At one time I thought that racialized advantages accruing to white workers were momentary, of small consequence, and would dissolve in the face of the unifying imperatives of class struggle, class unity, and class ideology. But I was wrong.
First, racialized advantages accruing to white working people are longstanding. Historians tell us that they date to the earliest days of white settler colonialism in the 17th century and became structurally and permanently embedded during the long formation of the United States as a continental, and then world power. Today, they remain “facts on the ground.”
Second, white skin advantages (or privileges if you prefer) assume different forms as one racial order evolved and gave way to another in the course of contested and fierce struggles.
Third, they serve the function of stabilizing a cross class coalition of diverse white people. In doing so, they secure the hegemony of dominant political blocs across time, not to mention play a role in deepening and widening the exploitation and super exploitation of subordinate classes and people.
Fourth, the advantages that accrue to white workers in today’s circumstances are structured into every area of social life — the workplace, the neighborhood, the school, the health care and criminal justice system, etc. Meanwhile, the structural and inverse counterpart to white skin advantage is systematic discrimination, inequality, and disadvantage imposed on workers of color in the same social spaces.
Finally, white working people perceive the material advantages accruing to them as natural, expected, and earned, while the subordinate and unequal status in which people of color find themselves is understood by many of them as the result of the inferiority, indolence, and moral laxity of people of color. That the latter might be explained as the consequence of the force of law, politics, institutional design, the “normal workings” of the economy, and legal and extra-legal violence, doesn’t figure prominently or at all in their thinking anymore than the thought that their advantages might not be the consequence of their own doing and industry.
In short, the willingness of white workers to give up their racialized group advantages is, to say the obvious, not automatic. Even in the face of a faltering economy that threatens the livelihood of all workers, there may not be such a disposition. In fact, in moments when their advantages appear to be threatened, white workers can become defensive, self-protective, and easy prey to right wing, racist zealots. This is especially so when the footprint of the left in the labor movement in particular and working class life generally is negligible.
Between George Wallace a half century ago, the rise of the extreme right in the 1980s, and Trump now are no few such zealots. Nearly all of them make their home in the Republican Party, relentlessly repeating that the way of life of white workers is under siege from coastal liberals, or distant elites, or unruly people of color, or an ascending multi-racial majority. Too often with success.
Challenging these racial grievances and racialized advantages of white workers is no small task. But still they should be challenged. At the same time, it is imperative to extend and deepen the growing anti-racist consciousness among millions of white people in the context of opposing Trump and right wing extremism. How well this is done will go a long way in deciding the outcome of next year’s elections and the country’s future.
I’m well aware that other dimensions of class and anti-racist politics are in tension with this dynamic and require elaboration, but I will leave it here for now.