White Skin Privilege
White privilege is a thing. It’s just not the same thing the corporate Democrats use to boss us around with. The concept of white privilege was not invented by some liberal university professors. In fact, the concept of white privilege was invented by a white man: a radical activist and historian who never went to college.
Writing for the John Brown Commemoration Committee in 1965, Theodore Allen innovated the discourse on white skin privilege. Then in 1967 he co-authored “White Blindspot” and in 1969 published “Can White
Workers Radicals Be Radicalized?”
According to Jeffrey B. Perry,
Allen’s work influenced the Students for a Democratic Society and sectors of the “new left” and it paved the way for the “white privilege,” “race as social construct,” and “whiteness studies” academic fields.1
In our deep past, white privileges were granted by a “presumption of liberty” to whites that were simultaneously denied Blacks.
We can track that presumption of liberty straight to the great 2020 uprising against police violence. We are all supposed to enjoy the “presumption of innocence” but that is systematically denied Natives, Blacks, other people of color, poor people, and those that do not conform to gender or sexual norms. On-the-spot executions deprive people of color the right to be “innocent until proven guilty” and to enjoy the equal protection of the law. As “guilty until proven innocent” became the new normal it affected everyone including the white working class.
Unlike liberal interpretations of white privilege used to quiet dissent, Allen’s understanding was that white privileges are contrary to the long-term political and material interest of white people. The benefits, bribes, and appeals to white people do have a real value, which is one reason they work, but that value is far less than the value that would be produced by class solidarity and cross-racial action to raise wages, win political power and establish justice.
In 1969 Allen wrote:
The white-skin privileges of the masses of the white workers do not permit them nor their children to escape into the ranks of the propertied classes. In the South, where the white-skin privilege has always been most emphasized and formal, the white workers have fared worse than white workers in the rest of the country. The white-skin privilege for the mass is the trustee’s privilege, not release from jail, merely freedom of movement within it and a diet more nearly adequate. It is not that the ordinary white worker gets more than he must have to support himself and his family, but that the black worker gets less than the white worker. The result is that by thus inducing, reinforcing and perpetuating racist attitudes on the part of the white workers, the present-day power-masters get the political support of the rank-and-file of the white workers in critical situations, and without having to share with them their super profits in the slightest measure…2 [emphasis added]
To this day, “The white-skin privilege for the mass is the trustee’s privilege not release from jail…” Some of the prisoners can control other prisoners but never challenge the warden.
Allen’s reference to prison is not just a metaphor. Look at mass incarceration today. According to a Pew Research Center study 2010 US incarceration rates for white men are 678 per hundred thousand and 91 per hundred thousand for white women. The incarceration rate for black men is a staggering six times greater than white men, and almost three times higher than for black women. (4,347 for Black men and 260 for Black women). Yet, white men and women are incarcerated at rates much higher than those of comparable countries.
The US rate for white male incarceration alone is far greater than every other European incarceration rate for total prisoners of all classes, races, and genders. And the Russian incarceration rate skews the statistic as it towers above every other European country at 439 per hundred thousand. The average rate for the European Union was 135 in 2006. US white women, for example, are incarcerated at higher rates than the total of all classes, races and genders of 20 European counties.
The penal system captures the effect of white privilege in a nutshell. “You got more than the Blacks don’t complain.” But so much less than justice, freedom or democracy would demand.
Yet our relative privilege allowed whites to consent to the war on drugs and vote for “get tough on crime” politicians like Joe Biden. They aimed at Blacks first but ultimately created a police state that punishes protest with violence and aims to make the exercise of constitutional rights a criminal act. We all lose, including losing our rights to a trial by jury that the Bill of Rights claims to protect. The new penal system also got tough on working-class whites as it garrisoned the entire country with a militarized force dedicated to protecting the established order.
The Psychic Wage
The privilege harder to put a price on, and one of the most serious remaining obstacles to overcoming racism is what W.E.B Dubois called the “psychological wage.“3 The psychological or psychic wage is that highly coveted sense of personal, spiritual, and moral superiority we are taught to derive from our skin color.
This psychic wage is collected, in part, by an imaginary connection with whites of high status. White privilege creates vertical solidarity that connects working-class whites to the power and glory of the rich, strong, and celebrated white elites, even though our overall political and economic interests are shared by working-class people of color. White workers are exploited by the boss and sent to die in their wars daily. Our privilege gives us the delusion that we are not who we truly are.
James Baldwin, the black writer, and visionary, put it this way:
[A]s long as white Americans take refuge in their whiteness—for so long as they are unable to walk out of this most monstrous of traps—they will allow millions of people to be slaughtered in their name, and will be manipulated into and surrender themselves to what they will think of—and justify—as a racial war. They will never, so long as their whiteness puts so sinister a distance between themselves and their own experience and the experience of others, feel themselves sufficiently human, sufficiently worthwhile, to become responsible for themselves, their leaders, their country, their children, or their fate. They will perish…in their delusions. And this is happening, needless to say, already, all around us….But the American delusion is not only that their brothers all are white but that the whites are all their brothers. [emphasis added]
Whiteness and privilege distance us from our “own experience and the experience of others.” You may feel connected to a Trump or a Clinton for an Obama, or aspire to become a general or a billionaire, but to them we are but chumps and pawns.
Horizontal or Vertical Solidarity? Class Solidarity or Class Collaboration?
Yes, it is the privileges whites have that disrupt horizontal solidarity, but when those bribes are eroded, even partially, by debt, poverty, the long term decline of wages, poor health, drug addiction, and hopelessness, their hypnotic power weakens. Young whites in particular have come to see the transparent truth that the system is rigged against them. Perhaps most of all, that the forecast of life on our planet is so poisoned and precarious that no amount of privilege will save them.
The fact that tens of thousands of white people — often from small towns — have joined the Uprising is evidence that the white privilege system is weakening.
These changes in consciousness are signs that we might again cross into revolutionary territory. The unending recession of 2008 has forced whites to choose. Cling ever harder to the psychological wage, hate, and white supremacy, or join the movements toward social reform, revolution, resistance, and love.
In a broader sense, it is the corporate power that is creating a crisis in privilege as a form of social control. If the corporate state can no longer allow any meaningful improvements in the lives of everyday people — and impose only austerity and growing poverty — we can expect that both the Democrats and Republicans will increasingly turn to the psychological wage as the remaining form of compensation, bribe, and appeal. In different ways perhaps, Trump, Clinton and Obama have nonetheless resorted to the vertical solidarity of nationalism and/or corporate forms of political identity to block the political space that should be occupied by struggles over economic democracy, equality, ecology, and peace.
The vertical solidarity of white privilege should make us very wary of other forms of vertical solidarity that have been a typical tool of the elites. Tokenism and machine politics establish a political and spiritual connection when people identify with the managers of war and empire because they share the same gender, sexuality, color, class, or national origins. 5
Privilege, vertical solidarity, and the psychic wage remain potent means of maintaining social control at home and empire abroad. In the same way white privilege blinds white people to their own invented identity and the depth of racism, imperial privilege blinds all of us to the ongoing imperial project with its constant bloodletting and profit-making that has become our way of life.
Our best move is to take on the most deeply entrenched form of privilege: white privilege. For that, we need to organize the white working class.
It’s Not Academic.
Debates continue over Allen’s assertion that the white race and white privilege was invented as a conscious and deliberate act of the oligarchs. Was it that, or the general outcome of the historical conditions of the time? The key argument for activists, however, is that white racism is not itself innate and therefore can be changed. History is made by human action. Sometimes human acts are conscious, even conspiratorial. Other times we contribute to change through a multitude of human decisions; local and global, visionary, and parochial.
But the political world is not an academic debate. It is up to us to prove that white racism is not innate in white people and that racism can be changed by activism.
2/Ted Allen, Can White
Workers Radicals be Radicalized p. 175
3/ W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction [New York, 1935], pp. 700-701.
5/ For more see Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, Chapter 3.