THE FALLACY OF WHITE SKIN PRIVILEGE
The concept of white skin privilege acknowledges the differences in exploitation and oppression faced by blacks and whites; yet it frames the lower levels of exploitation as a benefit for whites. This either encourages white workers to support the system because they get a bit more, or to believe that they are part of the system that is exploiting blacks, or to feel guilty because they are less exploited. None of these suppositions are true, and all may decrease the motivation of whites to unite with blacks to fight back.
The differential exploitation of groups is a method for capitalism to lower the wages and living standards for all workers while serving to divide them from one another, ideologically, physically and on the job.
The advantage of differential exploitation for the making of profits is nothing new. As Frank Hyman wrote in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on August 7, 2015:
“The Confederacy — and the slavery that spawned it — was also one big con job on the Southern white working class. A con job funded by some of the antebellum one-percenters, and one that continues today in a similar form.
You don’t have to be an economist to see that forcing blacks — a third of the South’s laborers — to work without pay drove down wages for everyone else. …
Thanks to the profitability of this no-wage/low-wage combination, a majority of American one-percenters were Southerners. Slavery made Southern states the richest in the country. The South was richer than any other country except England, but that vast wealth was invisible outside the plantation ballrooms. With low wages and few schools, Southern whites suffered a much lower land ownership rate and a far lower literacy rate than Northern whites.
… most Southerners didn’t own slaves. But they were persuaded to risk their lives and limbs for the right of a few to get rich as Croesus from slavery. For their sacrifices and their votes, they earned two things before and after the Civil War. First, a very skinny slice of the immense Southern pie. And second, the thing that made those slim rations palatable then and now: the shallow satisfaction of knowing blacks had no slice at all.”
RACISM REAPS ENORMOUS PROFITS
The tremendous disparities in services, wages and wealth between whites and blacks, Latins and immigrants overall is not a matter of historical accident. As Nancy Krieger explains, racist practices distribute black families into poverty. For example, the government denied Social Security to domestic workers, usually black women and agricultural workers, mainly Mexican and black workers, until late in the 20th Century. After World War II, the government provided cheap mortgages to returning soldiers as part of the GI Bill. Yet, restrictive lending practices denied this benefit to black GIs; only 2% of black soldiers received the low cost homes. Since home ownership creates wealth for generations, black families have less than 10% of the wealth of white families.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, black, Latin and immigrant workers all earn about 75% of the wages of white men. This not only reflects pay differentials for similar work but the fact that whites have better access to training and education that leads to higher paying work. In addition, whites have much higher rates of employment even though the majority of the unemployed and underemployed are white. White families also have greater accumulated wealth, which enables them to weather periods of lost wages or health costs with much greater ease.
The quality of life is also higher for whites. Cops are much less likely to pull over, harass, or kill white drivers or arrest white drug users. Incarceration rates for black workers are much higher than those of whites. While black and white people use drugs at the same rates, black people are more likely to go to jail. Whites also have better health status, access to care, insurance coverage, and quality of care compared to others. White women with a high school education have better birth outcomes than black women with college degrees. Looks like whites have it made!
BUT DO WHITES HAVE IT MADE?
There is another way to interpret these inequalities from a class perspective on racism. The rich colonial landowners responded to Bacon’s Rebellion, a rebellion of black and white indentured servants in the 18th Century, by separating workers. They enslaved African men and women, and bribed whites with economic benefits and conferred a superior social status on them (at least white men). Yet, these white workers still worked for the landowners who controlled their wages, standard of living, and political participation and power.
This deal persists in different ways today. Workers today, regardless of income, still work for a boss (sell their labor) in order to buy goods and services to survive. Workers can vote (although new policies curtail voting by black citizens) but have little power over wages, foreign policy, the environment and other critical issues. Yes, people can vote for politicians, but it’s the corporations who pay these elected officials to support pro-business policies, such as high drug prices, air pollution, and wars for oil.
In addition, as Camara Jones writes, racism robs all of us from the contributions of millions of people. African Americans have made important scientific, medical, and literary contributions. Trashing or disposing of people through unemployment, murder, and lousy schools robs society of so many opportunities.
CAPTITALISM EXPLOITS ALL WORKERS
Recognizing different levels of exploitation and oppression is a more realistic way to interpret racism. Most people in the world belong to the working class, working for a living under the bosses’ rules, creating their profits. When the budget tightens, these bosses cut benefits and wages. Low paid workers suffer the most, but even high salaried workers, such as doctors, teachers, and other “professionals,” have little control over their work and pay.
Therefore, there are different levels of exploitation within the working class. Exploitation refers to the profits employers earn by paying workers less than the value of what they produce. You may work at a company that makes gadgets that sell for $100, but you receive $8 an hour. The boss keeps the difference between what he pays you, other business expenses, and what he earns, the profit. Garment workers in Bangladesh make poverty wages while American Walmart workers need food stamps to survive. Higher paid “professionals” earn more money but not equal to what they produce.
Racism produces super profits because employers pay black and Latin workers much less than white workers. Women workers also earn less than men. Overall women earn about $0.77 an hour compared to white men in DC, and Latinas earn an average of $0.35. Workers in other countries working for US companies make even less, driving US corporations to outsource production to many Asian and Caribbean countries.
When the bosses lower wages and benefits for one group, they lower them for higher paid workers as well. New transportation and grocery store workers start at much lower wages than senior workers. Steel and auto workers lost their pensions when the companies tanked. Cities are throwing people off welfare, food stamps, and subsidized housing lists, programs typically associated with black space although whites comprise the vast majority of people using these programs. If we don’t fight cutbacks when they affect others, we all suffer.
The owners rob all workers of the real value of what they produce. By definition, capitalism exploits workers to generate profit for a few. The bosses keep the profits, not white workers. Therefore, there are different levels of exploitation within the international working class. It is no privilege to be exploited at any level. Robbery is robbery! To end this, we need to unite all workers everywhere and fight for an end of racism of black, Latino, Asian, and indigenous workers.
WE MUST NOT DIVIDE OURSELVES
The ruling class benefits as workers divide themselves based on racial and other identity categories, such as gender, sexual orientation, religion. Many foundations support this separation by funding “undoing racism” type trainings that reinforce differences and blame white attitudes, not capitalism, for racism.
The alternative is recognizing our common needs and organizing together. Do we choose nationalism or multi-racial organizing? Do we blame white workers for exploitation or the capitalists who earn profit from racial differentials and justify this through the ideology they create?