The Rhetoric of White Privilege: Progressivism’s Play for Political Paralysis

“When their son is walking down the street with a bag of M&Ms in his pocket, wearing a hoodie, his whiteness is what protects him from not being shot,” Kirsten Gillibrand said on July 31 in a CNN forum for Democrats vying for the nomination of their party.

The junior senator from New York was invoking Trayvon Martin’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman on February 2012 in Sanford, Florida. (Zimmerman was acquitted of murder charges.) Gillibrand was explaining how she possesses the ability to explain white privilege to “those white women in the suburbs who voted for Trump” (as if this were the reason suburban white women cast the vote they did).

Kirsten Gillibrand, Democratic Party candidate for U.S. president

Gillibrand followed the Martin tragedy with another example (apparently a composite): “When their child has a car that breaks down and he knocks on someone’s door for help and the door opens and the help is given, it’s his whiteness that protects him from being shot.” Perhaps she is referring mainly to an incident involving Brennan Walker, shot at by homeowner Jeffrey Ziegler. (Ziegler was convicted of of assault with intent to do great bodily harm.) 

The next day, Melanye Price, a political scientist at Prairie View A&M University (formerly at Rutgers), penned an op-ed for The New York Times praising Gillibrand’s approach titled “Kirsten Gillibrand is Right: Racism is About White People.”

Melanye Price, Prairie View A&M University

Price draws the contrast between Gillibrand and the other Democrats in the forum: “when the moderators asked the other candidates about how they would deal with racial hostility, they all made the same rhetorical pivot, talking about blacks and other people of color instead. They decried urban blight, school segregation, health care disparities and problematic law enforcement.”

This is what the focus should be on: economic and social injustice. The candidates should not affirm a politics that portrays manifestations of basic humanity—clean and safe neighborhoods, good schools, universal and high quality health care, etc.—as “privileges.” These ought to be ordinary expectations in a free and democratic society common to all. With her rhetoric, Price suggests they represent a form of racism, even white nationalism. If we want to suppress racism and white supremacy, then what do we do with civil, politics, and social—indeed, human—rights meant for everybody?

Privilege is a special advantage, immunity, or right granted or available only to a particular person or group. For example, in the Jim Crow system, which was abolished over half a century ago, whites had access to exclusive and superior accommodations. In contemporary America, there are no special advantages, immunities, or rights that are granted to white citizens that are not also granted to citizens of every other race. There are white Americans who are as poor as poor black Americans. The capitalist system does not arrange for any worker special treatment on the basis of race.

Price writes, “As an African-American woman raised in the urban South, I am happy they’re willing to acknowledge these issues. But….” Such throat clearing reveals the identity politics corrupting the way in which many academics frame the problem of racial disparities. Whenever I hear something like this I run a test in my head: Imagine a white man beginning a sentence with: “As a white man raised in the rural south….” Then imagine that paired with an intention to blame all black people for something happening to white people in America. I submit that it is this tone that redirects resentment among segments of the American working class in a manner beneficial to capitalist elites and their functionaries. (It’s also why the American university is losing prestige.)

We don’t have to imagine where Price is going with her words. The rest of the sentence: “…all candidates should start to speak to white people about race and the ways that policies they take for granted are directly implicated in creating these social problems.” To be sure, citizens need to consider the implication of government policies in the social problems that affect people, including how they exacerbate racial and other group disparities (for example, how the importation of cheap foreign labor harms the livelihoods of American citizens, in particular its most vulnerable populations). But Price wants the candidates to follow Gillibrand’s lead and blame white Americans for the problems of black Americans. Price’s is a racially divisive politics.

In the examples Gillibrand cites, if anything protects white people in analogous situations, it’s their humanity, not their whiteness. They are not regarded with fear or loathing and subject to violence, not because they’re privileged, but because they’re recognized or regarded as equals. Violence and oppressions directed against blacks has declined in America over the decades because black Americans have had their humanity restored through the abolition of slavery and apartheid—actual systems of race privilege—and protection of civil and political rights, not because white Americans have seen their own liberties and rights suppressed.

Racism, as do all ideologies of that ilk (including religion), dehumanizes persons in order to subject them to inferior treatment and even lethal violence. These ideologies outlive their de jure framework. Zimmerman killed Martin because of what we presume Zimmerman believed about black people. That’s not privilege. That’s racism (if, in fact, race was his motive). The struggle for justice is against racism, the beliefs and behaviors that conceptualize blacks as inferior and justify mistreating them on that basis. The struggle for justice is about abolishing the system of social class that rests fundamentally upon the exploitation of human labor power. The rhetoric of white privilege miscasts the problem. It works to disunite people instead of seeking to unite them around a common problem. It’s a politics of resentment when a politics of solidarity is needed.

The fact is that whites have never been immune from police oppression, a central claim in the white privilege discourse. In 2016, Tony Timpa pleaded for help as Dallas police officers pinned his shoulders, knees and neck to the ground, suffocating him to death. Or perhaps what killed him was the powerful sedative injected into his body. In any case, he’s dead. And he was white. Even his membership in the yacht club (which the officers joked about) couldn’t save him. Charges brought against the officer were dismissed.

Tony Timpa, killed by Dallas police officers in 2016

Timpa is a name on a very long list of dead white men. In 2016, Daniel Shaver was ordered to crawl on the floor by a Mesa, Arizona police officer before being shot five times with an AR-15. Like Timpa, Shaver died begging not to be harmed. In 2016, Andrew Thomas was shot in the neck and paralyzed following a traffic accident by a Paradise, California police officer. Thomas died three weeks later from septic shock. The officer was acquitted on the charge of manslaughter. In 2016, Dylan Noble was unarmed when Fresno police shot and killed him. The officers were not charged. These victims of bad policing hardly exhaust the cases of men who did not enjoy the privilege of whiteness.

White privilege is an element in anti-racist ideology, a rhetorical attempt to implicate all white people in racism, to make police officers appear as a force for the maintenance of a white supremacist system that systematically benefits whites at the expense of blacks. Yes, there are police officers who for various reasons shoot people for no good reason. And we should explore these and hold officers accountable if wrongdoing is found. We will likely find racism lurking behind some of these cases. However, the right to not be shot for no good reason is a human right. It is not a racial privilege.

White people do not benefit as a demographic unit from the mistreatment of black people. Racism, by dividing the proletariat, undermines the common interests of black and white workers to the benefit of capitalist elites. Implicating white workers in an ideology that benefits the bourgeoisie (who are not monolithically white) by suggesting that they, too, are privileged is anti-worker propaganda.

If the notion of Du Bois’s psychological wage for white workers is to be critiqued, the critique should be to show workers who think they enjoy such a privilege really don’t. But that’s hardly the work of diversity and inclusivity programming. That’s not what Jane Elliott does when she traumatizes white university students in what are essentially reeducation camps endeavoring to break the will of those who resist indoctrination. Elliott is a celebrated progressive. Burying class consciousness and disrupting class politics through identity politics is the work of progressivism. It has been doing this work for more than a century.

Presuming to speak for black people, Price ventures to instruct white people on how to talk about racism: “Here’s a solution for white people: Don’t answer questions on race by listing the struggles of people of color. Talk about what you can or will do to decrease support for white nationalism among whites.” As a human being, I don’t need Price’s instructions on how to talk about race. Indeed, I find offensive the suggestion that ways of talking about race should depend upon the imposition of race at all. Price’s identity in no way makes her analysis or her solution to the problems confronting Americans valid or useful.

As a sociologist who studies issues of race and politics (not as a white man raised in the rural south), I suggest something different. If we wish to decrease support for white nationalism, then centrist and leftist academics, activists, pundits, and politicians should stop blaming white people for things they’re not responsible for. Instead, they should join in popular work to cultivate critical understanding of the role economics and social class play in human affairs in order to build a proletarian movement effectively addressing the threats facing people: the ongoing and systematic exploitation of labor, the approaching environmental catastrophe, and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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