The class basis of ‘privilege theory’

The theory of ‘white privilege’ is gaining currency in academic and left circles. There are university courses in ‘whiteness studies,’ and it is often invoked in opinion pieces and blogs. (For an example of this, see Richard Prosser and white privilege, including a footnote discussing the validity of the theory, in Morgan Godfery’s blog, Maui Street).

The central idea of ‘white privilege’ is that people who are white derive material benefits from the racist discrimination against non-white people, unknowingly in many cases, and that this explains the persistence of racism. The old concept of racial discrimination – disadvantage imposed on people of colour – is reformulated as a set of privileges enjoyed by those who do not suffer discrimination. It is an idea worth examining closely.

The first thorough exploration of the notion of ‘white privilege’ is in a set of articles by Noel Ignatin and Theodore Allen, published by Students for a Democratic Society  in the United States in 1967, under the title ‘White Blindspot’. Ignatin and Allen traced the origins of their ideas to two Black rights fighters of an earlier generation, W.E.B. Du Bois and Hubert Harrison.

Theodore Allen 1919-97 Photo: Jeffrey B Perry

Theodore Allen 1919-97
Photo: Jeffrey B Perry

In ‘White Blindspot’ Ignatin and Allen present their ideas in the form of a challenge to the Progressive Labor Party, a Stalinist organisation they had been attracted to. It was a critique directed against those in the labor movement, above all the Stalinist currents but not limited to them, who paid lip service to the fight against racism, but who in practice backed off from pressing that fight, for fear of ‘alienating white workers.’  Ignatin criticises the PLP’s failure to understand and act on the idea contained in Marx’s statement:

“In the United States of North America every independent move­ment of the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfig­ured a part of the Republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded. (Capital, Vol. I, Chapter 10, Section 7)”

Ignatin and Allen contend that white supremacy is the Achilles heel of the labour movement in the US, the key factor retarding class consciousness in that country, and the secret of why some of the most promising movements of working-class struggle have vanished without long-term gains.

Black-majority South Carolina legislature during Reconstruction. Movement for Black equality crushed with overthrow of Reconstruction.

Black-majority South Carolina legislature during Reconstruction.  Movement for Black equality was crushed with overthrow of Reconstruction.

They say that at key points in the 300 year history of African slavery, and again with the crushing of Radical Reconstruction in the 1870s, the bourgeoisie cut a deal with the section of the working class that was white: “you white workers help us conquer the world and enslave the non-white majority of the earth’s labor­ing force, and we will repay you with a monopoly of the skilled jobs, we will cushion you against the most severe shocks of the economic cycle, provide you with health and education facilities superior to those of the non-white population, grant you the freedom to spend your money and leisure time as you wish without social restrictions, enable you on occa­sion to promote one of your number out of the ranks of the laboring class, and in general confer on you the material and spiritual privileges befitting your white skin.” [Ignatin Letter to Progressive Labor]

They argue that the complicity of the union leaderships in defending these white privileges above solidarity with Black workers was not just ruinous to Black workers but also a poison to the interests of white workers. The very federal troops that were withdrawn from the South in 1877, thereby ensuring the defeat of Radical Reconstruction, were then turned against the striking railroad workers in the North.

One further historical example that Allen quotes: in the 1930s a massive union organising drive was launched by the Committee for Industrial Organization, which succeeded in revitalising the union movement by drawing in millions of unskilled workers and reorganising unions on an industrial basis. The organising drive came screeching to a halt in the southern states, however, where the apartheid-like system of Jim Crow laws operated. Instead of being glad that the Black workers were more easily organized than whites, the organizers backed away, since to organize the Negro workers first, was to risk alienating the whites.

Allen comments bitterly: “Add one more epitaph on the tomb of labor’s buried dreams: “Don’t alienate the whites!” ”

The weakness of Allen’s argument lies in his scheme for overcoming this situation, which consists of advice to white radicals: “First, face the problem of the necessity to repudiate the white-skin privilege. Second, act; repudiate the privilege by violating the white “gentleman’s agreement” as completely as you can at every opportunity. Once radicals adopt such an approach to radicalizing the white masses, the implications for particular areas of activity will not be hard to find. If in doubt at first, just make a list of the privileges and start violating them.”

This missionary conception of the revolutionary working class leadership (‘radicals’), along with its assumption of special tasks for ‘radicals’ who are white, is wrong. Racism will only be overthrown by a mass movement, and insofar as a leadership must be built beforehand, that leadership needs to be multi-national in character and composition, with common tasks for all, not racially-assigned responsibilities. Assigning separate tasks for revolutionaries of different ethnic origins opens the door to race-baiting.

Allen continued to develop his ideas over the subsequent decades up to his death in 2005. One of his most valuable contributions was a meticulously-researched investigation into the origins of the myth of race. The concept of race is of comparatively recent parentage: prior to the advent of African slavery, the notion of the ‘white race’ did not exist.

It was the weak point of Allen’s argument, rather than the strength, that was developed as the discussion of ‘white privilege’ was taken up in academia in later years. Taking Allen’s injunction to “just make a list of the privileges” literally, Women’s Studies professor Peggy McIntosh produced in 1989 a document entitled White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack, which consists of just such a list.

There are listed 26 manifestations (more in some versions of the document) of ‘white privilege’, from such things as “I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time” and “If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live,” to “I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair” and even, at Number 26, “I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.”

This frequently-quoted document represents a big step backwards from the questions Ignatin and Allen were trying to address – not just in the trivialisation of the problem (is racism really about flesh-coloured band-aids?), nor the evident middle class bias in the way these issues are formulated. (McIntosh writes “For me white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy…”!!)

The deeper problem is that the question of racism has been removed from the realm of social relations between classes and between national or ethnic groups enforced by the state, and placed firmly in the realm of attitudes, preferences, choices, feelings, fears, and prejudices – in other words, into the realm of ideas. McIntosh writes, “I was taught to think that racism could end if white individuals changed their attitudes.” It seems she has not travelled far from this starting point.

The idea of ‘white privilege’ has a certain pedigree in New Zealand as well.

Maori land protest at Bastion Point, 1977 Photo: NZ Herald

Maori land protest at Bastion Point, 1977
Photo: NZ Herald

In the 1970s the struggle for Maori rights underwent a major resurgence, partly inspired by the growing anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles in Asia, Africa and North America. There was a material basis to the renewed moods of struggle as well: large numbers of Maori had migrated to the cities and sensed the new economic strength and power they wielded as part of the industrial working class. In some key industries, like forest and meat industries, Maori made up a substantial fraction of the workforce. And just like the mighty civil rights mobilisations in the United States, this mobilisation of Maori in the streets, on the land, and on the picket lines did more  in the space of a single decade to batter down the structures of racism in this country than anything before or since (with the exception of the armed resistance of the nineteenth century).

Syd Jackson, 1939-2007 Founding leader of Nga Tamatoa Photo:

Syd Jackson, 1939-2007
Founding leader of Nga Tamatoa

Many of the newly-emerging fighting leaders of this time naturally gravitated to the organisations of the working class, and saw in their non-Maori co-workers their most reliable allies. Syd Jackson, a founding leader of Nga Tamatoa, and Ben Matthews, a prominent leader of Maori land rights struggles, became union leaders themselves. The Hawke brothers, who led the land occupation at Bastion Point by Ngati Whatua in 1977, appealed to and won support from the Auckland Trades Council in defending their occupation.

One prominent Maori leader who rejected alliance with the labour movement was Donna Awatere, author of one of the most influential documents of the Maori struggle in this period. Awatere’s Maori Sovereignty, first serialised in the feminist magazine Broadsheet in 1982, then published as a book in 1984, was widely read as a comprehensive and thorough examination of the history of Maori oppression from colonisation to the present. As such, it stands up well even today.

Cover of Maori Sovereignty, 1984 edition

Cover of Maori Sovereignty, 1984 edition

It is also explicitly based on the politics of ‘white privilege.’ Awatere writes, “I’ve heard so often white people insisting that they aren’t personally racist, nor do they have any benefits from being white. On the contrary, they cite their oppression as workers, unemployed, students, and women, etc. Oh No. No. No. The bottom line of being white in this country is that it does bestow benefits…” [She then lists a long series of statistics, of which I will mention only a few] “…You will be 3½  times less likely to be registered unemployed, twice as likely to own your own home. You will be, as an adult, six times less likely to be arrested for anything, and if in court, you are seven times less likely to be found guilty. Than any Maori… Want more? We’re 75% of the women in prisons, 100% of the 15-year-olds in borstal, 85% of us haven’t got any educational qualifications at all. And white people don’t have privileges? BACK OFF. You can peddle that line to each other but it won’t wash with us Maori.” [p27]

Awatere says in a section on Trade Unions “…we have been progressively forced to work as the White Nation has decreed. This has meant becoming part of the working class and of the pool of unemployed. As such the interest of Maori within the workforce is meant to be served by the trade union movement. …

“This potential for alliance is however negated by the role that the trade union movement plays within white society. Further, white workers, while they are in one way opposed to the boss class, are in an other way locked tight with the boss in racial hegemony. This is the crux of it; whites stick together, whatever their class, for the benefits they give each other.” [p45]

In the 1980s the government, worried about the growing Maori rights movement, changed tack. Having failed to quell the movement by stonewalling (Maori Land March of 1975) or by the use of massive state force (Bastion Point), they switched to a stance of accommodating some of the demands. Over the next few years they implemented substantial concessions: the Waitangi Tribunal was given wider powers to investigate and address historic land injustices. Maori language was given slightly greater recognition in education and broadcasting. A few scholarships and (even fewer) affirmative action measures were implemented to allow greater Maori access to higher education. Both National and Labour governments pursued this course.

Waitangi Tribunal in session, Waiwhetu Marae

Waitangi Tribunal in session, Waiwhetu Marae

Along with making these concessions, they made a concerted effort to draw the leadership of the Maori movement into the state bureaucracy itself. A layer of leaders of street demonstrations and protests found themselves offered jobs (sometimes high-paid jobs) as ‘cultural advisors’ to various state agencies and institutions, or offered funding to pursue their projects, or were nominated for parliamentary candidacies in ‘safe’ seats by the bourgeois parties. Donna Awatere was among these – and in fact ended up as a Member of Parliament for the conservative Act Party. This did not happen quickly or easily – there was opposition to this course from sections of the ruling class. Maori still had to fight their way in, and thirty years later they remain under-represented.

But by the end of the decade the class structure of the Maori population had been profoundly altered as a result of this combination of policies. Having been an almost exclusively proletarian people up to the 1970s, there was now a small but significant Maori middle class, made up of Maori lawyers and other professionals, journalists and broadcasters, teachers, state functionaries, iwi administrators, top union officials, and so on.  There is also an even smaller Maori bourgeoisie. A similar process took place in the United States, as the ruling class fostered the development of a Black middle class layer in order to demobilise the Black rights movement of the 1960s and 70s.

This process had begun before the publication of Maori Sovereignty. It gives us an important clue to the place of ‘privilege theory,’ the role it has played, and the class basis of the idea itself.

Privilege theory was used as a weapon in the hands of the emerging Maori middle class and bourgeoisie, as they forced their way into every corner of the academic and professional worlds, broadcasting and the media, the state apparatus, and other spheres of bourgeois life formerly closed to them. In pressing their case for equality in these spheres, Maori even today meet continuing resistance and discrimination from the existing bourgeoisie, which is white-skinned in its overwhelming majority. This is a progressive fight, an aspect of the Maori national liberation struggle that all working people should support. To the extent that it succeeds, the question of class is brought to the fore.

But this is not the same thing as the struggle of the working class – which is both Maori and non-Maori, male and female, native-born and immigrant – for its emancipation.

There is a privileged social layer which serves the bourgeoisie as a social and political buffer against both the Maori national struggle and the working class. That social layer is the petty-bourgeoisie. Compared to the privileges enjoyed by the petty bourgeoisie, the privileges of workers who are white pale into insignificance. The middle class’s sense of entitlement to those privileges, conferred as they often are by a degree in higher education, is a great deal more powerful. Its political role in retarding class consciousness among workers is immense. Privilege theory serves the petty-bourgeoisie well precisely because it obscures the role of this class.

Working class fighters will pay close attention to the petty bourgeoisie, as the deepening crisis of capitalism plunges it into insecurity and tears it apart. Some elements, especially the petty-bourgeois producers on the land, are potential allies of the working class, and will gravitate in that direction once the working class moves into action. Others will be drawn towards the fascist gangs, the shock troops of the bourgeoisie. Educated professionals – of various nationalities – will be found in both of these opposing camps.

5 responses to “The class basis of ‘privilege theory’

  1. As someone who became politically active in the mid-1960s in Chicago I remember this argument well and was involved in debates and discussion about it often. Your article is thought-provoking and I hope it will prod me into putting some thoughts into writing.

    • Thanks Geoff. I would be very interested to hear what you have to say about that. Apart from the original articles by Ted Allen and Noel Ignatiev, I could find very little documentation of that early discussion. It was a little before my time. I suspect it was at a qualitatively higher political level than the idiotic ‘check your privilege’ ideas that are floating around today. Even most of the opponents of the idea today, who can see the destructive and anti-political logic of it, tend to attack it on the level of Marxist theory, rather than in relation to classes and concrete political issues. So your experience from the 1960s is badly needed!

  2. James, I looked for the Facebook thread where you, I and others discussed this issue but could not find it. I wanted to let you know I came across another book as I was reading the NY Times Book Review section yesterday. It was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize here and is titled,
    “A Dreadful Deceit
    The Myth of Race From the Colonial Era to Obama’s America”
    By Jacqueline Jones

    Are you familiar with it at all? It was available at the library so I got it though I have not yet had the chance to look through it. Thought you might be interested.

  3. I had not heard of the book until you drew it to my attention. Having spent about ten minutes reading the introduction just now (it’s available as an ebook), my very superficial impression is that it looks mildly interesting. Its general approach is anecdotal rather than systematic – six representative stories over the centuries. It may be worth reading, but – without having read either – I still think Ted Allen’s book looks more interesting, with its comparisons with the Caribbean slave colonies and Ireland.

    • Thanks. I still have not had the chance to open the book. Allen’s book is not available through the library. I will try to look at the material about his book on line that you spoke about earlier.

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