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“ . . . 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 1960s 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, have 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 privileges 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 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 others 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. Check out the visionary work of Showing Up for Racial Justice for a recent example of white working class organizing. 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
1 Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter To Black Liberation, 27 and 28.
2 See Chapter 8, Sara Evans, Personal Politics. “Women of the New Left” cited by Evans p. 200.
3 Malcolm X, By Any Means Necessary, 58.