Should progressives deploy the concept of “white privilege” to build and deepen a movement for economic and racial justice?
Ultra-radicals in the late 1960s answered strongly in the affirmative as they became extremely self-conscious about how skin color impacted the everyday actions of white people, including themselves.
Self-styled revolutionaries like the Weathermen used the term “white skin privilege” as a putdown of less radical activists. The attack implied that you weren’t fit for revolutionary struggle against global imperialism and white supremacy because you hadn’t owned up to, and given up, your racial advantages. For radical Weathermen and women this only could be accomplished through excruciating criticism/self-criticism sessions (borrowed from Maoism). As Angela Nagle writes in Current Affairs (Feb. 2017):
The Weathermen used a style of “criticism-self-criticism” sessions, also called “Weatherfries,” which were described by the author of Bringing the War Home as “the most harrowing aspect of life within the collective.” Based on Maoist struggle sessions, these were used to root out subconscious racism and sexism within their own psyches. Individuals were reportedly hazed for up to twelve hours without a break until the white radicals confessed their deep white supremacism, homophobia and misogyny to their fellow white radicals thus achieving catharsis through their own admission of guilt.
Later, the term took on a broader meaning: If you were white you were born with basic privileges that people of color just didn’t have. It was time to recognize the widespread impact of this latent racism on everyday life ― not just in the South. No matter how liberal you are, according to this view, you’ve got some racism in you because of the privileges a racist society bestows upon you at birth.
This idea stems from the historical term “racial bribe” which described how plantation/merchant elites in the South kept poor whites and blacks apart by making sure Jim Crow segregation offered certain privileges to whites based entirely on skin color. As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote:
It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. (See Adolph Reed Jr., “Du Bois and the Wages of Whiteness.” Nonsite.org, June 2017)
“Scientific” Racial Hierarchies
As industrialization accelerated and immigrants were drawn into the country, the racial bribe became a refined instrument to divide the workforce, in large part, to prevent labor unionization. Below is one of the most overt examples of how white skin privilege was baked into the workplace.
This hiring chart was created for the management of a Pittsburgh steel company in 1925 based on what was considered at the time to be the most advanced “race science.” (From John E. Bodnar, Roger Simon and Michael P. Weber, Lives of Their Own: Blacks, Italians, and Poles in Pittsburgh, 1900-1960.)
Each group (they all were considered “biological races”) was ranked according to its alleged innate abilities ― “racial adaptability to various types of plant work.” The columns represent the types of plant work: the lighter the box color the more of that particular ability you possessed innately. “American White” topped the list.
One motivation for these divisions was to prevent a repeat of the unionization drive that had led to a five month steel industry strike in 1919 involving more than 250,000 workers. Although the union was brutally defeated, it was clearly understood that the best way for management to maintain control of the workforce was to chop it up into as many groups as possible. The groups at the top of this chart would be the proud recipients of a tangible racial bribe, not just in status but also in wage differentials. But, there wasn’t just one racial bribe, given the proliferation of races. Since these wage differentials ran up and down the ladder, every group except the Jews at the bottom received its own racial bribe. (Jews were stigmatized in part because they were more likely to favor unionization.)
Union organizers confronted these pervasive divisions by opening up a progressive dialogue with the most favored groups. The idea of white privilege was not useful, in part, because many of the groups who also received racial wage bribes were classified as non-white by the race scientists. Instead, union organizers made the case that those at or near the top, also were big losers as a result of these artificial and unfair divisions. If the workforce were united and unionized, the wages and working conditions of everyone, including the top groups, would also be improved. Any psychological loss in status would be easily compensated for by significantly improved working and living conditions. This was the message from progressive Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) union organizers, especially its socialists and communists. Racism did not vanish from unionized workplaces or from labor unions themselves. But the message of solidarity certainly helped unions organize America’s core industries. (See Michael Goldfield, “Race and the CIO: The Possibilities for Racial Egalitarianism During the 1930s and 1940s.”)
The Language of White Privilege
Today, the term “white privilege” often arises in discussions about police harassment: “You don’t get repeatedly stopped on the road for no reason the way black men do….Your kids don’t get followed around in food markets, the way young blacks do….You don’t have to worry that your kids will be killed by the police or a vigilante just for walking down the street wearing a hoodie.”
It also refers to more general issues that derive from continued racial segregation and income inequality: “Your kids don’t get trapped in underfunded, crumbling inner city schools or have to grow up in dangerous neighborhoods, or get tossed out of school for minor behavioral problems.” And it also relates to the fact that white children tend to inherit more resources because their parents had access to home ownership in the suburbs, something that was systematically denied to black people by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) all the way up to 1968.
But a significant question facing progressives today is whether the use of the term “white privilege” helps or hurts building the kind of solidarity needed to promote racial justice and reverse runaway inequality.
The danger is that “white privilege” still comes across as an accusation, whether it is meant that way or not. It suggests that you as a white person are harboring racism deep within you, a kind of original sin. Because of your white skin, the power structures consider you normal. You get the benefit of the doubt while others do not because you are born into society’s white in-crowd.
This kind of dialogue can also generate defensiveness. No one wants their own sense of justice and fairness called into question. And it raises the perplexing question about what you actually can do to address these privileges.
The Language of Labor Organizing
During the height of CIO union organizing the path forward was obvious. A good number of the white workers at the top of the racial hierarchy became the leaders in the battle for unionization. They made the case that the divisions based on racial bribes were harmful to the entire workforce. They were proven correct as the wages and working conditions of virtually all unionized industrial workers significantly improved. As labor historian Michael Goldfield writes:
“In some situations, white workers instinctively recognized that anti-racist demands were at the root of strong solidaristic unions. White steel workers joined with their Black comrades in their own “civil rights revolution” in the late 1930s in newly organized steel towns lining the Alleghany, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers, desegregating everything in sight, from restaurants and department stores to movie theaters and swimming pools. Thus, even in the North, even when there were not large percentages of African-American workers, many white industrial unionists saw the fight for racial equality as a key to their own struggles for justice, dignity, and a living wage.”
What is the progressive dialogue today that is comparable to unionized workers rejecting the racial work hierarchy and fighting instead for solidarity? At the very least, we should be clear about what we are asking for. Our goal is not to integrate more people of color into the billionaire plutocracy. We are not asking that Anglo drivers be stopped more often by the police for no reason. Nor do we wish that white suburban schools be degraded. Rather, we should be demanding that the basic human rights enjoyed by the white motorists and their children be enjoyed by everyone. We should be demanding income and housing policies that reverse runaway inequality, eliminate poverty and promote real integration.
Doesn’t the term “white privilege” help white people become more self-aware and more active? After all, it seems to convey both an ideological message (racism is still with us and must be opposed) as well as a practical one (because you have this privilege you are morally obligated to join the fight against racism). In this way, consciousness raising can spur sustained activism.
But, does it actually accomplish these goals? This should be an empirical question, not an article of faith. Does it help increase white working class activism to combat racial discrimination at the workplace? Does it encourage working class leaders to ally with racial justice groups? Or does it make people feel guilty about the accident of their own birth, and therefore more reluctant to actively participate? Worse still, does it reinforce the contemporary movement towards white identitarianism ― the erroneous belief that “white” people per se have common interests that are readily distinguishable from other groups.
The Language of Human Rights
If “white privilege” pushes people away as it did to many in the late 1960s, the language of human rights and solidarity is readily available. Our shared human right to decent life is being threatened and eroded by Wall Street-driven runaway inequality. The right for all children to become well educated today is harmed by the financial strip-mining of our economy. Our children’s schools are underfunded as corporations and the wealthy shelter their income from taxes. We are forced into debt to get our kids through college because the richest country in the history of the world can no longer afford free higher education (yet all of Northern Europe can). Because public institutions (except for jails and the military) are starved for funds, there is no money to end persistent school and housing segregation. This is not an act of God but a product of runaway inequality created by and for financial elites. Clearly we need a broad-based, multi-issue, multi-group movement to take on Wall Street’s insatiable greed.
This also is not a request to replace Black Lives Matter with All Lives Matter. Nor is it an argument that claims we now live in a post-racial society and therefore should ignore racial discrimination and continued segregation. Rather, it is a call to re-enforce the age-old labor union ideal that an injury to one really is an injury to all. We should all feel aggrieved and spurred to action when anyone is denied their basic human rights, which includes the right to a decent job at decent pay, the right to free health care, the right to an excellent (and free) education, the right to gender and sexual identity equality, and the right to equal justice under the law.
The Reverend William Barber argues eloquently that the most damaging form of institutional racism today is voter suppression ― the current upsurge in legal and administrative efforts to deny the right to vote to low income people of color. He is calling for forceful “fusion” alliances of black, white, red and brown to protect this most basic right. The language of shared human rights rather than white privilege may better serve such alliances.
Sustained movement building requires a positive vision and an inspiring call to action. It also requires difficult conversations including a frank and open dialogue about the utility of the term “white privilege.”
(This originally appeared on CommonDreams.org)
Les Leopold is the author of Runaway Inequality: An Activist Guide to Economic Justice. Currently he is helping to organize and national network of runaway inequality trainers. He invites you to find out more about it here.