The poisoned cookie of “white skin privilege”

African Americans face discrimination in all economic and social arenas, including wages, employment opportunities, rents, interest and insurance rates, access to quality health care, education and public services, as well as in all phases of the criminal justice system from arrests to sentencing. According to the Pew Research Center the median wealth of white families was $141,900 in 2013, compared with $11,000 for Black families. However this gives a very misleading picture since it hides the enormous concentration of wealth in the hands of the super-rich. The wealthiest 10 percent of white families own two-thirds of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom half of white families own only two percent. The median wealth for white working class families is much closer to that of Black families.

Nonetheless, the Black-white discrepancy is real and gives a bottom-line economic measure of the impact of racism in American society. This is sometimes called “white skin privilege.” But while the  discrepancy is real, it is also a trick bag that hides the harm racism does to white workers as well. It is a bag of poisoned cookies and the poison in the cookies attacks the brains of white workers who eat them and makes them think that African Americans are responsible for the  inferior and oppressive conditions they face.

We are continually told by right-wing media and hate talk radio that, if there are problems confronting the Black community, it is due to “cultural shortcomings,” “poor parenting,” “lack of work ethic,” and other ways of blaming the victim.  While the poisoned cookies are primarily consumed by whites, there are even unfortunate instances of African Americans  – usually in positions of power or  affluence – who  have been enticed to consume the same confection.

These ideas serve to cover up the real beneficiaries of racism, the real promoters of inequality and the fact that ultimately white people, particularly white workers, are also victims of the systematic racism in our society.  Here is how it works.

There are approximately 100 million households in the U.S.  According to the Federal Reserve, the wealthiest one percent (one million) have aggregate assets totalling $30 trillion.  That is an average of $30 million per household for these people.

This massive wealth was created by the labor of the multi-racial, multi-ethnic working class, the most productive workforce in world history, which every year generates nearly $20 trillion in new wealth – the Gross Domestic Product. But, under the rules of capitalism and the laws enacted by its defenders, this wealth is appropriated by the tiniest minority of the population, people who mostly never did real work a day in their lives, but are able to actively resist unions and fund politicians to pass laws that maintain their position, power and profits. They benefit directly by getting extra profits from paying Black workers reduced wages and they benefit indirectly even more by putting the poison in the cookies to keep the working people divided and politically weak. This is accomplished by funding a vast network of right-wing media, think tank, religious and educational programs and institutions.  

Consider what could happen if a progressive tax reform were enacted that abolished taxes on working people and left the wealthiest one percent with “only” $10 million per household.  While they might not be able to indulge in the Wall Street casinos as much, they could continue to enjoy lavish lifestyles and $20 trillion would become available for public use. That’s a lot of money!   

Here are a few examples of what it could do. The American Society of Civil Engineers says the amount needed to bring the nation’s infrastructure up to government standards is $3.6 trillion. A massive public works program to do this would create 100 million jobs paying $18 an hour.

According to the National Center of Education Statistics, government at all levels currently collects $0.6 trillion for public education. With the additional funding from progressive taxation it would be easy to double the current resources available. Tuition at all public universities could be made free for $.06 trillion. Student loan debt could be abolished for $1.2 trillion. Social Security benefits could be doubled for $0.8 trillion. All health care costs could be covered with $2.6 trillion. All these things could be done using only half the funds obtained by taxing the rich.

There was a time such far-reaching measures were adopted that put the tax burden on the rich, funded massive jobs programs, established minimum wages, empowered unions, and created Social Security and Unemployment Compensation. These were the measures collectively known as the New Deal of the 1930s. The New Deal was a huge advance in American history but  also left a great deal undone. In particular, its programs required the support of the Southern Dixiecrats and left the system of Jim Crow segregation in the South and nearby areas intact.

Until the civil rights movement broke that up, Southern Blacks remained subject to the reign of KKK terror installed with the end of Reconstruction after the Civil War.  Southern working class whites were fed a diet rich in poisoned cookies.which gave them “privileges” to vote, sit at lunch counters, send their children to schools with books, access hospitals and walk freely in the streets. On the other hand, they paid a deadly price for swallowing the poison. It prevented them from uniting with the Black community, and they got the lowest wages, most dangerous working conditions, worst education and health care and shortest life expectancy of whites anywhere in the country.  

Today, President Obama has called for raising the minimum wage, increasing taxes on the rich, and rebuilding the infrastructure. But, given the right-wing extremist control of Congress, there is little immediate hope those measures can be achieved. We are at an impasse, but there is a way out.

Racism was central to the Republican right-wing extremist victory achieved in the elections last November. Their candidates refused to discuss any real issue the American people face.  Instead, their tactic was to demonize Obama and his policies, particularly the Affordable Care Act. They attacked “Big Government spending,” propagating the Big Lie that government programs primarily benefit people of color at the expense of hard-working white taxpayers. Given the failure of Democratic candidates to defend Obama and expose the obvious racist campaign, voter turnout collapsed with the exception of white Republicans, their bellies full of poisoned cookies.

Working people – black and white – may now face serious consequences. This is particularly so in states under right-wing control, where legislation is being advanced to impose greater austerity by further shifting the tax burden from the rich to the working class, defunding public education and local government services, and curtailing voting rights, the rights of women and protection of the environment.

Progressive people must rise to the challenge. We must make clear to white people that they are being conned by the frontmen of the one percent. We must  show them that they are actually being held back, that their living standards and democratic rights are under attack by the racist system and its proponents, and that it is in their interest to unite with their African American brothers and sisters in the fight to end racism in all its forms. We must educate and mobilize working people to vote and to convince the entire working class and its allies of the truth of the fundamental trade union concept of Solidarity  –  “An Injury to One Is An Injury To All; United We Stand, Divided We Fall!” Working class, democratic, anti-racist solidarity is the antidote to the poison in the cookies. It is simple, extremely potent and it works!

Photo: United Steelworkers Local 7-669 rally, Oct. 11, 2014. USW/Flickr


Rick Nagin
Rick Nagin

Rick Nagin has written for People's World and its predecessors since 1970. He has been active for many years in Cleveland politics and the labor movement.