Tag Archives: white privilege

Race v. Class

6 Nov

One of the perennial debates among liberals is the one over which is the more powerful organizer of social and economic inequity – race or class. To those who believe that class is fundamental, racism may be important as a moral issue, but is only strategically significant because it gets in the way of working class unity across race.

Those folks, well-intentioned though they may be, are wrong. They’re wrong because they’ve bought into an interpretation of history that overlooks the structural dimensions of racism, and the roots of American capitalism in slavery and native genocide. Here’s what I mean.

The first Europeans to colonize what would become the U.S. didn’t leave Europe simply to escape religious persecution. They left in order to escape wage labor. And while not all of the early Europeans were landowners, the slave trade provided the necessary capital, and the uncompensated labor of slaves provided the profit margin, to buoy the colonial economy, putting white wage earners in North America among the highest paid wage earners in the world by the beginning of the 18th century.

With these wages, whites bought land and became their own bosses. This was the lure of America to early European immigrants.  Here, whiteness was a golden ticket to independence. Only after the end of the Civil War did a white working class start to emerge in the U.S. And while those white workers were often terribly exploited, most enjoyed a white wage that was higher than the wages of free Blacks and Asian coolies and subsequent generations of low wage workers of color.

American corporations have always relied upon highly exploited non-white labor, either here in the U.S. or abroad. One only need consider what happened to apple growers when immigration crack downs drove Latino migrant workers out of the orchards. What should have been a boom year ended up a bust, with fruit rotting on the trees and no amount of recruitment producing lines of white workers to take the place of Latino immigrants even in the midst of an economic crisis.

The great American middle class was built upon the exploitation of people of color. While many harken back to the immediate post-WWII years as a time of economic growth and prosperity, people of color were almost entirely excluded from the opportunities afforded to white Americans during those years. Much of the prosperity of post-war America was financed through the super-exploitation of workers of color whose low wages depressed the costs of basic goods and services.

In order to address oppression by class, we have no choice but to deal with how we are classed by race.

But the success with which politicians and business leaders are able to exploit white nostalgia for those “good old days”when racist codes protected white privilege, even among whites who abhor racism, speaks to just how deeply engrained racism is in our culture. Everything from the dream of American social mobility to the American obsession with home ownership, our suspicion of “big” government, and our endless fight with ourselves over who is deserving and not deserving of social safety net programs is rooted in racism. In order to make change, you have to change the way we are organized socially, and you need to change culture. In the U.S., our culture and our social relations are color coded.

That’s why for me, the argument is a no-brainer. Race informs my understanding of class, and not the other way around.

Voting and the Battle for White Cultural Dominance

28 Sep

Since the beginning of 2011, conservatives have rolled out a broad wave of voter suppression efforts ranging from imposing voter ID requirements and blocking early voting, to the intimidation tactics of groups like True the Vote. Not surprisingly, these efforts to place road blocks, including what amount to poll taxes, between eligible voters and the ballot box are targeted primarily at young people and people of color, the groups that helped make up the margin of victory for Barack Obama in 2008.

But then you probably already knew that.

Some of you also probably know that voter suppression didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s just the latest in a long line of similar efforts that runs all the way through American history.

As I mulled over that history, an ad from my childhood popped into my head.  Here’s that ad.

Looking for it online took me to a video I bookmarked. I’m sure you’ve seen it but here’s another look.

It struck me that the two videos serve well as bookends around a cultural narrative that I believe is at the heart of the voting rights struggle. I bet you’re wondering, “what again?”

It’s not as tortured a connection as it seems. You see, I think the current voting rights fight isn’t just about politics. Instead, I think of it as just one more battle within a larger war over who gets to be an American, and who among Americans gets to control the meaning of America. That war is not just about political rights, it’s about who controls our culture, and that’s something to be very concerned about.

Why? Because culture is at the heart of identity. Our identities, how we are defined, whether or not we are recognized as who we believe ourselves to be and found worthy, drives our politics. When our identities are threatened, we will do almost anything to protect ourselves.

Food, especially food that “swings American,” is a great gauge of American culture and identity. For instance, we think of hamburgers as an all-American food. But hamburger is named after Hamburg, Germany. The hotdog also has German roots. But these are, truly, American foods. Just as American as chop suey, General Tso’s chicken, and fortune cookies, all also invented in America but that we, nonetheless, think of as Chinese.

I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, back when that La Choy commercial was considered about as offensive as selling water softener as an “ancient Chinese secret.” That was a much more naive time for whites. That naivete was rooted in the unquestioned dominance of whiteness. In fact, so dominant were whites that American was synonymous with Caucasian.

But the racial equity movements of my childhood would soon shatter that naivete, pulling whites into a struggle to maintain their cultural dominance that made the contours and vulnerabilities of whiteness visible to whites, perhaps for the first time. Until then, being the assumed racial and cultural norm of America was fundamental to white identity and to the ethos of American exceptionalism.

But when white cultural advantage was challenged, white folk mobilized. KKK membership grew, White Citizens Councils formed, and the Republican Party stepped in to provide a political vehicle for white backlash that is still in effect today.

And now, as the racial demographics of the U.S. and the world turn to the increasing numerical advantage of non-whites, the backlash movement that peaked in the 1990s is resurgent. Membership in racist Patriot groups and vigilante border patrols is on the rise, and Tea Parties and groups like True the Vote are wreaking havoc on our political process. And they’re not nearly done yet. The global scale of white conservative ambitions can be measured by the body count in what increasingly appears to be a permanent war against the so-called Muslim world, the popular support for which is founded in Islamophobia.

It is in this context that the current voter suppression efforts we are seeing around the country should be understood. Overcoming these efforts in this election cycle is only one among many battles. Unless we see that battle as connected to the battles for immigration rights, religious freedom, racial equity and gender equity, reproductive and sexual freedom, and the battle to curtail the ambitions driving the expansion of American empire, we are missing the dynamics of the larger war and may soon find much more than voting rights among it’s casualties.

Preoccupied with Occupy

27 Sep

The recent one-year anniversary of the start of the Occupy Wall Street uprising has me preoccupied with occupy. Here’s what I’ve been mulling over.

First, so we’re on the same page (even if, maybe, with differing opinions), I don’t think of Occupy as a broad based social movement. I know that’s not a popular idea with Occupy activists, but I just don’t, and as a matter of respect, I’m putting it out there.

Instead, I think of Occupy as a cultural uprising rooted in a very specific and limited experience of economic injustice of a particular group. I know that where that group is concerned there are many exceptions, but I’m addressing the norm here, so hang in with me.

This was first made evident to me by seeing Occupy activists in Hawai’i, a place in the midst of a major struggle over the U.S. occupation of the Hawaiian nation. What I saw was an almost entirely white group on the island of Hawai’i holding signs saying “Occupy Hawai’i.” That, I think, is a bright red flag indicating that particular Occupy faction’s cultural isolation.

Regardless, I was then and am still, a fan. Occupy opened up space on the left of the political spectrum for a discussion of economic injustice that had for too long been marginalized. Good for them. Good for us. All around, a very good deal. As an uprising, that is.

It’s as an aspiring movement that I find them problematic. That’s what’s been eating at me lately.

I believe that a truly transformative movement must originate from the imaginations and needs of those on the bottom of the global economy. When people on the bottom stand up, all of us are lifted. And, at the bottom of the global economy, people of color are disproportionately represented, just as we were disproportionately unrepresented in the Occupy uprising.

Occupy is, at its core, an uprising of marginally middle class, downwardly mobile white people, many of whose hopes for upward mobility were riding atop the bubble that burst as the economy crashed in 2008. The rage they express, though righteous, is, I believe, as much about feeling cheated out of a status to which they feel entitled as it is about anger over the arrogance of elites. And that sense of entitlement is something most people of color know nothing of.

African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, were already suffering in a decades long recession before the crash affected white folks. And government inaction, horrible exploitation, and the arrogance of elites is nothing new to us. It is, in fact, the normative experience for most people of color.

For instance, the African American unemployment rate actually went down to 8% from a pretty steady rate of 8.4% in 2007. Before that, it held steady at about double the unemployment rate of whites for 4 years. The  unemployment rate among Native Americans was 7.7 percent in the first half of 2007. By 2010, it rose to 15.2%. Latinos have also historically suffered a higher rate of unemployment than whites. Even Asians, the so-called model minority, are suffering more from long-term unemployment since the crash than white people.

And when it comes to the mortgage crisis Black and Latino households were especially hard hit, and many long before middle class families were impacted. It ain’t right but it makes sense when you consider that the subprime mortgage market was created in order to exploit the lack of mortgage opportunities for African Americans resulting from red-lining, racial exclusion from prime real estate markets, and, for many, bad credit incurred in what has always been a bad economy for Blacks.

Where was Occupy then? And what does their silence pre-crash indicate about how the core of the uprising defines their collective self-interest? All of this nothing to do with the morality or earnest good intentions of occupiers as individuals, but much to do with how white privilege distorts the ability of white folks to define their self-interest in broad terms.

In this instance, that self-interest is far too bound by the color line. You know, that line marking self-interest that runs behind whites people’s heels and in front of other folks toes? I know they don’t have eyes behind their heads, but they could just turn around, that is, if they’re not too distracted by the prizes or problems they see in front of them; prizes and problem made all the more distracting in times of economic hardship.

I’m not suggesting we shun Occupy or deny them our support as one in a broad range of tactics employed by the movement we will, I hope, create with them. People of color and the very poor are no more moral or just than Occupy. We’re just positioned such that when we move, fewer people are left behind. And, because of how we’re positioned within the structural inequities of the U.S. and the world, the solutions we create have the most far reaching and positive stimulative effect, both on our economy and on our political culture.

It’s time for people of color, especially those of us advocating for the poorest among us, to start telling our stories and  leading uprisings around our needs. We can’t expect Occupy to do it for us. If we don’t, our radical politics will be hemmed in by white rage on the right, and white rage on the left, and the spectacle being created on both sides will contribute further to our invisibility.

The Good White People: A Quick Tip on Countering Interpersonal Racism

1 Jun Anti-racist Whites

A while back I posted Four Tips on Talking About Racism. Those tips were -

  1. avoid moral superiority, after all, this is about what is strategic for the “we,” not just what feels good to “me;”
  2. find common ground;
  3. don’t guilt people into changing their minds – change leveraged through guilt is rarely very durable; and
  4. don’t be a smarty-pants.

That last one is probably the toughest. I mean, who doesn’t want to make racist people feel ignorant, right? The problem is, making folks feel foolish just makes you look like a snob.

Now that the review is over, here’s another tip -

Help white folks be “good” white people.

Cringing yet? Don’t. It’s really not that tough, and, anyway, just laying a list of grievances on people makes potential allies feel guilty while putting off the less persuadable white folks. Since there are, at least in my experience, fewer easy allies than there are white people who react to anti-racist rants like they’re anti-them, the attack strategy too often polarizes folks with too few on our side.

So, rather than isolate yourself, appeal to the good in white people.

Here’s a case in point:

Back in the day (circa late 80s/early 90s), Portland, Oregon had a nasty problem with neo-Nazi skinheads. The group I was active with documented over 200 members of Nazi groups in Portland, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. The hangers-on and unregistered believers were far greater in number. Violence statistics soared, earning Portland the moniker “the Mississippi of the North” in the national media.

We needed to reach people at the projected base of support for neo-Nazi and other racist recruitment to counter the rise in violence. That projected base of support was, of course, white.

I know that sounds like a tough sell, but we believed that liberal whites would respond to expressions of extreme racism with shame. The most virulent racism lives as an echo of our own histories. Depending on which side of the color line you’re on, the meaning is different, but, it resonates in one way or another for all of us. For that reason, overt racist appeals make liberal whites uncomfortable in our supposedly post-racial society.

So we gave “good” white people an opportunity to express that discomfort. Moreover, we helped them to draw a line in the sand between “good” and “bad” white people by giving liberal whites a leadership role in the fight against hate groups.

Whites opened their homes. They participated in campaigns to paint out racist graffiti and welcomed us to neighborhood meetings. They marched with us, and put themselves between violent racists and their targets in candlelight vigils. Whites also made donations, brought needed expertise, helped us to organize Rock Against Racism concerts in venues that served as racist recruitment grounds.

And helping “good” white people to draw that line in the sand achieved two more goals. First, it created political space among whites for a discussion of systemic racism and its relationship to violent racist groups. Second, it got a lot of people on our side; something that mattered to us because when extreme, even violent racism goes unchecked, the effects on mainstream political culture are never good.

All of this was made possible by first accepting that everyone can change, and then looking for soft entry points. Because all organizing is ultimately about giving people the opportunity to claim acknowledgement, respect, and dignity, appealing to white people’s sense that violent racists defamed them got folks organized.

So the next time you’re confronted by racism, don’t just attack. Isolate the racist, not yourself. Their racist actions could just be an opening to get the “good” white folks organized.

Blackness Is The Fulcrum

4 May

I’m often asked why I’ve focused so much more on anti-black racism than on Asians over the years. Some suggest I suffer from internalized racism.

That might well be true since who doesn’t suffer from internalized racism?  I mean, even white people internalize racism. The difference is that white people’s internalized racism is against people of color, and it’s backed up by those who control societal institutions and capital.

But some folk have more on their minds.  They say that focusing on black and white reinforces a false racial binary that marginalizes the experiences of non-black people of color. No argument here. But I also think that trying to mix things up by putting non-black people of color in the middle is a problem because there’s no “middle.”

So there’s most of my answer. I’m sure I do suffer from internalized racism, but I don’t think that racism is defined only in terms of black and white. I also don’t think white supremacy is a simple vertical hierarchy with whites on top, black people on the bottom, and the rest of us in the middle.

So why do I expend so much effort on lifting up the oppression of black people? Because anti-black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy.

A fulcrum is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the support about which a lever turns” or, alternatively, “one that supplies capability for action.” In other words, if you want to move something, you need a pry bar and some leverage, and what gives you leverage is the fulcrum – that thing you use so the pry bar works like a see-saw.

The racial arrangement in the U.S. is ever changing.  There is no “bottom.” Different groups have more ability to affect others at different times because our roles are not fixed.  But, while there’s no bottom, there is something like a binary in that white people exist on one side of these dynamics – the side with force and intention. The way they mostly assert that force and intention is through the fulcrum of anti-black racism.

Hang in there with me for a minute and consider this. Race slavery is the historical basis of our economy. Yes, there was/is a campaign of “Indian removal” in order to capture natural resources and that certainly is part of the story. But the structure of the economy is rooted in slavery.

Our Constitution was written by slave owners. They managed to muster some pretty nice language about equality, justice, and freedom for “men” because they considered Africans less than human. Our federal system is based on a compromise intended to accommodate slavery. Our concept of ownership rights, the structure of our federal elections system, the segregated state of our society, the glut of money in politics, our conservative political culture, our criminal codes and federal penitentiaries all evolved around or were/are facilitated by anti-black racism.

And this is not just about history.  Fear of black people drives our national politics, from the fight over Jim Crow in the 50s and 60s, to Willie Horton and the Chicago Welfare Queen in the 80s, and the War on Drugs, starting in 1982 right up to the present. Since 2001, the U.S. has spent about 1.3 trillion dollars on war. Since 1982 we’ve spent over 1 trillion dollars on the drug war.

About 82% of drug busts are for possession, while about 18% are for trafficking. Sound like an irrational way to wage a war on drugs? Not if it’s a war on black people.

According to Human Rights Watch, black males are incarcerated at a rate more than six times that of white males resulting in one in 10 black males aged 25-29 being held in prison or jail in 2009. The same report states:

blacks constitute 33.6 percent of drug arrests, 44 percent of persons convicted of drug felonies in state court, and 37 percent of people sent to state prison on drug charges, even though they constitute only 13 percent of the US population and blacks and whites engage in drug offenses at equivalent rates.

And why a war on people?  The war on drugs is the cornerstone of the “tough on crime” messaging campaign that is key to the Republican Southern Strategy. It suggests that extending civil rights to African Americans resulted in the crime wave of the 1970s (and not the baby boom as is suggested by sociologists) in order to drive white Southerners into the Republican Party.

And that “tough on crime” thing, that’s not just against black people.  It’s a propaganda war that is weakening civil rights and civil liberties for all of us.

There’s no hierarchy of oppressions where race is concerned, but anti-black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy.

The Privilege Game

27 Apr

In the classic book, Faces At The Bottom Of The Well:  The Permanence of Racism, legal scholar Derrick Bell put forth this proposition: “Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary ‘peaks of progress,’ short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance. This is a hard-to-accept fact that all history verifies. We must acknowledge it, not as a sign of submission, but as an act of ultimate defiance.”

I consider Derrick Bell a racial justice hero. To acknowledge the permanence of racism is indeed the ultimate act of defiance because this fact, once we acknowledged, leads necessarily to the conclusion that simple reform (what another great hero, the Rev. Mac Charles Jones, once told me leads only to re-formation of a broken system) will never lift us out of white supremacy. To end racism, we must look beyond reformation to transformation.

It’s a radical notion, but I’m a believer.

On the other hand, I’m also a practical sort. If we are to one day find ourselves at the threshold of radical transformation, we need a map to help us find our way, and then focus on getting there one step at a time.

On any map there are many paths to one’s chosen destination. For racial justice advocates, I think one path is the changing racial demography of the U.S.

By the year 2042, it is predicted that we will be a majority minority nation, with Latinos representing about a third of the population by no later than 2050. That means whites will soon no longer constitute the majority ethnic group. Even the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant group in the country and a bastion of whiteness and conservatism, is in decline.

What that means is that pretty soon, white supremacy may meet its greatest challenge. If we can get it together, people of color won’t have to ask whites for permission to create policies that address the destructive legacy of racism. But, the big question is, will we get it together and act as the majority, or will we remain divided and allow whites to remain in control as the largest minority?

To me, all of this hinges on something called privilege.

Racism endures in spite of generations of resistance because it is enforced by violence and intimidation, and empowered by privilege. It’s a carrot and stick situation. Without the carrot, the stick isn’t enough to keep us all doing our little bits to maintain white dominance.

Privilege, as I and and the Free Dictionary understand it, is special permission, special rights, or exclusive benefits granted as prerogatives of status that are exercised in order to exclude or harm others. Because privilege is given, it can also be taken away. And, because privilege always comes at someone’s expense, it keeps the majority of us who don’t have the power to grant privileges acting like a bunch of divided minorities.

Throughout history, white privilege has been granted to folks who didn’t used to be white. They Irish were labeled sub-whites to exploit them, and then were whitened to get their help in exploiting someone else even more. Around the middle of the last century, they decided Jews were white. And not too many years later, they began a process of whitening Asian Americans by granting us the status of “model minority” in order to promote the idea that if Asians can make it, the cause of poverty and lack of opportunity for Black and Brown people isn’t racism, it’s Black and Brown people.

And now they’re trying to do a job on Latinos by playing the good immigrant vs bad immigrant game. If you’re a “bad” immigrant, you’re “illegal.” That’s right, you’re illegal, you know, like crack cocaine or an unregistered gun or something. As an illegal person, you have hell to pay and more. Intimidation, violence, arrest, indefinite detention, deportation, and the list goes on.

But, if you’re a good immigrant, you get… Well, okay, I guess there’s not much of a carrot in this case. It’s mostly all about the stick. But at least you’re exempted from being treated like you’re illegal. So it pays to allow yourself to be cast as the good immigrant and allow the bigots to persecute the so-called bad guys and avoid the label “racist” by calling you “friend.”

You don’t get to have privilege without that nasty downside, whether you want it or not. And that downside is something we all pay for. It diminishes our humanity and it keeps us all vulnerable to being losers in the privilege game.

White Identity Politics

13 Apr

My recent post, Blackness is the Fulcrum struck a nerve. It landed me on Blacking It Up, a radio show hosted by L. Joy Williams and Elon James White as the Asian man who opposes anti-Black racism. It was a valiant but sad performance. To all of you I’m supposed to be representing, I apologize in advance for the two shows I’m on this week. If you follow @nakagawascot I’ll tweet you the pod casts.

I’ve been busy. But busy or not, I can’t help making trouble and I’m guessing this post will stir some up.

Here goes -

Whiteness has a political meaning as much as does Black or Asian or any other racial category. In order to define non-whites as inferior and deviant, whites needed to be defined as superior and normal. By claiming the category “normal,” whites imagined themselves outside the racial paradigm they had created. But, in fact, they were and are at the center of it.

For this reason, unless whites consciously oppose white privilege, their identities are defined by it.

I call the subtle and not so subtle ways this system of privilege/injustice works white identity politics.

In recent decades, overt white racial supremacy has met some serious challenges. It’s no longer socially acceptable to say that people of color are racially inferior. However, white privilege hasn’t been eradicated. In fact, measured in terms of wealth, the privilege gap between whites and non-whites is at it’s widest in 25 years.

White supremacy still exists in deed if not in word, and the fact is that we’re not doing much as a society to fix it. Worse, when programs like Affirmative Action are created to address this injustice, they are attacked as reverse discrimination.

No doubt it has become uncivil to claim white supremacy as a birthright. Credit goes to the Civil Rights Movement for that change. Instead, in the age of colorblind racism, overtly racist justifications for white privilege are avoided. Overt racism is substituted with a normative standard that begins with white privilege as a baseline of what is just, rather than as a political achievement of white supremacy.

In (not) post-racial America, white privilege is considered the baseline of fairness.  No one, it is argued, should have to settle for less. However, because no one should have to settle for less, no solution that erodes white privilege is tolerated. Yet, white privilege is the basis of racism. As long as it is preserved, racial justice cannot be achieved.

Seem like a circular argument to you? Then you’re getting the picture. To me, it’s not just circular, it’s a downward spiral. And that spiral is white identity politics.

White identity politics is a game in which whites demand they be judged by what they intend, not by the unintended consequences of what they do. But what they do (including keeping the spoils of what their ancestors did before them) has everything to do with what they have relative to people of color regardless of intention, as evidenced in the Census statistics cited in the link about the wealth gap above.

Because of white identity politics, the suffering of people of color is acceptable until solutions can be discovered that don’t erode the value and meaning of whiteness. This me first mentality of the white majority requires efforts to materially address unjust racial relations to pass an impossible test. If the problem is economic inequality, the opening question of the test is: can you address the economic consequences of historical racism without changing the way that racism has distributed economic resources?

If you can’t, you fail the test. Either our solutions are only symbolic, or they eventually fall to white resistance.

That’s white identity politics. It’s a tough nut to crack, especially because it’s been business as usual for so long, it’s invisible to most white folks.

Lucky though that the value that accrues to whiteness in the white identity game aren’t evenly distributed. Most of the cash value of whiteness accumulates at the top. In order to address this problem, white folks need us, and they need to break with white identity as we’ve known it til now.

So we gotta call it out. White identity politics is essential to the perpetuation of racism.

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