“The price the white American paid for his ticket was to become white…This incredibly limited, not to say dimwitted ambition has choked many a human being to death here: and this, I contend, is because the white American has never accepted the real reasons for his journey. I know very well that my ancestors had no desire to come to this place: but neither did the ancestors of the people who became white and who require of my captivity a song. They require of me a song less to celebrate my captivity than to justify their own.”
James Baldwin, “The Price of the Ticket,” 1985
It seems like every week I get an e-mail from someone demanding to know why there’s no White History Month, or White Entertainment Television, or why whites aren’t allowed to have organizations to defend “our” interests, the way people of color are, without being thought of as racists. One of these internet missives, which has been making the rounds lately on MySpace and other popular networking sites, implies that whites are somehow oppressed because we can’t get away with calling people of color any number of racial slurs (a litany of which the author then proceeds to recite, almost gleefully), while persons of color presumably call us names like “cracker,” “honky,” or “hillbilly” all the time.
The e-mail goes on to express anger over, among other things, Martin Luther King Jr. day, and Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance day in Israel), as if these were holidays that discriminated against whites. It then laments that white pride is seen as racist, but for people of color to feel and show pride in their group is seen as normal, natural, and even healthy.
The Reverse Racism Ruse (Or How to Ignore Power, History and Logic)
That so many people find this kind of argumentation persuasive would be humorous were it not so dangerous, and so indicative of the way in which our nation has yet to come to grips with its racist history. Had we honestly confronted racism as an issue, past and present, it is unlikely that such positions would make sense to anyone. After all, every month has been white history month, even if they weren’t called that. White history has been made the normative history, the default position, and when your narrative is taken as the norm–indeed, when it gets to be viewed as synonymous with American history–the need to racially designate its origins is obviously a less pressing concern. White folks’ contributions have never been ignored, diminished or overlooked. As such, to now demand special time to teach about the people we’ve already learned about from the start seems a bit preposterous.
As for racial slurs, while it is certainly fair to point out that their use is always inappropriate, no matter whom they’re directed against, to think that a term like hillbilly is truly equivalent to those used against people of color, like “nigger,” “spic,” “raghead,” or “chink,” requires one to exhibit a profound ignorance of history. These and other slurs against people of color not only sound more hateful, they have operated in a more hateful manner, by forming the linguistic cornerstone of systematic oppression and institutionalized racial supremacy. Hundreds of thousands were enslaved and millions have died at the hands of those who thought of their victims as “niggers,” “spics,” “ragheads” and “chinks,” and used those terms as they went about their murderous ways. American history, in its historic treatment of persons of color has been an inter-generational hate crime, which didn’t begin to end, even in theory, until the 1960s. On the other hand, anti-white terms are typically the end of the line when it comes to anti-white racism. People of color control no institutions that are capable of discriminating systematically against whites. They cannot keep whites from having jobs, or getting a loan. Nor can black cops get away with racially profiling whites, even when whites actually do lead the pack in one or another form of criminal behavior (serial killing, corporate fraud, or drunk driving, for example). So no, the terms are not the same, even as all are inappropriate and offensive.
And the idea that whites working for white empowerment or “white rights” is no different than people of color working for the empowerment of their group (through such mechanisms as the NAACP, or the Congressional Black Caucus, for instance), also makes sense, only if one takes a fundamentally dishonest glimpse at the nation’s past.
After all, groups representing persons of color were created to address the unique disempowerment experienced by those groups’ members. Blacks, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans have been systematically denied opportunities in the U.S. solely because of their group membership. Their “race” was the basis for housing discrimination, restrictions on educational opportunities, exclusion from jobs, and other forms of mistreatment. Whites have never been the targets of institutional oppression in the U.S., as whites, such that organizing as whites would have made sense. Sure, whites have been marginalized on the basis of ethnicity–the Irish, for example, or Italians, or Jews–and have long organized around ethnicity as a support system, for job networking, educational benefits, or other purposes. But as whites, persons of European descent have been the dominant group. So to organize on that basis, would be to come together for the purpose of providing collective support for one’s existing domination and hegemony. It would be like corporate management forming a union to protect its interests from workers; or like the upper-caste in India, forming a Brahmin support group to protect itself from the Dalits, at the other end of the caste spectrum. Such a contingency would be redundant in the extreme.
To have a White Student Union, especially at a college where whites were in the clear majority, would be absurd, for this reason. To have a Congressional White Caucus, given the way in which white elites dominate the government would be even worse. To have a White Entertainment Television would ignore that whites already predominate on most all existing networks, and that shows pegged to people of color are few and far between, and usually limited to a handful of smaller networks and cable outlets.
Though many argue that affirmative action has made whites the victims of massive “reverse discrimination,” and thus necessitated the rise of a white rights movement to secure white collective interests, the evidence simply doesn’t support such a view. Although individual whites have likely experienced instances of discrimination–and anecdotal data suggests this is true, though far, far less often than the occasions when people of color experience it–there is nothing to indicate that such incidents are a widespread social phenomenon, against which whites now require organizations to protect them.
So, for instance, whites hold over ninety percent of all the management level jobs in this country (1), receive about ninety-four percent of government contract dollars (2), and hold ninety percent of tenured faculty positions on college campuses (3). Contrary to popular belief, and in spite of affirmative action programs, whites are more likely than members of any other racial group to be admitted to their college of first choice (4). Furthermore, white men with only a high school diploma are more likely to have a job than black and Latino men with college degrees (5), and even when they have a criminal record, white men are more likely than black men without one to receive a call back for a job interview, even when all their credentials are the same (6). Despite comparable rates of school rule infractions, white students are only half to one-third as likely as blacks and Latino youth to be suspended or expelled (7); and despite higher rates of drug use, white youth are far less likely to be arrested, prosecuted or incarcerated for a drug offense than are youth of color (8).
So when it comes to jobs, education, housing, contracting, or anything else, people of color are the ones facing discrimination and restricted opportunities, while whites remain on top, making the idea of organizing for our collective interests little more than piling dominance on top of dominance. Not to ensure a place at the table, so to speak, but to secure the table itself, and to control who gets to be seated around it, for now and always.
It is for this reason that white pride is more objectionable than “black pride,” or “Latino pride.” In the case of the latter two, those exhibiting pride are not doing so as a celebration of their presumed superiority, nor dominance over others. If anything, they are celebrating the perseverance of their people against great obstacles, such as those placed in their way by discrimination, conquest and enslavement. In the case of white pride, whites as whites have not overcome obstacles in the same fashion, because we have always been the dominant group. Although Irish pride or Italian pride makes sense given the way in which persons of those ethnicities have faced real oppression in the past (and even today, in the case of Italians, who sometimes face negative stereotypes), white pride, given the historic meaning of whiteness, can mean little but pride in presumed superiority.
White Bonding as a Dangerous Distraction
But especially ironic is that by seeking to bond on the basis of whiteness, those pushing the concept end up ignoring the way in which white identity has actually harmed persons of European descent, by causing most of us to ignore our real interests, all for the sake of phony racial bonding. To understand why this is so, it might help to have some historical perspective on how the notion of whiteness came into being in the first place, and for what purpose.
Contrary to popular belief, the white race is a quite modern creation, which only emerged as a term and concept to describe Europeans in the late 1600s and after, specifically in the colonies of what would become the United States. Prior to that time, “whites” had been a collection of Europeans with little in common, and often long histories of conflict, bloodshed and conquest of one another’s lands and peoples. The English, for example, did not consider themselves to be of the same group as the Irish, Germans, Italians, or French. While most Europeans by that time may have thought of themselves as Christians, there is no evidence that they conceived of themselves as a race of people, with a common heritage or destiny.
But the notion of the white race found traction in the North American colonies, not because it described a clear scientific concept, or some true historical bond between persons of European descent, but rather, because the elites of the colonies (who were small in number but controlled the vast majority of colonial wealth) needed a way to secure their power. At the time, the wealthy landowners feared rebellions, in which poor European peasants might join with African slaves to overthrow aristocratic governance; after all, these poor Europeans were barely above the level of slaves themselves, especially if they worked as indentured servants (9).
In 1676, for example, Bacon’s Rebellion prompted a new round of colonial laws to extend rights and privileges to despised poor Europeans, so as to divide them from those slaves with whom they had much in common, economically speaking. By allowing the lowest of Europeans to be placed legally above all Africans, and by encouraging (or even requiring) them to serve on slave patrols, the elite gave poor “whites” a stake in the system that had harmed them. Giving poor Europeans the right to own land, ending indentured servitude in the early 1700s, and in some cases allowing them to vote, were all measures implemented so as to convince lower-caste Europeans that their interests were closer to those of the rich than to those of blacks. It was within this context that the term “white” to describe Europeans en masse was born, as an umbrella term to capture the new pan-Euro unity needed to defend the system of African slavery and Indian genocide going on in the Americas (10). And the trick worked marvelously, dampening down the push for rebellion by poor whites on the basis of class interest, and encouraging them to cast their lot with the elite, if only in aspirational terms.
This divide-and-conquer tactic would be extended and refined in future generations as well. Indeed, the very first law passed by the newly established Congress of the United States was the Naturalization Act of 1790, which extended citizenship to all “free white persons,” and only free white persons, including newly arrived immigrants, so long as the latter would make their homes in the U.S. for a year. Despite longstanding animosities between persons of European descent, all blood feuds were put aside for the purpose of extending pan-Euro or white hegemony over the United States (11).
During the Civil War, the process of using “whiteness” to further divide working people from one another continued. So, for example, Southern elites made it quite clear that their reason for secession from the Union was the desire to maintain and extend the institution of slavery and white supremacy, which institutions they felt were threatened by the rise of Lincoln and the Republican Party. One might think that seceding and going to war to defend slavery would hardly meet with the approval of poor white folks, who didn’t own slaves. After all, if slaves can be made to work for free, any working class white person who must charge for their labor will be undercut by slave labor, and find it harder to make ends meet. Yet by convincing poor whites that their interests were racial, rather than economic, and that whites in the South had to band together to defend “their way of life,” the elites in the South conned these same lower-caste Europeans into joining a destructive war effort that cost hundreds of thousands of lives (12): their lives, in fact.
Then during the growth of the labor union movement, white union workers barred blacks from apprenticeship programs and unions because of racism, encouraged in this by owners and bosses who would use workers of color to break white labor strikes for better wages and working conditions. By bringing in blacks and others of color to break strikes, bosses counted on white workers turning on those replacing them, rather than turning on the bosses themselves. And indeed, this is what happened time and again, further elevating whiteness above class interest in the minds of European Americans (13).
The effectiveness of racist propaganda to unite whites around race, even if it meant overlooking economic interests was stunning. Nowhere was this phenomena better summed up than in the words of one white Texas fireman, who responded to the suggestion that the ranks of railroaders should be opened up to blacks by saying, “We would rather be absolute slaves of capital than to take the Negro into our lodges as an equal and brother (14).”
White Bonding and the Continued Conning of the Working Class
Today, whiteness continues to serve as a distraction to working class persons of European descent. So in the debate over immigration, it is often claimed that immigrants of color are driving down the wages of white workers, and that sealing the border is necessary to secure jobs and decent incomes for the working class. But such an argument presumes that the only thing keeping employers from giving white workers a raise (or black workers for that matter) is the presence of easily exploited foreign labor. As if closing the border would suddenly convince them to open up their wallets and give working people a better deal. In truth, however, were companies unable to exploit immigrant labor, they would simply move their entire operations to Mexico, or elsewhere, to take advantage of low-wage labor or non-existent regulations on their activities. And if they were the kind of companies that couldn’t move their operations abroad (such as construction firms, for example), they would likely shift to more contingent, part-time and temp labor, which would mean that whoever ended up with those jobs would still have little or no benefits, and insecure wages. This is hardly the recipe for real improvement in the conditions of working people.
White workers would be far better off joining up with workers of color, including the undocumented, to push for higher wages and better working conditions; and they would surely be better off if those coming from Mexico were made legal and organized into unions. But thinking as whites has made this kind of cross-racial solidarity virtually unthinkable. Instead of focusing on the trade agreements that allow companies to move wherever they can get the best return on investment–agreements which have, even by the government’s admission resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs–white workers are encouraged, by racism and white bonding to focus their ire on the workers themselves. After all, the workers are brown, while the owners are almost all white, which is to say that the latter are the ones with whom the white working class has been convinced to identify.
For an especially painful example of how destructive white racial thinking can be, consider St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, next door to New Orleans. In the aftermath of Katrina, St. Bernard was among the hardest hit communities. Next to the ninety-four percent black Lower 9th Ward, in New Orleans, ninety-four percent white St. Bernard was probably the most devastated part of the region. Though racially different, the communities are both predominantly working class and populated by families with moderate income; and when the federal government, via the Corps of Engineers failed to ensure the proper construction of the levees, or when the local levee board diverted levee repair funds to build interstate off-ramps for the area’s casinos, both the Lower 9 and St. Bernard saw their communities utterly destroyed.
But despite the common interests of the two community’s residents, if you had asked most any white person in St. Bernard about the folks who lived in the Lower 9th, prior to the storm (or for that matter today), you would have been treated (or still would be) to an uninterrupted string of racist invective. To whites in “da parish” as it’s known, blacks from New Orleans are the source of all the region’s problems. This is why, in 1991, more than seven in ten whites from St. Bernard voted for neo-Nazi, David Duke when he ran for Governor of Louisiana. This is why the very first thing that Parish government did upon returning home after the storm, and starting to rebuild, was to pass a blood relative law for renters: in other words, you couldn’t rent in St. Bernard unless you were a blood relative of the person who was to be your landlord. It was a clear attempt to block people of color from moving in, and once legal action was threatened the Parish backed down, as they could offer no non-racist reason for passing such a law.
And yet, what has the racialized thinking of whites in St. Bernard gotten them? It didn’t keep them safe from busted levees. Indeed, had they been less racist and less given to thinking with their color, they might have noticed how much they had in common with their 9th Ward neighbors. But instead of joining hands with blacks in New Orleans, and marching alongside them in Washington DC or Baton Rouge, and demanding that their joint concerns be addressed, whites in places like Chalmette have been content to sit around talking about the “niggahs,” and how lucky they were not to have to live side-by-side with them.
In a final irony, when students from historically black Howard University went to the New Orleans area to do relief work earlier this year, they were assigned to work in St. Bernard, rebuilding homes: homes that were it up to Parish leaders, they wouldn’t have been able to live in. When one busload of students arrived at the site to which they had been sent that day, locals promptly called police. Because after all, a bunch of black people in the neighborhood must be a sign of trouble. So much for solidarity.
Conclusion: White Solidarity Illogical and Hurtful for All
It is perhaps understandable that young whites, uninformed about the history of racism in America, might fall prey to the lure of “white rights” thinking. After all, without a full understanding of the way in which whites have been elevated above people of color, and continue to be favored in employment, housing, criminal justice and education, it would make sense for whites to wonder why things like affirmative action or Black History Month were necessary; or why groups that advocate for the interests of persons of color were still needed. If you start from the assumption that the U.S. is a level playing field, then these kinds of things might seem odd, even racially preferential. But given the historical context, not to mention the vital information regarding ongoing discrimination in the present, the importance and legitimacy of these initiatives and organizations becomes evident to all but the most unreasonable.
What is most important for white folks to understand is that our interests do not lie with the racial bonding we are being asked to embrace. Indeed, the very concept of the white race was invented by the wealthy so as to trick poor and working class European Americans into accepting an economic system that exploited them, even as it elevated them in relative terms over persons of color. As such, for whites to organize on the basis of whiteness is to codify as legitimate a category the meaning of which was always and forever about domination and privilege relative to those who couldn’t qualify for membership in the club.
Finally, to organize as whites in a white-dominated society, where whites have eleven times the average net worth of blacks and eight times the average net worth of Latinos (15), have unemployment rates half that of blacks, poverty rates one-third as high as that for blacks and Latinos (16), and where whites run virtually every major institution in the nation, is by definition to organize for the continuation of that domination and supremacy. It is to seek to enshrine one’s head start; to seek the perpetuation of hegemony established in a system of formal apartheid, as if to say that that system was perfectly legitimate and worthy of survival. It is fundamentally different than for a minority group to organize collectively so as to secure their interests, since minority interests and opportunities cannot be assumed or taken for granted, as a function of their lesser power, while those of the majority typically can.
And to organize on the basis of whiteness is to cast one’s lot with the elite, who desperately wish for working class people to believe their enemies are each other, rather than the bosses who cut their wages, raid their pension funds, and limit their health care coverage. The more that white working people fight working people who are black and brown, the less they’ll be likely to take aim at those who pick their pockets every day they show up for work: paying them only a fraction of the value of the products and services they provide, all in the name of profits which they have no intention of truly sharing with their employees. Whiteness is a trick, but sadly one that has worked for nearly three-and-a-half centuries. Only when white folks wise up, and realize that whiteness itself is our problem, will we ever stand a chance of true liberation. Until then, our whiteness will provide us privileges and advantages, but only in relation to those at the bottom of the racial caste structure. It will provide a psychological wage, as W.E.B. Dubois put it, as an alternative to real wages. Not a bad deal, until you’re struggling to feed your family and keep a roof over their heads. For in times like that, real currency works a bit better.
(1) U.S Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, Good for Business: Making Full Use of the Nation’s Human Capital. (Washington DC: Bureau of National Affairs, March 1995).
(2) Fred L. Pincus, Reverse Discrimination: Dismantling the Myth. (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003), 18.
(3) Roberta J. Hill, “Far More Than Frybread,” in Race in the College Classroom: Pedagogy and Politics, ed. Bonnie TuSmith and Maureen T. Reddy. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press), 169.
(4) Sylvia Hurtado and Christine Navia, “Reconciling College Access and the Affirmative Action Debate,” in Affirmative Action’s Testament of Hope, ed. Mildred Garcia (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1997), 115.
(5) The State of Black America 2007: Portrait of the Black Male. (NY: National Urban League 2007).
(6) Devah Pager, “The Mark of a Criminal Record,” American Journal of Sociology 108, 5 (March 2003): 937-75.
(7) Russell J. Skiba, et al., The Color of Discipline: Sources of Racial and Gender Disproportionality in School Punishment (Indiana Education Policy Center, Policy Research Report SRS1, June 2000), 4.
(8) “Young White Offenders get lighter treatment,” The Tennesseean. April 26, 2000: 8A; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Results from the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (Office of Applied Studies, Department of Health and Human Services, Rockville, MD, 2004), also, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999. Summary of Findings from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse; United States Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States, 2001. (2002); Coramae Richey Mann, Unequal Justice: A Question of Color. (Indiana University Press, 1993), 224; Jim Sidanius, Shana Levin and Felicia Pratto, “Hierarchial Group Relations, Institutional Terror and the Dynamics of the Criminal Justice System,” in Confronting Racism: The Problem and the Response. eds. Jennifer Eberhardt and Susan T. Fiske, (London: Sage Publications, 1998), 142; SAMHSA, 2003 (see above): Table H.1. and calculations by the author. According to the SAMHSA report, as of 2003, there were 19.5 million current users of illegal narcotics. According to the data in the report, there were 165.4 million whites age 12 and over in the U.S., that year, and 8.5 percent of these were current users, which translates to 14 million white users. 14 million as a share of 19.5 million is 72 percent. According to the same report, there were 26.8 million blacks 12 and over in the U.S., of whom 9.7 percent were current drug users. This translates into 2.6 million current black drug users, which, as a share of 19.5 million is 13 percent. According to the report, there were 29 million Hispanics, of whom 7.2 percent, or 2 million, were current drug users. 2 million as a share of 19.5 million is 10 percent. Combined then, the black and Latino users come to 23 percent of all drug users; Human Rights Watch, Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs. (Washington, D.C. Volume 12, No. 2, May 2000); Michael K. Brown, et al., Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society. (University of California, 2003), 144.
(9) Rubio, Paul. 2000. A History of Affirmative Action, 1619-2000. University Press of Mississippi; Loewen, James, 1995. Lies My Teacher Told Me, New Press; Gutman, Herbert and the American Social History Project. 1989. Who Built America? Working People and the Nation’s Economy, Politics, Culture and Society. (Volumes 1 and 2) NY: Pantheon; Allen, Theodore. 1994. The Invention of the White Race, Volume One: Racial Oppression and Social Control. NY: Verso; Allen, Theodore, 1997. The Invention of the White Race, Volume Two: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America. NY; Verso.
(10) Rubio, 2000; Thandeka, 2000. Learning to Be White: Money, Race and God in America. NY: Continuum.
(11) Rubio, 2000; Ignatiev, Noel, 1994. How the Irish Became White. NY: Routledge; Guglielmo, Jennifer (ed), 2003. Are Italians White? How Race is Made in America. NY: Routledge.
(12) Manning, Chandra, 2007. What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery and the Civil War. NY: Knopf.
(13) Loewen, 1995; Gutman, et.al. 1989.
(14) Brown, Michael K, Martin Carnoy, Elliott Currie, Troy Duster, David B. Oppenheimer, Marjorie M. Schultz and David Wellman, 2003. Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society. University of California: 207.
(15) Shawna Orzechowski and Peter Sepielli, Net Worth and Asset Ownership of Households: 1998 and 2000 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, P70-88, May 2003), 2.
(16) The State of Black America 2007: Portrait of the Black Male. (NY: National Urban League 2007)