A dialectical approach to privilege theory

Jesse Phillippe adds to an ongoing SocialistWorker.org debate on white skin privilege.

WHILE BILL Mullen's recent article "Is there a white skin privilege?" fabulously contextualizes one side of the debate, I would like to take a crack at laying out how to approach this debate dialectically.

Let's take a poignant example of a dialectical approach to an important debate on the left, the "born gay" or "born queer" debate. The religious right supplies the "thesis" (in the classical sense of thesis-antithesis-synthesis): in this case, it falls under the framework of "free will," that homosexuality is a choice, therefore a sin and should be punished or sanctioned, goes the propaganda. Liberals have, for a long time, provided the direct "antithesis": that people are born gay or have genetic dispositions, therefore it's not a sin. This could fall under the category of biological determinism.

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

H├ęctor 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

But Marxists and other radicals have long known that the parameters of the conservative/liberal debate are wrong, and therefore, we provide the "synthesis" (which is not to be confused with a compromise). So that while there may be genetic dispositions toward non-hetero-normative forms of sexuality or gender identity, these attributes are, at least mostly, socially influenced and constructed. It really doesn't matter if someone chooses to experiment with or change their sexuality--they should be treated with equality one way or the other.

The debate over whether there is white privilege/benefit elicits a similar dynamic. Racist employers (and many on the left), providing the thesis, have argued that white workers benefit from being racist and organizing racist unions. The antithesis, provided largely by the Communist Party and Victor Perlo in the 1970s (and by Tony Cliff), is that there is no benefit; therefore, white workers should not be racist.

I am proposing that the synthesis is to point out that workers and activists are not blind, nor do they come to us as blank slates looking for easy yes-or-no answers. They know that some benefit is given to many white workers in a racist society (although not directly taken from Black workers by white workers). But that does not justify adopting racist attitudes. In fact, nothing justifies racism. So while we should admit that a benefit exists for white workers in a racist society, we should argue that fighting against racism is in the interest and to the benefit of all workers.

The point, ultimately, is to further contextualize the debate in part by attempting to do justice to all of its sides, which I will try to do here. There should, of course, be no confusion as to why racist employers would argue that racism benefits white workers. Therefore, it would seem logical to make a directly antithetical argument to that of the employers. For example, Victor Perlo's educational book The Economics of Racism was published by International Publishers in the mid-'70s, a time when, as Manning Marable explains in How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, Blacks were losing jobs that were given to white workers on a mass basis.

In other words, at a time when it was clear that Blacks were losing and whites gaining jobs because of their respective skin colors (which no one can deny would be considered a benefit for whites), intellectuals around the Communist Party were calling for a directly antithetical argument to the one that the employers were using. This may have made sense at the time, but, it is our intent to argue, we have to be cautious before we jump into that argument in the current political conditions.

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The fact is, we don't really know how racist white workers are, by and large. It is certainly very difficult to judge that in day-to-day conversations that we have with people. The influence of conflicting ideological trends is so strong in today's world that people can actually hold political views that would support structural racism, while fully believing that they deplore racism on an individual level or on other structural levels. This is also borne out in opinion polls and the way in which the wording of the questions that structure those polls can get different results. So we really don't know how this dynamic will play out politically in terms of mass struggle.

I am willing to concede that the "no benefit" argument, as I will call it from here on out, may become useful in some labor struggles as counter-propaganda against that of the employers. But that is a strategy that should be assessed at the moment, and not held on to in an irrational terror that a mass racist backlash will erupt at any minute. For now, though, it doesn't really make sense in the struggles in which we are currently participating.

I realize that this can be viewed alternatively as both a rosy picture of the consciousness of the working class and as a defeatist attitude as to our potential power as a, still small, revolutionary group. But I contend that it is an attempt to be realistic to say that "we just don't know" where consciousness is at. For what it is worth, an interesting debate about this subject took place on SocialistWorker.org during the 2008 presidential campaign season (starting with "The myth of the reactionary working class" and ending with "Impact of decades of racist backlash").

Simultaneously, some on the left have argued that we either cannot organize whites, or can do very little except to sit back, analyze and "check our privilege." These arguments are, of course, seldom useful to the political struggles that activists are engaged in.

So, as can be expected, the "no benefit" argument has also functioned as a counter-argument against the pessimism and defeatism of some sections of the left. For the International Socialist tradition, this dovetails nicely with Tony Cliff's rejection of the labor aristocracy theory. While varying versions of the labor aristocracy theory may be wrong in asserting that the economic roots of reformism and even passivity in the working class are based in a bribe that is given to a layer of workers, that does not mean that the economic factors that lead to stratification within the working class do not constitute a benefit (relative, concrete, or otherwise).

It seems that for many socialists who have followed the lead of the British Socialist Workers Party in holding a sectarian attitude (although not necessarily a sectarian political practice) toward academic feminists and sections of the left that fall under the category of identity politics, there has been an insistence on describing working-class whites as not having "benefits" or "privileges" (and sometimes distinguishing these words from the advantages that white workers do receive) over working-class Blacks.

While the confusion about these words may exist on the semantic level, attributing some transitive form of the word "benefit" in a similar way as the usage of the word "exploit" does not exist in the dictionary, and its rigid use in this way is largely confined to (some) Marxist study circles. It nonetheless became a semantic litmus test to which those, who want to maintain a sectarian attitude toward some sections of the left, have attributed some mythical political significance.

The answer then is not only to admit that a benefit exists while arguing that all workers would benefit much more by fighting against racism, but is also, in fact, a kind of a psychological answer, which, simply put, is to stop obsessing on the one hand, and self-flagellating on the other, over the question of whether white workers benefit!
Jesse Phillippe, Champaign, Ill.

Vanessa Beck contributed to this Readers' View.