‘White privilege’ is a capitalist lie to keep us divided: demand equal rights for all

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.

7 comments

  1. Could not agree more . If being ” white ” is the problem how exactly does anyone think we can solve that problem ? There are a whole raft of similar ” problems ” currently dominating political discussion . While it would be difficult to dislike Davis Attenborough , his and his supporters insistence that all our problems are caused by overpopulation is a short cut to fascism . If the problem is too many people it would follow that mass genocide is the only thing which can save us .I had a great deal of sympathy with young Greta and her eco warriors but The only solution that her movement seems to advocate is that the entire world become vegan . The simple fact that is never going to happen does not seem to deter them or persuade them to lend their support to any practical measures .Feminists have also painted themselves into a corner . If the problem is men then how exactly do we solve that ? The bourgeois left will attack anything and everything except capitalism .

  2. Support basically what you have written, but racism is just as old as humankind. Its like the subject of slavery, you have to realise that the old Maori society had slavery in some iwi. So it’s not easy to find an answer that everybody will support. Capitalism is just an extension of greed an avarice.

    • Modern Homo sapiens go back maybe 100-150,000 years and racism goes back a couple hundred years. The vast bulk of that time there was no private ownership of means of production and wealth. Private ownership of such things only goes back about 10,000 years.

  3. this is my favorite blog man, you guys post the most fire articles. ive gotten in arguments over this before, and its the fuckin DEFAULT to be able to run in your neighborhood w/o fear of being shot by racists. its the DEFAULT to not be forced into certain neighborhoods due to redlining. its the DEFAULT to not be followed around stores from from the day you can walk, to make sure you dont steal anything. none of these are PRIVILEGES, theyre RIGHTS! white people havent been GIVEN privileges, black people have been DENIED rights! peace of mind shouldnt be considered a PRIVILEGE, it should be considered a RIGHT!

  4. Thanks for the excellent analysis James Robb. I got a lot out of that. Particularly how you have so succinctly dealt with the dead-end false narrative of white privilege as opposed to the fight for rights and liberation.

    I’m not convinced that capitalism has to keep racism. I see it as a legacy of slavery from Africa (the slavers would have taken people of any colour but strength, anti-malarial genes, an established trade in slave etc led to Africa being the source) and colonialism and imperial conquests.

    I don’t see any mechanism that capitalism requires racism. Modern capitalism needs class division, that it can never do away with without destroying capitalism, but that’s about it. I don’t think it has to maintain the oppression of women either. That is not to say that it will end racism and women’s oppression, just that I don’t see how it is essential for capitalism.

    • I tend to agree. When James and myself were eager young Marxists we thought a bunch of things were essential for capitalism and yet many forms of denial of rights have been swept away – often as a result of struggles by the oppressed. Nevertheless, capital was able to give ground on them because they were *not essential*.

      Indeed, getting rid of a bunch of formal, legal barriers to equality has helped capitalism, even made it stronger. Making the crooked lines straight and all that.

      Ruling classes in most of the imperialist world are predominantly liberal on abortion, gay rights, etc. The essential thing for them is that they are still able to exploit workers at home and abroad.

      They do this through a bunch of institutions and ideologies that *fit* these times, not the 19th century. A partial exception is the USA, where an old right is still powerful. But, even there, the dominant elements of the ruling class have generally moved on quite a bit.

      Phil F

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