Privileging White Skin: Monetizing the Class Struggle with Chelsea Handler

My wife and I watched a new Netflix documentary, “Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea” on a day Pres. Trump retweeted words that his ouster via impeachment would spur a civil war. In her 64-minute documentary, Chelsea Handler interviews whites about their skin-color privilege, with a running commentary on the winners and losers of whiteness.

She speaks with Orange County, Calif. GOPster women. One wants to move past the economics and politics of skin color issues. The past is past.

A white rapper with a rap sheet from Tennessee is politically conscious of white-skin privilege. He speaks about this process from his experience in the so-called criminal justice system. Hell, yes.

Handler’s commentary is informative, in the way that personal experiences can be. Her sharing of teen encounters with the police is revealing. She went free. In contrast, her black boyfriend with whom she visits a quarter-century later gets 14 years in prison. He is one of the 2.3 million Americans behind bars, disproportionately black and brown, as Ava DuVernay shows in 13th, her 2016 documentary about the U.S prison-industrial system. The U.S. is five percent of the world population and locks up 25 percent of the planet’s prisoners, disproportionately black and brown Americans.

As some of Handler’s interviewees show, white-skin privilege means they have a blind spot to the perils of living while black and brown, e.g., subject to police and vigilante violence for reasons of poverty and skin color 24/7. The perpetrators of these injustices go free generally, thanks to their overwhelming power to maim and murder. This is the rule in a society that legitimates the rule of law to perpetuate white-skin privilege. “Law, especially criminal law, is deeply embedded in this white-mind framework,” writes Zillah Eisenstein in Abolitionist Socialist Feminism: Radicalizing the Next Revolution (Monthly Review Press, 2019).

Race however is not always and everywhere a skin-color issue. Handler ignores this. We should not. Why? This can help to show us how race is a social construct.

Handler’s ancestors changed from nonwhite to white, racially speaking. For example, Handler’s and my Jewish ancestors set foot in America as nonwhite folks. They faced discrimination in ways big and small. They were an inferior race to the so-called elite race of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Those racial relations changed. Jews whitened when policies such as Social Security excluded agricultural and domestic workers, largely brown and black Americans. Handler’s family like mine benefitted from access to Federal Home Administration-backed mortgages that excluded black and brown Americans. In this way, generational wealth flowed away from racial minorities and to whites. The U.S.’s widening wealth gap has a history.

White supremacy and its history of a chattel labor system birthed racial capitalism. Its sustaining power in part comes from white-skin privilege, “the public and psychological wage” of whiteness, according to W.E.B. DuBois.

However, we, socially, should not rely upon a celebrity such as Handler with capital from Condé Nast Entertainment, a transnational corporation, which is investing in the Internet, to attack white-skin privilege. In brief, return on that investment is the force behind the production and distribution of Handler’s documentary. It is a commodity to grow the wealth of investors. Apparently, we have arrived at a point that a documentary about white-skin privilege in America is a business opportunity. The social reality of this phenomenon reveals many things. One is the disarray that besets the U.S. working class.

It has been stronger in the battle for peace and social justice. For example, the 1960s’ anti-war, and black and brown movements, created their own facts on the ground against the Vietnam War and Jim Crow segregation. People lost their jobs and lives in this struggle. Its power, culturally and more, moved millions progressively and as a result spurred a corporate counteroffensive against New Deal and Great Society programs and policies.

Handler’s new documentary is a case of monetizing social struggle. This is a sign of what the late economist Samir Amin called “decadent capitalism.” We can and must do better.

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email