Trayvon Martin’s murder has provoked a response unlike anything I’ve seen in my decade or so of anti-racist activism. Though cases like the Jena 6 drew a nationwide response, Trayvon’s case, undoubtedly aided by social media, has served as a galvanizing force that has not remained a lone instance of racism, but has worked to push the cases of the thousands of African Americans slain by cops, judges, and vigilantes into the foreground. Because of Trayvon, we now know about Ramarley, Rekia, and Bo too. This is an extremely exciting development, and while it is still too early to tell, I’m hopeful that this represents the beginning of a new movement against white supremacy in the US, dedicated to tearing down the new Jim Crow.
As always, the rise of a new movement has highlighted important theoretical differences among those fighting racism. The disagreements and arguments that follow from these differences are an important aspect of a democratic movement culture, and are to be welcomed. They give all of us a chance to learn from each other, to figure out what we really think, and to try and craft a strategic orientation for our movement.
In the case of this movement, the debate that has surfaced most prominently concerns the question of white privilege. It was raised primarily by a youtube video, in which a white activist chastised other white activists for wearing ‘I am Trayvon Martin’ shirts. Doing so, she argued, obscures the white privilege of these activists, and makes it seem as if Trayvon’s murder were merely an arbitrary injustice, and not part of a system of white supremacy that relentless oppresses African Americans. Generally, white activists need to recognize their privilege and the fact that they are closer to George Zimmerman than Trayvon. Only by doing so will they be able to overcome the racism with which they’ve been socialized.
The video set off a debate. Sherry Wolf responded with a piece criticizing the notion of white privilege, and arguing that white workers do not, in fact, benefit from racism. Divided as a class by racism, they suffer the exploitation and oppression visited upon them by the capitalist class even more intensely, since they are unable to unite as a class to combat it. Sherry’s post prompted a thoughtful rejoinder from Alex Fields, which has helped to clarify some of the main issues and stakes involved in the debate. Alex and I had a short back and forth on facebook, which I’ve posted below, before agreeing to go public. In what follows, I will respond to the points Alex raised in both his post and on facebook, and try to lay out what I think the most important critiques of white privilege theory are, and why I think the basic position Sherry defends is a robust prescription for anti-racist politics.
To begin with, I thought it might be helpful to lay out what I perceive as the points of agreement between myself and Alex. If I am mistaken about any of these, please feel free to correct me. Alex and I both have caveats or different emphases on these points, but I take this to be the general ground of agreement.
1.) White supremacy is central to contemporary American society. African Americans and other people of color are oppressed in manifold ways, from mass incarceration to being treated as unreasonably angry when they try to bring up racist oppression. This is a system that must be destroyed, and collective political action is necessary for this to be accomplished.
2.) The existence of white supremacy means that white Americans have untold advantages over African Americans in many aspects of life. While the degree to which whites can take advantage of these varies tremendously with class, they nonetheless constitute the material basis of racism among white Americans. If whites were not actually in better funded schools, able to escape the worst ravages of mass incarceration etc, racism would simply not be an effective ideology. In a number of crucial ways, whites have it better.
3.) Part of building an effective movement against white supremacy involves white activists understanding their privilege, and taking it into account when building solidarity with people of color.
This is a substantial area of agreement on crucial political points, especially in the context of the ideology of post-racial America. I was glad to see Alex’s reply to Sherry written in a comradely (though still appropriately polemical) tone, since the disagreements that exist between these positions should not prevent us from seeing each other as comrades in the struggle against white supremacy. Nonetheless, there do exist disagreements between us on questions that are central to the movement. These center around the relationship of racism to capitalism and working class interests, and the political tendencies of white privilege theory. In a way, this is an awkward debate, since Alex’s critique of my position and my critique of his revolve around what we take to be implied by premises the other accepts, and not as much what the other is actually arguing. In such a debate, there are going to be lots of accusations of burning straw men, which can be frustrating. This is, I think, unfortunately unavoidable. I am going to try and keep such accusations to a minimum, since their proliferation can obscure the real issues in the debate. With that absurdly long exercise in throat clearing completed, it is time to get down to business.
In her essay, Sherry argues that racism serves to divide black and white workers, making both more vulnerable to capital. Thus, accepting racist ideas is not in white workers’ interest (note: this is different from claiming there is no material basis for the racism of white workers. Every ideology has material basis). Though she does not explicitly state this, she assumes (correctly, I believe) that racism is itself a product of capitalism. Alex argues that this perspective is mistaken, and leads to bad political conclusions. He describes two:
If by overcoming capitalism we get rid of both capitalism and the core of racism, but by getting rid of racism we only do damage to the capitalist system without ending it, it seems clearly to follow that it’s more worthwhile to struggle directly against capitalism. Second, there’s a difference in HOW we ought to struggle against racism on these competing views. Sherry pretty explicitly says that racism is a tool used by the ruling class to oppress workers, and that white workers do not materially experience privilege. If she’s right, then it follows that anti-racist struggles are just a struggle against racism in the capitalist power structure, and not struggles against racism within working class institutions, for example. This is a huge difference, and I think the former position is only a little bit different from saying that we really ought to just be struggling against capitalism, and not against racism as independent from capitalism.
I do not believe either of these actually follow from Sherry’s argument. In fact, her argument explicitly contradicts both of these claims. Sherry argues that white workers cannot pursue their class interests successfully (at least not very far) so long as they are divided (or divide themselves) from black workers by their racism. It follows ineluctably from this assertion that the only way white workers can pursue their class interests successfully is if racism is destroyed or significantly weakened. In other words, there is no struggle directly against capitalism. It is impossible to successfully confront capitalist class power without smashing the barriers to working class unity. If this is not done, we can forget about getting very far in expropriating the expropriators.
The second conclusion attributed to Sherry’s argument does not follow for much the same reason. Racism in working class institutions prevents those institutions from effectively damaging capitalist class power. Therefore, if we want those institutions to do their job and play a role in helping us stick it to the bosses, we need to purge them of racism. Only by doing so can we forge the institutions we need to both defend our basic class interests and, hopefully, go on the offensive.
Simply put, neither of the baleful political conclusions Alex argues are entailed by Sherry’s argument actually follow. If white workers’ class interests are damaged by racism, only by attacking it viciously wherever it reveals its head can those interests be pursued. In Alex’s original reply, he argued that this line of argument makes little headway against privilege theory, as “White privilege analysis does not say that working class white people are better off under racist capitalist heteronormative patriarchy than they would be under an alternative system like socialism; it says rather that within our current system of racism, white people in all classes are given real privileges that people of color are not.” But as my explanation of these points implies, this is misleading, since the comparison is not only between a socialist society and our current one. Even reforms which would leave white supremacy and capitalism in place, such as ending the drug war and mass incarceration, would be of benefit to white workers. They would weaken the role of war on crime rhetoric in binding white workers to the state, and free up money to be spent on redistributive programs that would weaken market dependency and thus strengthen labor’s hand. In other words, even within our current system of racism, white workers would benefit not from racism being strengthened, but from it being damaged.
As a final point on this side of the debate, it is curious that Alex asserts these conclusions follow from Sherry’s basic argument, given the political practice of the organization she is a part of. A quick glance at socialistworker.org reveals that the ISO devotes easily as much time to issues of racial oppression as it does to ‘direct’ struggles against capital. If it is a logical conclusion of the theory that the ISO holds that struggles against racism are less important than struggles against capital, what are we to conclude from the fact that their political practice seems to include no recognition of this? I have no doubt the sectarian trolls of the left have all kinds of speculations on this point, but if you accept, as I think Alex does, that comrades in the ISO are committed Marxists and sincerely dedicated to overthrowing white supremacy, this is a real question.
On the white privilege side of things, the debate centers around the political tendencies operative in privilege theory. I argued that there is a tendency to focus on changing white behavior, and that collective political action fades to the background. Since such action is the only way the institutions of white supremacy in the US are going to sustain much damage, this emphasis on changing behavior inhibits the struggle against racism. Alex replied, quite correctly, that while such an emphasis may predominate in some white privilege theory, that doesn’t invalidate the theory any more than the sometimes stiff structural focus of Marxists invalidates it. I want to argue, however, that this focus is actually dominant in white privilege theory. To understand why, I think it is worth stepping back for a moment and contextualizing the theory.
Critics of white privilege theory often argue that it is a result of diminished expectations. They often do so, as Sherry does, by asserting that things like the right not to be shot down while walking in a neighborhood are rights, not privileges, and it constricts our horizons to categorize them as such. I think it’s right to categorize privilege theory as the product of diminished expectations, but that this is a fairly weak example. Rather, I would argue that white privilege theory is a product of the defeat of the movements of the sixties and seventies, and that the emphasis on individual behavior we find there arose as an alternative to collective political action. In the wake of those defeats, it became far easier to imagine changing the behavior of individuals than organizing a collective movement around systemic change. Political pessimism wrote itself into political theory through a variety of ways – Roediger’s adaptation of social history to argue that racism came from below, for example, dovetailed politically with the theoretically very different arguments for a Foucauldian emphasis on the micro-politics of power. Not all of this, of course, was detrimental. Some of it filled in gaps left by more systemically-focused theories of racism. But what became hegemonic was an anti-politics – a turn away from collective action towards individual rehabilitation. Again, I’m not arguing that some of this wasn’t necessary and important. What is problematic is the way this focus excludes political action. It’s legible in the video Sherry is responding to. There, whites are encouraged to ‘critique norms,’ ‘give access to discourse,’ ‘raise children without indoctrination’ – important tasks both, but there is no mention of the need for collective political action. Some might say. as Alex has, that this is not in contradiction with such action, which is true. But, like white privilege theorists themselves often assert, silence is itself symptomatic.
In his replies, Alex offers a more nuanced theory of changing white behavior, arguing that it is necessary for white activists to realize their privilege and work to undo it in their organizing work. As he says “collective action and attempts at solidarity will usually fail if the white folks involved are unable to challenge the racist patterns in their own thought and behavior.” Here, changing white behavior is not a replacement for political action, as it so often is elsewhere, but rather its precondition. This is a much stronger argument, and I agree with much of it. Nonetheless, I think it is overextended, and that this overextension is politically harmful. While it is vitally important to create antiracist spaces in our movements, I don’t think it’s true that movements will usually fail if white privilege is not systematically confronted and resolved within movements. There’s a test case here in the Freedom Summer campaign of 1964. There, thousands of mostly white college students from across the country descended on Mississippi for a voter registration drive. As white privilege theorists would predict, they caused a lot of trouble. Coming from white backgrounds, they didn’t realize the danger that they were asking black folks to put themselves in just by voting. Their privilege blinded them to the fact that they could be putting someone in danger simply by knocking on their door. Many of them had far less developed racial awareness than the majority of white activists today, coming from liberal backgrounds in which the south was conceived as a totalitarian society in contrast to the liberal north. Racism was seen as a regional aberration, not a systemic feature of American society. Yet and still, Freedom Summer was a success. It undoubtedly would have been more effective if the privilege of these students had been confronted and worked through. But their failure to do so did not sabotage the movement.
Now, I am unequivocally not arguing that white privilege in movements is not a problem, or that it does not hamper movements, or anything like that. Whenever it surfaces, it needs to be confronted. But identifying white privilege as one of the most important factors in the failure of collective political action leads to a mistaken political perspective that cannot be a solid foundation on which to build a movement. Rather than white privilege, I would argue that what explains the failure of significant movements to develop is the same thing that explains the general weakness of the left – the defeats of the last wave, the hegemony of liberal pro-democratic party politics, the legacy of Stalinism, the implosion of significant far left groups, etc. If we think that white privilege is the most important thing holding our movements for racial justice back, we’re likely to miss a good deal of this, which makes it very difficult to address successfully. Again, this isn’t to suggest that addressing white privilege in movements isn’t important – it’s crucial. Assigning an improper explanatory role to it (or anything else, for that matter), however, does nothing to strengthen our movements.
I hope this does as well clarifying my position as Alex’s piece did his. These issues are absolutely central to anyone concerned with rejuvenating Left politics in the US, and I am very heartened to see them being discussed and debated among comrades.