Antiracist Book Reviews: Working-Class Unity versus “White Privilege”

by Bill Sacks, retired physician, REVISED June 27, 2020

Black authors have written many nonfiction books on racism over the last decade. Mark Whitaker listed and commented on several in the Washington Post’s Outlook section (June 14, 2020). He pointed out that Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015) opened up a market for such books, and that Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010) was an earlier bestseller that had a huge impact on public thought about incarceration.

The various authors’ analyses of racism differ. Coates claims that there is a caste system, in which all white people oppress all black people, regardless of class. The category of caste draws strict lines between members of different castes, in this case between all white people and all black people. Caste is proposed by Coates as the significant social categorization, as opposed to class, which is defined in relation to exploitation and consists of exploiters and exploited. However, it is class that defines the main interests of each group, not caste. Black exploiters have little in common with black victims of exploitation, who in turn have more in common with white victims of exploitation. Similarly, white victims of exploitation have little in common with white exploiters. The interests of exploiters and exploited are opposed to one another.

Opposing Coates’s caste view, books by both black and white authors, as well as others, at least hint at the fact that the early colonial settlers promoted racial antagonism between three groups: poor, indentured, and working white people; enslaved African people; and Native American people. These systematic separations among the three groups enabled the exploitation and oppression of all of them. This oppression took differing forms that tended to mask its commonality from its victims and drive each group into its own separate world, each ignorant of the conditions of the others: enslavement of Africans, land theft from and genocide of Native people, impoverishment of white workers. Slave owners reaped huge profits as did large and small northern industrialists and employers who built the slave and merchant ships, ran the slave trade, sold the insurance, and established banks to hold the wealth enslaved people made possible. New York became the banking center and actually considered seceding along with the South in 1860-1.

The rulers deliberately developed a racist ideological onslaught to deceive white working-class people into believing that they were privileged when they were (and still are) on average merely less intensely exploited and less directly oppressed than their black sisters and brothers – a lot less directly oppressed. That is, some white workers have lower incomes and wealth than some black workers, and some black workers have higher incomes and wealth than some white workers. But when it comes to the various forms of oppression suffered by each group, it is mostly a difference in kind rather than simply intensity of oppression. White workers were and are also inculcated with the belief that they are superior beings to all non-white workers, no matter their class. As long as white workers believe they are privileged, or belong to a different caste,they have trouble seeing the need to struggle together for a system in which neither black nor white are exploited or oppressed. For example, overall, white workers don’t have to tolerate disrespect and lies about themselves, fear they will be killed walking down the street, worry that their children might not come home that night, and tolerate discrimination in housing, jobs, and other necessities. 

But while white families have much lower rates of infant and maternal mortality than black families, those rates for US white families are significantly worse than for white Canadian families. The extreme difference between black and white conditions acts to pull down the conditions of white Americans. This reality that “an injury to one is an injury to all” gives white working-class people the essential reason to fight the racism that kills them also.

Furthermore, white workers do get arrested for no reason, and they do get killed by police for no reason –  in larger numbers because they are a larger percentage of the population. But the proportions are far worse for black workers of both sexes, which means that the likelihood  of an innocent black worker being arrested or killed by the police is much higher than for an innocent white worker – even if the total number is less because they occupy a much smaller part of the population (approximately one-fifth as many as white).

Thus, the difference in average exploitation, the money the boss profits from people’s work, is a difference in intensity – one of harder and dirtier work for lower pay versus less difficult and less filthy conditions for less diminished pay (though still difficult and filthy and underpaid for overwork). In contrast, the difference in oppression, such as poorer education, is often more a difference in kind rather than intensity. The qualitative differences in everyday experience functions to keep white and black workers living in somewhat different worlds, making communication and mutual understanding that much more difficult. 

For example, when a racist conversation is publicly revealed among white cops, one that is accidentally captured on a video (as occurred recently in Wilmington, NC), and it contains angry threats by one cop, with the nod from the others, to obtain an automatic rifle and wantonly slaughter black people, whites are surprised. Black people are not surprised and are frustrated that whites don’t believe this happens. But it is part of everyday life for most black working-class families. That difference in the kinds of oppression forces white and black workers to occupy different worlds.

But differences in intensity and differences in kind do not make it any less true that white workers are also exploited and oppressed. It only makes it more difficult for white workers to see their common exploitation and oppression as a systematic phenomenon, unlike the experiences of black workers. However, neither the lesser intensity nor the difference in kind makes the situation of white workers one of privilege, as Coates and other authors seem to believe. Just because some people are denied their rights does not make a right into a privilege.

Racist ideology, invented by slave owners, was also an attempt to convince black persons, whether enslaved or free, that they deserved their fate and were, from birth, inferior to their white sisters and brothers. Similarly for Native Americans, but since the target of theft from them was their land rather than their labor – at least after a short enslavement that resulted in unified rebellions and escapes among all three groups that threatened the slave owners’ hold on the system and led to the dis-enslavement of whites and Natives – they were expendable as people, and their numbers were largely decimated by military massacres and individual murders. To this day, Native Americans remain among the most impoverished people and are generally regarded by the ruling class as peripheral to the population. The ideological foundation of these differing forms of oppression infects many members of both major classes. 

Coates’s book, whether he intends it or not (and he likely does not), acts in concert with racist ideological trappings, to blind white working-class people to their need for a system that abolishes exploitation. But it also tends to blind black and Native working-class people to the need to seek unity with each other and with their white working-class sisters and brothers to abolish the exploitative profit system and end the exploitation and oppression of all people.

An excellent review of Coates’ book, written by a multiracial pair of critics (Ferguson and Meyerson), demonstrates just how horrendously harmful to black, white, and all working-class people is Coates’s essential thesis that ALL white people are responsible for the oppression of ALL black people. It can be found at https://ojs.library.ubc.ca/index.php/clogic/article/view/190859/188442.

Coates’s book is celebrated by the capitalist-controlled mass media precisely because it interferes with unity among the working class. In contrast to the racially demarcated caste system that Coates imagines to exist, capitalism’s actual class-divided system finds some white and some black people in both classes – exploiters and exploited – even if the proportions differ. Class and caste don’t occupy the same conceptual space; only class corresponds to the real capitalist world while caste corresponds to a fantasy world and masks commonality versus opposition of interests. 

  Variations on Coates’s theme continue to plague the print-and-screen-ways. In the same issue of the Washington Post, there are two other articles by black authors, one above the other on the same page. One says that whites enjoy privileges (rather than white workers suffer less intense exploitation and oppression on average) and the other blaming white workers (by implication) for racism. 

As the Ferguson/Meyerson review points out, white workers suffer from the secondary effects of racism instead of benefiting from it, and have an interest that goes far beyond morality in fighting racism alongside their black sisters and brothers – if they can be brought as a class to understand it. Some of the books in Whitaker’s review article act as obstacles to such an awareness, while others help promote it. 

I would propose keeping in mind the following key points when reading about racism: 

1) We have to hold in mind the definitions and implications of  proportions and numbers: greater proportions of black working-class people are killed by cops or incarcerated, while greater numbers of white working-class people are killed by cops and incarcerated. 

2) There is a difference between a right and a privilege: just because black (mainly) working-class people are denied a right does not turn it into a privilege for white working-class people; it’s still a right and a right denied. 

3) The less intense exploitation and oppression of white working-class people on average is not a privilege, it’s still exploitation and oppression. 

4) The proper comparison of the situation of white workers in a capitalist system is not with the situation of black workers in a capitalist system, much less that of Native American workers, but rather with what the situation of white and black and Native workers could be in a nonracial communist working-class-run system.

To clarify the last point, a nonracial, anti-racist society would be one run by the working class, free of exploiters and exploitation, that meets human needs regardless of racial categories. Black and Native American workers should not merely aspire to the inadequate average white standard of living under capitalism, much less to their slightly less intense average level of exploitation. We all need to strive for a system that raises up all workers by abolishing capitalism – whose competitive profit interests require the continual pounding of an ideological and practical wedge among us, and the differential degrees of exploitation and oppression. Multiracial rebellions – such as those occurring around the world following the police murders of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks – close social relationships, and deep comradeship born of common struggle makes such a world possible. Its necessity should not be in dispute.

3 thoughts on “Antiracist Book Reviews: Working-Class Unity versus “White Privilege””

    1. You are absolutely correct. My only reference to all other exploited peoples was implicitly included in the phrase “working class,” which appears a few times. But I should have made this explicit somewhere and did not. So good catch.

      That said, it’s difficult to find language that is optimal, without making a long list. The word “minority” is often used as the collective noun intended to include all non-white people. But it’s not only a non-class term, it’s often inaccurate. I always cringe when I either read or (for conciseness) use that word, because it has nothing to do with whether or not the group referred to is smaller. Consider South Africa, as just one example, where black South Africans were in the majority under Apartheid, and still are.

      By explicitly mentioning only black and white and Native working-class people, I was intending to bracket the various degrees of average intensity of exploitation and the various forms of oppression used by ruling classes against all other artificially divided groups among the working class and referring mainly to the history of early racism in the British colony that became the US. But as I said, you are correct to bring it up.

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