Friday, September 6, 2013

Additional Notes on "Class Notes", race, white skin privilege

One of the best essays in the book, "Skin Deep", begins with a response to the question: What makes ethnicity different from race?  This is a good question, but Reed answers it decisively and with wit:

"I said that race and ethnicity are simply categories of social hierarchy; they are just labels for different magnitudes of distance from the most desirable status on a continuum of "okayness."  the farther out a population is on that continuum, the more likely it will be seen as a "racial" group; if it's somewhat nearer in, it';ll more likely be understood as an "ethnicity."

Whether one is a race or an ethnicity depends on exactly how far away from the dominant racial/ethnic group one is, which in the case of the United States is "white".  Thus those racialized as Black are about as far away as one can get and relative to them, "whites" are a separate race.  A similar argument could be made for American Indians being right there alongside individuals racialized as Black.  In contradistinction, the Irish have become an ethnicity, and thus have become, if still lower on the ladder than WASPs, "white".

This point is instructive in its closeness to the original problem of "white skin privilege" and "whiteness" as it was originally posed by a communist New Left grappling with the lack of class unity in the face of the struggles of the 1960's, where Black workers in particular, but non-white workers in general seemed considerably more radical than "whites" who were all too easily mobilized against their own class on a racial basis (note, not generally on an ethnic basis.)

What Reed puts forward is very similar to the kind of concern that motivated those analyses, as opposed to the guilt-ridden liberal appropriation of that view which in no way is concerned with the overthrow of capitalism or the abolition of race as such.  In fact, the majority of the promoters of "white skin privilege" today seem to be wholly committed to "racial equality" and the support of the Black middle class as the "legitimate" leaders of a pre-given "Black Community".  Tim Wise is the most vocal and well-known of this milieu, but by no means the only one as a whole cottage industry around whiteness and WSP has developed since the mid-1990's, when the idea was almost entirely in the domain of socialists and communists like Noel Ignatiev, David Roediger, Alexander Saxton, Theodore Allen and others from those disparate traditions.

As Reed notes, many of the identities today seen as "ethnic" were once "racial": Gallic, Nordic, Mediterranean, Slavic, Mongoloid, Oriental, and so on.

""Whiteness,"in fact, evolved as a generically meaningful status only gradually over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and in relation to specific issues associated with the incorporation of immigrant populations into an evolving system of social, political, and economic hierarchy.

Whiteness became increasingly significant as a kind of safety net, providing a baseline of eligibility to rights, opportunities, and minimal social position.  Of course, whiteness presumed a contrast with nonwhiteness, specifically blackness, which was simultaneously becoming a monolithic category marking inferior status.  As ambiguous or intermediate categories disappeared in the nineteenth century; basically the bipolar racial system that now know took shape."

Not least interesting in this is the implicit challenge to a pre-existing bipolar racialism of whiteness/blackness established in the 17th, 18th or early 19th century put forward by Allen, Roediger, and Ignatiev respectively.  Nonetheless, there is nothing fundamentally at odds between them in their overall assessment of race and ethnicity.  What is clear is that all of them have little or nothing in common with the liberal-reformist "white skin privilege" that has become so much more prominent among guilt-ridden liberals and middle class Black professionals boosting their class position


  1. Posted for John Garvey by Chris
    Part 1
    I’m writing to say that I’m confused by your two posts about Adolph Reed’s Class Notes. In one, you disparage Race Traitor (for a limited sample of the journal’s articles, see as a panderer. In the other, you cite the work of Roediger, Allen and Ignatiev (my co-editor at Race Traitor) as emblematic of a class-conscious approach to the race question. As I think I told you when we first met, I thought that your long-ago critique of Race Traitor was probably the best that had been written. For readers who may not know it, it’s at:
    I quickly re-read what you had written and, in spite of quite sharp criticisms of various things we had published, I do not recall you having written that we had pandered to anybody and I’d ask you to find an instance in our fifteen issues where that was the case. That’s not to say that we were always right. Towards the end of our publishing history, we published a self-critical assessment and it’s likely that we would be even more critical today. In part, that’s because the race ground was changing under our feet as we published. We may have had something to do with changing that reality but we’re reluctant to take too much credit.
    On the other hand, we are very prepared to take a good deal of credit for having positively influenced a whole new generation of radical activists, including groups such as Bring the Ruckus who, to this day, tell us how much Race Traitor influenced their thinking. By contrast, as I’d guess you would agree, it’s not likely that we’d find anyone under 30 (or 40) who was inspired by the US Labor Party.
    We have our own issues to discuss with Adolph Reed (as reflected, most recently, in an article he wrote for New Labor Forum, which we intend to take up in a letter to that journal. For the moment, suffice it to say that we are not guilty as charged.

  2. Part 2
    !’d like to end this exchange by recognizing much that we hold in common by citing what you wrote in 2005:
    In the United States, race has played a central role in the derailing of even a broadly 'socialist' class-consciousness, much less a revolutionary communist consciousness. On that, I am in full agreement with the editors of Race Traitor. We agree that 'racism' is a term that has been de-clawed by a purely psychological understanding as 'prejudice', rather than as a category of oppression, and hence power and privilege. The main feature of racism in the U.S. is 'white supremacy' or white-skin privilege or what some call 'whiteness' (and I think the terms represent some political differences). We agree that race does not exist in any sense biologically, but is purely socially constructed1. We agree that race privilege entails more than a simple 'social control formation', a la Theodore Allen, foisted upon working class people from the outside, but that 'white' workers participate in the production and defense of whiteness/white-skin privilege. We agree that 'anti-racism' in the forms we know it has major problems, since it focuses on 'racists' or racist groups, rather than racism; also, anti-racism tends to reify race as biology. We agree that 'whiteness studies' (and its parents, multiculturalism and post-structuralism) has been predominantly liberal and little more than a new academic field for generating new career tracks. We do not seek to study, understand (and certainly not 'validate') the white race except in so far as we seek to destroy it, and as I hope every Marxist knows, the destruction of oppression requires the destruction of the power of the oppressor and the infrastructure and apparatus that sustain and systematically reproduce that power. In other words, we will not finish with race until we have finished off the white race. We agree that we can destroy the white race, in so far as the white race exists as nothing other than a social relation granting special privilege and engendering oppression (and in my opinion, a form of class collaboration.)
    On another matter, in light of your mention of your interest in Paul Gilroy, I thought you would want to know that he’s speaking in New York at CUNY’s Graduate Center on the evening of Friday, October 25th:
    It would be good to hear your thoughts.
    John Garvey

  3. John was referring to the post above and this earlier post

    In the latter post, I included the phrase "from Race Traitor to Tim Wise" in a not very clear connection, especially as Race Traitor was created largely by people from that communist and socialist Left of the 1960's I wrote about above. Lumping them together in that fashion was not good enough. However, Race Traitor does not escape a certain responsibility on two counts, which are the basis of my argument and which are clearly laid out in my much earlier paper.

    The first count is the argument, which I took to be the basic premise of Race Traitor, that the struggle against capitalism in the U.S. depended on the prior overcoming of "white skin privilege" and therefore the primary struggle was against racialization/WSP, what have you. The result of this, however, was the submersion in Race Traitor of the idea that overcoming white skin privilege was not an end in itself, but an a priori necessity for the socialist revolution. Only in the self-critique did this really become explicit to any but the most close reader of RT and those who knew the history of its primary editors. Race Traitor was never above board about its most critical premise and thus did not come off as a socialist journal at all.

    Secondly, Race Traitor put forward a notion of a choice between being "really American" and being "white", and the positive referencing of Albert Murray, whose work is very much part of a mainstream and decidedly liberal Black middle-class interpretation of history.

    These two moves take the communist abolition of (a necessarily racialized) class society out of the picture and leave in its place a voluntaristic politics of "choosing not to be white" and a liberal nationalist "choosing to be really American". I'm not saying this is not in contradiction with some of their explicit statements. I am arguing that this contradiction made RT unsustainable.

    In hiding their politics and in taking up a "real American" vs. "fake American" politics, RT took up positions that led to a liberal "white skin privilege" theory, away from the explicit political and theoretical positions of the earlier work even of their own members. In this sense, if only in this sense, RT as a journal, whatever the private opinions and views of its leading editors, did worse than pandered to a politics of white guilt, it contributed to it.

  4. That said, I think it would be easy to underestimate the task of identifying one's own failures and limits and working to overcome them. RT took its own self-criticism seriously enough to lead to its own self-dissolution rather than to resolve the contradictions of its position in favor of something really rotten. Very few groups of people can make that claim from the Left, even having committed far more heinous acts, such as, say, the covering up the sexual abuse of the membership of the organization (and the British SWP is by no means the only group that should be tarred with that brush!!)