Author Amiri Barksdale

Whiteness Again

To first define what it is, I am going to go over a brief history of whiteness in the United States and then bring it up to the past election.

Whiteness is a protection racket that used to provide material bonuses. It is a minimally advantageous deal that the ruling class continuously renegotiates with a part of the working class, and the first such deal happened before the founding of the United States. I am thinking of the Virginia Codes of 1705, in response to Bacon’s Rebellion, during which black and white colonists united against a governing aristocrat. The carrot was material advantage, and the stick was basically death by official hanging or lynching through the 1960s. The vast majority of white people are not personally malignantly prejudiced, but they are still more or less aligned with white supremacy, and enjoy their privileges, such as they are.

Whiteness has gone through several large renegotiations, like the integration of the Irish and the civil war, the resolution of which required the sacrifice of the democratic hopes of the radical abolitionist vision for the country and therefore those of the freed slaves in the compromise of 1877. Those Romantic Southern gentlemen would be ideologically redeemed over the next couple of decades. That settled, some new immigrants, who would be part of the newly recomposed “white working class” went on the offensive in the railroad wildcat strikes of that very same year. Like the Tammany Hall had served for the Irish, the Knights of Labor served as the organizational expression of this part of the working class, and there was a struggle over the race question—they were willing to allow some blacks to join, but they were reluctant and ambivalent, and they were totally anti-Chinese.

Then there was Sam Gompers’s unambiguously racist American Federation of Labor. You could say that the afl took the skilled workers from the Knights, and the unskilled were unrepresented until the appearance of the Wobblies, during the transition from craft to industrial unionism. The Wobblies were openly anti-racist, and they were the only labor organization not to fall victim to white supremacy in the manner of the Knights and the others that followed. Their anti-racism was not an ideology, though they were passionate about it, but a necessity of their open and aggressive anti-capitalist, pro-revolutionary, pro–class struggle stance. Revolution requires the organization and mobilization of the whole working class, period. Appropriately, one of the founders of the iww was a black woman, Lucy Parsons. In any case, the final acceptance of workers’ combinations and the repeal of Prohibition were the last major expansions of whiteness, and we know that these took place during the Great Depression and World War II. We can clearly see that whiteness is the product of class struggle that hasn’t challenged white supremacy. It is not bound to ethnicity or culture, though it does carry an identity of a sort, a blankness and an obliviousness that is “normal” in the context of a thoroughly commercial, fully capitalized American culture. White ethnicities of origin become mostly decorative.

The potted history above is the story of “White Man’s Democracy.” Small-government “Populist” and Indian-killer Andrew Jackson epitomizes this vision of American life—free white men competing in the free market on a continent under a manifest destiny and a divine dispensation, in which political parties reward their loyal allies when in power. This sounds familiar, because it’s mother’s milk in the United States.

Like I mentioned above, the New Deal was the last major component of “White Man’s Democracy.” It worked for a while, particularly to cultivate a layer of business-friendly union officials and to exclude radicals from the labor unions. That was the bright midday of us imperialism, and whiteness was a kind of state-subsidized illusion of Jeffersonian/Jacksonian independence, individualism and stolid self-reliance. But “White Man’s Democracy” came under attack in the transition from the postwar boom to the new era we live in today. I mean the civil rights and black power movements and later the women’s movement, and the most intense period of class struggle since the end of World War II. We can call this era postwar too, if you mean Vietnam, or we can call it “neoliberalism.” The defining characteristics of this new era are the assault on the public sphere, including all the gains of “White Man’s Democracy,” and thereby the contraction of social reproduction. Developed-world capitalism goes cannibalistic.

This attack of the ruling class on the working class in motion—the whole working class, and sometimes under black leadership in auto—from the wildcat strikes in auto factories in Detroit, across the country in trucking and civil services like the post office, and agriculture, like the grape and lettuce fields, was necessitated by the economic crisis resulting from three things: (1) international competition with us capital, (2) wartime deficit spending and (3) higher wages, which were the fruit of working-class militancy. The crisis took the form of consumer goods inflation and weak economic growth, and then layoffs, unemployment, and industrial reorganization, including factory relocation to the South and other countries. Life in the ghettos was that much more precarious, because black workers, migrants from the South in the 1920s and during WWII, were already the last hired and first fired.

Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” inspired by George Wallace’s 1968 populist campaign, provided the ideological script for what came next: a reassertion of whiteness, by which he meant patriotism, war and reaction, as a neglected public value, and white folks as neglected citizens, “the silent majority.” There were no longer material benefits to expect, just wrongs to right and property to defend.

The economic crisis did the rest. Social disintegration from this economic transition manifested in crime, drug use, and public disorder, and so white flight from city centers to suburbs, formerly incentivized by New Deal mortgage policy, continued throughout the 1970s. Racial discrimination, segregation, and oppression is ok as long as money is the mechanism, and this has become a major theme of American life. It didn’t take long for, say, the openly racist Boston anti-busing movement to become the slick conservationist and economistically framed BusStop movement of the San Fernando valley in Southern California, which was run by the same core group of people behind the so-called “tax-revolt” Proposition 13. They defeated busing in 1979. The Sunbelt, and the “New South,” saw its boom here, as factories relocated to anti-union states. Some workers followed.

A sort of siege mentality foreshadowed by Nixon’s script took hold. Capitalists were having a hard time making a profit, and therefore it was harder to get a job, let alone a good paying job. Those that had them wanted to hold on to them. Ecology and the “new movements” took hold on what passed for a left, and elsewhere various formations such as “citizens,” “consumers,” “concerned parents,” “Christians” and “red-blooded Americans” dug in. These defensive identities sought to preserve the advantages, such as they were, of whiteness. I mean house prices, school budgets, tax dollars, family wages, business opportunities, pensions, union seniority, etc. No new material benefits, just defense against them.

The end of stagflation didn’t restore the good old days. Volker’s interest rate hikes and super-strong dollar put more manufacturers out of business and more workers out on their ear. The “unskilled” part of the working class has never recovered.

This defensive hunkering down remains the basic posture of whiteness and its associated identities. The ideological script Nixon introduced and Reagan reiterated remains in effect. But the declining economic prospects for white workers have required innovations in victim-blaming and self-loathing. These have formed justifications for the nastiness and brutality of public policy since the late 1970s, like the end of desegregation policies, the war on drugs, a wave of “reverse racism” lawsuits, mandatory minimums, the defunding and destruction of public housing, welfare reform, the attacks on public employees and all the rest.

Without getting too psychological, I want to emphasize what I think is the most important aspect of whiteness today, given the fact that the positive material benefits have been declining. I guess it has to be called a privilege, but it is hard to make the case ultimately. The plight of white workers is just the same as that of the working class in general: dire. Consider that the decline in material benefits is not only evident in job prospects and economic security for “unskilled” workers, but also the wealth lost by white families in the two bubbles and the generally out of control indebtedness of workers. That’s the New Deal heritage out the window, and that’s the last positive piece of “White Man’s Democracy,” given that capital is reaching deeper into workers’ lives and pockets than ever before. Now that I have said that, here’s this last so-called privilege, a deadly poison: it is the sine qua non of whiteness, and it is the annihilation of solidarity: this is the privilege not to know and therefore not to care.

This know-nothing ignorance is defended vigorously and often, and it seems like most current ideology has this as its aim. I have had a couple of conversations recently in which people wanted to impotently bash Trump in some sort of virtue-signaling circle-jerk. In one of these I started instead with how terrible Obama had been. I mentioned his despicable use of the civil rights legacy to legitimize himself, and I said something to the effect of “Like Martin Luther King and Obama are somehow on the same continuum.” My interlocutor said he didn’t know enough about mlk to make a judgment, and therefore foreclosed critical discussion. This is a guy who has no problem having political opinions about all kinds of things, but somehow he doesn’t know that mlk would have been against drone bombings. This is a 50-plus year old man, by the way.

This willful ignorance and callousness was the object originally purchased by the material benefits, but now it seems to function as an asset in itself. To make this concrete beyond the anecdotal, this is not only about consciousness and psychology. I am thinking about geography and spatial racial and economic segregation. Most of the country is not laid out anything like New York City. Most of the country is like here in Los Angeles, where one can drive from one’s subdivision to the freeway, to a major thoroughfare and to the office, and never see anything else. The “white bubble” was made physical a long time ago, before the crisis, and people still live in that material space. And of course suburbs are often racially segregated via class mechanisms. This ignorance is the general anesthetic that allows one to cut off one’s own nose to spite one’s face, and not notice. Later, bleeding to death, one has forgotten what happened, and seeks to blame others. This breeds the currents of nastiness and vulgarity we hate among our class brothers and sisters, and it has to be addressed, in some way. It might not be possible to address it directly. I don’t know. But to maintain a large number of workers in this state of callousness and brutality is the whole point of whiteness, after all.

So Trump has been running the same script as Wallace, Nixon, and Reagan, but after almost 4 decades of economic decline, it seems to me not to pack the same punch. Reagan won in a landslide, remember. I am not convinced that Trump voters are more reactionary than Clinton voters. As Black Agenda Report has been saying, the Democrats are the more effective evil. I am not convinced that there was even a substantially racist swing in the vote in those areas that were decisive to the election, if by “racist” we mean personal prejudice. There’s evidence that many of Trump’s general voters would have voted for Sanders. I think what most likely happened is that a decisive portion of Midwestern voters decided to throw a stick of dynamite into Washington.

I am not even convinced that Trump’s racism and misogyny was even an added bonus to this “fuck you,” except insofar as it made him even more offensive and unacceptable to limousine liberal types. That is not the same thing as agreeing with him or cheering him on in those particular bits of backwardness. My point is that Trump’s victory may look like the silent majority rising, it may look like voters choosing “morning in America,” but I don’t think it actually is. There was no positive referendum on anything here—just a condemnation of the Democrats among a certain section of Midwestern voters. I think trade and xenophobia were more important to those voters, while, however, the basic posture of white identity and white supremacy have not changed, and the us working class divisions are still in place. This is a reason to criticize Trump voters for their foolishness. “America first” protectionism, immigrant bashing, visa-revoking and all the rest is not going to protect them from the market anyway, and anyone should be able to think that through. In the United States, whiteness is the reason they can’t.