1. Unearned advantages conferred on white workers – higher wages and better job opportunities, superior health care and longer life expectancy, access to better schools and safer neighborhoods, and more compared to their brothers and sisters of color – function as a material and ideological prop to sustain and reinforce a system of racial and class exploitation and discrimination. They are the glue that conjoins white workers to racist and reactionary policies and politicians. No one understands and exploits this better than Donald Trump.
And yet white skin privileges in particular and racism in general aren’t an unalloyed blessing for white workers. In choosing racialized group interests over the shared needs of the entire working class, white workers disfigure their class consciousness, divide the working class, and foreclose any hope of joining with workers of color in a united struggle for the common needs of all workers and the particular needs of workers of color.
Moreover, in embracing white skin privileges and the racist rationale legitimizing them, white workers separate themselves from the expansive democratic coalition battling Trump.
2. The willingness of white workers to give up their racialized group advantages is neither automatic nor assured. Even in the face of a pandemic-induced faltering economy that threatens the livelihood of all workers, there may not be such a disposition. In fact, in moments of economic and social crisis when their advantages appear to be threatened, white workers can easily assume a defensive, self-protective posture. And become easy prey to right-wing, racist zealots, such as Trump. This is especially so when the footprint of progressives and the left in the labor movement in particular and working class life generally is limited.
3. Protecting white skin privilege is akin to strike-breaking.
4. In an age of rising inequality and a generalized assault on democracy, the defense of white privileges is a sinking ship that will carry white workers down to the ocean’s bottom. Black and Brown workers may get first, but white workers won’t be too far behind, even if they don’t land in the same spot. In the face of multiple crises and an election that could bake in white nationalist dictatorial rule indefinitely, the only escape from this predicament is broad democratic unity and substantive equality and democracy. Such an approach is the adhesive agent of people’s unity and, if achieved, can lift the country out of the morass of social crises and dangers in which we live.
5. Racism functions to enlist, energize, and stabilize a cross-class coalition of white people. And the glue that holds it together is material as well as ideological and political. The biggest winners in this coalition are those who sit at or near the top of the economic and political chain. Racism allows them to expropriate enormous wealth, wield power, and fend off political challenges from below. But down the chain of white privilege, white workers secure advantages too, even if they pale in comparison to those at the top. Without this broader distribution of the fruits of racism, the unity and durability of this cross-class coalition could quickly fray.
6. The power of racists in high and low places to invent, spread, and normalize racist ideas that shape how white people and white workers think (and behave) is an overarching factor in the formation and persistence of racialized thinking and practice among white workers. And yet as powerful and ubiquitous as racist rhetoric from high places – Trump in the first place – is, it shouldn’t conceal the fact that its resonance and persistence in the thinking of white workers depend, in last analysis, on the material reality of racism, on the material production and reproduction of racist inequality and white skin privilege in society in general and the social spaces that white working people occupy in particular.
This isn’t an argument to step back from the struggle against the surge of increasingly dangerous and deadly racist vitriol out of the mouths of Trump and his white nationalist collaborators in the media. Quite the contrary. The ideological struggle against racism should be stepped up, while combining with a new commitment to uproot the material structures of racism and white skin privilege.
7. At the disruptive heart of racialized capitalism is its re-occurring process of racist asset stripping, land and wealth dispossession, and geographical dispersal and confinement of people of color to designated spaces – the ghetto, barrio, and reservation as well as particular cities, towns, and zip codes. When I lived in Detroit in the 1970s and 80s, I saw the operation and effects of this process at first hand.
When I travel there now, the city seems to be rebounding, and that is understandably welcomed by many Detroiters, but the rebound appears to me lopsided, uneven, and still in the hooks of the capital accumulation process, albeit in new forms and conditions. The city’s new centers of profit-taking and economic activity, while dynamic in some ways, fail, it appears to me, to radiate across the city. Indeed, they may well contribute to the sea of deep poverty, depopulation, unemployment, desolate neighborhoods, struggling schools, and more of the like that engulfs much of the city and its overwhelmingly African American majority.
Any resolution of Detroit’s long crisis, I suspect, will require, first of all, a political fix, that is, a new correlation of political power at the city, state, and federal level along with a sustained surge of grassroots activity. It goes without saying that an essential part of this fix is defeating Trump and his Republican acolytes on November 3 at the ballot box.