White Privilege, White Advantage, White and Human Misery
Debates continue to rage across the political spectrum on the reality, or not, of white privilege. In this article, David Roediger argues that it is only by admitting both the reality of white advantage whilst also understanding the immense poverty and desperation of many poor white Americans, can we win in the struggle for a more humane society.
Circulating in the alt-right-o-sphere is a clip in which the alleged comedian Adam Carolla seeks to “destroy” the very idea “white privilege.” He does so by mentioning that his white self worked for a while as a carpet cleaner and a construction laborer and that he never managed to catch on as a firefighter. You can watch it here, although you shouldn’t bother. It is a strange to realize that Carolla, who with his long ago co-host, therapist-to-the-stars Dr. Drew Pinsky, ranks among our best recent examples of meritless advancement by those who “happen to be white,” cherishes grievances. That Carolla picks as his prime examples of lack of privilege the building trades and firefighting—two sites of the most longstanding defense of white advantage regarding access to good working class jobs—adds to the clip’s stupidity. It was these trades that James Baldwin would have had in mind when he lamented in 1984 that “[t]here never has been a labor movement in this country the proof being the absence of Black presence in the so-called father-to-son unions.”
The corollary to the nonsense that white privilege does not exist is the notion that white detriment does. A 2017 poll from National Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that 55% of US whites believe in discrimination against their racial group. To say over and over that this is ridiculous remains, sadly enough, part of the job description of being an anti-racist however much rehearsing the facts seems unoriginal and exposes us to the charge of “not paying attention to” class grievances among whites. In revisiting my 2008 book How Race Survived US History recently to produce a new edition I remembered writing it with a post-it note stuck on my laptop. It said “7X.” That was then the ratio both of white wealth over Black wealth as well as of Black male prime-of-life incarceration rates over those of white males of the same age. The latter ratio has since narrowed a little but the former has worsened greatly.
There remain desperately poor and brutally imprisoned white people existing without medical care, jobs, and homes. For the media the shorthand dramatization of this congeries of miseries is the spike in opioid addiction. But the problems are far more longstanding than that, and the spikes follow the other crises far more than cause them. Some of us think we have begun to get a handle on how to acknowledge both the white poor and white advantage at the same time. I have myself been gingerly using that term—white advantage—instead of white privilege not out of concern for Adam Carolla but because the poorest whites are anything but privileged. Others will rightly do as they like. Whatever the terminology, we need to be certain that in discussing the white poor, who are not victims of racial discrimination but who are suffering, we do not end up fooling ourselves into thinking that they therefore merit poverty and jail—that those who have advantages but fail are not the deserving poor but instead that they uniquely deserve to be poor and jailed.
There is a still tougher dimension to the problem of speaking to whites about white advantage. Whites, and not just or even mainly the white poor, do live in a nation in which misery is all but mandatory. When we surrealists speak about “miserabilism” we have in mind what my Chicago Surrealist Group comrade Ron Sakolsky defines as “a system that produces misery and then rationalizes it by perpetuating the idea that such misery comprises the only possible reality.” That system’s further success turns on suggesting that the ways out of--or rather the dreary, fevered respites from--misery must involve us in exactly what structurally produces that misery. Ads and schools teach us that debt and over-consumption on the one hand and addiction to over-work on the other produce the good life.
To suppose that in order to criticize white advantage we must imagine that whiteness produces a place beyond such misery is to miss why Baldwin asked as early as 1962 “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” The point here not that we all have our miseries—however much the left would do well to take seriously death and illness as existential realities—and still less is it that late capitalist miseries exist beyond race. The burden of Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket is precisely that the inhumanity of whiteness is double. It has worked to mete out misery across the color line and to pave the way for whites themselves to accept misery as the best of all possible worlds. That sad reality also reaches back across the color line. To take up either half of Baldwin’s totaling up of the price of the white ticket is to take up even that half poorly.
We have little chance of winning whites from the far-fetched idea that they are made miserable by people of color or from the false hope that they can pursue happiness through white identity if we do not allow that they are unspeakably sad and increasingly desperate. We will soon reach a limiting case in that regard. If all goes as planned the planet will shortly lose its ability to nurture the forms and number of living things it now sustains. To the considerable extent that they have more wealth average whites will presumably have more access to the planet’s last fish, to increasingly scarce food in general, to the fossil fuels that helped broil the planet but will provide power to cool a few a little longer, and to habitats not flooded or on fire. Advantages will vary by class but absent change white advantage will be real. Such advantages will provide a few months of additional misery to the advantaged and perhaps even years to the truly advantaged—a longer window to watch the catastrophes from gated, climate-controlled havens until those fail.
David Roediger teaches American Studies at University of Kansas. His most recent Verso book is Class, Race and Marxism. [book-strip index="1" style="display"]