Is there a white skin privilege?

October 30, 2013

The idea that all whites are privileged at the expense of Blacks is popular on the left--but Bill Mullen makes the case that Marxism offers a better understanding of racism.

CAPITALISM HAS had devastating effects on people of color in the U.S. in recent years. Current Black unemployment remains at nearly double the national average for whites; predatory subprime lending caused foreclosure rates to skyrocket among non-white homeowners when the Great Recession hit; and mass incarceration and "stop-and-frisk" police policies continue to make African Americans and others doubly vulnerable to state-sponsored racism.

In the political sphere, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Supreme Court, gerrymandering of congressional districts along racial lines, and new restrictions on democratic rights in the form of voter ID laws--not to mention the mass deportation of immigrants and attacks on reproductive rights--have left the poor, disproportionately non-white population in the U.S. facing the sharp end of the neoliberal stick.

It can be no surprise that one effect of this climate is to undermine confidence about the possibility of building interracial struggles for equality--certainly not at a moment of seeming hard times for any grassroots struggles.

Harlem marches to defend the Scottsboro Boys
Harlem marches to defend the Scottsboro Boys

Widening gaps in income and wealth between whites and non-whites; wage gaps between men and women, and whites and non-whites; the continuation of a ruling class that still looks and speaks in the name of white men (along with, increasingly, white women); egregious judicial miscarriages of justice like the acquittal of George Zimmerman; the ongoing epidemic of police violence; the eruptions of mad-dog racism among the Tea Party and the Religious Right--all of this naturally increases skepticism about the potential of whites and non-whites to link arms in successful campaigns for racial and economic justice.

Some commentators, bloggers and activists put forward what is sometimes called "privilege theory" or a "white skin privilege" analysis to explain these conditions.

Many good anti-racist activists have adopted some or all aspects of the "white skin privilege" argument. Fundamentally, the idea is that racism is inevitable under capitalism because all whites, no matter their class, benefit from the unequal distribution of social resources along racial lines. Because all whites gain from this arrangement, most are loathe to fight against it.

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

Many young activists who use the term privilege are really talking about oppression and inequality. But there is more specific meaning to the theory of a white skin privilege, as it was forcefully described by scholar Laura Pulido:

White privilege is a form of racism that both underlies and is distinct from institutional and overt racism. It underlies them in that both are predicated on preserving the privileges of white people (regardless of whether agents recognize this or not). But it is also distinct in terms of intentionality. It refers to the hegemonic structures, practices, and ideologies that reproduce whites' privileged status. In this scenario, whites do not necessarily intend to hurt people of color, but because they are unaware of their white-skin privilege, and because they accrue social and economic benefits by maintaining the status quo, they inevitably do.[1]

Pulido's description of white skin privilege is powerful and useful in some ways for describing the unintended effects of racist behavior. Yet the popularity of "white skin privilege" theory also speaks to capitalism's capacity to obliterate histories of real interracial struggle that challenged racist "hegemonic structures, practices and ideologies."

This erasure, or amnesia, is a historical marker of successful and ongoing attacks on the social welfare state, trade unions, workplace labor organization and public education---all arenas where the U.S. working class has a long history of standing up to racism.

"WHITE SKIN privilege" first appeared as a codified body of analysis in 1967. In that year, Noel Ignatiev, under the name Noel Ignatin, and Theodore Allen produced a pamphlet containing two articles: "White Blindspot" by Ignatiev, and "Can White Radicals be Radicalized?" by Allen.

"White skin privilege" theory as they developed it argued that white radicals and activists did not put enough emphasis on racism in either assessing U.S. history or developing tactics to build revolutionary movements in the here and now. Their analysis combined the influence of Black nationalism's emphasis on white supremacy in U.S. society; a commitment to the centrality of Black workers to the revolutionary struggle; and an argument that "white chauvinism" among white workers was the single-biggest obstacle to working-class unity, and hence revolution.

The Ignatiev/Allen pamphlet was published by the Students for Democratic Society Radical Education project, and had a lasting impact on the New Left, SDS and the Maoist New Communist Movement.[2]

But most people who invoke "white skin privilege" today are more likely influenced by academic writing done in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which began to re-popularize the term and the idea. These writings have little direct relationship to the 1960s political analysis of the term, whatever its merits and flaws, and should be considered separately.

In this article, I want to focus on two writings that, in my estimation, are most often quoted or cited by contemporary anti-racist activists in support of a "white skin privilege" analysis--though the two pieces are very different in character and diverge in how they explain and interpret the causes and effects of "white skin privilege" or "white benefits."

The first is Peggy McIntosh's essay "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Napsack," written in 1990. McIntosh, a professor of women's studies, argued among other things that whites benefit from racism by having unfettered access to social spaces where they are a majority and to consumer goods tailored to their interests (like flesh-colored Band-Aids).

The second is David Roediger's 1991 book The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. Roediger, then a historian at the University of Missouri, drew his title phrase "wages of whiteness" from W.E.B. Du Bois' 1935 book Black Reconstruction. There, Du Bois argued that antebellum and postbellum whites in the American South earned what he called a "psychological wage" from living at a higher economic and social standing than African Americans.

Roediger applied this idea to a wide range of 19th century labor history, documenting instances where white workers chose to act against Black workers rather than working for solidarity within the working class. Roediger argued that while capitalist bosses did use racism consciously to divide the working class, white workers sustained racist ideas--"approved them," in Du Bois' words.

I think both of these writings, despite their differences, exhibit weaknesses in explaining what racism is and how it works. For this reason and a variety of others offered below, I believe that Marxists should reject "white skin privilege" as an explanation of how capitalism produces racism, and how we might fight against it.

PEGGY McINTOSH'S "White Privilege" essay often describes white skin privilege as the expression of personal decisions and choices. This makes racism appear to be something that depends on individual behavior or lifestyle, rather than structural inequalities produced under capitalism. As a white woman, McIntosh writes:

1. I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.

3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

McIntosh here confuses individual rights with "privileges." "Privilege" in this context better describes the power held by institutions and their representatives that restrict or abuse those rights to begin with--police, banks, realtors, etc. Calling basic rights "privileges" also puts the onus of social change on restricting the rights that do exist for some, rather than extending them to others. This is sometimes called "checking your privilege" by privilege theorists.

Such an approach leads only to recognizing inequality, rather than fighting to overturn it. As Native American activist Andrea Smith has written of "checking your privilege" workshops she has observed: "It did not appear that these individual confessions actually led to any political projects to dismantle the structures of domination that enabled their privilege. Rather, the confessions became the political project themselves."

The idea of insisting on basic social rights as "privileges" also indicates how capitalism wins concessions from anti-racist activists, restricting the fight against inequality to one of individual reflection and moral achievement, rather than collective solidarity.

McIntosh also refers to the world of white skin privilege as a "system" without describing its structural features. Privilege, she says, is "conferred" upon whites, but she doesn't say how or by whom. She pays no mind to class differences among whites that significantly limit, for example, the areas where most can afford to live. She ignores the fact that many working-class whites live in highly integrated neighborhoods, while wealthier whites "pay for" their segregation.

She then writes about privileges:

Disapproving of the system won't be enough to change them. I was taught to think that racism could end if white individuals changed their attitude. But a "white" skin in the United States opens many doors for whites, whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us. Individual acts can palliate, but cannot end, these problems.

So racism creates a set of privileges that white people can't avoid having, and "[i]ndividual acts can palliate, but cannot end, these problems." McIntosh makes "privilege" a question not of fighting racism, but of feeling guilty about it. She normalizes racism, while downplaying the confidence and capacity to resist it.

White skin privilege is a dangerous counterpart to the point Michelle Alexander makes in The New Jim Crow that capitalism individualizes racism in order to prevent people from fighting it collectively. As Alexander suggests, we need to understand racism as a social structure that needs to be torn down by mass movements, like the prison walls themselves.

DAVID ROEDIGER'S The Wages of Whiteness was written during a period--the late 1980s--of the dominance of conservatism and extreme pessimism about the prospects of the class struggle and interracial class unity. Thus, many white working-class people who had identified with Democrats in the past shifted their loyalties to the Republicans during the 1980s, in response to the saturation campaign designed to demonize the Black working class.

In my opinion, this historical context shapes Roediger's approach to the history he examines in The Wages of Whiteness. Himself a committed and politically active anti-racist, Roedger nevertheless focuses his book almost entirely on examples of failures of racial solidarity in U.S. working-class history. This aids his thesis that "working class 'whiteness' and white supremacy [are] creations, in part, of the white working class."

In order to make his argument in The Wages of Whiteness, Roediger makes several errors in analysis. I will discuss just two here.

First, Roediger excludes from his definition of the "working class" property-less African Americans and other non-white workers. This exclusion enables him to disregard evidence of interracial collaboration, and naturalizes the equivalence of "whiteness" to class.

To his credit, in the afterword to the second edition of The Wages of Whiteness, Roediger admitted this error--what he called "the unexamined and indefensible notion that white males were somehow 'the American working class.'" Roediger acknowledged that this made his interpretation of labor history more pessimistic than it might have otherwise been.

Second, I believe Roediger distorts the ideas of W.E.B. Du Bois. In Black Reconstruction, Du Bois clearly identified the "wages of whiteness" as a divide-and-rule strategy, under which racism is imposed by the Southern planter class and northern industrialists on workers. Du Bois was very clear that racism did not originate with whites. He writes:

The race element was emphasized in order that property-holders could get the support of the majority of white laborers and make it more possible to exploit Negro labor. But the race philosophy came as a new and terrible thing to make labor unity or labor class-consciousness impossible. So long as the Southern white laborers could be induced to prefer poverty to equality with the Negro, just so long was a labor movement in the South made impossible. (p. 680)

Du Bois could not have been clearer that racism is disadvantageous to both Black and white workers. White workers must even be "induced to prefer poverty" over equality with Blacks. Du Bois also makes clear that this attitude did not originate with working-class consciousness, but was a "new and terrible" strategy to maintain control over newly proletarianized labor.

By emphasizing that this divide-and-rule tactic prevented a successful interracial working-class movement, Du Bois means to show that the only lasting "benefit" from this outcome went to the American ruling class. Barbara Foley has also pointed out that Du Bois was likely to assume that, in using the term "wages of whiteness," any "wage" provided under capitalism was in the interests of the capitalist class, not the working class.

Roediger's book, unfortunately, emphasized only one element of Du Bois' interpretation: The "tragic" fact of white workers allowing racism to blind them to their mutual class interests with Black workers.

The Wages of Whiteness is Roediger's most widely read book, which is why I have concentrated on it. But it should be said that Roediger has gone on to write several other books on race and U.S. history, which emphasize clearly how ruling elites use race to divide labor. These include his valuable recent book, with Elizabeth Esch, titled The Production of Difference: Race and the Management of Labor in U.S. History.

THE HISTORY of interracial struggle in the U.S. is hidden from most people. It is important to recapture that history in order to assess the validity of "white skin privilege" theory. I would highlight these historical events to give us a more complete picture[3]:

In 1676, a mix of 400 armed whites and Blacks, free men, servants and slaves, rose up against the government of Virginia in what has become known as Bacon's Rebellion. Though the Rebellion included an attack on Pamunkey Indians, stirred by the ruling class failure to provide land protections, the Rebellion was also a response to beatings, whippings and restrictions on marriage suffered by both slaves and white servants.

In 1688, Francis Daniel Pastorius and three other members of the Germantown Settlement in Pennsylvania drafted a petition requesting that slavery be outlawed in the colonies. The petition also defended the right of slaves to rebel. Though slavery continued as a practice, the document was resurrected in 1844, giving further momentum to the abolitionist movement.

In Boston in the 1730s, bread riots and protests against high prices for daily goods preceded riots against the impressment of men into naval service. Crowds storming the house of the colonial governor of the state were described by a merchants' group as a "Riotous tumultuous Assembly of Foreign Seamen, Servants, Negroes, and Other Persons of Mean and Vile Condition."

In 1739, 18 members of the Darien, Georgia, colony introduced a petition to Gen. James Oglethorpe and colony trustees against the institution of slavery. The petitioners wrote, "It is shocking to human Nature, that any Race of Mankind and their Posterity should be sentanc'd to perpetual Slavery."

African American slaves and freemen fought for their freedom alongside whites, in both the Continental Army and the British Army during the American Revolution. Crispus Attucks, an African American, was famously one of the first Americans to die in what would become the Revolutionary War.

As Howard Zinn and Herbert Aptheker have shown, whites assisted in slave rebellions in the U.S. as early as 1802. William Lloyd Garrison began publishing his abolitionist newspaper Liberator in 1831. The Underground Railroad was an interracial collaboration. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs were both assisted in their flights to freedom by whites. John Brown, a friend of Frederick Douglass, was executed for organizing a raid on the federal government's arsenal in Harper's Ferry that he hoped would spark a slave insurrection. He was eulogized by W.E.B. Du Bois for his attempt to help organize what Du Bois called the Black "proletariat."

Lucy Parsons, who was of Black, Native American and Mexican ancestry, and her white husband Albert Parsons, helped to lead the May 1886 nationwide strike for the eight-hour day. According to her biographer Carolyn Ashbaugh, when Parsons spoke of workers' revolution, she "talked about the common blood of humanity which flows in Black Africans, workers of Europe and in her own ancestors---the real Native Americans. Poverty was their common enemy, and they must fight it together."

Both Reconstruction and the massive railways strikes of 1877 involved Black and white cooperation. The New Orleans General Strike of 1892, the Populist movement before the turn of the 20th century, and the steelworkers and miners' strikes after it were all interracial. In contrast to the racist American Federation of Labor, with its craft union orientation, the major industrial union movements in U.S. history, including the Industrial Workers of the World and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, emphasized interracial organizing.

Black workers not only played a central role in the development of the white majority Communist Party of the U.S., but they shaped its policies on Black self-determination and the primary role of African Americans in labor struggles. Harry Haywood and Claude McKay were among the Black Communists to emerge as important leaders. Interracial unity was crucial to Communist struggles in Harlem and Alabama during the Great Depression, as demonstrated in excellent books by Mark Naison and Robin D.G. Kelley.

Every major civil rights organization or initiative in the postwar period through the 1960s was interracial, and led by African Americans--the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign, to name a few. The SCLC, for example, emphasized its view that not all whites were racist as it sought to build a larger movement.

Among the Black Power groups of the 1960s and 1970s, the Black Panther Party created interethnic anti-racist affiliations with other oppressed groups and with some anti-racist whites, as did the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) in Detroit. One of the mentors of DRUM activists was the white Marxist autoworker Marty Glaberman.

More recently, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel's occupation of Palestine, and national protests against the murder of Trayvon Martin and execution of Troy Davis all saw new interracial coalitions formed to challenge racism and the effects of capitalism.

In 2012, the interracial Chicago Teachers Union won strong support for its strike across working-class Chicago, especially largely Black and Latino communities, by emphasizing the struggle against "educational apartheid," as shown by school closings and layoffs of minority teachers disproportionately affecting African Americans and Latinos. Union solidarity and racial solidarity went hand in hand.

THESE EXAMPLES from U.S. history help confirm the Marxist analysis of how capitalism uses racism to try to divide and rule--and how struggles arise, some organized by socialists and some not, to challenge both racism and the capitalist system.

Marxism is specific about racism precisely where the idea of a "white skin privilege" is fuzzy and vague. Marx, as is well known, traced the history of capitalism to what he called a period of "primitive accumulation"--including the extraction of wealth from Latin America by the European colonizers, and the beginnings of the slave trade.

The cotton industry of the 19th century, Marx famously wrote, couldn't exist without slavery, and capitalism without both. This led Marx to his famous pronouncement in Capital, referring to racism in the U.S.: "Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the Black it is branded."

Marx also showed how capitalism and colonialism created hostility and racism among English workers against Irish workers, even though the latter were, by definition, "white." In an 1870 letter written to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt in New York[4], Marx wrote:

Every industrial and commercial center in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker, he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation, and consequently, he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the "poor whites" to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.

Marx is clear here that capitalist competition produces resentments and racial bigotry---Marx calls them "religious, social and national prejudices" among workers. He is clear that this prejudice is maintained by bourgeois society in the interests of the ruling class. Like Du Bois' analysis of Southern society in Black Reconstruction, he sees racial hostility as a key to the "impotence" of the working class--its weakened ability to fight back in unity against its exploitation.

It is here that Marxism draws its sharpest distinction with "privilege" theory. Marxism holds that people's ideas--such as their ideas about race---can change depending on objective historical conditions. From Bacon's Rebellion to the CTU strike, there are examples of ordinary people who have defied the expected behavior based on their possession of property, social standing or place in existing hierarchies of power, and acted according to the principle of solidarity--that an injury to one must be confronted because it is an injury to all.

Privilege theory is predicated on an unchanging status---privilege---rather than a dynamic understanding of human consciousness or human history. Its pessimism follows from its premise. Privilege theory's skepticism about social change flows from its investment in a conceptual category that is static and often, as we have seen from the evidence, ahistorical.

Marxism remains the best tool for analyzing racism, sexism and other forms of oppression--and providing a guide for combatting them--because it understands that capitalism is the main engine of oppression and social division. Gregory Meyerson has put this well[5]:

Marxism, properly interpreted, emphasizes the primacy of class in a number of senses. One, of course, is the primacy of the working class as a revolutionary agent--a primacy which does not, as is often thought, render women and people of color "secondary."...

The primacy of class means that building a multiracial, multi-gendered international working-class organization or organization should be the goal of any revolutionary movement: the primacy of class puts the fight against racism and sexism at the center. The intelligibility of this position is rooted in the explanatory primacy of class analysis for understanding the structural determinants of race, gender and class oppression. Oppression is multiple and intersecting, but its causes are not.

Meyerson helps show why it is precisely when racism and sexism are on the rise--like the times we live in today--that we must turn to Marx for guidance. Our fight is not just against men making more than women, but against the exploitation of all workers. Our battle is not just against the "privilege" for some to own homes in segregated suburbs, but the reordering of society so that everyone experiences lives of equal means.

Our struggle is not only against the "hegemonic structures" that allow George Zimmerman to get away with murder, but the proactive fight for public streets where differently abled men and women, Black, white and Latino, gay and straight, can live free of the violence of inequality. Our efforts to build a "multiracial, multigendered international working class organization" depend on our ability to forge alliances between people, based not on giving up whatever they do have, but on fighting for the same rights for everyone.

That's what it means to have a Marxism that puts the struggle against racism, sexism and all forms of oppression at the center of its tradition and practice.


1. Laura Pulido's article is "Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California," Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 90, No. 1, March 2000, pp. 12-40.
2. The essays by Ignatiev and Allen can be found here at this website in a pdf. Allen later went on to write The Invention of the White Race, in two volumes, and became a critic of "white skin privilege" analysis. See his essay "On Roediger's Wages of Whiteness."
3. For a good review of U.S. historical literature on interracial struggle, see Lee Sustar's article in International Socialism.
4. Marx's letter can be found at the Marxists Internet Archive.
5. Quoted in Sharon Smith, Subterranean Fire, p. 45; originally in "Rethinking Black Marxism: Reflections on Cedric Robinson and Others," Cultural Logic: An Electronic Journal of Marxist Theory and Practice, 3, no. 2, (Spring 2000).

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