Sunday, April 8, 2012

Once More on Privilege

Perhaps some of you were brave enough to wade through my long-winded, meandering series of reflections on the concept of "privilege" that I posed a couple of weeks back. Readers interested in this topic may have noticed a couple of debates recently that touch on this topic. The topic has been on my mind a lot lately.

I'm thinking about doing something more extensive on privilege, something that actually engages more closely with the concepts most sophisticated defenders. The target of my recent critical post did not really have in mind people like Noel Ignatiev or contributors to Race Traitor. Instead, I had in mind the large set of radical (and radicalizing) people committed to anti-racist struggle who frequently make use of the concept.

Right now, however, I'm not interested in a thorough consideration of the concept of privilege. Instead, I simply want to point out a problem that seems to surface whenever debates around the concept emerge.

As I pointed out in my critique, there are plenty of people who buy into the ideology of colorblindness and, because of their endorsement of colorblindness, chafe against the language of privilege for all the wrong reasons. Though I take myself to be a critic of the concept of privilege, I share nothing politically or philosophically on these matters with colorblind critics, and I harbor special ire for those colorblind critics who profess to be representatives of the Marxist left.

Yet, all too often the defenders of the language of privilege respond to critics as if they were all defenders of colorblindness. That is counterproductive and distorts the discussion considerably. There is a lot of room for debate on pressing political questions--e.g. what kind of movement do we want to build? are multi-racial socialist organizations worth fighting for, is solidarity in the fight against oppression possible or desirable?--that take for granted that colorblindness is bullshit, that we don't live in a "post-racial" society, that racially oppressed people are, as such, subject to forms oppression that white people are not, etc. Fighting colorblindness is crucial, but among those who are already won to fighting it, many questions remain (such as those I mentioned above).

Take the following quotation from Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's Socialist Worker article "Race, Class and Marxism":

Oppression is not just an ideological tool to divide groups of workers, but has real material consequences as well. Because of racism, for example, the median household income for white families as of 2006 was over $50,000 a year. For Blacks, it was just under $32,000. By every measure of the quality of life in the U.S., whites are on the top and Blacks are on the bottom.

Marxists do not deny that these differences exist, nor do we deny that oppression means the lives of some workers are actually worse than others. For Marxists, the question is the cause of the differences. Are the disparities the result of white workers benefiting directly from the oppression of Black workers? That is, do white workers make more on average because Black workers make less?

To accept this explanation means to ignore the biggest beneficiary in the disparity in wages--employers and bosses. That employers are able to use racism to justify paying Black workers less brings the wages of all workers down--the employers enjoy the difference.

This is not to deny that white workers receive some advantages in U.S. society because they are white in a racist society. If they did not get some advantage--and with it, the illusion that the system works for them--then racism would not be effective in dividing Black and white workers.

This last bit is most important, because it is precisely this point that defenders of the language of privilege almost always charge Marxists with denying. The question isn't whether or not white workers enjoy certain advantages that black workers do not, given that we live in a racist society. White people of all classes are spared certain forms of racial oppression that non-white people endure. To say this is simply to restate the fact that we live in a racist society, a fact not contested by (genuine) Marxist critics.

The root of the debate is what framework best explains how this situation came about, how it is reproduced over time, and how we can change it. It seems to me that the language of privilege is substantially worse on all three counts when compared with a framework that focuses on oppressive social relations and the ways in which they are structured by the social system writ large.

Lots of white workers are racist. That is a sociological fact. White workers, insofar as they're white, are not racially oppressed. That is also a sociological fact. Because non-white people endure racial oppression in a racist society, they live with specific burdens that white people do not have to live with (e.g. consider the tribulations of raising black children (see here and here) in a racist society). Again, another fact.

But neither (genuine) Marxists nor those committed to the language of privilege deny these claims. So acknowledging these facts does not decisively speak in favor of the privilege framework as against other competing theories of oppression such as that advanced by contemporary Marxists. More, as we will see below, needs to be said in order to defend the privilege framework. My guess is that its dominance and wide currency during the 1990s has lent it kind of default credibility among many of today's radicals. But, like any worthwhile political framework, it should have to earn this credibility by showing that it is better than other competing approaches.

It seems to me that the basic questions here are as follows. By what social process do racist white workers come to hold racist beliefs? How is racist ideology--by ideology we mean "false consciousness"--produced and reproduced over time? What social function does it play? And, finally: Does the fact that certain groups are subjected to special forms of oppression under capitalism mean that workers of different groups cannot unite and fight for liberation from class exploitation and all forms of oppression?

I won't argue for these claims here, but the (genuine) Marxist response here would, first of all, be to locate the origins of racist ideology in a historical process of development that grows out of the need to legitimate slavery, colonialism, imperialism, genocide, primitive accumulation and so on. The continuous reproduction of racist ideology would be explained by its entanglement in a dialectic of ongoing social processes rooted in material conditions. The function it plays, of course, would be various and shifting, but basically geared toward maintaining oppressive social relations and staving off the possibility of a multi-racial challenge from below. And, as for multi-racial struggle, Marxists would say that it is both possible and necessary for us to fight for. Multi-racial struggle and solidarity is not historically unprecedented, but it is, to be sure, quite difficult to achieve under racist conditions. It can only be built upon an uncompromising commitment to completely uproot all forms of oppression. A colorblind multi-racial radical movement, on the other hand, is neither desirable nor possible. It would be a contradiction in terms and would serve to perpetuate racial oppression rather than challenge it. Genuine solidarity means taking seriously the principle that an injury to one worker is an injury to all.

These answers seem to be correct. But they are controversial and worth debating out within the growing radical movement in the US. Better to debate these questions than to cast aside all critiques of the language of privilege on the grounds that they are motivated by colorblind ideology.


Anonymous said...

How can you blame people for thinking that Marxists buy into colorblind racism when there are colorblind groups (like the one you link in the post as an example of what you oppose) who go around calling themselves Marxists?

t said...

I hesitate to say that I blame anyone who thinks such a thing. There is a lot of misinformation about the Marxist tradition out there, whether its coming from Cold Warriors or Stalinists. The tradition is a contested one, and to be a Marxist today seems to me to be a matter of standing for the best that the tradition has to offer.

I do, however, blame people who ought to know better. The SEP is one group (and I'm sure there are others) who endorse colorblindness and class reductionism. They wind up with a reactionary view on these topics and they should be ruthlessly criticized for it. They're wrong, and I don't think that their positions follow from Marxism properly understood. The majority of the Marxist tradition in the US stands against them (the CP of the 1930s opposed colorblindness, so did the Trotskyist parties in the 30s and 40s, and most Maoist groups (with the except of PLP at some point) seem to reject this analysis as well). I can't control what the SEP does and I don't think it's fair to use their folly to argue against Marxism as such.

For those who don't know any better, I would say that Marxists have to win them through discussion and argument, by showing that historically, and in practice today, being a Marxist means being dedicated to completely uprooting racial oppression. They need to show that Marxism is the best means of understanding racism the better to destroy it.

For those who should know better, however, I'm willing to say that they should be blamed for engaging in straw-person argumentation. It is well-known that Marxism is an internally contested tradition. It won't do to cherry pick certain examples and use them against the whole edifice. One must engage with the best version of the view they intend to argue against. As I say, to be a Marxist today is to stand alongside the best that the tradition has to offer, based on a (political) analysis of what "best" means.