White Supremacy, Racism, and Privilege: An Introduction

When we hear the term “white supremacy” today our minds likely turn to images of the Ku Klux Klan or racial segregation in the Jim Crow South. But white supremacy, despite the accomplishments of the US Civil Rights movement, still exists and has become ingrained in almost every aspect of modern Western culture.

White supremacy means that black or Hispanic Americans are expected to conform to certain cultural norms defined by the white majority, or the ruling class. It also means that people of color are more likely to be harassed by police, incarcerated, or find themselves living in poverty. Of course, all these things can happen to white people as well, so it’s important that we have a structured analysis of how all these differences intersect with one another.

We study these differences not to emphasize one over the other or create division between social groups, but to find more effective ways to act as allies and become better neighbors as we work together toward our mutual goal of liberating the working class from capitalist exploitation.jVD0EoV

Defining Key Terms

Bigotry or Prejudice are distinct from racism in that they do not require the ability to oppress. Members of an oppressed racial group might dislike members of a privileged group, but lacking the power to oppress or marginalize that group, they would be said be be bigoted or prejudiced.

Intersectionalism is an idea conceived by a group of black lesbian women to describe how they were excluded from the mainstream feminist movement by their blackness and sexual orientation. It is founded on the idea that social groups can be oppressed in different ways. For example, a white women is oppressed as a woman, but privileged by her whiteness. A black man is oppressed as a black person, but privileged in some ways as a man. Members of the working class are all oppressed (or exploited) by capitalism. Intersectionalism is not intended to create a hierarchy of oppressions or suggest one group is “more oppressed” than another, but to determine how we can be more conscious and inclusive in our collective struggles against oppression.

Privilege is an institutional benefit enjoyed by those who belong to certain social groups. For example, white people in the US are privileged because they are more likely to see people like them in the media or advertisements, they are less likely to be harassed by police, and generally have an easier time scaling the economic ladder. That’s not to say white people can not be oppressed. Poor white people are at a distinct disadvantage in relation to wealthy capitalists, even those of otherwise oppressed groups. Privilege is a way to analyze and become aware of our own position in the social order to become better allies to our neighbors.FdrsPWk

Race is a social construct that developed in the modern era. It was primarily born in Western Europe, where colonial powers sought to impose domination over certain groups and as a way to foster conflict between members of the working class. For example, in early colonial America there was little distinction between black slaves and white indentured servants. When these two groups rose up to combat their oppression, a racial caste system was put in place that put white indentured servants in a privileged position in relation to black slaves.[1]

Racism is a combination of racial hatred or discrimination combined with the institutional power to oppress. Therefore, a white man can be racist against a black man in the US, but the black man could not be racist against a white man. As such, there is no such thing as “reverse racism,” even though a black person, for example, can be prejudiced against or dislike white people, because he lacks the power to oppress them as a group.

White Supremacy is an institutional form of oppression that places a higher value on the culture, experiences, and lives of “white” people. Who exactly qualifies as “white” has shifted over time, with Irish Catholics, Italians, and Eastern Europeans, now considered white, all being excluded at some point in modern history. White supremacy is used to impose the values of the dominant culture and capitalism on oppressed groups.

White Supremacy in Action: Some Examples

How Police Treat Us Differently
Example 1: Drew, a young white man, is pulled over for speeding. When the officers approaches the car drew asserts that he did nothing wrong and that he knows his rights. This makes the officer upset, but he returns to his car to write Drew a ticket. John hurls several insults at the officer and sarcastically asks “Aren’t there any real criminals for you to bother?” The officer warns Drew to watch his tone and abruptly hands him the citation. As the officer walks away, John mutters, “I’ll see you in court!” The officer returns to his car and speeds away.serrano130527_2_560

Example 2: Marcus, a young black man, is walking down the street with two friends. Two officers approach them and order them to stand against the wall for a stop-and-frisk search. This is a technique used by police in many cities. The men comply, but Marcus complains about the harassment, saying they did nothing wrong. One officer shoves Marcus into the wall hard enough to split his lip. “Shut up boy, you’ll do what we tell you!” he says. Marcus, clearly in pain, tries to free himself from the officer’s grip. Immediately the officer shouts “Stop resisting! Stop resisting!” and slams Marcus to the ground, pushed his knee into Marcus’ throat. “You should’ve just kept your mouth shut boy. Now you’re going to jail.” Marcus is taken to jail and booked on a charge of resisting arrest. The charges are later dropped, but while Marcus was in jail waiting to go to court he lost his job. He now has trouble finding work with an arrest on his record.

How Traditional Feminism Benefits Only Some Women
Example 1: Melissa, a white woman, is an active and outspoken feminist. She’s dedicated to fighting for equal pay in the workplace. She went to an elite women’s college with financial assistance from her parents and started work at a software company (a field traditionally dominated by men). She quickly worked her way up to an executive position. Some of the men claim she only got where she is because she’s a woman, even though Melissa had to work harder than most of the men, often for less pay. She considers herself a success story in the fight for women’s rights in the workplace and uses her experience to advocate for other working women.

Example 2: Anita, a black woman, dropped out of college because she couldn’t afford tuition and had no family to support her. She lives in Los Angeles, where rent is extremely expensive, and works two jobs just to make ends meet. She applied for financial assistance to finish school but nobody would give her a loan because of the money she owes to her old college. Anita enters a relationship with a man, finding some stability, and has a daughter. The man becomes abusive toward Anita, but she decides she to stay with him because even with two jobs she’d be unable to afford daycare for her daughter and rent for an apartment.

Race Relations in the Workplace
Example 1: Pablo, a young man whose parents legally immigrated from El Salvador before he was born, is shopping at a department store. While Pablo looks for a quinceañera present for his niece a woman comes up to him and asks where she can find the toddler clothes. Pablo, confused by the woman’s question, looks around and shrugs his shoulders. The woman, clearly frustrated, screams at Pablo: “Well what use are you? If you’re going to come to our country you can at least learn the language!” The woman assumed Pablo worked at the store because he is Hispanic.Factory-workers

Example 2: Hank, a white man, has worked at an auto factory for fifteen years. Monica, a black trans woman who has worked alongside Hank at the factory for five years, is elected shop steward by the other workers in their department. Hank, thinking he deserved the position because of his seniority, complains to his fellow workers that he’s a victim of reverse racism and that Monica was only elected because she’s a minority. When Monica confronts Hank about these accusations he becomes angry and uses racial and transphobic epithets to insult her. Hank is suspended from work for one week because of his tirade but continues to work in the same department as Monica. She avoids Hank now, fearing another outburst could turn violent.

Example 3: Chandler and Darius are college buddies who belonged to the same fraternity, both majored in marketing, and left school with similar GPA’s (Darius got a 3.9, Chandler a 3.8). They both apply for a position as sales rep with a major advertising firm in Chicago. Chandler receives a callback immediately and, after two interviews, is hired by the company. Darius never receives a reply. He submits his resume to companies in several other cities and gets only two callbacks. Despite his good performance during the initial interviews, Darius is not hired by either company. He moves back in with his parents and now works nights at a local warehouse to save enough money for a place of his own.

All of these examples are based on situations that occur every day in our society. While some of the examples might seem extreme, they reflect the experiences of many women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. Racism and white supremacy not only place people in these groups at an economic disadvantage, they can very likely threaten their mental, emotional, and physical safety.

Some Troubling Statistics2fc14c5a-2802-41a5-8856-d9b9dcb24470-620x372
Police across the US are notorious for mistreating people of color and LGBTQ people. People in the black and Latino communities have been complaining about police brutality long before the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Black Americans and American Indians are three times more likely, and Hispanic Americans are almost twice as likely, to be killed during an encounter with police than white Americans.[2] People of color are targeted for harassment, are more likely to be convicted, and receive harsher penalties in the US justice system. Stop-and-frisk policies, like that in New York City, are notorious for targeting communities of color. In 2012 the NYPD conducted 532,911 stop-and-frisk searches. Of those, 89% were innocent of any crime. While black and Latino New Yorkers make up 25% and 28% of the population, they constituted 55% and 32% of stop-and-frisk searches. Whites, who make up 44% of the population, were only targeted 10% of the time.[3],[4]

These are not an isolated incidents. The US has the largest prison population in the world. According to 2010 US census data, white people make up 64% of the US population and 39% of the prison population. Black and Hispanic Americans make up 16% and 13% of the general population but 19% and 40% of the prison population, respectively.[5] This means that 380 of every 100,000 white Americans versus 2,207 of every 100,000 black Americans is serving time in prison.[6] And while white and black Americans use drugs at roughly the same rate, black people make up 30% of US drug arrests and 40% of those incarcerated for drug law violations.[7] As this last statistic and much further data, suggest, people of color face disproportionate levels of discrimination at every level of the justice system.blacks_jobs_2

Black children in the US are 3 times more likely than white children to live in poverty, with Hispanic children faring only slightly better.[8] Black and Hispanic women are marginalized not only as people of color, but also as women. Black girls are more likely than white girls (and even black boys) to be suspended from school, even for similar offenses, and placed into the juvenile justice system. Young black women are the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice and prison population.[9]

The election of Barack Obama as US president in 2008 was seen as proof by many that the country had finally overcome its long legacy of racism. However, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks hate groups, the number of extreme right-wing militia and white supremacist groups has grown 813% since Barack Obama was elected.[10] Even with a black president, conditions for most black Americans have, if anything, become worse. The unemployment rate for black workers is more than twice that of white workers (11.5% vs 5.4% as of May 2015) and black homeowners are twice as likely to face foreclosure.[11],[12]

Dismantling White Supremacy

Dismantling white supremacy and racism isn’t as simple as placing black people into positions of power. Those who find themselves in these positions are more likely to identify with the ruling class, those who own most of the capital and make most of the decisions, than any other social group to which they might belong.

The battle against those who are openly racist, like the Ku Klux Klan, National Socialist Movement, or
your racist uncle, is a start, but it won’t undo the institutional racism and oppression faced by millions of our neighbors and fellow workers for generations. If we hope to succeed, we must respect our differences and use them to our advantage. The ruling class has exploited our differences to place us at odds with each other for generations. To overcome white supremacy we must respect our differences and work together, in whatever ways we are able, to overcome the oppression we all face as members of the working class.

More than that, members of privileged groups must acknowledge our privilege when dealing with members of marginalized groups. Sometimes we might need to step back and let the voices of women or people of color be heard. We might need to advocate for them, without drowning out their pleas for liberation. Part of being a good ally is not only standing beside our oppressed neighbors, but listening to them and looking at how white supremacy affects each of us. As people living in a society that imposes white values on everyone, we have all internalized certain attitudes about race. We must consciously work to deconstruct those attitudes and build new values based on unity and mutual respect for each other.

A Note on Safe Spaces
Sometimes even in groups dedicated to fighting white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, members of oppressed groups might find it necessary to work through specific issues with other members they identify with. For example, in many socialist or working-class-oriented organizations, women might feel like their voices aren’t being heard or that they’re being harassed or intimidated by male members of the group. In these situations it might be appropriate for women to come together in a “safe space” that doesn’t include men to discuss the issues they face together and form a strategy to address the problem within the larger group.

These safe spaces aren’t meant to isolate or divide members of the group, but to address issues that affect members of oppressed groups within the larger community. Don’t be offended or feel like you’re being excluded if you’re not asked to participate; these safe spaces are sometimes critical to the long-term health and stability of the group.


Sources and Additional Information

  1. Background on Bacon’s Rebellion: http://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/bacons-rebellion.htm
  2. Police killings by racial group: http://mic.com/articles/109894/the-police-are-killing-one-group-at-a-staggering-rate-and-nobody-is-talking-about-it
  3. New York City stop-and-frisk data: http://www.nyclu.org/content/stop-and-frisk-data
  4. New York City demographics: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/36/3651000.html
  5. Incarceration rates by Ethnicity: http://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/rates.html
  6. Incarceration by ethnicity per 100,000: http://www.prisonpolicy.org/graphs/raceinc.html
  7. Drug use and rates of incarceration: http://www.drugpolicy.org/sites/default/files/DPA_Fact_Sheet_Drug_War_Mass_Incarceration_and_Race_Jan2015.pdf
  8. Child poverty rates: http://www.npc.umich.edu/poverty/
  9. Black girls and women in the prison system: http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/voices/expand-school-prison-pipeline-conversation-include-black-girls
  10. Growth of US hate groups: http://www.splcenter.org/what-we-do/hate-and-extremism
  11. Employment statistics, May 2015: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm
  12. Home foreclosures, white vs. black: http://newpol.org/content/race-and-obama-era