Examining the idea of privilege

November 6, 2013

Alan Maass, Alan Peck and Alex Schmaus respond to the debate about the concept of "white skin privilege" and the Marxist approach to racism and the anti-racist struggle.

An injury to one is an injury to all

I APPRECIATE the discussion that has taken place over the past few days (Monday here and Tuesday here) about Bill Mullen's article "Is there a white skin privilege?" Both the article and the contributions have been thought-provoking, and I'm sure there's more to come. But I did want to write now to disagree with how David Camfield characterized Bill's article.

I think David unfairly suggests that Bill downplays the drastic differences between the day-to-day experiences of whites who do not face racial oppression, and Blacks and other people of color who do. David also charges Bill with being "reductionist"--an accusation that carries the weight of its use by critics against Marxism as a whole, for supposedly consigning oppression and the struggle against it to secondary status relative to the class struggle.

This is simply untrue. Bill begins his article by referencing "[w]idening 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."

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

As for being reductionist, I think Bill's article is devoted to making the case that Marxism--starting with Karl Marx himself, as Bill shows especially well in his final section--recognizes racism and other forms of oppression as a central and indispensible aspect of capitalism, which requires that the struggle against racism and oppression be central and indispensible for socialists.

Having a critique of the theory of white skin privilege as it's applied by proponents like Peggy McIntosh doesn't mean ignoring or downplaying the hold of racism among whites, or the consequences of racism. I think Bill's article recognizes this--he has Marx himself do the work of explaining that hold, and its corrosive and corrupting impact on the working-class movement, with a well-known quote describing the attitude of British workers toward Irish workers:

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...

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.

David writes that Bill's article "evades the advantages that white people in the U.S. today...experience." But this is precisely the question that Bill takes up: Do the systematic disadvantages suffered by African Americans create corresponding advantages that are enjoyed by all whites equally? Or do some whites, those in the ruling class and aligned with it, benefit more than other whites? If so, how much more? And crucially, how do the advantages or benefits for white workers weigh against the contrary advantage for all workers in a united class struggle?

Readers’ Views

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I think there's a subtext to several of the different commentaries--implicit or explicit references to a discussion taking place within the International Socialist Organization and with fellow Marxists about our theoretical understanding of oppression, specifically in relation to ideas promoted by the Socialist Workers Party-Britain that reject or downplay the benefits working-class men derive as a consequence of the oppression of working-class women. In critiquing Bill, David quotes briefly from an article by Sharon Smith about this very discussion.

But Smith's project, I believe, is to jettison a sectarian obsession with calculating the level of "benefits"--especially when it leads to "rounding them down," so to speak--so that the ISO and other socialists can preserve the central Marxist case that women's oppression decisively "benefits" the continued rule of the capitalist class, and that any challenge to the power of that ruling class therefore requires challenging oppression and exploitation, with the aim of building a united working class struggle. I think that's the same case Bill wishes to make about racism and white skin privilege.

We can and should discuss the scope of advantages or benefits or privileges--David tends to use them interchangeably; I appreciate more precision, especially given the evolution of the meaning of "privilege" in discussions on the left, though the main point isn't the term itself--and the consequences of the grip of racist ideas and assumptions within the working class.

But it's important to be able to put forward a crucial aspect of the Marxist case--that white workers do have a material interest, which runs contrary to their experience of relative advantage, in challenging the racial oppression of Blacks--without it being seen as "evading" or "reducing" the existence of racism and the struggle against it.

The fundamental principle here is the old slogan: An injury to one is an injury to all. The struggle against exploitation and oppression holds the prospect of a better world for all workers--and the precondition for the success of that struggle is for all workers to champion the demands of the oppressed.
Alan Maass, Chicago

Demonstrating our solidarity

IT IS certainly the case that many things anti-racist radicals call privileges are actually rights that we should demand for everyone, like Peggy McIntosh's famous example of flesh-colored Band-Aids.

The typical Marxist argument is that calling these rights "privileges" suggests that they were unfairly conferred upon the privileged, and therefore must be given up. But is anyone seriously suggesting this? Are anti-racists demanding that white people be stopped and frisked at the same frequency as people of color? Are feminists calling for wages for men to be lowered to that of women? We should not spend a lot of time arguing against ideas that don't exist, especially when, on the surface, it makes us sound reactionary.

At the same time, there are privileges that really are privileges. In a society where everyone assumes you are straight and cisgender unless declared otherwise, straight, cisgender people have the privilege of strangers automatically relating to them by the correct sexuality and gender identity. This is not a right that we can demand for everyone. We instead have to get rid of the privilege of cis/straight assumption altogether.

When oppressed people confront their oppression vocally, they are often invalidated by people--including those supposedly on their side--who "have privilege." When we take up an argument against "privilege theory," while the substance of our argument may be right, we should not be surprised that it might come off as invalidating.

Being thoughtful about how we relate to one another, given the interpersonal expression of structural oppression--or "checking our privilege"--is not a waste of time, but a way to demonstrate solidarity.
Alan Peck, San Diego

What does privilege theory contribute?

COMPLIMENTS TO Bill Mullen for his valuable article, "Is there a white skin privilege?" Bill makes a compelling case that the concept of white privilege fails to advance satisfactory explanations of how racism originated, how it is reproduced and how it can be abolished.

Compliments are also due to the authors of the critical, yet comradely and thoughtful responses to Bill's article, especially the letters from Haley Swenson and Aaron Petkov.

Haley and Aaron both argue that white privilege is best understood not as a coherent theory, but as a concept that can be used to advance several different theories, or simply to describe racial inequalities. That is a useful clarification. And it is reminiscent of the way Sharon Smith and Nikeeta Slade discussed the concept of intersectionality at the Socialist 2013 conference in Chicago.

Sharon and Nikeeta argue that Marxism can be advanced by incorporating the Black feminist explanation of how women of color occupy a unique social position conditioned by intersecting, rather than simply overlapping, oppressions. At the same time, Sharon and Nikeeta argue that Marxists should reject attempts to utilize the same concept of intersectionality to advance postmodern and individualistic theoretical frameworks.

Should Marxists approach the concept of white privilege in a similar manner? I am not convinced that we should.

I can take Haley and Aaron's point that activists who utilize the concept of white privilege do not necessarily adhere to theories that are hostile to the Marxist project. But they have not clearly demonstrated how the concept actually advances the capacity of Marxism to explain the really important questions: how racism originated, how it is reproduced and how it can be abolished.
Alex Schmaus, Berkeley, Calif.

Further Reading

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