For the last month or so there has been a great deal of energy directed at race. It is certainly a step in the right direction that these conversations are even happening, but one would be hard pressed to say these conversations have been productive. It seems, at least to me, these conversations are nothing more than elementary style “I’m right! No! I’m right” arguments (I am guilty of this). I would expect this from those that benefit from the status quo. However, it always hurts my soul when folks who, by any objective measure, are being oppressed by the current situation take up passionate defenses of white supremacy. This group, at least by my observations, would include people of color like David Webb who insist that racism is no longer a significant barrier (it is funny to me that these folks never say racism doesn’t exist, in fact they always concede that racism is real, yet it never manifests… curious). It also includes many working class European Americans–poor whites. It is particularly this latter segment that I will be focusing on for a couple of fairly simple reasons: 1) I am a working class European American and as such my role in ending white supremacy and racism is to speak to that community and 2) as Richard Wright correctly observed when asked about the “Negro problem” in the Unites States, “[t]here isn’t any Negro problem; there is only a White problem.” Meaning, it is the job of white folks to cure America of the disease of racism and white supremacy. That being said, while much of this will be directly aimed at the consciousness of working whites it is applicable to any conversation about ending white supremacy given that white supremacy (and whiteness) are social constructs, ideologies, capable of being adhered to by all shades of melanin.
I would like to enter this conversation slightly different than I have in the past. We have all heard the phrase “divide and conquer” and, I assume, have at least a working knowledge of what it is trying to convey. I would like us to consider, then, what the original divide and conquer strategy was here on this continent. When the first Europeans came to this continent they immediately identified the Natives as other and perpetrated a mass genocide. This was all justified, rationalized and predicated on the idea that they, the Europeans, were normal, “civilized,” and worthy of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the other, therefore, was not. The original divide, then, was whiteness. This strategy also provided the rational and (im)moral basis for slavery. Beyond that, this setting of white as normal solidified white supremacy as the dominant ideology, leading to its eventual codification in the laws that govern our country. In fact, the first law passed regarding citizenship after the ratification of the Constitution, the Naturalization Act of 1790, limited citizenship to “free white persons.” This highlights a phenomenon George Lipsitz calls the “possessive investment in whiteness” which goes hand in hand with Du Bois’ idea of the wages of whiteness. The general gist: whiteness is valuable.
Today somebody with European ancestry is considered white; this is a relatively new acceptance. For much of America’s history many European ethnicities were not immediately considered white, they had to navigate a space of being somewhere between white and of color, they were what David Roediger calls “inbetween people” and had to earn their citizenship and whiteness; this ties directly to the idea of divide and conquer. In order to maintain their grip on power those elites that established the country realized that they were outnumbered by the blacks, Natives, and poor whites whose oppression they counted on. In order to maintain their power and wealth they slowly expanded the definition of white and allowed more and more European groups into the exclusive club, at least hypothetically. This intensified the investment in and wages of whiteness as many poor whites did everything they could to leave the weight of poverty behind them, often times failing and having only the fact that they weren’t black to separate them, validating their humanity.
This is the lynchpin of how divide and conquer operates today: investment in whiteness. The fact of the matter is working class whites have more in common, just as they always have, with people of color. Yes, it is true that white skin does come with “wages,” but these wages in no way rectify the damage that comes with the investment in whiteness. Many poor whites continuously act against their own self-interest for no other reason than whiteness. The tea party offers a wonderful example of this type of harmful investment in whiteness. Much of the tea party rhetoric has to do with the size of government and specifically the “entitlement” programs. Ironically, many of those tea partiers have no qualm with the enormous government programs that moved this country out of the depression. Even more directly, many of these same people need, or are currently receiving, government aid and benefits such as social security or Veterans benefits. Sadly, they have bought into the narrative that entitlement programs are allowing people of color to “mooch” off the government. The fact that the majority of welfare recipients are white seems not to matter: they would rather make sure Reagan’s welfare queen is brought to justice.
The time has come to change the rhetoric around race. As Wright pointed out, the issue that perpetuates racism in America is whiteness. Whiteness is the original divide. It is time for whites to recognize this divide is costing us our relationship with humanity. It is time to reclaim our kinship with the majority of people on this planet! So, how do we begin to move in that direction?
Whiteness as an ideology
For many working class whites the wages of whiteness are not livable. Therefore, the obliteration of white supremacy is in the best interest of not only people of color but most whites as well.
First and foremost the cornerstone of any effort to end white supremacy has to be an understanding that whiteness is a social construct, an ideology that dictates norms and orders a society. As such, whiteness can be deconstructed, it can be undone, and we can order society differently.
This deconstruction must begin with white folks divesting from the norm that is whiteness. Whiteness, due to white supremacy, has permeated our culture so thoroughly that many look at me crazy when I lay this out, but I believe this is another manifestation of just how thoroughly whiteness has a hold of our world. Historically speaking, whiteness has always been fluid. Depending on the needs of the wealthy Anglo-Saxon elites (sometimes referred to as WASP’s in history books) the definition of white changes as witnessed by naturalization laws. Even today white is not as solidified as people like to believe: there is a debate about the whiteness of Asian Americans (for the record racism affects the Asian community too) and CNN recently ran into controversy when they labeled Zimmerman a white Hispanic. So it seems, if even just subconsciously, we understand whiteness is fluid. What we may not understand is how to think differently about whiteness, or as I call it divesting from whiteness. It is my assertion that the first step to divesting from whiteness is economic.
Understanding whiteness as a function of capitalism allows for an entry point into destructing white supremacy in a fairly simple way: by challenging the notion of whiteness as normal. This, ultimately, challenges white supremacy by calling into question the legitimacy or the institutions that have whiteness at its core (it is important to say here that I do not think racism goes away by simply working for economic justice, as many white organizers and activists suggest. Instead, I am saying that an intentional movement focused on racial justice will lead to economic justice, the inverse of what is often suggested). History clearly lays out the crucial role whiteness plays in the economic landscape. The most obvious, and commonly cited example is slavery; however, the crucial role of whiteness is not limited simply to the institution of slavery, as many claim, and hope.
Whiteness played a key role in the economic development of this country long after slavery, and its impact was not just limited to the South. in the North white industrial capitalists often exploited immigrant (nonwhite) labor and many blacks who stayed in the South after emancipation were relegated to sharecropper status where the conditions eerily resembled slavery. This resulted in tremendous economic gains for the white elite. The labor movement forced this elite and powerful group to open up whiteness to more of the European immigrant groups that provided the labor which made their wealth possible. Not an insignificant point, the unions that serve as the hallmark of the labor union were very, very white, illustrating the intimate relationship between capitalism and whiteness: whiteness as a means to economic prosperity. Whiteness further facilitated the accumulation of wealth during the New Deal. Many remember FDR’s trademark program as being a highlight of progressivism and an example of how government should work. The New Deal allowed for many whites to own a home and therefore accumulate vast amounts of wealth. These programs, however, were off limits to people of color. In fact, 98% of the FHA loans were given to whites.
While it is true that history has seen more whites able to progress up the proverbial social ladder the fact remains there is only limited room at the pinnacle, not everyone will occupy that space. We have seen this time and time again: when push comes to shove the elites have no problem sacrificing the middle class for their own benefits. It seems the investment in whiteness is largely a one way street. This is clearly a salient fact for many working and middle class whites, if it wasn’t the pushback to affirmative action and other racial justice programs would not be so widespread and passionate. It is clear these whites understand they have something to lose and, more importantly, their grip on those things is tenuous at best. However, this desperate grasping for whiteness is not the only option available, there is another option, and by divesting from whiteness the majority of whites will actually better their material reality. Let’s look closer at this.
Possessive Investment in Whiteness: a case study
My wife and I were at lunch recently and somehow the conversation found its way to race. I was discussing how whiteness developed uniquely in America and suggested this was the result of capitalism. I will lay out my main argument here as a sort of case study and thought experiment which consists of two parts.
1) For some people it will be hard to accept that whiteness is akin to being normal. Admittedly, this is not a common perspective but I think it is one that must be acknowledged. Many folks who work in anti-racism describe whiteness as the default everything else is judged against. I would agree and suggest the reason for this normalization: consumer culture. The mainstream economy is what everything is geared for. Everything must make a profit. Everything must be a commodity. And because whites make up most of the folks creating commodity they create commodities from what they know and for who they know. The result normalized whiteness.
This relationship between the ideology of whiteness and capitalism in America has resulted in the two being euphemisms for each other:to become “normal” is to become white. This relationship requires a sick sort of masochism on the part of whites. We can see this clearly in the differences between American whites and Europeans.
In Europe it was literally impossible to invest in whiteness the same way as in America, everyone is white. They did classify based upon physical differences, but not nearly with the effect or longevity that level of melanin provided. The result of this is capitalism developing differently as well. Because the poor in Europe could not identify with the elite simply because they were “white” they demanded economic remedies. The result: universal health care and free college education, among other economic realities that would seem like luxuries to the poor white in America. It is only because of the possessive investment in whiteness that these things did not develop in America. These economic programs and safety nets have been successfully labeled entitlements and demonized as handouts for lazy people of color. The reality is these things are desperately needed for the vast majority of Americans and the movement to make them a reality should be an interracial one. This will only happen when whites divest from whiteness and its rigid market definitions of normal.
Becoming Post-White: divest
For many working class whites the wages of whiteness are not livable. As I stated above it is only the possibility of reaching the pinnacle, to become wealthy, that keeps whites coming back for more. But, is this actually a possibility? For the overwhelming majority the answer is no. This means that a post-white worldview has to take up an anti-capitalist platform. We must realize that the current ordering of society, access to opportunities, and distribution of resources is not only a violence against people of color but us as well. The answer seems obvious to me, get with the people who have a vested interest in bettering their reality and envision a new world! When we dare to take this step we automatically begin to indict other institutions in this country simply due to their close ties to power, wealth and vestment in the status quo. In short we must divest from whiteness and the worldview it props up.
When we actively divest in whiteness, this arbitrary delineator of worth, we truly become capable of revolutionary imagination. We, white folks who are being oppressed, can truly work in unison with people of color to change our everyday material realities. Conversations on race, while important, take time and energy from building equitable, just alternatives to our current oppressive infrastructure. The more we argue about whether the N word should be said, the more we deflect with empty, pathetic challenges of “why don’t we focus on black on black crime!” the more we debate the right of young people to sag their pants, the less we are talking about how to keep the NSA from spying on us all, or from corporations shipping jobs overseas. In short, if we do not understand that any productive conversation about race must center on divesting from whiteness and reconnecting with humanity than we are only perpetuating the most recent manifestation of divide and conquer.
It is only by coming together as fellow humans in search of justice, peace, and equality that we will ever have the necessary power base to reorder society. The first step to this is developing an understanding that whiteness is, and always has been, the key divide. We must actively divest in the ideology of whiteness and begin to enter into communion with majority of people on the planet.