This is a guest post (begun as a set of hasty scribbles on Facebook in the wake of Charlottesville) by Sean Parson, Assistant Professor in the Departments of Politics and International Affairs and the MA program in Sustainable Communities at Northern Arizona University. He is the author of Cooking up a Revolution: Food Not Bombs, Anarchist Homeless Activism and the Politics of Space (forthcoming).
So the modern racial system is a result of early colonial American history. In the mid to late 1600s (see Abolition of White Democracy or The Invention of the White Race) early southern colonies, in the middle of riots and work slow downs and a growing coalition between indentured servants and slaves “freed” white people from bondage and defined that black=slave, white= free labor. This approach spread throughout all the slave colonies because, well it worked, at quelling revolt and led to an interesting fact: poor, newly defined, whites began policing the race line.
That equation of black=slave and white = free was the guiding logic of the US democracy (nation wide due to laws about slave catching even in the north, see 12 Years a Slave) and the American political conceptions of citizenship were defined in this equation.* Every new group that entered the US were put into this spectrum: were they white or non-white? And every new “ethnicity” was original positioned as “not white,” because whiteness meant benefits and you do not just give away benefits to new immigrants if you are in power.
So the Irish came and were originally “non-white” after a few decades of intentionally devised actions to make them more white via being the most racist immigrants around, they were given access to the space of whiteness (see How the Irish Became White). This became the model of expanding whiteness from then on and the German, the Italian, the Greek, the Northern Europeans, and lastly the Jews (in the 1960s) were granted legal and social status of whiteness (see both Working Towards Whiteness and Black Face, White Noise. With that they gain, what is called “the wages of whiteness” which are small (but meaningful) social, economic, and political benefits that subsidize the working class or middle class wages (see Wages of Whiteness).
From 1776 to 1964, these wages were directly paid for via the state. So the New Deal, for instance, exempted from Social Security jobs that were primarily non-white and funded jobs that were white. This meant that only white folks, for the most part, got the first generation (and second) of social security benefits. Similarly the US government would redline neighborhoods and that allowed them to not provide the support for home ownership to non-white people (until 1964) and even the first round of the GI bill there were ways to remove the benefits for black soldiers (See When Affirmative Action Was White). In effect this led to a cascading wave of problems. I can look at many but here is just one -“the racial wealth gap” – which is slowly decreasing but at this rate they expect it would take over 300 years for that to balance out.
So now back to contemporary race. What is race? Race is a political filtering of people within certain categories for social, political, and economic reasons. What does that mean for the “white race”? It was invented as a way to break up class and divide a working force and that became a defining mark of what it means to be a citizen. With this the old European conception of race–which we now call ethnicity–went away for white people as “races” came to the US and through their actions and the needs of those in power, were included in the camp of “white” after sometime, and with that given full social status. So the one thing that all “white” people have in common is their access to the “club” of whiteness. But there is very little else that “links” people together in that club. In the most extreme case the Jews, who are the newest members and the most precarious (in my mind) have almost nothing in common with the Irish or the WASP’s other then ability to buy a home with lower interest rates without lowering the value of our own homes, and the like.
What does this mean? It means that “white pride” is, in reality, a pride in the white supremacy, since that is the only thing that whiteness has at its core. You can have Italian or Irish pride, since there are unique cultures and histories there. But if we think about “whiteness” as that which defines all other races (since the benefits you get are filtered through the system of white vs non-white) then if we remove the benefits of whiteness what that would logically means is that the invention of the white race falls apart. That does not mean that there are not other identities to have it just means that identity pride would not be linked to material and political benefits and so there can actually be a system of recognized equality, and then a space for multicultural acceptance (multiculturalism before that is not doing much to address power).
What needs to be taken into account now – what is in part driving the white anger in this country – is that things have changed a bit. There used to be a statement that race worked so that even the poorest white would not trade positions with the richest black person. That is no longer clearly the case. In the US we now have non-white economic elites and the rise of this non-white capitalist class means that the race and class lines are not entirely as strong and clear as they used to be. This means that discussions of race need to explore class, and class discussions need to focus on race.
What we see going on with the rise of Trump, his embrace of Bannon, Gorka, and Steven Miller, is an unwillingness to condemn, unequivocally, the white nationalists in Charlottesville because, at the core of his project, Trump is seeking to frame the contemporary economic anxiety around the “white working class,” where immigrants, people of color, and women are threatening their labor power and stability and economic stability. As neoliberalism globally fails, Trump offers an alternative to the last 30 years with his strong defense of cultural and social formations of white supremacy, including his defense of Confederate monuments. Trump and his administration not only defend white supremacy but also seek to strengthen it by recodifying the cross-class racial alliance narrative, that has historically structured US race relations.
In siding with Trump white workers are actively choosing the “wages of whiteness” and the social and economic crumbs from the economic elite over a coalition that has the power to alter the relationship between capital and labor. But there is a counter-vision being offered by Black Lives Matter, Antifa, the Dreamers, many former Bernie Sanders supporters, and other in which the supposedly white working class ally themselves with other people hurt by our economic system and focus on the shared exploitation of themselves from the economic elite. This could work if the supposedly ‘white’ working class can reject their race alliance and instead reach out to working class communities of color in opposition to economic exploitation and precarity (and its important to note that communities of color have on average much higher poverty rates, much less wealth, much higher unemployment, etc).
This is a difficult proposition. Politically it is easier to mobilize “white” folks to protect the “white working class” than to mobilize them around “the working class, period.” But as long as it is “white” vs “nonwhite” working class, white working class folks are never going to be powerful enough to actually alleviate their economic anxiety or fear. The above is why, for example, the organization Race Traitor uses the slogan “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.” When white working class focus turn their heads at their race it lifts up and allows for a movement to lift all poor people up a bit. When they do not, it means that they get small benefits but no one else gets anything (or might even lose things).
*Native Americans were a different pole, they were not defined as less free but defined as dangerous children – “children of the forest” was actually the phrase used by Jackson. For more see Michael Rogin’s chapter “Liberal Society and the Indian Question” from Ronald Reagan the Movie.