White Privilege — livin’ in the material world

Some tentative reflections on a few hard truths.

White privilege, the true and honest way of naming the central pole of America’s racist legacy, has been identified and thoughtfully unpacked before, and over many years. The young Black revolutionaries of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party (BPP) named this in the sixties, as did Malcolm X. Often it was called white-skin privilege.

Further, much good work has been done recently by Peggy McIntosh, Tim Wise, and Robin DiAngelo. These conversations, however, walk a tense line between naming the problem where it belongs on the one hand — the institutional, legal, collective, and structural foundations — and on the other hand focusing too tightly on individual self-improvement, or what in practice is often optics over substance

I’m reminded of a comment from SNCC chairman Stokely Carmichael which went something like this: “We’re not working against racism. We don’t care about the ideas in white people’s heads. We want political power so that white racism can’t harm us, our lives and livelihoods.” What’s important is changing real structures, in the real world. If we’re going to invoke John Brown as a model, we must remember that he was a white person who took up arms to smash the institution of slavery. He was not working on matters of etiquette.

It is common to hear these days that racism is structural, it’s built into American institutions. But what are we doing to actually attack these structures? This is going to take some hard conversations, some challenging work in the real, material world.

One of the only groups who took the Panther critique of white-skin privilege seriously was the Weather faction of SDS. We argued that white people needed to give up privilege, and that meant attacking the structures of white supremacy as well as giving up material advantages. This was met with ridicule by liberals and many progressives and radicals: “That’s a great organizing strategy: join us and give up stuff!” Ha, ha!

Yes, that’s a hard sell. But trying to organize white people based only on self-interest, making only bread-and-butter demands, ends up generally reinforcing privilege. Certainly there are differences, in class and social economic status, among white people; but whiteness in the empire still bestows material privilege across the board. I won’t take time here to debate with the First World Marxists on this point. And, in the end, I do think there is a “self-interest” we can appeal to in white people but that takes some understanding of the crisis of imperialism — and I’ll speak to that below.

We have to center our understanding on the clear truth that white people are in the center, the privileged center, of a giant capitalist empire, one that has commodified everything, even nature, even human life. Following the analysis of SNCC and the BPP, again, we can add that people of color represent an internal colony or a domestic colony in this empire — bearing the same structural relationship to the metropole as do Third World countries.

And we are also in an era when this empire is falling, it is collapsing just as surely as the sun is rising. We know that the privileged go into panic mode when the prospect of losing our place at the top of the heap is threatened. Hence the many fascist impulses and movements that are afoot. People of good will, people with democratic and ethical values, would of course like us to not be an empire and we wish such a new day could come about without horrendous violence. This is probably our main responsibility.

But what is our theory of action? What steps can white people take, besides working on ourselves, to begin to change the structures of power. To begin, what would a post-empire US look like? A post-empire Europe? Clearly there would be less stuff. We would have a more modest economy, a more equitable distribution throughout the world. Wars, which are generally fought over resources and survival, would be a thing of the past. But how would we really get there? How would we give up privilege?

We need to pursue, at least imagine ways to pursue, concrete work to change power relations and re-pay people for the unpaid work that they and their ancestors have done — reparations. Below are a few items that should be on the agenda, items we could work for in the real world to dismantle structures of privilege. These proposals are not an easy sell. But who said undoing empire would be easy? Consider them hard truths. Standing against privilege, being an anti-racist, should compel us to:

1) Recognize that we must give up material privileges. The revolution is not going to come about with white people still sitting pretty in our houses, cars, and obsessive habits of consumption. How will this happen? There is no blueprint but many demands get to the problem: taxing inter-generational pass-down, making school funding equitable, nationalizing industries. Goods and labor will have to be distributed more fairly across the country. Prices and costs of goods from the Third World, that have been established at the tip of the sword, will have to change. Labor and commodities from the Third World will no longer be super cheap as the economic well-being of countries around the world reach parity. What you can do: fight to develop income equality, to tax the rich, to end colonial economic relations with poor countries.

2) Accept that we will use much less energy. Too often we’re sold technical fixes for the carbon climate crisis — let’s just get renewable energy and we can continue to drive individual automobiles as much as we want, fly in jet planes, and run air conditioners. We won’t have a green future on “alternative” energy. Giving up privilege will have costs. Maybe you won’t have a car. Maybe we’ll rely mostly on mass transit. Maybe you won’t get to fly half-way around the world because you feel like it. Think small, live modestly — this will have to be the ethic (and law) of a post-empire world. What you can do: follow Native American leadership in fighting the fossil fuel industries, pipeline construction; keep it in the ground! — such as the leadership of the Standing Rock Sioux against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Advocate for “small is better,” for local farmers markets and low-tech communities.

3) Fight for prison abolition, an end to mass incarceration, and fight for those who have been enslaved in the prison system to be paid. Leading activist movements such as Black Lives Matter are working to dismantle violent policing and implement community safety projects. Many today wish they could have been in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements but the truth is these movements are here and now and you can be part of it. What you can do: join in the six concrete struggles proposed in the Movement for Black Lives Platform and the programmatic approach laid out by Barbara Ransby in the conclusion to her book All Black Lives Matter.

4) Recognize that education and all the disciplines will change rapidly. Gone will be the white-centered history and language arts classes, the master narrative in language, differential funding for schools, white preferences in higher education admissions, and admission tests which reward high-income white families. In fact, for a brief period during the 60’s protesters managed to achieve “open admissions” at many universities, wiping out the traditional tracking. Expect mathematics and science to serve local needs instead of preparing people to engage in a large, extractive economy. What you can do: follow the demands in Bettina Love’s We Want to do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom as well pretty much every point on the “Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education” and work to implement these proposals.

5) Embrace the imminent majority of people of color; fight for the democratic right to vote. When we achieve even minimal democracy, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas will stand out as some of the most progressive, even radical states, made up of a majority of people who have been colonized and oppressed. A major blow to white supremacist political power must be made in securing voting rights for all. Expect reparations to extend to every arena of life. Housing construction, mass transit routes, and medical facilities will all need to all be mandated in ways designed to repair past injustices and to elevate communities that have been under attack for centuries. What you can do: fight against gerrymandering, voter intimidation, redlining, gentrification, money in political campaigns; work to de-privatize and create free public transportation and health care.

6) Embrace a new world economy of peace. The US currently has 800 military bases outside its borders, garrisoning the world. With white privilege defeated, those bases can be shut down and becomes community centers and other areas that serve the needs of local people, missiles can be pounded into ploughshares. With parity and common interests around the world, there will be no need for massive military might. Borders can open, as most people, given safety and economic possibilities, want to stay in their own community and culture. Learn to be part of nature, not the conqueror of nature. It’s not accurate to claim that “humans destroyed the planet.” White capitalism did. The number one culprit in the climate crisis is colonialism, the conquest and commodification of the world. Capitalism has metastasized all over the world, converting everything, even air and water, into commodities to be bought and sold. What you can do: challenge the pentagon budget and global exploitation; build cooperatives to undermine an economy of extraction and super-exploitation; honor all life and listen to the plants and animals, recognizing their right to live and thrive.

7) In a post-capitalist society, we would be able to decouple a person’s worth from their job, their gender, their sexual and gender identity. All humans, whatever their physical or mental “abilities” and capacities, could be valued for their unique contributions. Instead of accepting a world in which half the population imprisons and polices the other half, build an economy based on people and community. Instead of dreading the development of technology, we could welcome it because it would free up people, on a guaranteed minimum pay, to pursue projects needed by the community — including the care of children and elders, the expansion of culture and the arts. What you can do: Fight for community control of production and distribution and a guaranteed income for all; fight against homophobia and white male privilege, devote a central part of your life to radical arts and culture.

My suggestion is that life would be simpler. Yes, we white people would have less stuff, less compulsion to consume. But we would live in peace instead of constant war, we would join humanity instead of being apart from, and against, most people in the world. In addition, we would stop getting our butts kicked. This I learned in the army during the Vietnam war. Young white soldiers became quite internationalist when faced with fighting a losing and immoral war. They had the opportunity to stand with the people of the world or to die for imperialism. Many, most in fact, turned firmly against the war and the war machine.

Right now there are a thousand ships at sea, steaming from Asia and other parts of the world to the seaports of the US, bringing goods to stock Walmart and car dealerships and more. This is not something to preserve. We can turn away from bloated consumerism. Our responsibility is not just to be nicer people. We need to work toward redistributing the wealth, which will necessarily mean that those of us in the center of the wealthiest nations have to cut back our share of the world’s resources. And by doing this, we will help to make the world a safer, more creative and caring place. Yes, we need to be less rich. We need to be a modest nation among nations. We need to join the rest of the world.

Rick Ayers is an associate professor of education at the University of San Francisco.

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