The Homogenization of All White People
While for Critical Race Theorists ‘white supremacy’ primarily describes the structural dimension of ‘white power’, ‘white privilege’ mainly refers to the day-to-day practices that arise directly or indirectly from ‘white supremacy’. However, both interact with each other (Delgado, personal correspondence, 2008), and both have structural and day-to-day practical implications.
Thus immigration restrictions would be part of the structural dimension of the ‘white supremacist’ state (ibid.), but with obvious day-to-day practical manifestations. From a Marxist perspective, it is, of course, the poor and dispossessed rather than the rich and powerful, whose entry into other (richer) countries is restricted (although this exclusion is dependent on capitalists’ relative need for cheap labour).
Delgado (ibid.) gives an example of the practical nature of ‘white privilege’ when ‘store clerks put change directly in the upraised palms of white customers but lay the coins down on the counter for blacks or Latinos/ Latinas’. For Critical Race Theorists, such practices are also enshrined structurally in ‘white supremacist’ societies. For Marxists, the class element is crucial. Rich people of color are less likely to get their change thrust on the counter. Moreover, well-off people of color will tend to shop in more ‘up-market’ stores, and will be more disposed to the use of plastic as a form of payment.
Critical Race Theorists believe that all white people are beneficiaries of ‘white supremacy’ and ‘white privilege’. Gillborn (2008, p. 34) states that while they are not all active in identical ways, and do not all draw similar advantages, ‘[a]ll White-identified people are implicated in ... [relations of shared power and dominance]—... they do all benefit, whether they like it or not.
Sabina E. Vaught and Angelina E. Castagno (2008, p. 99) would appear to hold similar views and refer to ‘the ways in which power over others ... benefits Whites individually and collectively’ (ibid., p. 99), and specifically emphasize white privilege’s ‘structural nature’ (ibid., p. 100). They argue (2010, pp. 108-109) that ‘Whiteness as property is a concept that reflects the conflation of Whiteness with the exclusive rights to freedom, to the enjoyment of certain privileges, and to the ability to draw advantage from these rights’. Following Cheryl Harris (1993, p. 1721) they state that ‘to be identified as white’ was ‘to have the property of being white. Whiteness was the characteristic, the attribute, the property of free human beings’. ‘In this way’, Vaught and Castagno (2008, p. 96) continue, ‘individual White persons came to exercise, benefit from, and mutually create and recreate a larger structural system of collective, institutional White privilege’ (ibid.). Again, following Harris (1993, p. 1762), they refer to ‘the continued right to determine meaning’ (Vaught and Castagno 2008, p. 101), and make reference to Peggy McIntosh’s (1988) notion of systemic ‘arbitrarily-awarded’ privilege (Vaught and Castagno 2008, p. 99). They conclude that the societal systems ‘that sustain the reign of White race privilege are peopled and the concurrent, interactive acts of individuals and systems inexorably reinforce and entrench pervasive racial power across institutions, sites and events’ (ibid., p. 96). ‘White racial power’, they claim, ‘permeates every institution’ (ibid., p. 101).
When Gillborn makes reference to McIntosh’s ‘famously listed 50 privileges’ (Gillborn 2008, p. 35), and describes them as ‘privileges that accrue from being identified as White’, he has seriously misunderstood McIntosh’s list. In merely describing the privileges as accruing from being identified as white, he decontextualizes and dehistoricizes her analysis. In actual fact, McIntosh contextualizes white privilege with respect to her social class position as a white academic with respect to her ‘Afro- American co-workers, friends, and acquaintances’ with whom she comes into ‘daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place, and line of work’ (ibid., p. 293).3 Homogenizing the social relations of all white people ignores, of course, this crucial social class dimension of privilege and power.
Mills (1997, p. 37) acknowledges that not ‘all whites are better off than all nonwhites, but ... as a statistical generalization, the objective life chances of whites are significantly better’. While this is, of course, true, we should not lose sight of the life chances of millions of working class white people. To take poverty as one example, in the US, while it is the case that the number of black people living below the poverty line is some three times that of whites, this still leaves over 16 million ‘white but not Hispanic’ people living in poverty in the US (US Census Bureau 2007). This is indicative of a society predicated on racialized capitalism, rather than indicative of a white supremacist society. While the US is witnessing the effects of the New Racial Domain (Marable 2004—see below) with massively disproportionate effects on black people and other people of color, white people are also affected. In the UK, there are similar indicators of a society underpinned by rampant racism, with black people currently twice as poor as whites, and those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin over three times as poor as whites (Platt 2007).4 Once again, however, this still leaves some 12 million poor white people in the UK, who are, like their American counterparts, on the receiving end of global neoliberal capitalism. The devastating effects of social class exploitation and oppression are masked by CRT blanket assertions of ‘white supremacy’ and ‘white privilege’.
There are further problems with the homogenization of all whites. First it masks essential power relations in capitalist societies. For Marxists, the ruling class are by definition those with power since it is they who own the means of production, and the working class, in having to sell their labour power in order to survive, are (also by definition) the class largely without power. The manifestations of this major power imbalance in the capital/ labor relation massively affects relative degrees of privilege in capitalist, the aforementioned rates of poverty being just one.
Lack of power for the working class is particularly evident in countries like the US and the UK where that class has been successfully interpellated
(Althusser’s concept of interpellation, outlined in chapter 2 of this volume). Moreover, some of the very privileges that poor white people possess are in a very real sense compensatory privileges. For example, Delgado (2008, personal correspondence) has introduced the concept of ‘paltry privileges’ to describe those ‘privileges’ that whites enjoy that compensate for the fact that they are living in impoverished conditions with low paid jobs, unpaid bills and poor life chances. Alpesh Maisuria and I (Cole and Maisuria 2010, pp. 108-19) made a similar point when referring to the success of soccer in keeping white workers in line:
Ruling class success in maintaining hegemony in the light of the disparity of wealth and the imperial quest was displayed in England during the 2006 World Cup by the number of St. George flags signifying a solid patriotism in run-down (white) working class estates, on white vans, on dated cars exhibiting a ‘proud to be British’ display. In addition, as economically active migrant workers from Eastern Europe enter the UK (a great benefit for capital, and for the middle strata who want their homes cleaned or renovated cheaply), the (white) working class, who spontaneously resist neo-liberalism by resisting working for low wages that will increase their immiseration, need to be assured that they ‘still count’. Hence the ruse of capital is to open the markets, and the role of sections of the tabloid media is to racialize migrant workers to keep the (white) working class happy with their lot with the mindset that ‘at least we are not Polish or Asian or black, and we’ve got our flag and, despite everything, our brave boys in Iraq did us proud’.
In Althusser’s words, their response is: ‘That’s obvious! That’s right! That’s true!’ (Althusser 1971, p. 173). In this case the homogenization of all whites obfuscates the ideological element of the capital/labor relation. While it is undoubtedly true that racism and xeno-racism (see below) have penetrated large sections of the white working class, resulting in racist practices that contribute to the hegemony of whites, and while it is clearly the case that members of the (predominantly though not exclusively) white ruling class are the beneficiaries of this, it is certainly not white people as a whole who hold such power (Cole and Maisuria 2010). For example, sections of the white working class in England have voted for the fascist British National Party (BNP) at recent elections precisely because they feel that they are treated with less equality than others (Cruddas et al. 2005).
There are thus a number of problems with homogenizing all white people. Attempts to do this ignore capitalist social relations, which are infused with the crucial dimensions of social class, power and ideology.