The following are reader responses to an article by Sam Webb, “Communists make key points on racism” (PWW 4/30-5/6).
A discussion worth continuing
By Joel Wendland
Sam Webb’s article on the “white privilege” thesis opens an important discussion worth continuing. I am unwilling to dismiss as a whole the mainly academic work produced on this question. This field has some of its roots in labor history and Marxist theory, including some Marxist scholars like David Roediger, Alexander Saxton, E. San Juan Jr. and Marxist-oriented writers like Charles Mills, Theodore Allen and George Lipsitz. Interesting to note is the extent to which these writers cite the influence of W.E.B Du Bois, Philip Foner and Herbert Aptheker. It was the Communist Party after all which first talked about “white chauvinism.”
The best of “white privilege” studies argue that “racial” identity has not always been a fixed property, naturally or genetically determined, but an identity that has developed over time as a reflection of and response to historical circumstances. They say, while the ruling class controls or owns the institutions — the criminal justice system, corporations, media, health care system, schools, universities, etc. — that perpetuate and enforce racism, white people participate, not with an even hand or in their best interests, but often with great enthusiasm.
As I understand Webb’s argument, the main problem with “white privilege” theory is its often one-sided emphasis on the role of white workers in perpetuating racism. But I don’t think this view is necessarily a bad position to take. Underestimating the agency of workers who do the wrong thing seems to undercut our theory that workers are capable of struggling for something better. If they are manipulated or duped into racist acts by the racist capitalist system, why is it that others aren’t? How did they change their behavior? Class-based arguments don’t always answer these questions adequately. Marxist theory sees no division between the individual’s actions and responsibilities and the system and its determining role. Emphasizing the role of the system or the subservience of workers to rulers promotes such a division.
Racism cannot be characterized as simply a derivative of class struggle, but as a relatively autonomous social structure. In other words, while racism and class are forever linked, racism has taken on a life and momentum of its own. While some people conclude from this fact that the main or even only real struggle in the U.S. is along the “color line,” we agree that special attention has to be placed on breaking down race-based discrimination, segregation, racist ideologies, and so on — sometimes without privileging the class side of the question.
But I don’t want to understate the importance of class and class struggle. The struggle for multiracial class unity should promote a broad realization that workers share common interests of a class nature and that issues that address the particular inequalities faced by certain groups (for example, affirmative action, gay rights, equal pay for women) don’t hurt white (straight) men, but are directly beneficial to them — a realization that white men have class interests in promoting civil rights and equality, realizable in the greater power they will share with their brothers and sisters, greater ability to win better union contracts, greater political power as a class, etc. Marx’s axiom rings true: the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
So I agree that one view offered by some “white privilege” theorists — 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” — doesn’t add decisively to the struggle against racism. But this may not be an entirely accurate characterization of “white privilege” theory.
Certainly racism is defined by unequal distribution of privileges, social benefits and civil protections by race. So saying that whites are on the receiving end of these benefits disproportionately is redundant, like saying racism is racism. This can’t be the main way to fight racism. Further, fighting racism doesn’t entail “giving up” something, but rather expanding equality, rights, privileges, benefits and opportunities.
But projects that try to examine how racism works shouldn’t be set aside. Talking about how white “racial” identity developed and how white working-class people have and do participate in racism as well as in the struggle against it isn’t incorrect. To the extent that “white privilege” theorists are undertaking that project, it is a valuable contribution and should be aided.
Our job in fight against racism
By Marilyn Daniels
In his op-ed, Sam Webb is rightly defending the whole working class with his insistence that racism is not a product of our class. The party’s draft program and Webb’s article fully recognizes the crushing effects of racism on working people of every race. His impatience with the “white privilege” approach to racism is understandable.
Webb provides a timely challenge to a damned lie: that “the problem” is intractable working-class racism. It is not. Most ordinary people will readily turn away from bigotry and toward equality when presented with thoughtful challenges to do so. Millions have already done so on their own, in spite of widespread confusion about the nature of racism.
Ironically, we on the left might need to dig down and rid ourselves of the damaging political assumption of deeply embedded working-class racism in order to provide leadership on racial unity.
But it’s in the emphasis on appealing to the “self-interests” of white workers where the analysis takes a wrong turn.
In my experience, passion for justice is more powerful than self-interest any day. I’ve yet to meet anyone motivated to fight against racism because they’ve become convinced it’s in their self-interest. People become engaged over racism when they admit to themselves how painful and harmful it is, and when they see others standing up against it. We need to take some of the tools developed by the “white privilege” theorists and use them in an intelligent way.
Multiracial unity is a continuing struggle. There are still too many people who think white privilege is a thing of the past. I would hate to see us replace the “just get over it” line of thought with “it’s just the class struggle.”
We must appropriate the progressive elements of “white privilege” theory and provide leadership with historically informed and class-based multiracial education. Of course those theorists haven’t provided correct leadership! That’s our job — to inject class-consciousness into every anti-racism initiative, to point out that civil rights have been won only by the inspiration, tireless demands, and loss of life of working people — not handed down from above.
It’s our job to provide far-reaching, forceful alternatives. When we do that, many of the “white privilege” theorists will be left behind, but many more will join us.
Joel Wendland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing editor of Political Affairs. Marilyn Daniels is a reader in Belleville, Mich.