By Shawn Ewald
A reply to "A Question of Privilege"
This is actually something worth discussing, problem is, both sides only have it half right. To clarify, the two sides are those who take the "heirarchy of oppression" view and those, like the author below, who take the "while it's true some people are more oppressed than others squabling over who's more oppressed is not going to get us anywhere"...etc. Actually, I should say that these are the two viewpionts that are the closest to actually being contructive viewpoints, as there are other viewpoints on racism besides these which I'd rather not go into.
The thing is, most working-class and poor whites are indeed oppressed but most of them are also racist -- this is the real stumbling block between the two above mentioned views meeting somewhere in the middle. Among the most honest people who hold these two viewpoints you can get agreement that the statement "most working-class and poor whites are indeed oppressed but most of them are also racist" is 100% true. However, niether side wants to do anything about this, they want to sweep one part or the other of that statement under the rug.
The fact of poor white oppression and the fact of poor white racism is why I totally disagree with Lorenzo Komboa Ervin -- it's not impoverished blacks that will determine whether we have a revolution in this county, it's impoverished whites. What is or is not done about impoverished whites and poor white racism is what will determine whether we have revolution or fascism in this country. I'm not talking about poor whites "leading" the revolution or being the "vangaurd" (which is how Lorenzo sees the role of impoverished blacks), I'm talking about whether poor and working class whites will participate in a revolution or wether they will be the footsoldiers for reaction and the destruction of any possibility for revolution at all.
This just doesn't go for revolutionaries it goes for reformists too, it also just doesn't go for the US, it goes for all of North America and all of Europe and Australia. The whole of the left ignores or shuns the problem of the white poor and working class at their peril.
The situation of poor and working-class whites is an object lesson in the principle that most people tend to take the path of least resistance. The situation of poor and working-class whites is this: They are being fucked and most of them know it and many of them partially have the correct idea about *who* is actually fucking them, however, they also are willing to accept that people of color are either partly or *totally* responsible for their situation. Why? Because it's fucking easy. It is easier to beat up on a black man than it is to beat up on capitalism. It is easier to lynch a person of color than it is to actually *do* something about your own situation. Nevermind lynching and beating, it is easier to simply hate other people who are in the same situation as you (like a drowning rat taking other rats down in a vain attempt to save itself) than hate, in anything other than an impotent way, the system that is actually responsible for your own situation.
I grew up in this kind of environment. I grew up in highly racist poor white or mostly white neighborhoods and there is nothing to romanticize about these people (there is absolutely *nothing* romantic about being poor, regardless of your skin color, in itself, by the way) but I do have a great deal of sympathy for these people because I understand them to some degree.
Most of my childhood friends are either dead, been in and out of prison, or fried their brains on drugs. In terms of shallow material success, I've done very well for myself, all by myself. I'm light years away from the way I lived growing up. I'm now undeniably middle class, yet I haven't forgotten where I started. I wanted get away from that environment for most of my life and now I want to understand it, because I think it's very important that it is understood.
In order to put and end to poor white racism, you have to understand the situation of poor whites. You do not learn how a gun works by inspecting bullet holes, you inspect the gun. The gun metaphor is very appropriate for poor white racism, because poor white racism is a mindless weapon. Someone else is pulling the trigger.
Let's start by taking a look at something obvious, Nazi recuitment of white working class youth. I never knew anyone who was a Nazi bonehead when I was a kid, but I did know people who were in general sympathetic to Nazi groups. What kept them from becoming complete sympathizers was that the Nazis were "too extreme", they hated *everybody*, whereas the sympathizer "just hated blacks", for example. Why? Because they lived near black people and saw them as a threat. This kind of attitude is typical. Although people who are racists are in reality universally racist, there are nonetheless gradations to their bigotry and there are often only one or two racial or ethnic groups that they will openly admit to being bigoted against, and those groups are, almost without exception, groups that the racist sees as being a direct threat to thier way of life or well being. This sense of a threat has nothing to do with the geographical proximity of the hated group(s) to the hater, by the way, though it does often play a role.
This kind of racism is unique from the garden variety racism that is typical of ,say, the middle class or upper classes (i.e. the kind of racism that has at least the potential to be remedied by the kind of therapy group work that people like Chris Crass devote all their time to). Garden variety racism comes from a presumed, mostly unconscious sense of superiority, which is reenforced by the dominant culture, of course. Even certain kinds of "anti-racism" are really just manifestations of this garden variety racism (i.e. "I'm such a big- hearted white boy for 'helping' those poor people of color"). However, the kind of racism I'm talking about is an active, often obsessive, *assertion* of superiority stemming from an acute sense of powerlessness. It's the kind of racism that built the third reich, it's the kind of racism that is the glue that holds this system in place.
Nazi groups in particular have what would seem to be an extremely palatable message to offer poor whites: 1) racism and 2) a kind of pseudo- socialism. So, why aren't there literally *millions* of Nazis right now? They have put *one thousand times* more effort into organizing in poor and working class white communities than the entire left combined, yet have little to show for it. I assure you its not the pseudo-socialistic aspects of Nazism that poor whites object to, it is in fact the racism, specifically the *universal* racism of the Nazis. In an incredibly bizarre (but no less valuable) sense, the fact that poor white people won't join the Nazis because they "too racist" can be looked at as a sign of hope. It is also a demonstration that racism is not some "uncurable disease". It is not natural, it has clear causes and fairly clear remedies.
Just as avoiding the issue of racism is a cop out, making semi-mystical claims that racism is an uncurable disease that we may never be rid of, is also a cop out, it allows people to relinquish their responisbility for stoping it, it also allows people in the white left to shirk the hard, ugly, unpleasant, and often unrewarding work of *really* trying to put an end to racism amongst white people in general.
Racism, like rape, is fundamentally about power. Poor white racism is both a conscious and an unconscious false expression of power by a powerless group over an even more powerless group. Can we all agree on that much?
Now let's take a look at how anti-racism is actually dealt with by the white left in general (not just by so-called radicals) and let me give you the perceptions of poor whites on left anti-racism from my own experience. Throughout the white left -- be it ARA or your local peace and justice center or even liberal politicians -- dealing with racism has historically been about dealing with racism's symptoms (even when it actually has dealt with its causes). The image of pissing against the wind comes to mind when I think of the anti-racism work of the white left.
The greatest advances for people of color in this country have come through their own efforts, both through reformism and through revolutionary activity, and not really through anything the white left did. The white left has indeed played a supporting role to the struggles of people of color and many have laid their lives on the line in support of the struggles of people of color. However, one of the most crucial roles that the white left should have played all along is ending racism among whites. Please note that I said *ending* racism, not fighting it. Fighting racism is what the white left does best, in fact, when it comes to racism fighting racism is about all the white left does -- and all it will ever do if something doesn't change.
The gains that people of color have made for themselves are actually gains that benefit *everyone*, yet this fact has been lost on poor and working class whites. I think the blame for this can be laid at the feet of the white left in general. In order to have a lasting end to racism and any hope for revolutionary change you have to take a two prong strategy of 1) supporting the struggles of people of color and 2) doing anti-racist education among white people.
The first part of this strategy is where the white left has done its best work (in fact, it's where its done any work at all). As for the second part of this strategy, not only has the white left not done much in the area of anti-racist education among whites, it has actually *shunned* poor and working class whites because of thier racism. The fact that many poor whites view themselves as being "abandoned" by the *entire left*, the fact that many poor whites think the *entire left* does nothing for them should be a great cause for concern if we are serious about *ending racism* and making revolutionary change.
When I talk about anti-racist education, I am not talking about activist therapy groups -- it is important that activists deal with thier own racism and sexism, however, it is worse than useless if you do not take what you've learned out into the *real world*. I'm sorry, but people who devote their time exclusively to this are engaging in "cake work" -- its easy to deal with these issues when the people you're dealing with are already more than willing to meet you half-way. An anti-racist, anti- sexist subculture is still a subculture. When you're changing the minds of apolitical white working class racists, then we'll be getting somewhere.
But the view that the left has abandoned poor whites is a view held by real flesh and blood people. It may not be a view we like to hear or even care about, but it will not just go away and you should care about it. What is the white left going to do to change that view? What is the white left going to do about making white people in general understand that the struggles of people of color are tied up with thier own struggles?
The real reason why white leftists don't want to deal with poor white racism is because it's a class thing. The left in general is predominantly middle class and the white left specifically is most certainly middle class. Even most of those in the white left who come from working class origins end up adopting the middle class values of the left in general. From my obeservations of attending activist anti-racism workshops I see people of the same class talking amongst themselves and when there is a presence of poor and working class whites in the group, the typical response is to "shout down the prole". This is not exactly what I'd term "education". Education is partly about showing people where and why they are mistaken in what they believe, not simply enforcing a particular viewpoint on people through intimidation and peer pressure, which makes us no better than Nazi recuiters.
Because the white left is largely middle class we end up with the spectacle of white suburban ARA youth fighting white working class skinheads. We have the oddity of having white activists dealing with thier own racism, or insisting that "everyone is oppressed", but refusing to organize in poor white communities because those communities are racist and sexist. Some people understand the value of doing anti-racism work in white communities but they also know that to organize in those comunities is just too fucking hard and takes *real* work, and middle class white leftists have no ability to engage these people on a level that poor whites can relate to, it is much easier to steer clear of this work and navel gaze -- talk about taking the path of least resistance!
I found a good demonstration of this dynamic while attending the recent anarchist bookfair in Montreal. Two friends of mine wish to move up to Montreal from upstate New York and live in the small city of Verdun (which is on the outskirts of Montreal) and do political work there. Verdun is a predominantly white working class town, it has a high incidence of domestic violence and tends toward the reactionary "Partie Quebecois" wing of the Quebecois self-determination movement. It seems that the activist community in Montreal do not want to touch Verdun with a ten foot pole and many have expressed surprise that my friends whould want to actually live there or do activist work there.
The point being made was essentially: "we want to stop racism, patriarchy, and nationalism, but those backwards white trash creeps in Verdun can go rot in hell". This totally counterproductive attitude is not at all unique to Montreal, this attitude is a real problem on the left throughout North America.
Ironically, probably the best anti-racism workshop I've ever attended happened at the bookfair that day. It was conducted by people of color, including the recently released Jaggi Singh, and after some initial comments from the panel, the workshop changed into a very interesting group discussion amongst a multiracial audience.
One of the points raised in this workshop is one that is often raised: white people need to do anti-racism work among white people. The difference, this time, in the expression of this message was the implication that doing anti-racism work does not end at doing anti-racism work in the white, middle class activist milleu.
There absoulutely needs to be more people doing work in communities like Verdun all over North America. However, simply being anti-racist missionaries is not going to get you anywhere, you'll have to actually *do* something for these people and deeply incorporate anti-racism into the work you do there. You don't have to like them but you are going to have to deal with them. The fact of the matter is we are going to need these people if revolutionary change is to become any kind of possibility. And, make no mistake, capitalism needs them also to serve as agents of repression (thier own and everyone elses). The question is who's side will they be on in the end. It's up to the white left to make sure they're on our side.