Systemic Classism: An Actual System of Privilege

The loose use of the word “privilege” is creating a lot of confusion out there in our societies. To clarify, a privilege is a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.

In medieval Europe, feudal lords enjoyed a privilege called droit du seigneur (or jus primae noctis, as a specific form of the general right), which gave the lord the right to have sexual relations with the serfs living on his estate. This is likely a myth, but, if true, it would constitute an example of a privilege.

Francesco Parisi, Le Droit Du Seigneur, 1872

Here’s a real example: During Jim Crow, only people could drink from certain water fountains or sit at certain lunch counters. Under the doctrine “separate but equal,” whites has access to facilities from which blacks were barred. This constituted a race privilege.

Segregated bus

Today, and this has been true for decades, there are no white-only spaces. Indeed, such a space, if it existed, would be illegal and dismantled. In fact, there is not a single institution or system in the United States that bars black people from entering on account of their race. In other words, there is no institutional or systemic racism in America. (At least to that benefits whites.)

However, there is a form of privilege that does persist. If I do not own and control the means of production to produce for myself, and if I am not allowed free access to these means, then I must sell my labor (rent my body) to those who do for survival (or maybe the government will provide me with assistance). This situation is the consequence of the right by law of individuals or groups to privately own and control productive capital. Albeit difficult, it is possible to acquire this privilege and, in doing so, change one’s class position. One can lose this privilege, too (just ask all the small business men and women who lost the privilege thanks to lockdowns).

Workers at a Tennessee Volkswagen factory

In other words, while there is no race-based system in America, there is a class-based system. We’d call is “systemic classism” except that materiality in law and objective fact makes it a system by definition (we can, of course, differentiate “capitalist institutions” from other institutions.) Isn’t it interesting that those who are pushing the rhetoric of white privilege are financed and promoted by those who enjoy class privilege? It’s almost as if there were an effort to distract the people from something. You know, change the conversation.

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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