the “left” in corporate media, when it comes to “race”, is not much better: racism is officially deplored, but “whites” as an undifferentiated category, are encouraged to see themselves as “privileged” vis-à-vis “blacks,” who, it is implied in all this, are somehow a threat to that privilege. Rarely is it pointed out that examples of “white skin privilege” are almost all from the capitalist class. Instead, the effort is made to deflect black anger at an unjust system onto whites in general.

And how do white workers react to this? It’s hard to sell “white skin privilege” to those white unemployed workers seen in almost every community holding signs that say“ will work for food!” The unsurprising reaction by white workers to being called “privileged” is simply to point out that they work hard and earn what they have. It is as if the corporate media “left” were serving up bloopers for the right to hit out of the park with their false racist meme that black people have failed to earn their way, due to laziness and government handouts. So that from either end of the media spectrum we get a divisive message that avoids like the plague any discussion of class interests and class solidarity, and never transcends the bogus category of “race,” but instead continues the corporate strategy of subtly promoting racial division.

There are few alternatives. This is not the place for a long discussion of how rulers have used ideas to rule (backed, of course, by repressive state and police power). Suffice to say that as conditions deteriorate, they increasingly seek to divide, mislead, and recruit people to follow their leadership. Historically, fascism arose from the failures of capitalism that led to the Great Depression. Listen to how Mussolini described it: “Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.” It attacked and destroyed workers’ organizations, promoted racist scapegoating, and preached a hyper-nationalism. These days it is a constant threat looming in the background of our own society. It is gaining strength in places like the Ukraine where anti-Russian, anti-Semitic neo-Nazis have played a prominent and violent role in support of the US-backed pro-West regime there. France’s neo-fascist anti-immigrant National Front is another current example. This party seeks to rally the “French” people to keep out immigrants who are scapegoated for the economic problems created by capitalism. And we can update this today for the US just by looking at the candidacy of Donald Trump! In general, fascism takes advantage of a long history of racism and anti-Semitism to deflect anger from the powerful onto the weakest and often most vulnerable people in society in a way that pits one group of working people against another.

This has been the main function of racism. Does “white skin privilege” make any contribution to explaining racism, or is it another facet of the divisive ideology of race? I strongly believe that it is the latter, but the idea did not fall from the sky. Given the history of slavery and its aftermath, and the long struggle in the US for equality before the law for black people, and the continuing disparate treatment of blacks and whites, “white skin privilege” provides an easy focal point for those who do not want to confront the powerful facts of class oppression and exploitation. To do so would, of course, entail developing a critique and an oppositional strategy to confront the concentrated power of big capital. It is easier, safer, and less of a challenge to power to suggest that what is at the root of racism in society is “white skin privilege.”

What, after all, can be done about this? What in fact are the privileges that whites as whites and not as members of the capitalist class, have? The only “privilege” that I can see is that, generally speaking, they have not been treated like black people in our history. But is this a privilege?

The Civil Rights Movement of the ‘fifties and ‘sixties fought to end the Jim Crow regime in the South and to establish equal citizenship rights for blacks, especially the right to vote. Brown vs. the Board of Education laid out the legal basis for an attempt to equalize education for blacks and whites, and Martin Luther King spoke out for an integrated, color-blind society. With the exception of ending Jim Crow, and for a time, opening a few opportunities for blacks, I would say that the other goals of the movement have failed. We are not an integrated society; large numbers of blacks are still ghettoized, and in these ghettos the police act like an occupying army. Our prisons are disproportionately filled with young black men. More jobs may have opened for blacks in the sixties but by the mid-seventies these manufacturing jobs were disappearing. Yes, we have a small number of black people in prominent positions throughout our society, and even a black president. Nevertheless, working class black people continue to be the last to be hired and the first laid off or fired. Unemployment among black youth is at depression levels right now and has been for some time. The black majority is systematically kept in poverty while being publicly blamed and shamed for this, even by Barack Obama. (If this is not an argument for the necessity of seeing these issues in class, rather than “race” terms, what is?) And politically, there is a concerted effort to deny black people voting rights in a number of states.

Is it a “privilege” that the white working class has not been subjected to all of this? Are white people immune to the lack of jobs, lay-offs, and declining educational opportunities? As the so-called “social safety net” is shredded, along with protections that were won by workers of all “races” in struggles against capital that stretch across our common history, are the majority of whites exempt? Were working class whites immune to the draft during the Vietnam War? Will they be able to avoid it if it is brought back to deal with a confrontation with Russia?

The idea of “white skin privilege” simply accepts the status quo and tries to make white workers feel that any gains made by workers of color will be at their expense, which is a complete historical lie. And as the failures of capitalism continue to erode the life-chances of all workers, should we be fighting one another over the few remaining bones thrown to us by our masters? We need to know who our enemy really is. For whites it is definitely not our fellow workers of color, nor are we in fact being asked to give up some kind of privilege (except by the bought talking heads of the corporate media).

We are up against a powerful class of people that we do not stand a chance against if we allow “the narcissism of small differences” (Freud) to continue dividing us. In our own interests, to protect ourselves from further suffering, we must recognize people who are basically in the same boat as we are, but who have endured even greater exploitation and injustice. Given this latter fact, people of color can also offer the most experienced leadership in fighting back against our corporate rulers. It will not be easy, but we need to work towards forging a multi-racial working class unity that can confront the power of big business. It’s an uphill fight but I believe we have to begin by being clear about what is and what is not going to be a workable strategy against racism.

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Chuck Churchill is a retired lecturer in history. He taught at Cal State Chico and Oregon State University.

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