Racism is Not about White Skin Privilege

Alan Spector, Purdue University Calumet

The image of a police car appears in the rear view mirror as the driver of a
car glances up. Proceeding for five or six blocks, the driver notices that
the police car is still following. As the driver makes a right turn, the
police car follows, and seven blocks further down the street, the driver is
quite aware that the police car is still following behind -- no lights, no
siren, no request to pull over....just following. While it may well be a
coincidence, the driver may nevertheless start to experience anxiety. "Did I
commit a traffic violation? Will I have to take a day off of work to go to
court? Will there be a fine? Will I get points against my driver's license?
Will my car insurance go up by several hundred dollars?" Anxiety. For
perhaps 80% of the population in the U.S., this kind of experience creates
anxiety. For much of the other 20%, however, the anxiety is much more
intense. For the young black male driving through Gary, Indiana at 11 p.m.,
the anxiety includes: "Will my car be searched? Will I be humiliated? Will
my car be damaged? Will I be roughed up? How should I act? If I'm quiet, the
cop might think I'm being hostile. If I'm friendly, he might think I'm being
sarcastic. My friend was arrested for disorderly conduct last week in a
traffic stop. How should I act? What's going to happen now?"

Is the young black man acting "paranoid?" Or is he reflecting the reality
more accurately than any sociology text book can do? Racism is not just a
set of erroneous ideas. Racist oppression is a powerful material force in
the world that does severe damage to hundreds of millions of people.

Many who oppose racist oppression and racist ideology and culture are
skeptical of many on the Left who emphasize "class" in ways that ignore the
particular effects of racist oppression ("class reductionism") or who use
phrases like "black and white unite" without making clear  that the unity
has to be on the basis of fighting racism as opposed to a unity that calls
on minority group members to tone down their struggle. And this skepticism
has a material basis: there have been many instances in American history
when labor and even socialist movements downplayed the struggle against
racism or worse, even promoted racist policies against immigrant, Native
American, and black workers. Racist oppression is a persistent reality with
destructive material effects that can be measured in terms of infant
mortality, unemployment, average family income, incarceration rates and a
dozen other indicators. But acknowledging the existence of racist
oppression -- that on average members of minority groups experience more
oppression than members of the majority (so-called "white" SCW) group --
does not mean that members of the SCW have "White Skin Privilege."  Rooted
in psychology, rooted in material stucture, rooted in class,

There are several problems with this term. For starters, rather than
enhancing our understanding of the many ways that capitalism oppresses
people, it oversimplifies it by separating class oppression from racist
oppression the same way that the class reductionists do. If one understands
class as a relationship rather than as a one-dimensional income variable,
then one can understand that racist oppression and the ideology that
reinforces it are related to material processes of exploitation and that
flow from material inequality and the need to justify it, rather than seeing
racist oppression as primarily flowing from racist thoughts that are somehow
independently ingrained into the psyche of all members of the majority
group.  Racist ideas ARE deeply ingrained, but they are not inherent. This
is evident by the inconsistencies of racist myths and the flexibility
utilized by racists as theories shift into contradiction with previous
racist theories.

A second problem is that racism is not just a "black/white" relationship or
even a "white/not white" relationship. Do black autoworkers in the U.S.
"enjoy" privilege over black autoworkers in South Africa? Members of
minority groups can participate in racism. Generally, it is very rare that
members of minority groups can enforce racism against members of the
majority ("white") group. But members of minority groups can enforce racism
against members of other minority groups and sometimes even cooperate in the
racist oppression of the minority group that they might seem to be
identified with. There are many examples of this in the first case, from
Japanese mistreatment of Koreans to Israeli Zionist mistreatment of Arabs to
some black U.S. soldiers attacking Vietnamese and Panamanians and a thousand
other examples, and in the second case, of the alliance between the racist
apartheid forces and black anti-ANC forces in South Africa, or the role of
Louis Farrakhan today in the U.S.

Thirdly, the rhetoric of  "white skin privilege" implies that wealthy black
capitalists are essentially friends to the black working class while (with a
few exceptions) white working class people are essentially adversaries of
the black working class. This not only mistakenly "others" white working
class people; it also leads black working class people into the trap of
supporting certain elements in the black community who are serving the
interests of the most powerful racists!

Finally, while the term "white privilege" creates confusion, the term "white
skin privilege" is much worse, because it reinforces the dangerous myth that
SKIN, biology is somehow at the root of differences among people.

But are there some privileges associated with being "white?" If a white
college student gets a well-paying job doing road construction because his
uncle arranged it, isn't that a type of privilege not available to the black
college student who probably doesn't have a "white" uncle? What about the
privilege of being able to buy a house that rapidly appreciates in value
because it is in a certain neighborhood? These are clearly short-run
advantages. As anti-racists, we have a duty to expose the racist processes
that deny members of minority groups a decent life. And we have a special
responsibility to directly confront the myth of reverse discrimination, so
popular in the media and on campus these days. But capitalism as a system
means misery for the great majority of people. This system, at its most
gentle, produces stressful lives and alienated personal relationships for
most people; at its worst, we have and will see many members of the
so-called "majority" group experience the misery of economic hardship,
political/police repression, and war. Already we see that life for many
white people in small towns across the U.S. is not that different from life
in the black and Latino inner cities -- with widespread unemployment,
despair, drugs, and violence. Perhaps the language of "more oppressed" is a
more useful way of explaining the processes of racist oppression than the
language of "white privilege."  Racist exploitation is a key source of
profits that keeps capitalism afloat, and racist ideology is a key source of
power for the capitalists by keeping the working class divided. If
capitalism harms the white working class and even many in the so-called
"middle class", then members of those groups do not ultimately benefit from
the racism that keeps capitalism afloat!

In the short run, and admittedly the short run can last longer than some of
us might like, there are tangible differences in the material quality of
life for members of different racial-ethnic groups. This must be exposed and
opposed. But asking people to "give up their white skin privilege" can be
one of those statements that sounds very radical but in fact leads to no
change. Are we demanding that white professors resign? Better to ask the
people fight against racism, even if it means risking losing one's job! That
is an active, anti-racist stance that unites people while it aggressively
fights racism as opposed to a strategy that can lead to empty "Apologies for
Slavery" and strategies that hide the reality that the real roots of racism
lie in class inequality, exploitation, and oppression -- which today means

During the Vietnam War, some protestors went to jail rather than pay taxes
because they did not want to be a part of supporting the war. With all due
respect to their motives and unselfish dedication, the more effective
strategy was to pay the taxes and then work very, very hard to stop the
war -- even if it meant risking jail because of anti-war actions. It is not
a question of "giving up privileges", however one might do that. There will
be those who rationalize and passively exploit the oppression of others, and
that should be exposed and opposed. But the rhetoric of "privilege" masks
the roots and processes of racist oppression rather than attacking them.
Different sections of the working class do experience different levels of
oppression. Some passengers on the Titanic drowned before others did. But
those who drowned a half-hour later can hardly be called privileged. Those
less oppressed do have a duty to focus special efforts to oppose the racist
discrimination against their working class sisters and brothers from
so-called "minority" groups. But the rhetoric of "privilege", while possibly
helpful in exposing racist treatment, ultimately obscures and diffuses the
anti-racist struggle.
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