‘White Privilege’ Defanged: From Class War Analysis to Electoral Cynicism

by Zach Schwartz-Weinstein 

(10/27/16 – Part of our blog series on Abolition and the 2016 Elections)

Throughout the current election cycle, it has been striking to note the ways that privilege discourse has been deployed to demand loyalty to particular parties and candidates.  “Either vote Clinton,” one widely-circulated tweet demands, “or admit you’re a privileged asshole.”  Bernie Sanders refused to concede to Hillary Clinton because of privilege.  Third party voters are privileged.  “Ultraleftists” are privileged.  Privilege has thus become central to a heavily moralizing language of civic responsibility which demands that the US electorate maintain a neoliberal bulwark against the far right for the putative good of the less fortunate.  This use of the concept marks an appropriation, one which transforms privilege discourse fundamentally, from an analysis of white supremacy’s capillary and quotidian power into an individuating and deeply ideological mechanism of state discipline.

The origins of the idea of whiteness as privilege lie in W.E.B. Du Bois’ insight, in Black Reconstruction, that white workers were bestowed with a “public and psychological wage”:

“It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and tides of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule.”[i]

Du Bois’ framing of whiteness as an accumulated set of benefits informed the subsequent theorizing of New Left radicals, (and, of course, inspired the title of one of the foundational texts of whiteness studies, labor historian David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness.)  For new leftists like Noel Ignatin (aka the whiteness studies scholar Noel Ignatiev) and his comrades in the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO), a Midwest-based New Left cadre organization active from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s, “white skin privilege” represented, in the words of STO’s contemporary interlocutor Michael Staudenmaier, “a material basis for the ideology of white supremacy,” which both revealed the contingency of whiteness and confirmed that white supremacy could only be defeated through militant struggle.[ii]  Ignatiev believed, Staudenmeier explains, that the struggle against white supremacy was central to class struggle in the US and across the globe.  The New Left conception of white skin privilege was materialist and anti-imperialist where some of its successor formations would sometimes too easily lapse into liberal idealism, slipping from a systemic analysis of white supremacy into a somewhat mystified narrative of personal acknowledgment and awareness which tended to center white subjects rather than provincialize whiteness.  Nevertheless, even the more recognizable frames of privilege theory which have recently been the subject of significant critiques from both academic and organizing perspectives (“privilege politics is ultimately completely dependent upon precisely that which it condemns: white benevolence,” argues one of the critiques linked to above) share with Du Bois and Ignatiev a basic understanding of privilege as forms of domination imbricated into everyday life which had to be rejected and challenged in order to build a better world.

What we are now seeing in the context of US electoral politics is a neoliberal appropriation of privilege discourse which mobilizes privilege as, in essence, an argument for the continuation of privilege.  Only privilege would motivate someone to fail to vote for Hillary Clinton.  Only those with the privilege to do so can afford to work outside the frames of electoral politics.  Thus, privilege is mobilized to support a politics in which steady support for drone-bombing, violent coup regimes, criminalization of Blackness, and apologia for state violence are not worth batting an eye over.  This is a radical shift in what invocations of privilege are meant to do, in what kinds of reactions they are intended to provoke, in what they are meant to challenge.  Understanding how and why this shift has come about would require retracing the long history of the intertwining of postwar racial liberalism, neoliberalism, and multiculturalism, would require following the work of scholars like Jodi Melamed, Chandan Reddy, and Jasbir Puar through the twentieth century’s coupling of legal rights for minoritized subjects with nationalist designs, imperial projects, and new legitimations of state violence which divert and reframe the struggle against white supremacy into an exceptionalist argument for US imperial modernity.  I raise this issue not because I want to get into another pointless debate on the value or necessity of lesser evilism in US electoral politics, the very premise of which seems complicit in the same moralizing discourse which makes possible this yoking of privilege discourse to the priorities of the Democratic Party, but instead because I think it’s important and needs to be taken seriously on its own terms.

If an abolitionist praxis means an expansive critique of racial capitalism and white supremacist, colonial heteropatriarchy, then this new instrumentality of privilege discourse must not go unchallenged.  This is so less because this language that has been appropriated by the state is somehow “ours” to be rescued for our ends, than because the ends to which it is now being put are certainly not “ours,” however “we” are constituted.  Part of what is so objectionable about how privilege is mobilized here is that it presumes electoral politics as the horizon and totality of the political – nothing else matters, and there is nothing beyond voting.  It makes anti-strategic claims in the name of strategy, obliterates possibility for the sake of exigency.  This profoundly cynical and pessimistic naturalization of the carceral/military state depends in turn on the naturalization of the production of neoliberal subjectivity, a process which is demobilizing, atomizing, and individuating.  But the apocalyptic, frenzied nature of the panic around third-party voting, the rush to defend the present state of things with the language of those who have endeavored to abolish it, suggests that it is not only the Right which is in crisis.  The neoliberal moralization of privilege belies the ongoing fracturing of the US liberal imaginary which the movement against police violence has so powerfully exposed.  What is needed is an unflinching focus on how white supremacy works, even when it does so through the language of its most committed antagonists.


About the author: Zach Schwartz-Weinstein recently completed a PhD in American Studies at New York University.  He writes about histories of racialized service work and US universities.  He has also worked as a labor organizer, boycott coordinator, and freelance researcher. Connect with him on Twitter: @nerdosyndical.

[Image of pink fighter jet via USS Lexington Museum on the Bay]

[i] W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction.  New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. 1935, 700-701.

[ii] Michael Staudenmeier, Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization ­1969-1986.  Oakland: AK Press.  2012, 88-87, 93-94.