Making sense of society in order to change it

November 7, 2013

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor contributes to the discussion on racism and privilege.

BILL MULLEN'S article titled "Is there a white skin privilege?" engages the single most important political question that has challenged the American working class since the end of slavery: Is multiracial struggle possible in the United States?

Bill grapples with the difficulties that have complicated efforts to organize these struggles, including the crushing impact that racism has in African American communities. The article begins with a series of examples demonstrating that by every measure, African Americans suffer discrimination and racism, and these have real material consequences.

The other central question Bill poses in his article is what theoretical framework best explains the existence of racism in American society and can provide a strategy to ultimately end it--Marxism or whiteness theory (previously known as white skin privilege).

Bill argues that Marxism provides the most comprehensive analysis of the origins and an explanation for its persistence. Anchored in the Marxist analysis of racism is a strategy for its end--a united class struggle for a socialist society. Bill is not arguing over the moral superiority of Marxism versus other theories, but that Marxism has clearly identified the origins of racism in slavery and its persistence in the ruling class's interest in dividing the one class that has the capacity to overthrow capitalism.

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

Bill argues, conversely, that "whiteness theory" fails to explain the origins of racial inequality and does not offer a coherent strategy for combatting it. Of course, there are many iterations of "privilege theory," but what can be distilled from the different versions is: an acknowledgement of the existence of oppression, based on gender, sexual orientation, ability, ethnicity, nationality and beyond; an articulated desire for the oppressed to be the main voices in expressing and describing the experience of that oppression; and that those who do not suffer from a particular oppression are privileged as a result.

When the dominant society denies all of these realities, including basic facts like the existence of institutional racism or sexism, as opposed to the personal failures of working-class African Americans and women, it is easy to see why people gravitate toward these politics. But for all of its espoused solidarity with the oppressed, "privilege theory" leaves many issues untouched--the omission of which have direct consequences for political analysis, the organizing capacity of anti-oppression movements and ultimately the struggle to transform society.


THE MAIN lacuna in privilege theory or whiteness theory is the lack of sustained engagement with the issue of class. I realize that "intersectionality" is an attempt by some who use "privilege" as framework to introduce class into how oppression is viewed, but there are many others who do not, or who view class as yet another category of oppression and not as a fundamental way in which capitalism organizes society. For many others, society is divided between "the oppressed" and "the oppressor," which tells us nothing about the society, how it is organized, the origins of the oppression, or what social force can change it.

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These are critical questions, especially for the Black movement when we are living through a period of unprecedented formal Black political power--from the president of the United States to the largest number of Black elected officials in U.S. history. With whom is it being suggested that Black workers have more interest in combining forces with: white workers or the Black bourgeoisie? When, in Chicago, an African American woman, Barbara Byrd Bennett, led the racist charge to close more than 50 public schools, affecting tens of thousands of mostly Black and Brown children, who should Black parents have combined forces with: Bennett and her administration or white parents and white teachers from the Chicago Teachers Union?

The inconsistent ways in which privilege theory addresses the centrality of class complicates its ability to respond to these kinds of concrete questions.

But a correct Marxist analysis or theory does not make it any easier to act on. Marxists argue that a united working-class struggle is the only way to win, which is correct, but it does not necessarily explain why white workers are racist, even when it is against their own interests. Bill's article does not address this question except to explain the pains to which the ruling class goes to divide the working class. This is true, but does not explain why white workers are racist or the process by which they can break with racism.

I think white workers derive benefits, privileges or advantages--however one wishes to describe it--from being white in a racist society. These benefits cannot simply be described as a negative, such as "all workers are oppressed, but Black workers are specially oppressed by racism, which is not faced by white workers." This is inadequate in actually explaining the gains afforded by whiteness in this society.

These benefits are born out materially in ways that Bill described at the beginning of his article. By every measure, white working-class people are materially better off than Black working-class people. This, of course, is highly relational, because all workers are oppressed and exploited, including white workers. But I would argue that this differential in conditions, from pay to access to housing and health care, has a deleterious effect on the development of working-class consciousness. The mixed and uneven consciousness of white workers is not just ideological, but it is rooted in material reality.

The utility of understanding this is to explain the resiliency of racist ideas in a way that an emphasis only on "racist propaganda" does not capture. This has nothing to do with racist intent of an individual white working person, but these differentials are institutional and built into American capitalism. It necessarily complicates the fight against racism because it convinces white workers that they have something to lose by not being white--which, of course, is true. If they did not get some advantage--and with it, the illusion that the system works for them--then racism would not be effective in dividing Black and white workers.

The distinctions and differences among workers function to create a distorted view of reality that turns the traits attributed to the oppressed into a kind of "common sense," which in turn deepens those divisions. African Americans are poorer, have worse housing, go to worse schools, have a shorter life span and generally live in worse conditions, which helps to perpetuate the image in the minds of white workers that African Americans are inferior.

But the problem with this so-called "common sense" is that it is based on surface appearances and information, and does not reach deeper to give a systemic explanation for the disparities that exist in society. There is a reason why W.E.B. Du Bois used the concept of "psychological wage" to explain racial oppression and its impact on white working consciousness--as opposed to just the "psychology of racism."

This, however, does not mean that white workers are irredeemably or intractably racist. These advantages afforded to white workers pale in comparison to the obscene profits derived from the labor of all workers and hoarded at the top by the ruling class. In other words, white workers have no interest in capitalism and have every interest in uniting with Black and Brown workers to fight for a new society. That fight has to be organized on the basis of shared interests, solidarity and an active fight against racism as the central ideological struggle of the American working class.


IT IS not clear what whiteness theory or privilege theory in general suggests as a way to combat the racism it fully acknowledges exists. In place of an actual strategy for fighting racism, "privilege checking" becomes the only viable option. Privilege checking is the practice of "calling out" acts that are either racist, sexist, homophobic and beyond. The idea is that if attention is brought to oppressive behavior, it somehow affects or potentially transforms the oppression.

To be fair, most activist circles and networks that actively utilize "privilege checking" as a practice do not believe that the act of "calling out" bad behavior will change the institutional nature of oppression--they view it as creating a "safe space" within political meetings.

But even this practice relates to a larger problem of privilege theory and its inability to articulate a strategy for fighting racism. Privilege checking, despite its intended purpose, can also become a way of policing a meeting and restricting someone's ability to speak, based on whether or not they face a specific oppression.

In other words, speaking privileges and authority in a meeting is not derived from political clarity or the lucidity of an argument--the question is reduced to whether or not an individual has experienced oppression. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive, and they often overlap, but the notion that experiencing oppression alone forms the basis of political leadership and authority is even more problematic when applied to the class struggle.

The most dramatic shift in African American politics in the last 40 years, since the Black Freedom Struggle of the 1960s, is the emergence of a Black political and economic elite that has total allegiance to American capitalism, while holding poor African Americans in utter contempt.

Theoretically, politically and strategically, we have to be able to explain this development and its impact on Black politics. Should Black teachers, students and parents unite with the African American woman, who has certainly experienced racism and sexism in her life and career, but who is also leading the charge to undo public schools in Chicago? Or should they unite with the vice president of the Chicago Teacher Union who also happens to be a white, heterosexual male?

Barack Obama has certainly experienced racism in his life before being president, and most assuredly now, every time he has to deal with any of the Republican Party Teabaggers. But he has also championed policies that absolved the banks and Wall Street of any responsibility for crashing the economy, for which all workers have suffered as a result. Should Black workers put that aside and unite around Obama or should they unite with white workers to challenge multiple aspects of Obama's political program that regularly defend business interests to the detriment of all working-class and poor people?

In the abstract, perhaps these are complicated questions. But in the daily struggles to defend public education, fight for real health care reform or stop predatory foreclosures, these are the concrete questions every movement faces and must respond to.

After all, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's last two school superintendents were African American, because he cynically believed that it would make closing dozens of schools in the Black community easier. Obama uses his status as a Black man to appeal to ordinary African Americans not to challenge his administration, even though conditions are worse today for African Americans than when he took office. This is not an abstract discussion of "privileging" class over race, but it means theoretically understanding the dynamic way in which each affect the other.


FINALLY, THE "blind spot" of class within privilege theory not only leaves it incapable of explaining class division among the oppressed, but it also underemphasizes the material foundation for solidarity and unity among the working class. Instead, the concepts of solidarity and unity are reduced to whether or not one chooses to be an "ally."

There's nothing wrong with being an ally, but it doesn't quite capture the way in which the future of Black and white workers in this country is inextricably linked. It's not as if white workers can simply choose not to "ally" with Black workers, and life will continue on its merry way. The scale of attack on the living standards of the working class is overwhelming. There is a bipartisan effort to systematically dismantle the already feeble and anemic American welfare state. The recent $5 billion cut to food stamps--on which tens of millions of white workers rely--is only the beginning. Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance and beyond will all be on the table.

In this context, solidarity is not just an option; it is crucial to the ability of the working class itself to resist the constant degradation of its living standards. Solidarity is only possible through relentless struggle to win white workers to anti-racism, to expose the lie that Black workers are worse off because they somehow choose to be, and to win the white working class to the understanding that they too will live unfulfilled lives--even if marginally or more than marginally better lives--than Black workers.

Success or failure is contingent on whether or not working people see themselves as brothers and sisters in struggle--a bond that eclipses the distance implied by "ally." Solidarity is the ability to overcome the inevitable gap created by the absence of the experience of oppression, but an understanding, nevertheless, that the fate and future of all working people is linked.

Bill offered a small list of multiracial struggles that achieved some measure of success. The list of failed multiracial struggles, of course, is significantly longer. The question that confronts our movement, then, is under what circumstances those struggles succeeded, when and why other efforts failed, and what we can learn from both situations.

The reality is that as long as capitalism exists, material and ideological pressures push white workers to be racist and all workers to hold each other in general suspicion. But there are moments of struggle when the mutual interests of workers are laid bare, and when the suspicion is finally turned in the other direction--at the ruling parasites that live well while the rest of us don't.

The key question is whether or not in those moments of struggle, a coherent political analysis of society, oppression and exploitation can be articulated that makes sense of the world we live in, but that also champions the vision of a different kind of society--and a way to get there.

Marxism is not a dogma; it's a guide to action and has been utilized by colored peoples all over the planet for more than 100 years to explain and make sense of their oppression and exploitation. What hundreds of millions of those people have concluded is that capitalism is at the root of it all. This, of course, has not led to a uniform response to capitalism, but it does say something about the appeal of Marxism, despite its detractors who often complain about a perceived racial "blind spot."

Marxists share a hatred of oppression and a demand for its end with the vast majority of activists and radicals who use some framework of privilege theory to understand the world. There are thorny questions along the road to liberation, and they demand declarative answers, beginning with a clear understanding of the function of class in capitalist society. The absence of this clarity on the question of class in privilege theory means it falls short as an all-encompassing analysis of society. This does not make the framework bad or good, or those who adhere to such politics bad or good; it just makes it a different framework.

In any event, I hope this somewhat long reflection on Bill's article contributes something to an important discussion on race and class in the United States.

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