Marxism and White Skin Privilege
By Chris Wright
Marxism, in both the authoritarian (“Orthodox”) tradition and in the libertarian tradition, has had a few noticeable Achilles’ Heels, which have had drastic consequences. Gender and race top the list. Here, I mostly intend to focus on race, although at least passing comments on gender will be unavoidable.
In the United States, race has played a central role in the derailing of even a broadly ‘socialist’ class-consciousness, much less a revolutionary communist consciousness. On that, I am in full agreement with the editors of Race Traitor (RT). We agree that ‘racism’ is a term that has been de-clawed by a purely psychological understanding as ‘prejudice’, rather than as a category of oppression, and hence power and privilege. The main feature of racism in the U.S. is ‘white supremacy’ or white-skin privilege or what some call ‘whiteness’ (and I think the terms represent some political differences). We agree that race does not exist in any sense biologically, but is purely socially constructed1. We agree that race privilege entails more than a simple ‘social control formation’, a la Theodore Allen, foisted upon working class people from the outside, but that ‘white’ workers participate in the production and defense of whiteness/white-skin privilege. We agree that ‘anti-racism’ in the forms we know it has major problems, since it focuses on ‘racists’ or racist groups, rather than racism; also, anti-racism tends to reify race as biology. We agree that ‘whiteness studies’ (and its parents, multiculturalism and post-structuralism) has been predominantly liberal and little more than a new academic field for generating new career tracks. We do not seek to study, understand (and certainly not ‘validate’) the white race except in so far as we seek to destroy it, and as I hope every Marxist knows, the destruction of oppression requires the destruction of the power of the oppressor and the infrastructure and apparatus that sustain and systematically reproduce that power. In other words, we will not finish with race until we have finished off the white race. We agree that we can destroy the white race, in so far as the white race exists as nothing other than a social relation granting special privilege and engendering oppression (and in my opinion, a form of class collaboration.)
In what follows, I have focused on what we disagree on, not because I am a negative person, but because the interesting discussion lies therein. We have plenty of disagreements, and I will try to lay them out in a way that allows me to clearly articulate each point of disagreement, but also tie each point into a broader, unified critique. I think the analysis maintained by RT falls apart at certain points, primarily by failing to follow up with a fully Marxist analysis. Race, whiteness, etc. become under-theorized, without sufficient grounding in the dynamic of capital and class struggle (or without sufficiently stating their approach on the problem of a unilinear vs. a multi-linear analysis of the development of social conflict and revolution.) Without wanting to, RT falls back into a series of problematic political perspectives, some of which they also view as problematic.
I structured the piece as follows: I. Introduction; II. Is Race Central?; III. America Contra Whiteness?; IV. The Cult(ure) of America; V. Race, Other Races and Ethnicity: Codas of Race; VI. The Idea of Ends or The End of Ideas. Each section begins with (and usually contains a series of) quotes from various RT articles and editorials. I do this in order to ground the critique in a thorough reading of the ideas RT presents, and to pose each question as sharply as possible.
II. Is Race Central?
“We, its founding editors, have for over a half-century between us been identified through our writings and activities with what we know as “white-skin privilege politics” – the conviction that the key to fundamental social change in the U.S. is the challenge to the system of race privilege that embraces all whites, including the most downtrodden.” (Race Traitor, p. 1, also on web site)
This may seem like an odd place to begin, but I wonder exactly what leads RT to so thoroughly privilege race over other forms of exploitation and oppression? RT never explains why race privilege should be so elevated over patriarchy or over the very notion of alienation central to Marx (and certainly the alienation of ‘man from man’, especially as doubly implied in Marx’s gendered phrasing, would have to include ‘race’), in the form of fetishism. I mean, can we say that commodity fetishism or patriarchy play a less significant role? Do they all play equal roles or differently weighted roles at different moments? And what do we mean by ‘fundamental social change’? Radical reform? Communism? Our goal makes a difference in how we proceed and what we consider important.
I would argue that ‘race’ as we experience it in any meaningful sense derives from the particular process of fetishization peculiar to capitalist social relations. I intend to flesh that out as we go along. I raise this now to challenge the idea that any one relation exists as THE central relation that will demystify class power or lead to ‘fundamental social change’. No such relation exists. One thing I have learned from autonomism, the Situationists, Marxist-Humanism, and Black lesbian feminists, is that revolution is only possible when the whole show is up for grabs. We can’t pick a part and say, “This is what will make it all clear. Abolishing that social relation will open the path for the revolution.”
Even if we could, in the context of capitalism, ‘abolish the white race’, which I don’t think we can, then we would have a lot of other fetishized relations to overcome. And if anything, the history of race, gender and class struggles should show us that you can understand one part (or think you do) and screw up the rest royally, from old fashioned ‘Black and White/Unite and Fight’ socialism and anarchism, to white supremacist feminism, to nationalist Black liberation and so on. And the examples we could give would seem endless. I am not trying to be depressing, but rather to point out that the focus on one relation above all others mystifies capital’s real power by accepting the tendency towards reductionism and fragmentation. But to have this discussion, RT would have to discuss capital, anarchism, Marxism, and so on, something that RT has largely refused up to this point.
Goldner makes a very carefully crafted point in his two pieces in Race Traitor (issues 7 and 10): ‘race’ comes out of the same forces and premises as the Enlightenment, with the same underpinnings in the specific form of the capital-labor relation. I will not try to recapitulate Goldner’s complex articles, nor do I completely agree with his formulation, but it opens up the basis of an important critique of RT.
III. America Contra Whiteness?
“In this essay I shall argue two points: first, that the racial status of the immigrants, far from being the natural outcome of a spontaneous process, grew out of choices made by the immigrants themselves and those receiving them; second… to the extent the immigrants became “white”, they abandoned the possibility of becoming fully American” (“Immigrants and Whites”, Noel Ignatiev, Race Traitor, p.16)
What does the phrase “becoming fully American” mean? How exactly can we disconnect that from the development of capital in the way this phrase does? This notion of ‘becoming fully American’ takes ‘America’ at face value, uncritically, and undialectically. The realization of what is best in the ‘American’ experience will only happen through the destruction of ‘America’, through the negation of ‘American civilization’. The promises capital has made will only be kept by the destruction of capital. I could just as easily, and with equal justification, say that every defender of race privilege misses the chance to fully realize the Enlightenment goals of universal humanity, but I would also have to ignore that racial privilege finds its origin in the Enlightenment and that it cannot be exploded without radically surpassing the Enlightenment. To put it another way, this makes as much sense as saying that a ‘man’ is not fully ‘American’ if he supports gender privilege in the form of patriarchy. Either RT has some special reason to privilege ‘race’ over other forms of oppression, or the argument folds in on itself.
As such, I find Ignatiev’s point fully falls within liberalism exactly to the extent that it fails to point out the need for the overthrow of capital as a precondition for fulfilling the potential of ‘American civilization’. The work of CLR James, especially his ‘notes on American civilization’ (only published posthumously) forms the touchstone for this argument. I would remind everyone that when CLR James wrote his ‘ ‘notes on American civilization’, James explicitly wanted to take up the question of ‘Americanizing’ Bolshevism (some essays about that are the Appendices to the published version of American Civilization2.) CLR James’s concern with ‘American civilization’ had a lot to do with trying to figure out how to find the indigenous roots for Leninism and communism in the United States. I don’t see that at all in Ignatiev’s critique (though that may be in the back of his mind). But if it is the unspoken assumption, to the extent that RT fails to speak about it, fails to open up that perspective, then it has no essential difference from liberalism.
“What is the distinctive element of the American experience? It is the shock of being torn from a familiar place and hurled into a new environment, compelled to develop a way of life and culture from the materials at hand. And who more embodies that experience, is more the essential product of that experience, than the descendants of the people from Africa who visited these shores together with the first European explorers… and whose first settlers landed here a year before the Mayflower?” (“Immigrants and Whites”, Noel Ignatiev, Race Traitor, p. 19)
This is one of the bad conclusions flowing from RT’s short-circuiting of the critique of ‘American civilization’ (which would require a critique of capital.) ‘Distinctive element’ for whom? First, to try and compare enslavement with immigration (and we will see that RT is doing just that via Albert Murray), one may as well confound birth control with forced sterilization. Sure the result is the same, and the situation we have to face has some similar appearances, but it is not the same process, is it? One involves choice (even if it is a choice motivated by all kinds of illusions and misinformation), while the other involves the absence of choice. Trying to recoup ‘a distinctive American experience’, a national-cultural ‘authenticity’, gives up too much to liberalism.
Second, Murray could just as well be describing the formation of Eastern Europe, Arab North Africa, or Latin America Over the last 500 years. The whole world has been made and remade by massive human migrations and transformations. This whole approach depends on the liberal mystique of the United States as uniquely ‘immigrant’. This little idea has its own basis in European claims of racial purity that stretch back to a Christian vs. Moslem conflict. Why take this American boosterism uncritically?
Third, it focuses on one of RT’s signal failings: the perpetual denigration of the racialization of Native American peoples. Genocide might be “the distinctive element of the American experience” here, but then again, African Americans might also say the same thing. Unless RT intends to romanticize the ‘Trail of Tears’ and reservations, in addition to the slave trade? The tendency to avoid the Native American experience and to raise questions in a way that denigrates that (and other people’s experiences) flows from RT’s racial bi-polarism, which undercuts a critique of U.S. nationalism and nativism as forms of race privilege and racial formation. But this weak side has its foundation in Albert Murray’s book The Omni-Americans, so I will turn to Ignatiev’s citing of that work now.
“It is all too true that Negroes unlike the Yankee and the backwoodsman were slaves… But it is also true – and as things have turned out even more significant – that they were slaves who were living in the presence of more human freedom and individual opportunity than they or anybody else had seen before.” (Ignatiev quoting Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans, in “Immigrants and Whites”, Noel Ignatiev, Race Traitor, p. 19)
Does anyone need a clearer statement of liberalism? First, it has a rather reactionary view of African Civilizations (see my DuBois quote below), implicit in the comments that Africans were exposed only to ‘real’ freedom as slaves kidnapped from their homeland, packed into death ships, raped and beaten and then sold like cattle. Exactly what notion of freedom is Murray describing here? I think he means that Black people lived ‘in the presence of more human freedom, etc.’, in spite of their enslavement. We would ridicule a Stalinist or Maoist who tried to say workers in Russia or China ” were living in the presence of more human freedom and individual opportunity than they or anybody else had seen before”. How is this less absurd? If anything, I find it more absurd. This strikes me as a blatantly imperial deployment of Americanism in the worst ways.
“The slaves who absconded to fight for the British during the Revolutionary War were no less inspired by American ideas than those who fought for the colonies: the liberation that the white people wanted from the British the black people wanted from white people. As for the tactics of the fugitive slaves, the Underground Railroad was not only an innovation, it was also an extension of the American quest for democracy brought to its highest level of epic heroism.” (Ignatiev quoting Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans, in “Immigrants and Whites”, Noel Ignatiev, Race Traitor, p. 19)
Every struggle against oppression has to become the inherent tendency towards freedom and improvement, at least for the liberal. Making the slaves’ revolts into the ‘quest for the realization of American democracy’ reflects liberal teleology. It may suit the political needs of liberal apologists for the Democratic Party and the (in this case) Black middle class seeking to secure their place in the actually existing (read: capitalist) ‘American civilization’, but we should at least have the critical awareness to point out that white supremacy and slavery are also very American ideas.
“After all, such is the process by which Americans are made that immigrants, for instance, need trace their roots no further back in either time or space than Ellis Island. By the very act of arrival, they emerge from the bottomless depths and enter the same stream of American tradition as those who landed at Plymouth. In the very act of making their way through customs, they begin the process of becoming, as Constance Rourke would put it, part Yankee, part backwoodsman and Indian – and part Negro!” (Ignatiev quoting Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans, in “Immigrants and Whites”, Noel Ignatiev, Race Traitor, p. 19)
“Bottomless depths”? “The same stream of American tradition as those who landed at Plymouth”? “Ellis Island”? This national chauvinism/egoism blatantly reifies the idea that people migrate here for ‘the chance to become Americans’. This kind of assumption about immigration has its roots in liberal sociology on immigration from Robert Park forward. Every piece of this statement deserves contempt, lauding ‘America’ as a peak amidst the ‘bottomless depths’. As for those ‘immigrants’ not coming through Ellis Island, maybe they need not apply? There is, after all, an old tradition of anti-immigrant politics among so-called ‘race liberals’, especially directed against Chinese and Mexican labor (or today against Indians and Pakistanis.) Immigrants always seem to equal Europeans in this discourse, especially in these quotes. The only interesting article in RT on Mexican immigrants was about the possibility of the whitening of Chicanos in light of the fact that California Prop 187 was passed around fears of California having a majority non-white population. We all know and agree that there will never be a majority non-white population in the United States as long as the U.S. is a white supremacist country because new groups will be brought into the white race. However, Mexican migration poses special problems in relation to the question of race in the United States because of the need to control Mexican migrant labor and to manage and police a porous border. Questions we will take up later.
But how can Ignatiev quote this as if it was anything other than a love cry of the race liberal for ‘America the (mulatto) land of the free’ (what’s next? “Send us your wretched, your hungry…”)3 I find it hard to believe that RT is not trying to recruit from a certain layer of liberal anti-racists, since these quotes from Murray and the points made by the RT editors provide no critique of American national chauvinism and empire, and thereby threaten capital not much at all.
Compare Murray comments with the quote I sign all my e-mails with:
Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival. — Frederick Douglass
I also think DuBois has something relevant to say that takes an entirely different approach:
“The most magnificent drama in the last thousand years of human history is the transportation of ten million human beings out of the dark beauty of their mother continent into the new-found Eldorado of the West. They descended into Hell; and in the third century they arose from the dead, in the finest effort to achieve democracy for the working millions which this world has ever seen. It [Reconstruction] was a tragedy that beggared the Greek; it was an upheaval of humanity like the reformation and the French Revolution. Yet we are blind and led by the blind. We discern in it no part of our labor movement…” (Black Reconstruction in America, p. 727)
I rather think this says all that needs to be said about ‘American civilization’ from a revolutionary, abolitionist perspective.
“But what if their discovery… of the ‘social, political, and economic value in white skin’ leads them to ‘become color-poisoned bigots’? Their development into Americans is arrested.” (“Immigrants and Whites”, Noel Ignatiev, Race Traitor, p. 20)
“Normally the discussion of immigrant assimilation is framed by efforts to estimate how much of the immigrants’ traditional culture they lose in becoming American. Far more significant, however, than the choice between the old and the new is the choice between two identities which are both new to them: white and American.” (“Immigrants and Whites”, Noel Ignatiev, Race Traitor, p. 23)
‘Their development into Americans is arrested.” Or it is complete because they have succeeded in merging with a national identity (and I will maintain that nationalism and the nation state always has the seeds of racism in it4) at the expense of a revolutionary class identity. The alternative is not white vs. American, but white/American/male/etc vs. working class revolutionary.
But again, this begs the question of the relation between U.S. nationalism and whiteness. The whole idea of being an ‘American’ already has a national chauvinist kernel, since it assumes that the people of the United States are ‘Americans’, while everyone else on these two large continents are… un-American. That is already an imperial caveat. Is anti-immigrant hostility necessarily ‘white supremacist’? Can we call African Americans partaking of U.S. national chauvinism ‘white’? How does national chauvinism fit into Ignatiev’s view? Is one ‘truly American’ if one partakes of U.S. imperial national chauvinism? The failure to set the problem of race in the context of labor migration and nationalism means that Ignatiev and RT fail to challenge, or even account for, nativism and nationalism.
IV. The Cult(ure) of America
I am beginning this section with a quote from Murray because the whole notion of an ‘American culture’ contra whiteness, finds its foremost expression in Murray characterization of ‘American culture’ as ‘mulatto’.
‘American culture, he argues, is “incontestably mulatto.”‘ (Ignatiev quoting Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans, in “Immigrants and Whites”, Noel Ignatiev, Race Traitor, p. 19)
This is a central and constant theme in RT. What is ‘culture’? In addition to the problem of an oversimplified Black-white dualism, Murray ‘culture’ seems to have a highly ideological quality about it, one in which he seeks to insert ‘Negroes’ as valid members of the ‘American project’ who can now step forward and claim America as theirs. That does not help us a lot, however. After one hundred plus years of debating it, anthropologists still have no coherent approach or definition or working understanding of ‘culture’, especially in relation to other social relations like the state, capital, labor, production, etc. However, John Garvey (the founding co-editor of RT) offers us a succinct answer to the question of how RT understands the term ‘culture’. We shall see how it fares.
“Culture ‘refers to all the habits, patterns, and ways of thinking that humans acquire as an extragenetic inheritance.” (John Garvey quoting Ralph W. Nichols, no reference work cited, “My Problems with Multi-cultural Education”, Race Traitor, p. 29)
I see no reason to think that Igantiev and the rest of the RT editors disagree with this notion. It has the merit of giving us something concrete to work with. I hope I am not making too much of this, but Ignatiev, et al, bandy about the word ‘culture’ in a very loose way, appropriating a more or less common sense definition. By common sense, I am not trying to be nasty, so much as to say that they never engage critically with this term, even though it is hugely problematic. Clearly a central assumption for RT is the notion of ‘American-ness’ , and thus, by way of its contradistinction with white skin privilege, also a central assumption for their notions of whiteness as well.
First, Garvey, via Nichols, defines culture so broadly that it becomes utterly disconnected from class, history, etc. In that sense, it appears to give us a universal definition of culture. Universals like this underpin bourgeois thought, so I will object to it on those grounds alone. ‘Culture’ becomes totally disconnected from the capital-labor relation, from the production and consumption of labor power. Culture, and in my opinion, race, are made external in this process to capital, external to class struggle, external to fetishization, and therefore external to any particular history. Culture becomes a general category under which other things get placed, in a ‘taxonomy of things’ (music, literature, clothes, cooking, etc.), rather than an analysis of human relations. Garvey loses sight of the fact that music, literature, art, food, clothing, etc. only exists through the form in which they are produced and made available to us, as social relations grounded in the totality of capitalist relations. Garvey’s notion of culture is never grounded in that totality of historically specific social relations. Thus, his notion of culture has no way to address the commodification or the fetishization of human relations extending from that. Hip-hop has become a commodity of amazing proportions. Is this Black culture? Or is it only Black culture if it is antagonistic to whiteness? Is it a culture of resistance or has it become a culture of re-appropriation? What about its role in making a new section of the Black middle and upper class? Maybe this is exactly ‘American culture’ or ‘becoming truly American’? We lose our way in this labyrinth easily enough as it is, but without a solid foundation in class, forget about it. ‘Culture’, America and all the rest becomes a book bound by seven seals.
Second, we live in a society that is fundamentally alienated and alienating. ‘America’ is capitalist and the idea that the dominant culture can be anything but capitalist would be absurd from a Marxist point of view. This does not mean that the culture is not contradictory; that it is crisscrossed with conflicts, leakages, ruptures and openings. Part of the problem I have with the notion of ‘American culture’ posed by RT begins with its lack of conflict, lack of negation, lack of crisis. In that sense, we would have to launch a critique of ‘American culture’ not simply from a racial perspective, but as an expression of commodity society and the inherent conflicts of commodity society. To the extent that Garvey’s definition avoids the problem of ‘American culture’ as ‘capitalist culture’, Garvey (and RT) provide a liberal appropriation of the notion of culture, specifically in terms of treating each racial community as static, undifferentiated, and un-conflicted as well.
Third, the refusal to discuss developments in the Black community or other communities of color, allows exactly this kind of blind spot to develop. There is, in my opinion, a refusal on the part of RT to reckon with the complicated, class-riven relations within communities of color. African Americans tend to be homogenized (and romanticized as the ‘revolutionary other’) in a way that reifies race, rather than challenging it. I understand not wanting to fall into the category of white revolutionaries telling Black people how to run their struggles. That danger is very real, and very often realized. But refusing engage politically in a critical dialogue with all workers, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, and so on can only mean accepting our whiteness or other privileged status. I do not see a great distance between saying nothing about struggles in ‘non-white’ communities, and abandoning our class responsibilities. In my opinion, RT effectively endorses a white-only politics.
In the context of ‘American culture’, RT makes a big fuss about alternate ‘cultures’.
Interviewer: “Is there such a thing as ‘white culture’?”
Noel: “No. There is Italian culture, and Polish, Irish, Yiddish, German, and Appalachian culture; there is youth culture and drug culture and queer culture; but there is no ‘white’ culture – unless you mean Wonderbread and television game shows. Whiteness is nothing but an expression of race privilege.” (Race Traitor anthology, 288-89)
But if all of these fetishized human relations ‘have’ or ‘represent’ different ‘cultures’, then why no reference to female “culture”? How about capitalist “culture”? Apparently you can have a variety of male cultures, but not female ones. You can have a lot of kinds of ‘national’ cultures, but never is the problem of capital raised here. I know Ignatiev spent 20 years in Sojourner Truth trying to hammer out a continuation of James’ Marxism. I cannot say how far off this is from STO’s politics, but I do know that at least in those days they took the working class seriously. Now the working class does not even appear at all. Speaking of which, what about working class culture? There is no such thing as working class culture, at least not if we mean a way of living defined by working class people that is the dominant mode of living/thinking about our living. This is pretty basic to anyone who understands Marx’s idea from the German Ideology that “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” But even more so, we have to understand how the working class exists as a revolutionary force because it exists as the potential total negation of class power. Here I would emphasize that this negation exists as possibility only through the working class’ negation of itself in revolution. Almost every ‘culture’ listed here is subsumed by capital, is an aspect of capitalist culture. To the extent that any ‘cultural production’ does not challenge power, it reinforces it. To the extent that it is re-appropriated, ‘cultural production’ becomes part of the spectacle, becomes reification. The only non-capitalist culture will be a post-capitalist culture.
(Note: An interesting alternative (only because it is vastly more sophisticated failure) notion of culture might begin with Guy Debord’s definition of culture from “Preliminaries toward Defining a Unitary Revolutionary Program” (from Len Bracken, Guy Debord: Revolutionary, p.109): “Culture can be defined as the ensemble of means through which a society thinks of itself and shows itself to itself, and thus decides on all aspects of the use of its available surplus-value; that is to say, it is the organization of everything over and beyond the immediate necessities of society’s reproduction.”
On the good side, it ties culture into the production of ideas and self-reflection, and into the production process, not to mention surplus value (which is a specific tie in to capitalism, rather than some ‘universal’ approach.) At the same time, I wonder to what degree it still artificially separates out life in the production process from life outside of the production process. For example, given the lack of separation between play, work, art, etc. in pre-capitalist societies, especially pre-class societies, I don’t think the whole notion of culture even makes any sense. In fact, I think the whole notion of ‘culture’ is a very ideological conception that reifies the separation of work, play, music, sex, consumption, etc. It is wholly spectacular, in that sense. In a sense, Debord defining culture comes into conflict with the Situationist International’s radical critique of culture and separation. It is that tension that was productive, however, whereas I see no tension in RT’s approach to culture.)
V. Race, Other Races and Ethnicity: Contradictions of Racialization
Now we come to some of the other major issues in the ‘white skin privilege’ approach of RT. How do we understand race? Is it bi-polar between Black and white? Or is race more complex than that? This will also bring us back to the questions of immigration and imperialism in the construction of race. Finally, what is the relationship of ‘ethnicity’ to race? What is this whole ‘ethnic’ thing anyway?
What is Race?
The white race is a historically constructed social formation – historically constructed because (like royalty) it is a product of some people’s responses to historical circumstances; a social formation because it is a fact of society corresponding to no classification recognized by natural science.
The white race cuts across ethnic and class lines. It is not coextensive with that portion of the population of European descent, since many of those classified as “colored” can trace some of their ancestry to Europe, while African, Asian, or American Indian blood flows through the veins of many considered white. Nor does membership in the white race imply wealth, since there are plenty of poor whites, as well as some people of wealth and comfort who are not white.
These two paragraphs sum up the relation between race and ethnicity in RT’s view fairly well. I consider a fair portion of this accurate and essential. I think its main weakness is that its formulation of ‘historically constructed’ has no connection to any concrete history.
To be accurate, Ignatiev gives a more detailed exposition of this concretely in his book How The Irish Became White, but it seems that Ignatiev has problems moving from historical particulars to generalizations. The book may stand in relation to these ideas, but these formulations should also stand on their own. They fail to do so. He makes the ideas too generic, leaving out capital, the slave trade, colonialism, etc. This generic approach masks problems that will develop later (or that we have already seen.) Race certainly is also not about ‘blood’, which RT reifies here by talking about ‘racial’ blood and ‘ethnic’ ancestry. This peculiar reification separates Europeans into ‘cultures’ while “African, Asian, or American Indian blood” invokes biology. This apparent oddity may partially depend on RT’s rather absolute separation of race and ethnicity separate categories, which shows how the blindness of RT to the notion of other races begins. In one sense, the United States effectively functioned on the ‘one drop’ principle: any African heritage made someone Black (one drop of blood). But in the Caribbean, Central and South America, race privilege has more complicated layerings, in which mulattos, mestizos, indigenas, and a whole other range exist; depending on which country we are talking about (see Brazil, or Mexico or Cuba or Puerto Rico or Haiti, for examples.) Already, any broader discussion of race privilege and racial formation requires some thinking about the rest of the world. For anyone who might think I am bringing in racial formation elsewhere falsely or unfairly, allow me to be clear. RT brought in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, but only in terms of what happens to immigrants coming here. RT never mentions the impact of U.S. white supremacy abroad, via U.S. imperialism. Nor does RT, in my opinion, give sufficient credence to the role of other area’s systems of racial privilege and oppression impacting the United States, especially with Mexican and Caribbean labor from slave days forward. Also, it fails to see that while traditional constructions of whiteness in the United States applied the “one drop” principle (one drop of ‘Black blood’ makes a person Black) to African Americans, it also applies that rule to every other non-European group. The idea that ethnicity and race do not have an intimate connection ignores the very history of so-called ‘ethnicity’ and its ties to racial formation and racial ideology.
The white race consists of those who partake of the privileges of the white skin in this society. Its most wretched members share a status higher, in certain respects, than that of the most exalted persons excluded from it, in return for which they give their support to the system that degrades them. (Abolish the White Race, RT #1)
Also, while whiteness does not mean wealthy (as RT makes clear below, whiteness is really especially for poor people), but it does imply the color of wealth. The color of money might be green, but the color of wealth and power is white. I object to the idea that the white race consists of those who ‘partake’ of the privileges of white skin. Again, the definition is voluntarist and has recourse to a biological approach to race (white skin privilege.) You can reject whiteness all you want, but the privileges of whiteness are not so easily shorn. Can anyone imagine trying to say: You can stop being Black if you want to? You don’t have to ‘partake’ of the Black race. Racist oppression will disabuse anyone making that mistake quickly. Liberation is a social product of social struggle. But here we are talking about escaping the white race as if it was a choice. Not only does this minimize the depth of whiteness, it also privileges whites to be able to do something that Black people cannot do: escape race. If, on the other hand, RT means that we can disabuse people of the idea that they have a ‘white person’ in front of them when they trot out their white supremacist garbage, indeed we can. We can make whiteness uncomfortable and we can shake it up. But that is more limited than what RT suggests, if I am reading them right.
In other words, the white race and race in general exist as forms of fetishized relations, relation of power existing outside of us, as the power of a thing (a reified morphological characteristic, among other things) over human beings. In my opinion, RT seems to approach race as if it were a commodity to be purchased or put aside, rather than an integral form of the fetishization of human social relations. No one person can escape race because race is inscribed at every level of society. The funny thing is that RT knows this implicitly, and so let’s go there next.
Just as the capitalist system is not a capitalist plot, race is not the work of racists. On the contrary, it is reproduced by the principal institutions of society, among which are the schools (which define “excellence”), the labor market (which defines “employment”), the law (which defines “crime”), the welfare system (which defines “poverty”), and the family (which defines “kinship”)–and it is reinforced by various reform programs which address many of the social problems traditionally of concern to the “left.” (Race Traitor, Noel Ignatiev, p. 179-80)
In many ways, this is an excellent point, especially his nicely nuanced critique of reformism and reform programs. I also think it is well done as a critique of ‘anti-fascists’ and many Leftists who think that holding a counter-rally to the KKK is that same thing as ‘smashing racism’. In fact, I found myself preparing a leaflet for such a demonstration one day and got into a two hour argument with other people in the group I was with because I refused to use the slogan “Fight the racists”, insisting, as I am wont to do, that the KKK did not necessarily represent the only people suffering from racism and race privilege a.k.a. whiteness. So I appreciate the sentiment.
But it is also exactly here that race appears as an epiphenomenona to class struggle. Race here exists outside the relations of production, is produced with no reference to the capital-labor relation and class struggle. In this way, I always feel that (and RT is by no means alone on this) race is either tacked on to class externally in a way reminiscent of dual-systems theory in 1960’s and early 1970’s Marxist-Feminism or class is tacked on externally to race later. There is never a coherent, immanent, totalizing logic that brings these together. I am sorry if that sounds abstract, but I am not going to explain my concept of dialectics here (Richard Gunn has a marvelous article in Capital and Class #37 that I would highly recommend.) All I need to say here is that class and race do not seem organically linked in RT’s conception, and I like Loren Goldner’s attempt to link the two together in a more systematic way in his articles from Issues 7 and 10 of Race Traitor (even if in some crucial respects, he fails, he does a magnificent job anyway.)
Not only is the discussion linking class and race insufficient (and impoverished by not also considering gender, nationalism, etc), I feel that RT misses some important aspects of how workers produce whiteness (or race privilege, taken internationally.) Roediger attempts in a variety of places to lay out the problem. The question has two parts: what role do workers play in creating and maintaining whiteness, and why does whiteness succeed so well among workers? Roediger responds as follows:
“Rawick connects racism with the various losses of humanity required during the transition to capitalism. The separation of work from the rest of life, the bridling of sexuality, the loss of contact with nature, the timing of labor by clocks rather than by sun and season, the injunction to save by postponing gratification – all these were monumental, and monumentally painful, changes. Rawick suggests that in complex ways and especially for profit-minded Englishmen, such changes intensified racism during the years of American settlement. Racism served to justify slavery, but it also did more than that. Racists still longed for older ways, and even still practiced older lifestyles, guiltily. All of the old habits and styles of life so recently discarded by whites in the process of adopting capitalist values came to be fastened on Blacks. As Rawick wonderfully puts it, Englishmen and profit-minded settlers in America ‘met the West African as a reformed sinner meets a comrade of his previous debaucheries.’ The racist, like the reformed sinner, creates a ‘pornography of his former life… In half-suppressed fantasies, he must see a tremendous difference between his reformed self and those whom he formerly resembled.’ Blackness and whiteness are thus created together.” (“Notes on Working Class Racism”, Towards the Abolition of Whiteness, p. 64)
Roediger then applies this insight to the formation of the working class in the 19th century. This idea offers us some powerful insights into not simply Black-white ‘race relations’, but also between Black people and other racialized groups, such as Latinos, South Asians, and so on. The notions of ‘hard work’, ‘laziness’, etc. all have racialized connotations that make a lot of sense in this approach. Of course, Roediger is not just explaining race privilege as such, but working class acceptance and production of racial privilege. His approach, by the way, offers a way to understand colonialist and imperial racism. The question is, does Roediger’s approach explain too much, too easily?
I would again say that a place for critique exists in so far as Roediger fails to tie race into capital in more explicit terms via alienation and fetishization. There is a precedent for that approach in several different trends of Marxism: the Frankfurt School, Autonomist Marxism, the Situationists, James and Dunayevskaya, and the Marxists around the journal Common Sense/Edinburgh Conference of Socialist Economists.
The ground is wide open because something that almost no one does is to understand race privilege as an international, capitalist phenomena, and as a historical process with a definite relation to class struggle. To cite only one example, the process of racialization and racial oppression changed drastically in the post-Depression period due to a number of types of struggle against Jim Crow: the flight of Black labor from the South to the North in the Second Great Migration, the Civil Rights struggle (which partially led to the mechanization of Southern agriculture and the end of sharecropping and tenant farming as the dominant forms of Southern agriculture), and the Black Power struggles. These struggles destroyed Jim Crow, undermined the social acceptability of publicly racist acts and language, inspired a generation of so-called ‘white’ youth and other people of color to mobilize against various aspects of this society, and provided the fertile soil for the wildcat strike wave of the late 1960’s to early 1970’s, which played a role in ushering in the end of the post-WWII economic boom. As a result, racialization begins to take the forms we have seen since the late 1960’s via Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s thesis of cultural depravity. Race may have taken uniquely ‘white supremacist’ forms in the colonial settler states of the United State, South Africa and Australia, but who would deny the existence of race privilege in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa, themselves products of colonialism and slavery? The forms of race privilege exist in rather different ways. It would not surprise me to see the United States move more and more away from ‘one drop’ racialism to a more nuanced system of racial privilege similar to that found in the Caribbean. But that is another can of worms.
Other Races and Ethnics
[Note: All quotes in this section come from the article “Abolish The White Race By Any Means Necessary”, Race Traitor]
I want to approach this next: ‘other races’ and ethnicity. I place the two together because they are related. RT argues that there are only two races in the United States: Black and white. Everything else tends either in one direction or the other, or does not even fit into the notion of race, but rather as an ethnic group. I am basically quoting the whole of the article “Other Races” from RT #6. It is the most complete statement on the question and it illuminates the view of race and ethnicity held by RT.
“It is our faith – and with those who do not share it we shall not argue – that the majority of so-called whites in this country are neither deeply nor consciously committed to white supremacy; like most human beings in most times and places, they would do the right thing if it were convenient. As did their counterparts before the Civil War, most go along with a system that disturbs them, because the consequences of challenging it are terrifying. They close their eyes to what is happening around them, because it is easier not to know.” (“Abolish The White Race By Any Means Necessary”, Race Traitor, p. 12)
I think this underestimates the power of whiteness, a novel critique to launch at RT, I suppose. I think part of the problem is the idea of white supremacy. The notion of white supremacy lends itself to thinking in terms of radical white power organizations (even though RT is very aware of the problem that anti-fascism and anti-racism tend to orient towards ‘racists’, rather than to racism.) I would say that ‘whiteness’ is quite deeply rooted, even if ‘white supremacy’, popularly understood as aggressively racist behavior, is not. Maybe not as deeply as it used to be, but if we look at the effective power of whiteness in building a right wing coalition in both the Democratic and Republican parties, through a new and refined notion of whiteness, then I think we have to give whiteness some incredible staying power. The mistake is to think that passivity equals weakness. In fact, the passive or passive-aggressive defense of whiteness is its greatest strength: the refusal to fight alongside and defend Black people against racism, the refusal to see us as on the same side of the class line, etc. They don’t close their to eyes so much as they see it through white eyes.
David Roediger has a very good discussion of this in several essays in Towards the Abolition of Whiteness where he explains the ways in which whiteness becomes tied into ‘law and order’, bourgeois notions of ‘respectability’, ‘being hard working’, etc. These notions themselves are poison, racialized or not. But you have to be explicit about your class perspective to raise this. A critique of work or respectability or legality or love of hierarchy already exists within Marx. The question for us is how this bourgeois crap became racialized. How is it that every form of healthy refusal of capital’s domination over us becomes gendered, racialized, and sexualized? How is it that the straight, white, male becomes the ultimate machine of capital, a robot who loves being a robot? Not that everyone else does not suffer from this to varying degrees, but the straight, white, male is the ultimate robot devoid of humanity. If this was all present in clear class terms, if ‘hard working’ = jackass, willing slave, if ‘respectable’ = weak-minded, if ‘law abiding’ = cowardly class traitor, then who would want these titles? And yet, whiteness is intimately tied up with these notions. Roediger’s essays on the 1877 St. Louis General Strike, the Covington Hall retrospective, and a few other more isolated passages really bring this home.
But this is why I think whiteness has resilience, and where the connection to capital and class struggle is VERY important. To really understand how race privilege does what it does, and what it taps into, we have to understand the social construction of human beings in the alienated world of commodity production.
On the notion of race, we have already covered a lot of ground. But I want to bring up one more point Ignatiev raises repeatedly, but which he says succinctly in his essay “Anti-fascism, Anti-racism, and Abolition”:
From the start it is necessary to distinguish between race and ethnicity. They do not occupy the same analytic space and do not exist on a continuum. Ethnicity deals, at least symbolically, with culture; race is an assigned status. The distinction can perhaps be best illustrated by pointing out that black people and traditional southern “whites” share a common speech, religion, music, cuisine, and even ancestry, and probably resemble each other culturally more than any other two groups in the country; ethnically they are one, yet they are divided along “race” lines. At the same time two of the most distinctive ethnic groups in the country are the Hasidic Jews of New York and the Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; yet in neither case has their insistence on maintaining their unique cultures prevented them from enjoying all the rights and immunities of “whites.”
First, by distinguishing uncritically between ethnicity and race, RT forgets that ethnicity is a total social construction, and one that is intimately bound up with race. The first aspect of ethnicity is its role in dividing up the white race hierarchically, in particular as a way to chart levels of class difference and power in non-class terms. Secondly, ethnicity became a vehicle for categorizing other ‘cultures’ in the rest of the world that did not fit into U.S. racial formation. To say that ethnicity equates to ‘culture’ is only one more way to reify culture and it totally contradicts everything I have read in RT, where a distinct claim has been made for Black culture, Indian (sic) culture, Appalachian culture, queer culture, etc. Apparently culture can be racial and ethnic at the same time. And to shatter the lie of ethnicity, we really only need to ask whom ethnicity has been principally applied to historically in the United States: so-called whites. Who talks about Native American Ethnics or Indian ethnicity? Native Americans are most certainly raced, and in extremely important ways for the formation of whiteness as Roediger theorizes it (even if he himself falls quite short in this exact respect in his The Wages of Whiteness.) Ethnicity is generally reserved for existing or potential members of the white race, but not everyone who is not Black is a member or potential member. Once again, I will register my direct hostility towards the denigration of Native American tragedies and struggles implied in this lame formulation.
The U.S. is a capitalist society. As in any capitalist society the population consists largely of two classes, the masters and the slaves. In this country, unfortunately, many of the slaves think they are masters because they enjoy the privileges of the white skin.
True, but many Black people also think they are capitalists and have made some reconciliation to the system, either in the Black professionals, politicians, and managers, or in other areas such as sports (which has offered a very high profile escape for Black workers mainly since the 1970’s), the arts, and entertainment (first with rock and roll, but really only in a major way with hip-hop.) In other words, we can track all this from the post-Civil Rights period. “Black” does not equal revolutionary. Race privilege is not the only way that capital hooks people in. The lack of an analysis of fetishization seriously undermines RT’s approach to Marxism.
The privileges of whiteness extend to the lowest members of the white race, who enjoy a status higher, in certain respects, than that of the most exalted persons excluded from it. Not long ago there was an incident in Boston in which a well-dressed black man hailed a taxi and directed the driver to take him to his home in Roxbury, a black district. The cab driver, a white woman, refused, and when the man insisted she take him or call someone who would, as the law provided, she called her boyfriend, also a cabdriver, who showed up, dragged the man out of the cab and called him a “nigger.” The black man turned out to be a city councilman. The case was unusual only in that it made the papers. Either America is a very democratic country, where cabdrivers beat up city councilmen with impunity, or the privileges of whiteness reach far down into the ranks of the laboring class.
True enough. However it does not have the same ‘depth of truth’ as under Segregation in the South. We need to take the time to see how racial privilege and oppression has changed. Racial privilege is not monolithic in its form and has changed in response to social struggles. This explanation is no longer sufficiently sophisticated.
The white-skin privilege system does not require that all whites be treated the same; everyone knows that ethnic groups vary in wealth and status. It demands only that enough people identify their interests with those of the “white race” to prevent effective proletarian class solidarity. It thus polarizes the country into two “races”: those who enjoy the privileges of whiteness, and those who do not. Just as a “mixed” neighborhood has traditionally meant the interval between the first black person moving in and the last white moving out, so the intermediate position of various groups reflects a moment when their racial status is being determined.
I was very happy to see this article since it approached class the most clearly and seriously of anything I have ever seen in RT. This is an interesting point, but it neglects some unique aspects of exploitation and labor migration in the formation of race. Mexican migrant (not Chicano) labor has played a central role in the U.S. for many years. Mexican laborers have a constant connection with the United States and sections of the United States (such as Chicago and Los Angeles and most of Texas) are profitably thought of as part of Mexico and the United States at the same time. Mexican labor may not be treated with the same hostility as Black people in some ways, but make no mistake that anti-immigration law aims right at Mexican labor. African Americans cannot be deported. The INS does use deportation against Chicanos who they decided they wanted to fuck with or who were in the wrong place at the right time. Mexican labor is unequivocally not white, but it faces problems that no African American has to face. To the extent that RT fails to understand race in terms that include American national chauvinism, then RT engages in supporting a kind of nativism
(Note: for the logical conclusion of that nativism, see the book Turning Back.) Not to mention that this never addresses the substantial Chicano and Black vote for Tom Metzger in the 1970’s on the basis of anti-immigrant racial privilege.)
In the history of this country, racial status has proven quite flexible: before the Civil War, the “white” population consisted largely of those of Protestant English descent; with the arrival of large numbers of Scandinavians, Germans, and Catholic Irish, the “white race” was broadened to include all those of northern Europe- an stock; later on, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were incorporated into it, making “white” roughly synonymous with European. For most of U.S. history, people from Asia, Africa, the islands of the sea, and countries in the western hemisphere south of the Rio Grande were the victims of what looked very much like racial oppression, treated as inferiors in a caste system that gave meaning to the term “people of color.”
“Looked… like racial oppression”? Even a cursory knowledge of anti-Chinese (but also generally anti-Asian) policies and movements in U.S. should allow a better formulation than “looked very much like.” But the problem is not a good or bad formulation, but a series of bad concessions to U.S. nationalism and the failure to see racialization as an international process linked with the ways capital has fetishized human social relations. The complete failure of this argument stems from the fixation on ‘America’ and the failure to see racial privilege also in terms of nationalism. We should also mention Hawaii here. As both Native Americans and descendants of Asian peoples, the Hawaiian people were subjected to absolutely brutal racism.
A lot of this has changed. Children of Chinese, Ethiopian, and Haitian immigrants now grow up in America with the same advice Irish, Polish, and Italian parents gave their children in past generations: the way to succeed in the new country is to keep away from the black Americans. (The children don’t always listen, but that is another story.) The “white race” is being recomposed, just as in the nineteenth century, and just as at that time boundaries are not always clear and there are regional variations.
It has little to do with the advice they get. Advice does not make or unmake the white race. They received the advice to stay away from African Americans ever since they arrived. I find it absurd to believe that the Chinese, Mexican, and Puerto Rican populations are just now giving their children this advice. Certainly, the centrality of African Americans to the construction of racial privilege has always made African Americans the first group young people are told to avoid.6 At the same time, this argument reifies race, rather than challenging it. If we want to understand the destructibility of race, of whiteness in particular, then we have to understand that whiteness, and race, are fundamentally unstable. The struggle of people who do not want to be racialized as Black or white constantly undermines the attempt to impose racial privilege and racial oppression. To not see the contradictory character of racialization, the internal contradictions it bears that stamp it as a process of fetishization and defetishization, means we take the effectiveness of racialization for granted. In this paragraph, RT effectively assumes the success of racialization because it sees only two tendencies: ‘becoming white’ or ‘becoming truly American’. RT cannot see the implosive and explosive dynamic contained within racialization. Racialization is never complete, never a given. The struggle to racialized human beings, to establish a fixed, immobile identity, opens up race (and in fact identity) as brittle and fragile.
Various programs faciliate the recomposition. ESL programs, one of the chief vehicles for allowing immigrants to leap over black Americans, are not restricted to Europeans. Other mechanisms function through the “private” sector. The New York Times of March 11, 1996 carries an op-ed piece by Roger Waldinger detailing some of the ways immigrants win out over black Americans in the job search. It identifies personal reference networks, which bypass the open market, as the key. The result, for example, is that less than three percent of all workers in New York City’s garment industry are black Americans.
Now, this is an interesting argument walking a fine line. While there is no doubt that the immigrant groups that ‘made it’ (i.e. got into the white race) made it on the backs of Black labor, there is again a nativist quality to this statement, as if immigrant workers were to blame for Black unemployment in the garment trades. That is a gross over-simplification. Some of it has to do with the ability to use immigration law to get very cheap, very tractable (although we should not overestimate this) labor through green card status, work visas and the omni-present ‘illegalization’ of foreign labor. As for ESL programs, they are being drastically slashed all over the country, along with all education for working class people. As for personal reference networks, of course those exist. But we should at least attempt to understand the differences between different immigrant groups, such as variations in class status, training, relation to those already racialized as ‘white’, etc. At the same time, we can no longer hold the fiction that immigrants become white only on coming to ‘America.’ South Korea, for example, actively discourages, if not outright bans, Black Americans from teaching English as a second language in Korea (check out some web sites, they say it explicitly in several of them.) U.S. imperialism has transported whiteness all over the world because not only is it a capitalist state, it is white supremacist. The U.S. has spread its notion of white everywhere, but so did European colonialism and imperialism. Therefore immigrants come here for the first time and use the word ‘nigger’ without ever having seen a Black person. They are often more racist and rabid than second or third or fifth generation ‘Irish Americans’. The failure to link ‘American’ nationality with whiteness and race privilege again does extreme damage to the approach of RT and undermines the critique of race and national chauvinism.
In this country, existing social relations are compatible with democratic forms only so long as the privileges of race embrace most of the population. Without majority support, the regime would rest predominantly on naked force — like South Africa under apartheid or the South before the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the mid-1960’s — a precarious situation for those who govern. The periodic transformation of people from racially oppressed to ethnics is vital to the recomposition of a “white” majority. For years people have been predicting, some with glee, others with alarm, that by such-and-such year California (or some other state) will have a “non-white” majority. Both the proponents and opponents of this future can relax: the day California has a non- white majority is the day the present basis of rule collapses, because the Los Angeles Rebellion of 1992 will become general and sustained.
Democracy does not depend on race privilege alone. According to the idea expressed above by RT, the end of whiteness (in RT’s world, possible without the destruction of capital) would mean generalized dictatorship, which would supposedly drive all former whites towards revolution (or at least reform). Within the limits of their approach, I would say this is false because it assumes that capital has no other mechanisms of integration. Once again, this argument draws on the problematic analysis of race and its total disjuncture from capital. One need only look at capital in the rest of the world to see its flexibility. Not to mention that the United States still existed as a democracy back in the days of Segregation. To say that the U.S. was not a democracy back then (and that racism in the South was necessarily less brutal than racism in the North) idealizes bourgeois democracy. Bourgeois democracy happens to be damn repressive. It is still a form of capitalist dictatorship. However, if RT would suddenly like to argue that the abolition of the white race depends on the abolition of capital (and maybe vice versa, though I am less certain of that), that race privilege exists within and as a form of capitalist social relations, then I would agree.
I also find that the idea of “transforming people from racially oppressed to ethnics” contradicts earlier assertions that immigrants only appear to be ‘racially oppressed’. Here racial oppression applies to people not-yet-white. This contradiction finds its origin in the bi-polar view of race privilege and racialization.
A great deal of the quarrel about “intermediate” or “other” races has to do with determining who will be socially white in the twenty-first century. Of course there are problems with the term “white”: many of the new immigrants, while demanding the rights traditionally reserved for whites, do not want the term applied to them; they are “Latin” or “Asian,” and proud of it. So the language of racial oppression needs to be modified in order to preserve its content. Confusion on this point leads some to describe our project as abolishing the concept of whiteness. Perhaps they think they are helping us by “clarifying” what we mean, but their description is wrong: we want to abolish the white race, whatever name it goes under. For similar reasons, we are not interested in the “deconstruction” of whiteness; outside of the academy, the opposite of “construct” is not “deconstruct” but destroy.
I agree that the problem is not to abolish the concept; the problem is to abolish the entire social relation. But the rest of this makes less than total sense because it only considers race as relevant to U.S. national boundaries. Again, national narrowness and a lack of consideration of race and capital leads to weak formulations. After nearly 150 years without becoming white, I think that certain Asian and Latino groups have reason to not expect ‘membership’ any time soon. I also think it is a crude and constant mistake to treat all Latinos and Asians as homogenous groups. The relationship between U.S. capital and certain nations (such as Vietnamese, Chinese, Filipino, Puerto Rican, Mexican) makes entrance into the white race unlikely for some, but easier for others (Cubans come to mind.) This statement and even the entire approach does not hold in the face of an international approach rather than a narrowly national one.
The situation is still in flux, and it is not yet clear which groups will be admitted to the privileges of the favored race and which will be excluded… Part of the outcome depends on the attitude adopted by members of each group: if they do not learn to act as whites, they will not be treated as whites. And no one should forget that the process is reversible: if Tom Metzger or someone like him came to power, it is likely that the new immigrants would find themselves the victims of classical American racial oppression, or worse.
Again, there is a voluntarist aspect to this approach. ‘If they do not learn to act as whites’? While assimilating to whiteness is certainly part of the process, there is also the question of the relation to capital, which tends to guide the imposition of racial other from above. Once again, Mexican migrant labor provides a poignant example, where capital may never be able to de-racialize Mexican labor because of its dependence on it. Similar problems may present themselves for South Asian peoples (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, etc.) who are now forming a larger and larger pool of cheap, highly exploitable labor for the computer industry (one of their advantages is that they generally already speak and read English). Will they be racialized as white? Maybe, maybe not. Have they been racialized as ‘other than white’ already? Yes.
And many people racialized as not-white, racially oppressed people, can nonetheless express a desire to take advantage of U.S. national privilege. They want to stake their claim as ‘truly American’. That claim has profoundly reactionary implications, such as Tom Metzger receiving a large vote in the 1970’s in California on a vigorously anti-immigrant platform, garnering significant support from African American and Chicano voters who wanted to keep Mexican workers out. Recent immigrants already find themselves racialized in a certain way, as ‘non-American’.
Nothing we have said should suggest that the new immigrants are all “middle class” (whatever that means). There are plenty of Chinese proletarians in garment factories. We cannot make the point too often: race privilege is for those who have nothing else; its function is not to exempt people from exploitation but to reconcile them to it.
Please see the article “Gook: A Short history of an Americanism” in Roediger’s Towards the Abolition of the White Race. Roediger aptly shows how racialization is intimately connected with U.S. imperialism in relation to Asian peoples as U.S. capital ventures to exploit Asian labor and therefore to suppress the rebelliousness of Asian labor, such as in Vietnam and Korea. But RT cannot see this since they cannot make a consistent critique of ‘American civilization’. I cannot understand RT’s lack of concern with the dynamics of immigrants from different places. The overwhelmingly ‘unskilled’ working class population of Mexican migrants does not reflect the same dynamic as that of some Asian immigrant groups who come from highly skilled backgrounds, or as business owners or bureaucrats, all of which means that they have training and skills to draw upon that may get them out of the working class in one generation (of course, it is no accident that the vast majority of Vietnamese came here from working class backgrounds.) This does not offer a counter explanation to Ignatiev, so much as a complicating of their one-sided approach. Even then, immigrants often try to establish their American-ness by aping white attitudes. This does not mean that some immigrants don’t benefit from the fact that banks will give ‘intermediate’ groups loans to open small, shitty businesses (like 7-11’s, gas stations, etc.), especially in African American neighborhoods, where they ghettoize immigrant businesses too. It just means that the relation of ‘white’ and ‘American’ is more complicated and related than RT understands.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, during the height of anti-Chinese hysteria, one of the finest of all revolutionary organizations in U.S. history, the Industrial Workers of the World, stood at the dock in San Francisco greeting incoming Chinese workers with a huge banner. The banner read, in English and Chinese, “Chinese workers, welcome. Join the One Big Union of the Working Class.” We stand in that tradition, and call upon all proletarians who pass through these doors to reject the poison bait of race privilege held out by the master class that despises them. As they say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there: you’ll either be a union man or a thug for J.H. Blair.
We dare RT to match the IWW’s opposition to imperial chauvinism and nativism. The IWW engaged in no liberal cooing over ‘American civilization’, ‘American culture’ and ‘true Americans’. As for me, I say ‘Fuck America’. When the IWW hung out that banner, they did not do it because they thought they were realizing ‘American civilization’ or ‘American culture’. They were not saying, “Here’s your chance to ‘become truly American’.” They didn’t even assume, as this does, that the Chinese worker had any desire to become American at all (one of the classic imperial assumptions American ideology makes about all migrant labor.) Heck, the poster didn’t even say “Chinese workers, welcome to America.” It just said “Chinese workers(,) welcome.” The IWW did it because they believed in uniting all workers in one big organization against capital. They believed that any idea that lined someone up with the boss was a bad idea. They believed that workers had no country. They organized all workers (although if you read Roediger’s essay on Covington Hall in Towards the Abolition of the White Race you will see that even the IWW did not necessarily succeed in doing it in a consistently anti-racist or anti-sexist manner.) They did not consider foreign born workers who do not make the ‘right choice’ as automatic scabs or thugs, as that paragraph states quite clearly in its last two sentences. And it is especially insulting since this is one of the few articles where Ignatiev focuses on non-white/non-European immigrants. This smells like white (truly American) radicals disdaining non-white immigrants on the basis that they might become white at some unknown point in the future, rather than the idea that their existence might also complicate and weaken whiteness. One last question: Since anti-Chinese racism has been a feature of the United States for over 130 years, when do Chinese people become white? It sure is taking a long time. In the meantime, U.S. imperial involvement in the Philippines, Japan, Korea and Vietnam/Laos/Cambodia, alongside Japan-bashing in the late 1970’s, early 1980’s, seems to have heightened the ‘racing’ of so-called Asians. The white race seems a long way off, and much further than the less than one hundred years Ignatiev implies (compared to every European group, who gained white status within 2-3 generations. Chinese are in the 5-6th generation, Mexicans around the 7th. Seems whiteness comes real hard for some groups, eh? But since they have not become Black, either, Ignatiev has no real way to grapple with their existence and struggles.
V. Abolition of the White Race
“We, with little fame or fortune to worry about, seek to move the question of race explicitly to the center of the political state, and to argue that nothing less than the abolition of the white race will lay the foundation for a new departure.” (Race Traitor, p. 2)
“The key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race. Until that task is accomplished, even partial reform will prove elusive, because white influence permeates every issue in U.S. society, whether domestic or foreign.” (“What We Believe”, in every issue of RT)
First, keeping in time with the opening critique, I don’t see why we would any less want to make gender and class at the center of the political. In fact, how can we make race or gender or class the center separately without doing exactly what we want to criticize? Second, it depends on what they mean by ‘new departure’. I mean communism. I can talk about what I mean by that. I can admit that a lot of it I cannot foresee. But I can also discuss exactly how I think capital creates the precondition for the final transcendence of human alienation, which provides the basis for all forms of exploitation, oppression, and domination. I have a vision of that ‘new departure’ and it separates me off from authoritarian Marxists, many (but not all) anarchists, and certainly from people who see capital as ‘natural’ and ‘eternal’ or who only see ‘democracy’. Thirdly, maybe RT’s editors mean a new departure in the context of capital, a new class politics? Without an explicit answer to that question, we already lack a clear political sense of why combating race is important; the sense is rather simply moral (not, in and of itself, bad, so much as insufficient).
I think if we take race privilege as a central feature of capitalist alienation, just as we take capitalist patriarchy as central, then I don’t see how we can imagine capital without race privilege. Race privilege has been a constant feature of capital from nearly its inception. Even in the context of the United States, why privilege race over every other process in the ambit of capital? I think Ignatiev’s idea that
“whiteness was analogous to European social democracy in the sense that it represented an accommodation by some of the exploited to their continuing exploitation at the expense of still others of the exploited” (Race Traitor)
offers us an example of the problems of this formulation. First, this formulation has the unfortunate effect of not explaining how race privilege could have existed for the last several hundred years while social democracy developed with the formation of the industrial working class and imperialism. Second, it begs the question of colonialism, since social democracy surrendered to the ‘race privilege’ established in relation to the colonies. Social democracy always existed in a dynamic relation between the more privileged sections of the European working class and the more exploited sections of the world working class.7 Social democracy did not exist without race, as the quote implies, but with race in complicated ways.
No, the analogy to social democracy breaks down because social democracy does not parallel ‘whiteness’ or race privilege. It coexists and is shot through with it. In my opinion, this opens up one of the first problems in the RT notion of race privilege and whiteness: it exists in an exceedingly narrow, national formulation. I am not saying RT treats the formation of whiteness in its historical and social particularity within the United States. If they meant that, I could hardly argue. Rather, I feel that by failing to engage racial privilege as a common phenomenon under capital, linked as it is with slavery, colonialism, the nation state, and the international migration (forced or ‘voluntary’) of labor power, RT underestimates the internationality of race privilege, even in the specific form of whiteness, but also thereby minimizes the problem of race in shaping consciousness internationally. This means that race becomes disconnected from the international expansion of the capital-labor relation and its survival. This also leaves the whole question of class struggle and capital merely implicit — as if attacking white skin privilege offered a political shortcut that makes it possible to evade anti-communism and the lack of an overt class-consciousness.
Race gave a particular expression to certain conceptions of the world already contained in the Enlightenment. (By that, I am not claiming that the Enlightenment thinkers were ‘white men’. They had no prior concept of race, as we know it, much less whiteness, which only developed in the 17th and 18th centuries.) Those ‘conceptions of the world’ developed as they did because capital founded itself on slavery (the first real working class, against-and-through whose opposition capital develops) and colonialism. In a connected way, race has been central to the organization of labor power for exploitation ever since. Race privilege has not only been a social control formation propagated from above, but a product of the working class itself (in whatever form, whether whiteness here or Zionism in Israel, etc.) In so far as working class people retreat from the overthrow of capital, in so far as we get beaten back, we will create new means of buffering ourselves that will at least partially depend on the suffering of other workers. That’s how capital works. Race privilege happens to be one of those buffers, one which capital happily dangles in front of us. As such, the only way to destroy whiteness will be to destroy capital and vice versa. The very nature of whiteness and race privilege rotates around the creation of a cross-class or a non-class ‘identity’ that creates a sense of ‘community’ and ‘shared interests’ between one section of the working class and capital. Every rupture in whiteness certainly forms a major part of the challenge to capital’s stability and ability to rule. However, I am not claiming that the momentary rupture of whiteness is by itself sufficient, but is a precondition for revolution. Nor do I want anyone to confuse the momentary rupture, a crisis, of whiteness with its actual overthrow.
But let’s take the second statement even in terms of reform (“The key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race. Until that task is accomplished, even partial reform will prove elusive, because white influence permeates every issue in U.S. society, whether domestic or foreign.”). It is totally historically inaccurate. Whiteness has survived several crises, but the white race has not remained unchanged. And yet reform has happened. It has even come from a section of the working class pretty tied to whiteness, if we consider the reforms that came from the massive struggles of the of the 1880’s to the 1930’s. To say that these movements partially failed is a truism. All reform is partially a defeat because the underlying relations of exploitation and alienation have not been uprooted. But the statement that the abolition of whiteness is the precondition for ‘even partial reforms’ flies in the face of every historical fact and degrades struggles achieved by massive working class upsurges, as compromised as they were by race (and gender, and trade unionism, and nationalism, and anti-immigrant racism, and heterosexism, etc..)
RT seems to be saying that the abolition of the white race would solve our social problems. Either Ignatiev, et al, are making an assumption about what it will take to destroy the white race that sees abolition and communist revolution as simultaneous moments (which is contradicted by the last sentence of the quote) or the fundamental basis of society is not capital but race. This would be a fine statement for the Black middle class, most any kind of nationalist or even white race-liberals, in so far as the solution to their problem, the problem of equal rights to exploit, equal rights to middle class privilege, etc would be resolved with the abolition of the white race and the maintenance of capital. That resulted in a tendency in the white Left from the 1960’s forward, to tail-end the Black middle class and nationalist politics, alongside the increasing integration of the Black middle class into white corporate America and the machinery of the Democratic Party. Prior to the Civil Rights Movement, the Black middle class existed almost entirely in the Black community, and shared most of the privations and miseries that Black workers did. But the single greatest economic change since the 1960’s has been the integration of the majority of the Black middle class into mainstream, i.e. white, corporate America. The Black middle class has severed many of its traditional ties with the Black working class, and now would often like to achieve a non-racial status (an ‘ethnic status’?).
“The existence of the white race depends on the willingness of those assigned to it to place their racial interests above class, gender or any other interests they hold. The defection of enough of its members to make it unreliable as a determinant of behavior will set off tremors that will lead to its collapse.” (“What We Believe”)
“The way to abolish the white race is to disrupt that conformity. If enough people who look white violate the rules of whiteness their existence cannot be ignored. If it becomes impossible for the upholders of white rules to speak in the name of all who look white, the white race will cease to exist. The abolitionists are traitors to the white race; by acting boldly they jeopardize their membership in the white club and their ability to draw upon its privileges.
We recognize that this advice flies in the face of what is usually regarded as sound, practical sense. Even (we might say especially) in the ranks of the reformers the conventional wisdom teaches that the way to achieve social change is to strive to express the desires of an existing constituency. That is perhaps why most social reform is so useless.
We are calling for the opposite: a minority willing to undertake outrageous acts of provocation, aware that they will incur the opposition of many who might agree with them if they adopted a more moderate approach.
How many will it take? No one can say for sure. It is a bit like the problem of currency: how much counterfeit money has to circulate in order to destroy the value of the official currency? The answer is, nowhere near a majority–just enough to undermine public confidence in the official stuff. When it comes to abolishing the white race, the task is not to win over more whites to oppose “racism”; there are “anti-racists” enough already to do the job.” (“When does the unreasonable act make sense?”, Race Traitor, p.35-7)
Voluntarism not only permeates the analysis of whiteness, but the prescription of the struggle against white supremacy. Apparently for RT, we can stop being white by refusing to participate in the white race. We can destroy the white race by refusing its privileges. While I am sympathetic to the moral thrust of this attack, it makes whiteness or race privilege seem like a choice (which is only one element of whiteness.) If we take the notion of race privilege seriously, then no matter how much I want to not be white, no matter how much I personally attack whiteness, I will still be white to some stranger I meet on the street, or more importantly, to the state apparatus. Should I stop every cop who fails to pull me over for speeding in favor of someone Black and say, “Hey, you should have harassed me”? It is not possible to totally defect as an individual (it is possible to commit plenty of treason, however.) Now, I would be unfair if I posed this as if RT disagreed totally with that idea. The editors understand that the death of the white race will be a collective act of desertion, but they often approach it as if we could build enough numbers by rejecting it one at a time. The result is an often-contradictory approach to the problem.
I also want to register a problem here with the notion of Abolitionism. The abolitionists in the 19th century were not all against whiteness. In fact, many people opposed slavery and defended whiteness in the same movement. See many of the “Free Soil” arguments for the abolition of slavery. John Brown was one of the few who took abolitionism to the point of rejecting whiteness. Rather, the abolition of slavery took place in spite of the failure to destroy whiteness. Just to what extent whiteness remained intact should be clear from the collapse of Reconstruction. But even more so, abolitionism never conceived of the anti-slavery struggle as an anti-capitalist struggle. (Even Marx failed to grasp the transition of the freed slaves into a working class. He rather envisioned a situation similar to Haiti in which southern Black labor would become small property holders, independent small farmers. Instead, they became dependent agricultural laborers, i.e. a new agricultural working class. This explains why Marx never sought the creation of a workers’ party in the South among Black workers.)
A communist, unlike a classical abolitionist, is against EVERY form of human alienation, every form of oppression, domination and exploitation. It seems to me that if I am going to use the term Abolitionist and not communist, then I should invest Abolitionism with the same content. RT fails to do that, in my opinion. It’s abolitionism does not reach beyond the white race to capital. They even conceive of it that way in a document that says, “communism without abolitionism is impossible, but abolitionism without communism is incomplete.” Certainly, this is better, but if we understand communism as a movement and as socialized humanity (as a human community), then the second half of the statement makes no sense. Abolitionism without communism is… anti-racism and the retention of capitalism.
“What if the white skin lost its usefulness as a badge of loyalty? What if the cop, the judge, the social worker, the schoolteacher, and the other representatives of official society could no longer recognize a loyal person merely by looking, how would it affect their behavior? And if color no longer served as a handy guide to the dispensing of favors, so that ordinary whites began experiencing the sort of treatment to which they are normally immune, how would this affect their outlook.”… (Race Traitor, p. 36)
“If enough people who look white violate the rules of whiteness their existence cannot be ignored. If it becomes impossible for the upholders of white rules to speak in the name of all who look white, the white race will cease to exist.” (as above)
This should really be referenced to an earlier section, but because it fills out the end of the article and marks a recurring way of discussing race and the abolition of white skin privilege, I am re-engaging it here briefly. I just wanted to focus on this bit from the section I quoted immediately above and a related section from another article. Apparently it is not so easy to get away from race as biology (something which the insistence on white-skin privilege always betrays.) If we take Ignatiev literally, every immigrant group is simply jockeying for position in the white race (the only other option being Blackness.) But Indians, Pakistanis, Africans, East and Southeast Asians, and many Latinos, esp. (Mexicans, as I already touched upon and) many Caribbean peoples, look Black or at least very non-white. Suffice to say that a big hole exists between phrases like ‘looks white’ and ‘white-skin privilege’, and the attempt to escape biology as destiny. In my opinion, this points to the superiority of the term whiteness, rather than white-skin privilege (even if it is only less problematic.)
VI. The Idea of Ends or The End of Ideas
In light of all of the above, I feel I can try to draw some conclusions.
One thing that is now clear to me is why Ignatiev published a polemic with a neo-Nazi. First, RT sees moving from whiteness to ‘becoming truly American’ as precondition for any kind of reforms. Second, RT clearly identifies with aspects of the militia movement, which sees armed struggle against the government as central form of struggle. In spite of their white supremacy, they want to take up a struggle against the state and for a different kind of life. Now what kind of life is it? Generally, they want a life free from Black people, one with a heavy dose of pre-New Deal non-interference from the state, from a mythological ‘Golden Age of American civilization’. But that may be (as RT sharply points out) for a lack of credible revolutionary alternatives. Finally, RT sees its mission as challenging the white race from within, and who better to challenge than a neo-Nazi who is all about ‘American culture’ and ‘American civilization’? Ignatiev really believes that there is a common ground here, I think. I think he believes that he can convince this fellow, or others like him, that their whiteness is getting in the way of their desire to realize ‘America’. If, IF, I am right about this (I cannot be sure, since Ignatiev never discusses his reasons for this debate being published in RT) then we have a problem. It was the only way I could make sense of publishing a ‘discussion’ with a neo-Nazi.
So what is the problem? Well, since the object is to make whites ‘truly American’ by getting them to recognize the mulatto nature of ‘American culture’, the problem is already tackled above in my criticisms. This idea even re-introduces a kind of old notion of predetermined stages of struggle. Originally, the post-Marx Marxists posed the problem as “bourgeois revolution, socialism, a.k.a. dictatorship of the proletariat, communism”. That has been replaced with “first the abolition of whiteness, then (and RT never actually says this) we can move towards the revolution (in some sense reproducing the idea of bourgeois revolution then socialist revolution.) But what is more, RT cannot offer a really revolutionary option to so-called white workers. That would mean offering a different, conscious, class perspective: the option to stand for the overthrow of all forms of human alienation. RT could offer communism, a libertarian communism, a revolutionary working class perspective that openly contains a critique of whiteness from a more fully Marxist position. But it would have to put forward not the transition from ‘whiteness’ to ‘becoming truly American’, but from whiteness and American-ness to their total negation in working class revolutionary self-organization. To the extent that RT does not offer this, RT ends up offering a reformism that remains completely defined within the terms of U.S. nationalism and thus produces no critique of U.S. imperialism.
In my opinion, this approach to class and race is a continuation of the politics of the organization Ignatiev spent years in during the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO).
“From what we have said so far it should be evident that we regard the struggle against white supremacy as the most advanced outpost of the new society and the key ingredient in a revolutionary strategy. The waging of that struggle among whites is the main distinctive task of STO, as befits its character as an organization made up of white people.” (“Introduction to the United States: An Autonomist Political History”, Noel Ignatin (aka Ignatiev), STO, 1981)
What political conclusions did Ignatiev draw from his politics 20 years ago? The statement itself may be true enough. Lots of Left organizations are de facto ‘white organizations’. But to say that that is the character of the organization, means it is consciously, and in some sense, acceptably, white. Maybe I am old fashioned, but I grew up politically opposing white organizations, male organizations, hetero organizations as organized privilege. The whiteness of many Left organizations points to their failure, not their health. It absolutely negates Marx’s understanding of a communist in the Communist Manifesto, an understanding I have increasing affection for as the years go on:
“The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: (1) In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. (2) In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.”
Now Marx did not take up the idea of separate organizations for workers struggling against particular forms of oppression. We had to learn that thorough the struggle against special forms of oppression and privilege, such as race, gender, sexuality, etc., struggles led by women, people of color, migrants, gays and lesbians, and so on. As a result, most revolutionaries I know, however weakly and contradictorily, defend the idea that if African Americans, Latinos, women, etc. want to form organizations along the lines of their particular struggle, that is their option, their right. But no Marxist has any business being a part of an organization that is consciously ‘white’. That is not a separate organization but a segregated organization. And it seems very funny for Ignatiev to have been in a white, rather than ‘mulatto’, organization. This is absurd and happens to accept that, in spite of not being a liberal or guilty, Ignatiev certainly is white. But, in my opinion, the refusal to address political life in the Black population lends itself to that conclusion. On this, Ignatiev and STO would be separated from CLR James by a huge gulf. And when RT refuses to have anything to say about politics in the Black community unless it has something to do with “white skin privilege”, they recreate the problems from 20 years ago. In the end, that continuity is the only reason I bring up STO here at all.8
RT however does not even offer the communist perspective presented by STO. The result of their fixation on one portion of the problem has been their isolation from some of the largest, most exciting developments, such as the anti-globalization movement. Now, RT is aware of this, but I wonder if they can challenge enough of the other problems to realize that there is not simply a problem in their political orientation in spite of the right politics, but that there is ample room for critique of their underlying theory. It will be interesting to see the process because RT represents a good trend within the revolutionary current in the U.S. and I can only welcome them finding their way forward.
Finally, I offer no systematic theory of racial privilege to counter to RT at this time. I would like to sketch what I see as an outline to an approach. First, any approach to race has to start from the duality of race privilege and racial oppression as dual moments. Second, we have to tackle the process of racialization, so that we do not see race as something fixed or finalized. Third, we should tackle race through Marx’s concepts of fetishization and alienation, which I have tried to do in laying out my critique. This allows us to see the particularity of the forms of racialization as they develop, while also avoiding dualisms. In this, I am taking the notion of form as “mode of existence”, not as a genus-species relationship. That means that the form of the racialization is its actual existence, is its historical specificity. A number of people have pointed usefully in that direction, from David Roediger to Harry Cleaver to John Holloway, et al, to Selma James and Mariorosa Dalla Costa. Fourth, we have to ground the formation of race in historical particularity. Racial privilege, racial oppression, racialization, all mean nothing abstracted from practical social relations in history (slavery, colonialism, the conquest of the ‘Americas’ and various responses to the indigenous peoples, segregation, apartheid, Japanese pan-Asianism, etc.) The radical critics of whiteness have laid an invaluable groundwork here (Ignatiev, Roediger, Saxton, Ware, Allen, et al.) Fifth, only then can we grasp the particularity of ‘race’ to capitalist society, and understand the depth of connection. Sixth, this obviously asks us to understand racialization not simply in national terms, but in international terms, as connected to national chauvinism and nationalism, which leads us to the relationship between racialization and the capitalist state. In this, I do not think we should try to equate nationalism with racism, but to recognize that they overlap and interpenetrate each other. Seventh, we need to understand the ideological underpinnings of racialization in the problems of instrumental reason, bad infinity, the total animalization and taxonomic treatment of human beings. Adorno and Horkheimer, Postone and Sartre, began such a process in relation to anti-Semitism; Loren Goldner took a good stab at it regarding Africans and the Enlightenment. We need to follow up on it. Eighth, we need to understand not simply how capital gives rise to racialization, but how racialization cannot be separated from the production of class. If we take the idea that racialization is an example of a fetishized form of social relation that obscure class, we must also recognize it as one that forms class. As such, anti-racist struggles have the possibility of taking on an anti-capitalist character even while remaining within the boundaries of race, by threatening to explode one fetishized social relation. As such, we also need to consider the differential and autonomous organizing carried on by racially oppressed peoples as part and parcel of our common struggles, not as ‘diversions from the real class struggle.’ Ninth, the inversion of racialization does not come from simply starting with the oppressed, but from starting from the oppressor’s denial of their own racialization, their ‘normalization’, if you will. RT makes a valuable contribution in this direction that I heartily welcome. We need to develop the fragility of racialization, as well as its strength. Finally, not only do we have to consider racialization as a process of fetishization springing from the capital-labor relation, we have to understand it in relation to other fetishized forms of human relations, especially patriarchy and sexuality. A merely adequate notion of racialization begins here, and a merely adequate understanding must become the basis of our action.
I do not mind if people think I am simply playing the critic for now without trying to engage in a more worked out ‘positive’ formulation. I think the critic has been much maligned in a society that very much wants to plug its ears to any challenge to its legitimacy (Marx after all did not formulate an alternate political economy or economics, “only” a critique.)
1 Note that the terms or idea “whiteness is a social construction” or “the white race is socially constructed” and so on uses the passive voice. We should try to think about this idea in the active voice, which forces us to ask ‘who or what’ created whiteness or the white race. This may seem small, but the idea that some aspect of society, some person or grouping of persons, bears responsibility for the formation of the white race and of race privilege forces a different political response. Having placed responsibility, we then have to decide whether or not to act, and if to act, on what basis. I think we should always attempt to avoid the passive, which begs the question of responsibility and allows the responsible parties to escape. Here, I do not mean responsibility in a personal sense, so much as in a sense of activity and becoming, as process. Process means something continues to happen, and if it continues to happen, it means we have to relate to its continuation and destruction (hence, responsibility.)
2 For the record, I know there is a dialogue with CLR James’s book American Civilization going on here. However, let’s make a few things clear about this work of James’s. First, he never finished it or prepared it for print. Second, he made the notes in 1950, at the exact same time as he was writing a book call State Capitalism and World Revolution. That book was a polemic by James, Dunayevskaya, and Grace Lee in the Socialist Workers’ Party over what the perspective for the coming period should be. James had not broken with Leninism at this point, even if some early criticisms develop here. Third, James never finished the book, leaving it to the gnawing criticism of the mice. He never came back to it at any time over the next 39 years. That alone makes me think that James did not consider the piece essential after his break (in my opinion, only partial) with Leninism.
3 For a nice comparison, please visit The American Immigrant Wall of Honor web site, at http://www.wallofhonor.com/default.asp.
4 In the case of the US, not so much the seeds as a forest of redwood proportions.
6 The centrality of the African American population stems from several factors. The size of the African American population certainly plays a role, as the largest non-white population, and in fact, until the explosion of the Mexican/Chicano population related to the Bracero program, the only significantly sized group outside Native Americans. Native Americans, however, not only did not come from Europe, but occupied ‘America’ (land being the real issue) and lived in the context of a wholly incompatible social systems. This combination holds the key to the reason anti-Native American racism took the form of genocide and ‘racial cleansing’. African Americans were non-Europeans brought here as labor, and the centrality of the Black worker in the working class also made Blackness the central problem for capital. This has since been changed in part by the centrality of Mexican labor and the increasing size of the Chicano and Mexican working class.
7 The European adherents of social democracy consisted of mostly skilled, ‘national’, unionized and consciously ‘white’ (especially after WWII) workers. Social democracy spurned unskilled, migrant, and very much racialized colonial workers, a la the Turkish worker in Germany and Switzerland, North Africans in France, Caribbean and Indian workers in England, etc.)
8 (To some extent the STO maintained a partially Leninist vision of class consciousness that limited its offering “The revolutionary potential of the working class lies in its location in the production process, which compels it to act in ways that undermine the capital relation. Ordinarily, this aspect of working class behavior is subordinated to the dominant reformist aspect; even when it arises spontaneously it is accompanied by reformist consciousness.
The task of proletarian revolutionaries is to seek out and discover those aspects of proletarian activity which foreshadow the future society, which manifest the tendency of the proletarians to constitute themselves as a ruling class, to link these sporadic activities into a coherent social bloc that exists and struggles under capitalism without accepting the permanency of capitalism, and to transform the consciousness of the participants through the criticism of bourgeois ideas as they exist within the working class. (My italics – Chris)
A revolutionary strategy is, in short, a strategy of dual power. It is the treating of revolution as an act for today, as a part of the continuous struggle, instead of a dream to be indefinitely postponed in the interest of “realism”.” (Ignatin, 1981) Like Marxist-Humanism and Socialisme ou Barbarie, James and his descendants never manage a total and complete critique of Leninism. That critique only finds its fullest expression in Autonomist Marxism, the SI, and Open Marxism, as the continuators of a libertarian Marxist tradition.)
At the same time, STO had a long and diverse history, so I do not want to characterize STO simply on the basis of two aspects of their politics, which I raise simply to show political continuity with aspects of Race Traitor. A fuller critique of STO would require much more than a few lines.
Also, the critique of white skin privilege doth not a revolutionary make:
Following is a transcript of the debate last night between Vice President Al Gore and former Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey at the Apollo Theater in New York, as recorded by The New York Times. The first question was asked by the Rev. Al Sharpton. Feb. 21, 2000.
BRADLEY. The Vice President said he wanted to take race out of, I think the criminal justice system or out of policing he said. That requires a president whose strong and willing to lead on the central question of race in our country today. And that means sometimes telling white Americans what they don’t want to hear. And I therefore don’t do it with any kind of pointed finger, but take the issue of white skin privilege. Now what is white skin privilege? White skin privilege is, see the television program a couple of years ago where a black couple and a white couple exactly parallel went to 10 places to get apartments or houses. The black couple was rejected in all, the white couple was accepted at all. But in a more personal sense what is white skin privilege? When I was a rookie in the N.B.A. I got a lot of offers to do television and commercials, to do advertisements. And why did I get those? White skin privilege. I wasn’t the best player on the team, but I didn’t take those because I thought that was not the right thing to do and that it should have gone to my African-American teammates. We have to explain white skin privilege.
Bracken, Len (1995) Guy Debord: Revolutionary
DuBois, W. E. B. (19??) Black Reconstruction in America
Ignatiev, Noel and Garvey, John (1996) Race Traitor
Ignatin, Noel a.k.a. Noel Ignatiev (1981) An Autonomous History of the United States Sojourner Truth Organization
Marx, Karl (198?) The Communist Manifesto New York: Pathfinder Press
Murray, Albert (1971) The Omni-Americans
Roediger, David (1992) Towards the Abolition of the White Race New York: Verso
[I site where I take quotes from, but the largest portion of this material comes from the editorials of Race Traitor, and articles published in the Race Traitor, which collected together a number of articles from the first few issues. I also pulled some things from Noel Ignatiev’s Sojourner Truth Organization days (thanks Edmund): Introduction to The United States: An Autonomist political History and an article called Black Workers, White Workers. Both of those articles come from Ignatiev’s time in the organization Sojourner Truth, a communist organization in the United States which had some influence in Chicago in the 1970’s, at least compared to other types of groupings. I draw on Loren Goldner’s articles for RT, which consisted of two sharp pieces on the origin of the concept of race that attempt a tighter theoretical linkage between race and the Enlightenment. I will also be drawing from some ideas of David Roediger’s from Towards the Abolition of Whiteness. I raise all this to make it very clear what I am touching upon and what politics I am addressing. I will try to work very carefully from ideas that I consider central to the analysis of race and white supremacy as raised by Race Traitor, and some of the implications of their perspective and analysis.]
It’s funny, I wrote this a very long time ago, making it odd to read.
I am only now feeling my way towards the task I set forth in points 5 and 8 of my conclusion, of developing a new conceptualization of the relation of class, race, and gender which relies on seeing them as different moments of the relation between capital and labor in which labor does not merely relate to class, but to racialization and gendering, but further that labor itself is also is involved in law and the separation of wealth and power into the economic and political spheres.
However, I do feel that much of this piece still stands, despite its many rough edges and aporias. Maybe it will generate some useful discussion.
Thanks, it’s a great text. Do you mind if we post some of your latest content from the blog up here too?
Sure, of course.