James Robb has an in-depth article on the Black Lives Matter march that took place in Auckland on 6 June. The article Reflections on the George Floyd march in Auckland looks at the many strengths of the march and some of its weaknesses and is worth reading in full. He also looks at what is wrong with the notion of white privilege which we have reprinted below.
I think it’s worth taking a moment to consider the jarringly discordant note sounded by one of the speakers, who admonished the rally participants who were white to ‘check your privilege.’ It was so contrary to the spirit of the rally that the final speaker did his best to repair the damage. The last speaker, champion kickboxer Israel Adesanya, said, “Shout out to all the people of different races here because we need you.”
The fact that the oppressed and exploited are unequal in all things, that some layers of us enjoy conditions of life that are denied to others of us, that some feel the lash of economic insecurity, poverty, unemployment, poor education, poor housing, police brutality, and unequal treatment in the courts more heavily than others – this fact is so obvious it should scarcely need to be stated. We are a class divided along a thousand lines of fracture.
For at least four hundred years – years of African slavery, of the subjugation and plunder of the peoples of the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific – the capitalist ruling class has peddled a lie. For four hundred years they have said to those among the exploited who have a white skin, “You’re not like them. You’ve got a white skin, like us. You’re one of us.” Any white-skinned worker who buys into the lie is a dupe, a sucker, and is demeaned and de-humanised by it. This lie has been used to keep the real “us” divided, and to keep us all in a state of subjection.
Now that lie has been polished up and re-packaged and is back on the market in a new form: “If you have a white skin, you’re privileged – you’re one of the oppressors, or at least complicit in racist oppression, no matter what you actually do.” You are an oppressor by an accident of birth which can never be undone, and the only solution offered is penitence.
The term for this reactionary lie in its new package is race-baiting. Once it had a radical edge, but today it is part of the liberal mainstream. A columnist in the Chicago Tribune – hardly a bastion of radical change – lays it all out: “White people, you are the problem… Regardless of how much you say you detest racism, you are the sole reason it has flourished for centuries… Admit it. You enjoy the opportunities and privileges that white supremacy affords you.”
Note that bit well: “Regardless of how much you say you detest racism”. In other words, it makes no difference what you think, say, or do. You are the sole reason for racism, and will be forever.
But the crowning idea is this: “Black people, for the most part, are powerless to stop racism. If we could, we would have done it a long time ago… you [white people] are the only ones who can stop it.”
First, the real, concrete problem of murderous brutality by a racist cop is dissolved into a vague accusation against all white people, regardless of what they do. Then a servile appeal is made to those same ‘white people’ to stop the oppression.
What an abject surrender to the oppressive myths of race lies beneath this ‘fighting talk’! What a capitulation to the idea of the permanence of race and of racism! And what a stark contrast to the course of Malcolm X, one of the greatest revolutionary fighters against racism in human history, when he said “And I for one will join with anyone, don’t care what color you are. As long as you want change this miserable condition that exists on this earth.”
The ‘white privilege’ idea is, to say the least, not a sound basis for building a political movement. And the editors of the Chicago Tribune know that well.
The correct response to the racist lie has been given by many revolutionary uprisings of the oppressed in the past. It is to demand equal rights for all. Being able to walk into a shop without being treated as a criminal is not a ‘white privilege’ – it is a right, one that is often denied to people of colour. Being stopped by the cops for a traffic violation without having to fear for your life is a right denied to people of colour, not a privilege.
That’s the difference between rights and privileges: a privilege exists for some only by denying it to others. A right, on the other hand, can only exist for anyone – and can only be defended – when it is extended to all. An injury to one is an injury to all – the old slogan of fighting unionism. When the cops murder a Black man with impunity, the primary target is Black people, but the lives of workers who are not Black also become that much more unsafe. While people of colour who bear the brunt of it, we all have a stake in fighting cop brutality and racism. A placard carried by someone on the march captured the idea perfectly – it said “No lives matter until Black lives matter!”
Racism cannot be ‘stopped’. It is built into the system of social relations in which we live, capitalist social relations. It oozes from every pore of this society; capitalist social relations constantly reproduce it. Racism must be overthrown, together with those social relations. Black people can’t defeat racism on their own, nor can ‘white’ people. But an alliance of all the oppressed and exploited, of all skin colours, ethnicities and nationalities, an alliance of all those who have a material interest in putting an end to cop brutality and racist discrimination, can overthrow those social relations that give rise to racism. That is what Malcolm X gave his life trying to build. And that alliance is what we saw beginning to take shape in Auckland a week ago.