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If we want to organize the white working class to oppose both racism and our own exploitation then the concept of white privilege is indispensable. White people have been blinded and bribed into becoming the tools and fools of the elites. The corporate Democrats continued that game when they converted the idea of white privilege into a way to demand obedience to the machine and silence working class discontent. The not very hidden message of the Democrats is that the corporate order is working to the advantage of white workers. Period. Try organizing with that rap. How do we talk to white people about white privilege? Start by reclaiming the discourse.
Start with the fact that the white working class is in fact ruthlessly exploited but by virtue of our class — or even our gender, age, sexuality or military status — but not because of our race. White people are also victims of mass incarceration. Black men in the US are six times more likely to be in prison than white men. That is white privilege. Yet, white men are five time 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. 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.
Are Privileges Earned or Unearned?
The liberals define privilege as unearned benefits or unfair advantages, but its logic only holds within the meritocratic view of our economy. 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 new slogan of the Democrats “Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages” still insists that economy is driven by individual competition. 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 that wealth is distributed according to collective political power not individual merit. Merit 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. 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.
Real benefits for the people are won in struggle not earned by hard work. And it is white privilege and the outcome of systemic racism 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, an essential story-line 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. But, because we are poor and getting poorer, the white working class tends to be either invisible or unworthy to those confident that the US is exceptional. We fly in the face of the cherished myth.
The liberal version of white privilege appears to take on racism but fails because it props up the existing order by limiting our understanding of the deeply historical and structural nature of racism, white supremacy and class exploitation.
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 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 organizers.
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”.
1/ I use “duty to protect’ and “humanitarian” to highlight the underlying similarity between Democratic Party’s uses of privilege, and their justification for war and empire.