The contribution of the concept of privilege

November 13, 2013

Héctor Agredano Rivera and Ethan Young add to an ongoing debate at Socialist Worker on the theory of "white skin privilege" and how to understand racism.

Don't use "privilege" as a straw man

I WOULD like to thank Bill Mullen, who, even if in a forceful way, kicked off this debate we are having on "white skin privilege" with his initial article "Is there a white skin privilege?"

I would also like to thank the readers who have written in to in reply to Bill. Their letters help shed light on a complicated debate we have been trying to get our heads around for at least as long as I have been a member of the International Socialist Organization (since 2004-05). I have gained much from reading the contributions in this most exciting debate, and I encourage others to join in and share their opinion as we try to figure out our way forward in the fight against capitalism and racism, or what I would call racial capitalism.

In this letter, I would like to do three things: clarify the use of white skin privilege in Laura Pulido's work as cited by Bill, assess the term and concept of white skin privilege, and present a critique of Bill's article, since I don't think it is reflective of the debates that have taken place in our organization.

What else to read

Socialist Worker readers debated the analysis of white skin privilege and how to organize the anti-racist struggle in a series of contributions. The article that sparked the discussion is:

Bill Mullen
Is there a white skin privilege?

Further contributions include:

Haley Swenson and John Green
What we get from privilege theory?

Aaron Petcoff and David Camfield
Privilege and anti-racist solidarity

Alan Maass, Alan Peck and Alex Schmaus
Examining the idea of privilege

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Making sense of society in order to change it

Jeffrey B. Perry, Bill Mullen and David Camfield
Roots of the white skin privilege analysis

Héctor Agredano Rivera and Ethan Young
The contribution of the concept of privilege

Jesse Phillippe
A dialectical approach to privilege theory

Dennis K.
What privilege theory doesn't provide

Gary Lapon
Racism, capitalism and contradictions

Sofia Arias
Contributing to a constructive debate

Tad Tietze
What privilege theory doesn't explain

First off, I read Laura Pulido's article "Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California," and I came away with different conclusions than Bill. For starters, it helps to mention that she uses white privilege as a concept and not an all-encompassing theory.

Furthermore, I would like to clarify that Dr. Pulido uses the concept of white privilege as a form of racism that flourishes in relation to other forms of racism, such as structural racism, white supremacy or individual discriminatory acts. It is also worth noting that through her use of the concept of white privilege, Dr. Pulido is attempting to bring a broader understanding OF racism in the field of geographic research, which, for the most part, only thinks of racism as malicious intent and discriminatory acts against non-whites.

Therefore, I don't think that her use of the concept of white privilege can be perceived of as giving the "specific meaning to the theory of white skin privilege," as Bill argues she does. To me, it would be more useful to assess if Laura Pulido's deployment of the concept of white privilege helps anti-racist environmental activists in their organizing in the Los Angeles area, rather than to pick part of her definition of the concept to try to set up a straw-man argument of what seemingly constitutes a unified body of knowledge of "white skin privilege theory"--which Aaron Petkov correctly argues that it doesn't ("How should whites confront racism?").

For me, the use of the term "privilege" to refer to the material, social, cultural, etc., resources denied to non-whites of all classes is a sign of the retreats and defeats of class-conscious, anti-racist struggles over the last generation. In my view, it should not be a privilege for whites to not get stop-and-frisked, for example. It should be a right for all people not to be abused by the police--and I think we all agree on that.

Many people use the term "privilege" to refer to instances of racial discrimination because they don't feel as confident calling out racism on the spot. This is also a result of that backlash against class-conscious, anti-racist movements; it eroded the confidence to call something out as racist when it is racist.

Readers’ Views welcomes our readers' contributions to discussion and debate about articles we've published and questions facing the left. Opinions expressed in these contributions don't necessarily reflect those of SW.

These days, it's as if calling someone a racist is an accusatory insult, and then the accuser has to explain why someone or something is racist. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor points out in "Making sense of society in order to change it," it becomes difficult to confidently assert that something is racist when the predominant ideas are telling us that "we are post-racial."

Notwithstanding the debate that has ensued, I don't think that it is helpful to feature a discussion on white privilege in our leading publication by asking "Is there a white skin privilege?" We might as well be asking "Is there racism?" We should "try to meet people where they are at," and I don't think that Bill's article does that.

Instead, Bill's article creates a monolithic "white skin privilege theory" espoused by all anti-racist activists who use the concept of white privilege in their work. In doing so, we now deal with a straw-man activist, and not a real person who, like us, lives in this racist, capitalist society, and who, like us, contends with contradictory ideas as they engage the world and as their consciousness changes. The result of creating straw-man arguments is that we are left less prepared to work with real people in the movements, less prepared to tackle the challenges we are presented with, and less prepared to understand the real world.

The debate on white privilege is not new to our organization, and it has been going on for at least a decade. It would behoove our comrades at to take into consideration all the time, energy and effort comrades have put into debating this argument. It is nothing short of dismissive at worst, and oblivious at best, to publish such an article on the front page of our newspaper as if it was the conclusion of all the debates that have gone into this question.

At a time when our organization is trying to redefine and expand the margins of our Marxist theory and practice, we should see how we can deepen our understanding of the dialectical relationship between race and class in all areas of our theoretical, political and organizational work.

It is telling that we had to struggle--and eventually be expelled from the International Socialist Tendency--for attempting to put the fight against the death penalty as a centerpiece of our work. Furthermore, as the debates around the development of cadre of color in New York City demonstrate, we have mistakenly lumped all talk of affirmative action and non-white organizing spaces as "identity politics." These mistakes have cost us dearly.

In my view, the dialectical relationship between race and class is something our organization is taking strides to understand and implement in all areas of our work. Unfortunately, I don't think Bill's article is reflective of the positive aspects of that process. Like the contributions of feminism or patriarchy theory, the questions of race and privilege are something that we are now coming to grips with, as we think through them independently.
Héctor Agredano Rivera, New York City

Privilege and class consciousness

I THINK Bill Mullen (see his comment "A note on Theodore Allen") misses the crucial point of the racial privilege analysis as developed by Allen, Sojourner Truth Organization, Freedom Road, Line of March and others--who have as much a claim to being Marxists as those in any particular tendency.

If race is not a scientific phenomenon, then neither are "white workers" or "Black workers"--they exist in the context of a social relation. That is, whites up, Blacks down. So white workers as "whites" do benefit from racism in very real ways. Workers as workers do not, because as workers, their interests are identical--breaking out of the social relation of capitalism which keeps them imprisoned in a million ways, which include racial oppression and polarization.

Of course, if you offer a worker a choice between home ownership under capitalism and a classless society, they will make the more materialist choice. But if that choice is bound up in maintaining white supremacy, pointing to past occurrences of interracial workers' battles won't cut it. Reds have a responsibility to push for goals that undercut the "whites up" parts of the bargain, such as super-seniority and nepotism in traditionally segregated trades.

Breaking white supremacy and Black oppression should be put in the heart of the theory, practice and program of big and little fights, permanently. Not easy--but ultimately necessary, if workers are to become a political force fighting in their own class interest.
Ethan Young, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Further Reading

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