Racism is Not about White Skin Privilege

By Alan Spector, Professor of Sociology at Purdue North West and long time anti-racist, anti-war activist, ajspecto@purdue.edu . This was written in 1998 but is still current.

The image of a police car appears in the rear view mirror as the driver of a car glances up. Proceeding for five or six blocks, the driver notices that the police car is still following. As the driver makes a right turn, the police car follows, and seven blocks further down the street, the driver is quite aware that the police car is still following behind — no lights, no siren, no request to pull over….just following. While it may well be a coincidence, the driver may nevertheless start to experience anxiety. “Did I commit a traffic violation? Will I have to take a day off of work to go to court? Will there be a fine? Will I get points against my driver’s license? Will my car insurance go up by several hundred dollars?” Anxiety. For perhaps 80% of the population in the U.S., this kind of experience creates anxiety. For much of the other 20%, however, the anxiety is much more intense. For the young black male driving through Gary, Indiana at 11 p.m., the anxiety includes: “Will my car be searched? Will I be humiliated? Will my car be damaged? Will I be roughed up? How should I act? If I’m quiet, the cop might think I’m being hostile. If I’m friendly, he might think I’m being sarcastic. My friend was arrested for disorderly conduct last week in a traffic stop. How should I act? What’s going to happen now?”

Is the young black man acting “paranoid?” Or is he reflecting the reality more accurately than any sociology text book can do? Racism is not just a set of erroneous ideas. Racist oppression is a powerful material force in the world that does severe damage to hundreds of millions of people.

Many who oppose racist oppression and racist ideology and culture are skeptical of many on the Left who emphasize “class” in ways that ignore the particular effects of racist oppression (“class reductionism”) or who use phrases like “black and white unite” without making clear that the unity has to be on the basis of fighting racism as opposed to a unity that calls on minority group members to tone down their struggle.

And this skepticism has a material basis: there have been many instances in American history when labor and even socialist movements downplayed the struggle against racism or worse, even promoted racist policies against immigrant, Native American, and black workers. Racist oppression is a persistent reality with destructive material effects that can be measured in terms of infant mortality, unemployment, average family income, incarceration rates and a dozen other indicators. But acknowledging the existence of racist oppression — that on average members of minority groups experience more oppression than members of the majority (so-called “white” SCW) group — does not mean that members of the SCW have “White Skin Privilege.”

There are several problems with this term. For starters, rather than enhancing our understanding of the many ways that capitalism oppresses people, it oversimplifies it by separating class oppression from racist oppression the same way that the class reductionists do. If one understands class as a relationship rather than as a one-dimensional income variable, then one can understand that racist oppression and the ideology that reinforces it are related to material processes of exploitation and that flow from material inequality and the need to justify it, rather than seeing racist oppression as primarily flowing from racist thoughts that are somehow independently ingrained into the psyche of all members of the majority group. Racist ideas ARE deeply ingrained, but they are not inherent. This is evident by the inconsistencies of racist myths and the flexibility utilized by racists as theories shift into contradiction with previous racist theories.

A second problem is that racism is not just a “black/white” relationship or even a “white/not white” relationship. Do black autoworkers in the U.S. “enjoy” privilege over black autoworkers in South Africa? Members of minority groups can participate in racism. Generally, it is very rare that members of minority groups can enforce racism against members of the majority (“white”) group. But members of minority groups can enforce racism against members of other minority groups and sometimes even cooperate in the racist oppression of the minority group that they might seem to be identified with. There are many examples of this in the first case, from Japanese mistreatment of Koreans to Israeli Zionist mistreatment of Arabs to some black U.S. soldiers attacking Vietnamese and Panamanians and a thousand other examples, and in the second case, of the alliance between the racist apartheid forces and black anti-ANC forces in South Africa, or the role of Louis Farrakhan today in the U.S.

Thirdly, the rhetoric of “white skin privilege” implies that wealthy black capitalists are essentially friends to the black working class while (with a few exceptions) white working class people are essentially adversaries of the black working class. This not only mistakenly “others” white working class people; it also leads black working class people into the trap of supporting certain elements in the black community who are serving the interests of the most powerful racists!

Finally, while the term “white privilege” creates confusion, the term “white skin privilege” is much worse, because it reinforces the dangerous myth that SKIN, biology is somehow at the root of differences among people.

But are there some privileges associated with being “white?” If a white college student gets a well-paying job doing road construction because his uncle arranged it, isn’t that a type of privilege not available to the black college student who probably doesn’t have a “white” uncle? What about the privilege of being able to buy a house that rapidly appreciates in value because it is in a certain neighborhood? These are clearly short-run advantages. As anti-racists, we have a duty to expose the racist processes that deny members of minority groups a decent life. And we have a special responsibility to directly confront the myth of reverse discrimination, so popular in the media and on campus these days. But capitalism as a system means misery for the great majority of people. This system, at its most gentle, produces stressful lives and alienated personal relationships for most people; at its worst, we have and will see many members of the so-called “majority” group experience the misery of economic hardship, political/police repression, and war.

Already we see that life for many white people in small towns across the U.S. is not that different from life in the black and Latino inner cities — with widespread unemployment, despair, drugs, and violence. Perhaps the language of “more oppressed” is a more useful way of explaining the processes of racist oppression than the language of “white privilege.” Racist exploitation is a key source of profits that keeps capitalism afloat, and racist ideology is a key source of power for the capitalists by keeping the working class divided. If capitalism harms the white working class and even many in the so-called “middle class”, then members of those groups do not ultimately benefit from the racism that keeps capitalism afloat!

In the short run, and admittedly the short run can last longer than some of us might like, there are tangible differences in the material quality of life for members of different racial-ethnic groups. This must be exposed and opposed.

But asking people to “give up their white skin privilege” can be one of those statements that sounds very radical but in fact leads to no change. Are we demanding that white professors resign? Better to ask the people fight against racism, even if it means risking losing one’s job! That is an active, anti-racist stance that unites people while it aggressively fights racism as opposed to a strategy that can lead to empty “Apologies for Slavery” and strategies that hide the reality that the real roots of racism lie in class inequality, exploitation, and oppression — which today means capitalism.

During the Vietnam War, some protesters went to jail rather than pay taxes because they did not want to be a part of supporting the war. With all due respect to their motives and unselfish dedication, the more effective strategy was to pay the taxes and then work very, very hard to stop the war — even if it meant risking jail because of anti-war actions.

It is not a question of “giving up privileges”, however one might do that. There will be those who rationalize and passively exploit the oppression of others, and that should be exposed and opposed. But the rhetoric of “privilege” masks the roots and processes of racist oppression rather than attacking them.

Different sections of the working class do experience different levels of oppression. Some passengers on the Titanic drowned before others did. But those who drowned a half-hour later can hardly be called privileged. Those less oppressed do have a duty to focus special efforts to oppose the racist discrimination against their working class sisters and brothers from so-called “minority” groups. But the rhetoric of “privilege”, while possibly helpful in exposing racist treatment, ultimately obscures and diffuses the anti-racist struggle.

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