Scholars going back to W.E.B. DuBois have made a convincing case, and life has confirmed, that racism allows white workers to accrue privileges — higher wages, superior health care, better access to quality schools, safer neighborhoods, more job opportunities and promotions, wealth accumulation, longer life expectancy, and more — compared to their brothers and sisters of color. What is more, they not only enjoy these privileges, but they also enable the reproduction of structures of racial inequality and privilege.
And yet, racism isn’t an unalloyed blessing for white workers. It allows the capitalist class to heighten, directly and in roundabout ways, the exploitation of all workers, including the scaling back of funding for education, health care, food stamps, welfare benefits, retirement security and more. A quick glance at the conditions of working people over time shows that class inequality tracks almost always in the same direction as racial inequality.
It corrupts their class consciousness in powerful ways too. It turns whiteness into the lens through which they determine who’s in the working class and who’s out. It weakens their connection to strategic allies and inflames hostility toward immigrants. And it leaves white workers easy prey for racist demagogues like Trump, and his brand of white nationalist, anti-democratic authoritarian rule.
Racism also degrades the moral sensibilities of white workers and cuts them off from the rich cultures of people of color. Like acid, racism eats away at the vitality of our democracy and democratic institutions.
It sends young workers — Black, brown, and white — to fight unjust wars of aggression. It undercuts and weakens progressive organizations and movements.
Finally, racism reinforces other forms of oppression, while making a society free of class, racial, gender, and other divisions a distant dream.
This contradictory role of racism — relative privilege on the one hand versus reinforcement of exploitation and right wing extremism on the other — is a source of tension within the working class movement. Any supporter of labor, if they have their head on straight, would hope that this contradiction is resolved in a class way, that is, a vigorous, challenge to the racialized privileges of white workers and the unequal status of workers of color.
A resolution along these lines, as difficult as it may be, is the only solid ground to unite a diverse and divided working class at a moment when working people are facing a crisis of an order of magnitude that rivals the Great Depression.
What might make sense on paper, however, isn’t as clear cut in life. Most white workers will likely resist to one degree or another giving up their privilege, embedded and ubiquitous as it is in their day to day life. In their eyes, their privileges aren’t privileges at all, but something they earned, fair and square. Separation, segregation, and inequality in the workplace, school, neighborhood, place of worship and other social settings are their normal, not shared spaces of equality.
What is more, they see images and hear stories that reinforce their sense of entitlement on the one hand and legitimize the unequal and subordinate status of people of color on the other. Millions of white working people, for example, regularly watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh. Thus, their “common sense,” derived from lived experience and shared perceptions leads them, or at least some of them, to dig in their heels and cling to their privilege, as some are now doing by supporting Trump.
Let’s hope most choose another course of action. White privilege is, after all, a sinking ship in an ocean of unprecedented turbulence. America’s workers, all of them, are facing multiple crises, living through a once in a lifetime anti-racist uprising, and only a few months from the most important election in their lifetime. The moment cries out for unity, active engagement, and a politics of equality that is the adhesive agent of such unity as well as the only gateway to a secure future for the vast majority.
Or to frame it differently, protecting white privilege is fool’s gold and akin to strike-breaking. It flies in the face of a growing multi-racial majority that desires a new assault against inequality and structural racism, while understanding that to move forward on these (and many other) measures in a fundamental way will only happen if a new president sits in the White House and a Democratic majority occupies the Senate and House.
A better world awaits!