“Their (the poor whites) own position, vis-a-vis the rich and powerful . . . was not improved, but weakened, by the white-skin privilege system.”
“The ‘white race’ is the historically most general form of ‘class collaboration.”
– Theodor W. Allen *
The Time Is Ripe To Protest. The Time Is Ripe To Organize.
At no time since the ’60s has social upheaval and activism created so many opportunities to oppose racism. It is time to engage each other 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.
The uprising against police violence is history in the making. Why? Because the people are on the move. No movement can succeed without unleashing the creative energies of the millions.
While many questions remain, the big one for the long game: What is the relationship between organizing and protest?
Reflecting on the failures of the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King said:
“Yet in candor and self-criticism it is necessary to acknowledge that the torturous job of organizing solidly and simultaneously in thousands of places was not a feature of our work….Many civil rights organizations were born as specialists in agitation and dramatic projects; they attracted massive sympathy and support; but they did not assemble and unify the support for new stages of struggle.”
Can we build long-lasting organizations to carry on the struggle and spirit of the most important popular uprising in recent history?
Resistance To The Vast Militarized Penal System
Like many times in our past, Black people have led the way.
In the midst of the pandemic, the great 2020 uprising has revealed deep systematic dysfunction and crisis. Can we seize this opportunity to engage white people in questions of power, race, class, and empire? Start with the facts.
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 is an effective form of social control.
The system controls through 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, and predatory fine, fee, and debt traps.
The penal system’s gigantic sweep and size constitute nothing short of a preemptive war against the most potentially rebellious parts of the population: the young, people of color, the poor. The movement for social change and equality will fail unless we confront the vast militarized penal system. It controls us all black and brown and white.
The Uprising is a Challenge
Can white activists confront white racism at a time of intense class conflict? The never-ending recession of 2008 has intensified wealth inequality across the board with the upward redistribution of wealth falling hardest on people of color but hitting whites too. Good full-time jobs are going and they are not coming back.
The pandemic resulted in mass unemployment and mass misery. The pandemic bailouts of corporate America — passed by a unanimous Congress — reinforced ruling class power, made inequality far worse and gave the elites cover to attack us all by doubling down on austerity.
There is a widespread understanding that the economy and political system are rigged. One of the main rigs is the class line: corporate power is the government now. Once the insatiable demand for power and profit drive government, representative democracy can no longer deliver significant economic benefits to everyday people.
The Uprising, Standing Rock, Occupy, the Sanders campaign, the resistance to Trump, and other events have revealed the discontent of millions of white people and our willingness to stand up. We have the capacity to help 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, and 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 have long been the primary means by which racism has divided the working-class.
The idea of privilege does not mean we are not exploited by the bosses, killed by cops, unjustly imprisoned, or used as cannon fodder — we are ruthlessly exploited in many ways — but because of our class not our skin color.
Those white privileges are a hidden 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 privileges have been so deeply entrenched for so long they often seem to be neutral measures of merit, at least to white people. How do we shine a light on this blindspot?
Action is the best way to reveal the truth. Systematic racism is historic and collective and cannot be wished away by simply having better attitudes, being born to progressive parents, or being “nice” to people of color. You can’t just give it up except through joining the social movements for change and organizing at the point of privilege. White organizers and activists who challenge the system have taken the first crucial step in transforming white privilege into class solidarity. Many organizing projects await. We can expect no easy victories.
Organize Our Own?
As the ’60s revolution came up against the wall of 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 the 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” is not a call to white separatism, but a way to lay the basis for authentic coalition movements in which working-class whites see their own destiny bound up with that of black and brown people.
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.
It was true back then and it is true today.
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, and are, making real contributions in multi-racial organizations and movements. 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. We can start with the strategic implications from 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) See Chapter 8, Sara Evans, Personal Politics. “Women of the New Left” cited by Evans p. 200.
2) Malcolm X, By Any Means Necessary, 58.