White privilege

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Joined: 1-11-11
Jan 6 2012 01:20


article by lorenzo komboa ervin
& x 2 quotes from it

In speaking about any class issues in the United States, an understanding of white supremacy and economic inequality must go hand-in-hand. Most white "radicals" want to neatly put "race issues" over in one neat category, and then "class issues" in another. We'll call this "vulgar radicalism" because it is totally not based on any social or political understanding of the problem. The US working class has never been monolithic, there has always been a dual tier economy of poor oppressed workers of color on the bottom, and better paid and treated whites standing on top of and benefitting from their misery. I don't just mean the bosses either, as many so-called "radicals" like to claim, when they talk mythically about some so-called "aristocracy of labor."
It is funny how in the United States, most whites have an obliterated consciousness when it comes to racism, they see it as an adjunct to something else, whether economic theory or religious dogma. The questions of internal power dynamic (of which racism is a part) are reduced to a group of Wall Street economic overlords or owners of industry, to which we are all *equally* disposed and exploited. Again, any economic analysis cannot be based on the white European experience alone, rather than the United States America as a nation-state. To me, this is part of where they always go wrong...using mechanical analysis to explain everything.

but what does it mean to engage with the fact that whatever the origins of the word it is now being used by people both in the UK and the US who arn't in any of the life situations you describe. language has its own life that can start in one place and become popular and widely used and change its meaning and associations in its course.

the uk obviously has a predominantly white ruling class and white power hierarchy and white people as a social grouping predominantly experience manifold material advantages in comparision to the majority of people of colour resident in the UK - what succinct way/s can this be referred to or described in?

Nate's picture
Joined: 16-12-05
Jan 10 2012 00:54

I haven't had time to read this whole thread but wanted to comment on this real quick.

soyonstout wrote:
That the whole "white privilege" discourse primarily discusses racial histories within the US (and loses coherence rapidly when transplanted to other climes to explain racial oppression) belies it's nature as a basically bourgeois-democratic nationalist ideology. It seems to have grown up among an academic class of democratists for the purpose of diverting any kind of a class response to institutionalized racism (which is a far better way of describing how the ruling class in different nations divide up the exploited than any notion of a "privilege" for some of the exploited) into guilt-based politics for the purposes of sidelining the class issue (for both whites and non-whites).

I have reservations about some of the white privilege talk but this is historically inaccurate. To the best of my knowledge the white privilege stuff in the US has its roots in writing by Theodore Allen and later Noel Ignatin. Allen wasn't an academic at least now when he was doing that writing, I don't know what he later did. Likewise for Ignatin, the key writing he did on in it was as a member of the Sojourner Truth Organization and not while working as an academic, and STO in general had a lot to say on all this. He later became an academic (real name Noel Ignatiev), but there seems to me to be little differences between the views developed in the STO days. So the academic thing seems like a red herring here and doesn't speak to the substance of this analysis or its shortcomings.

soyonstout wrote:
The working class fighting for itself as the working class has generally had an interest in eliminating great differences in how easily its members are exploited (demands of this sort serving the dual purpose of eliciting solidarity and deterring strike-breakers and/or general downward pressure on wages) (...) the experiences of discrimination felt by a class with no country that has been emigrating for work and/or forced into penal labor for engaging in various survival-based criminality for as long as its existed) helps that happen.

Okay, then when is a struggle a struggle of the working class fighting for itself? And when do those interests assert themselves in a causal way? It seems to me that smaller struggles of workers (struggles smaller than the sum total of the working class) often have interests that are contradictory including interests that can be bad for other workers. I think there's as much evidence of working class people preserving divisions and hierarchies in the working class historically as there is evidence of working class people breaking them down. So it seems to me that we can't just leave it to a general interest working class people have as working class people. The white skin privilege stuff is an effort to understand some ways that some of the time some working class people have played roles in preserving capitalism and preserving the even-more-subordinated roles of other sections of the working class within capitalism. Whatever its shortcomings it seems to me pretty undeniable that this happens sometimes and is a problem that it's worth trying to explain and respond to.

Edit: I've now skimmed most of the thread. I take the points about the actual practice of a lot of white privilege talk being a problem. Totally. Some times it's just like white people sittign around talking about their whiteness. I think one possible difference between the versions of white privilege analysis I know of and the idea of structural racism is that the privilege analysis claims that the privileged group have some interest in and act to uphold divisions in the working class - that they help uphold the structural racism and in doing so help uphold capitalism. The STO version of this is pretty clear I think that doing so is not in their class interests, but that people have multiple and contradictory interests.I think there's stuff worth arguing with or rejecting in some of the specfic writing within the privilege analysis stuff, but the basic point I think is pretty hard to reject and this is compatible a marxist idea about how capitalism operates/persists (and the Allen and Ignatin versions of this white privilege stuff was marxist). The working class plays more than one role in capitalism. The working class is also variable capital, the source of capitalists' wealth. The working class makes and reproduces capitalism. Under compulsion for sure but different kinds of compulsion and sometimes people experience it as something they chose (buying a gift at a shop is returning your wages into circulation, for instance).

syndicalistcat's picture
Joined: 2-11-06
Jan 11 2012 02:00
That the whole "white privilege" discourse primarily discusses racial histories within the US (and loses coherence rapidly when transplanted to other climes to explain racial oppression) belies it's nature as a basically bourgeois-democratic nationalist ideology.

this is not correct. as nate points out, the phrase "white skin privilege" was originated by Ted Allen, in "The Invention of the White Race." He was referring to a system of disadvantages to people of African ancestry, extended to other disfavored groups, initially American Indians, and then extended to others later.

as nate points out, Allen was writing within a Marxist framework and his work has been made use of by other Marxists...see for example the use David McNally made of it in "Another World is Possible."

I think "privilege" was not the right word. It doesn't have the right connotations, and has been abused in various ways. People born into "privilege" refers to wealthy people, people in the dominating classes. Period. bell hooks in her book on class recognizes this for example. She treats "privilege" as a class word.

Nonetheless, what Allen was referring to was the beginning of a practice that I would call "racializing": treating groups of people as inferior "races" to justify worse treatement. the persistence of such practices in the USA doesn't even require a conscious or overt racism.

this pattern began in a particular context. the British elite were unique in that their form of colonization and plunder and exploitation in America was based on very large scale enslavement of Europeans. No other European colonial power did this to any significant degree. Most of the Europeans who came to America before American independence came as "bond-servants" but as Daniel Defoe said in the early 1700s, "more properly called slaves." They could be bought and sold, were regularly whipped, were not paid wages, could be killed or raped with virtual impunity. In the 1600s it was very common for European and African "bond-servants" to hand out together and cooperate in resistance such as running away together, and also they entered into sexual relationships, had Euro-Afro children. the colonial elite were already worried about this by the 1660s. in 1676 their worst nightmare happened: a mass armed uprising that aimed to overthrow the government of Virginia and spread to the nearby colony of Maryland. 15,000 laboring class people, free and slave, participated. The core were 6,000 white bond-servants and 2,000 black counterparts. They held their own assemblies and, like the New Model Army in the 1640s, developed their own program, they demanded an end to servitude and abolition of property qualifications for voting.

So the colonial elite were confronted with a massive labor control problem. Their solution was to invent or concoct a separate legal and social status for people of African ancestry. A whole series of laws were passed to implement this, and various efforts were made to try to convince whites they were just "trying to protect white labor." Their hope was to get the Euro-American laborers to look with disfavor on their black counterparts. At the time the English treatment of the Irish in the long wars of conquest there were sort of a template, in that they argued the Africans were from an "uncivilized" land, just as they had argued that the Irish were "savages" and "uncivilized", to justify seizing their lands and subjugating them.

Now, the problem is that the pattern of "racializing" groups....treating them as inferior, as subject to more scrutiny, unfavorable treatment...has persisted to this day in the USA.

Other countries have not had quite the same history as the USA so it should be no surprise that political debates and arguments that have swirled around the American racial scheme are perceived as not quite fitting other countries....even if there are similarities.

Consider for example the War on Drugs. this arose in the USA, was concocted, not for rational reasons related to dangers of drugs, but as part of a racist backlash against the ghetto rebellions and black freedom struggles of the '60s. The War on Drugs in practice means that police departments focus on black and Latino communities, even tho drug use is just as high among whites. And prosecutors use notoriously harsher treatment towards non-white defendants. So you end up with massive imprisonment of black and brown men, mostly for minor drug offenses.

The War on Drugs is not explicitly formulated in race language because this is not acceptable in polite circles in the USA nowadays. So as a result white working class men get trapped too...there has been an increase of 8 percent in imprisonment of white working class men. But it is mainly targeted in practice at black and Latino people.

The police routinely use racial profiling in doing stops for example, and this is part of the reason for the imprisonment disparities. So, if you're white your chances of being mistreated by the police in this way are less. Black and Latino working class people have more of a disadvantage than you do.

I think it is an abuse of language to call this a "privilege." but the disparity is real.

From a class organizing point of view, historically in the USA the racialist practices have made it harder to get white and black and brown workers together. It is a key reason for the lower level of class consciousness and lower level of socialist consciousness in the USA historically. It's not the only reason, but it is one reason.

Rats's picture
Joined: 9-05-08
Jan 14 2012 04:14

I've always understood the notion to be of a rather international character, as well as one that plays out on smaller levels within one particular country/economy.