Racism, the Communist Party’s draft program tells us, has some new features and new modes of operation (though more study is needed), but it doesn’t lose sight of four critical insights that we have embraced and popularized over decades.
First, racism is deeply embedded in the relations, institutional structures, and system of capitalism. Second, the capitalist class obtains enormous political, economic, and ideological advantages from its dominant position in the hierarchy of racist exploitation and oppression. Third, the journey from formal to real equality requires the radical rearrangement of political, economic, and cultural relations and institutions in our society. Finally, white workers have both material and non-material reasons to fight against racism and for full equality of oppressed people.
The latter insight goes against the grain of “white privilege” theories, which suggest that the white section of the working class is so heavily invested economically, politically, culturally, and psychologically in racist exploitation and oppression that left and progressives forces will have to move heaven and earth before white workers smell the coffee of white supremacy.
While relative differentials continue to exist — and in some instances grow wider — between white people and people of color, and while “whiteness” does confer relative advantages in innumerable ways, it is not sufficient to focus, as white skin theorists do, on these alone.
We also have to bring into the picture the class of capitalists who derive the inordinate share of privileges, advantages, and wealth from racist exploitation and oppression — a result not primarily of their whiteness, but instead of their class position and their control and ownership of a racialized mode of production. We have to shed light on the relationships between super-exploitation of racially oppressed workers and the common class exploitation of all workers. We have to point out that wages and living standards have been stagnant for a quarter century — something unprecedented in U.S. capitalism’s history — and that jobs paying a union wage and providing full benefits have disappeared at an unprecedented rate for most categories of the working class across the same period. Finally, we have to show that white workers have much to gain — economically, politically, culturally, and morally — in fighting racism and can be won to this struggle. Anything less is an unnecessary ideological concession to our class opponents, who would like us to think that white workers are the source and main beneficiaries of the institutions and ideologies of racist oppression.
In Capital, Marx wrote, “Labor in the white skin can never be free as long as labor in the black skin is branded.” The white privilege theorists have inverted this to say, “Labor in the black skin can never be free as long as labor in the white skin is privileged.” This inversion may appear insignificant at first sight, but on closer inspection it takes on more meaning. In Marx’s formulation, the freedom of white labor from wage exploitation is inextricably connected to and hinges on its readiness to join the struggle for the freedom of Black labor. Thus, white workers have an individual and collective interest in the emancipation of Black workers — if they are doing anybody any favors, it is themselves in the first place.
By contrast, the inversion of Marx’s formulation by white privilege theorists suggests that the struggle of white workers against racism is driven not by their individual and class interests, but by a desire to give up their privileges and extend their “beneficence” to workers of color.
It is hard to see how this new theoretical notion will strengthen the struggle against racism — not to mention give workers of all colors a deeper understanding of a system that exploits and oppresses, albeit unevenly and in different ways, the multiracial, multinational working class as a whole. White workers will be unconvinced by this theory. Black and other racially oppressed workers will flinch at its paternalism. And left and progressive people will be served up another reason to think that white people are fatally steeped in racism.
Obviously, this issue merits more attention. The fight against racism is of paramount importance for the future of our country. It can’t be won unless there is a conviction among broad sections of white people that racism is not in their interest and that they have a responsibility to fight against it.
Sam Webb (email@example.com) is national chair of the Communist Party USA. The party’s draft program appears at www.cpusa.org.