The months following the killing of George Floyd saw sales of books about race increase by up to 6,800%. The top seller was Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, which increased sales by over 400,000 copies from May to June this year, a startling increase of over 2,000%. DiAngelo, a ‘diversity consultant’, has since been invited to deliver keynote speeches, charging up to $35,000 for a two-hour workshop.
DiAngelo’s central premise, that white Americans must reckon with their own implicit biases and engage in rigorous introspection to remedy them, appears less of a repudiation of centuries-old institutional racism than it does an instructional manual for white liberals working in corporate jobs to avoid getting into trouble with HR. It characterises racism merely as an antipathy felt by individuals towards other individuals, leaving untouched the edifice of America’s racist socio-economic structure. It fails to acknowledge that white supremacy is not simply the supremacy of white over black, but also the supremacy of rich whites over poorer whites who can be trusted to vote themselves into economic ruin in return for the illusion of superiority. And even more egregiously, it focuses attention on the self-aggrandising antics of the white liberal, repackaging the fight against racism as a culture war between educated white liberals and less educated whites, many of whom do not view themselves as the beneficiaries of ‘privilege’.
When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there. It would be another 60 years before colonial records would describe the settlers as ‘white’, as the idea of the ‘white’ race was deliberately constructed by the ruling class as a form of social control, dividing poor European indentured servants and African chattel-bond labourers, assimilating the Europeans into the ‘middle class’, and preventing the likelihood of the reemergence of an event such as Bacon’s Rebellion (1676). Europeans and Africans had jointly demanded the imposition of a land tax and Virginia’s transition from a large plantation economy to a diversified economy of small freeholders, chasing the planter bourgeoisie to the shore and burning Jamestown to the ground. Ira Berlin stated that in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion “they enact laws which say that people of African descent are hereditary slaves. And they increasingly give some power to the independent white farmers and land holders”. Therefore, rather than being simply a form of prejudice on the basis of skin colour, racism can be understood as a complex form of social control. Theodore W Allen’s book The Invention of the White Race made a similar argument that racism is a “sociogenic” rather than a “phylogenic” phenomenon, analysing how the (phenotypically similar) British used racial oppression against Irish Catholics, later allowing the Irish Catholic bourgeoisie to assimilate into the oppressive structure, accepting the disenfranchisement of the forty-shilling freeholders in return for meagre ‘emancipation’ in 1829.
Indeed, liberal anti-racism of the DiAngelo variety, largely devoid of this analysis, becomes an exercise in narcissistic self-indulgence on the part of white liberals, who reframe discussions about race in terms of how they can be better people, and how it is incumbent on all whites to unlearn their white privilege. As this approach to anti-racism fails to acknowledge how racism functions as a tool of socioeconomic disenfranchisement by the ruling class, it assumes that all whites benefit equally from white privilege, ignoring and minimising the plight of working-class whites. A 2019 sociological study by E Cooley, etc. found that learning about white privilege did nothing to increase empathy for people of colour among white liberals, but simply made them less likely to empathise with poorer whites, placing greater personal blame on them on the basis that their privilege outweighed other social factors.
Clearly, reactionary and racist ideology abounds among the white working class, and this article is not intended to downplay such attitudes or pretend that they do not exist. It is to argue that if there is a hope that cross-racial solidarity can be achieved, and these reactionary tendencies extinguished, it will not be accomplished by lecturing working-class whites who are beset by low wages, deindustrialisation, and the opioid epidemic about their ‘privilege’, but by encouraging them to recognise that they have more in common with other races than with elites of the same race.
The term ‘class reductionist’ is consistently deployed against socialists who recognise that racism and capitalism are intimately connected as if this recognition downplays the significance of racism. But some of the most pernicious forms of American institutional racism, such as redlining and the prison-industrial complex, have explicitly capitalistic imperatives. For example, exclusion from ‘prime’ credit has forced black communities to secure housing through subprime loans and substandard rental accommodation. During the subprime lending boom, predatory loans were five times more likely to be made in black neighbourhoods than in white neighbourhoods, while black Americans were four times as likely as white Americans to be denied loans from the Bank of America.
Organisations such as the Blackstone Group have conspired to engage in predatory lending practices, buying up houses at cheap prices and selling them on for higher prices or charging exorbitant rents. Invitation Homes, a subsidiary of the Blackstone Group and a prominent lender to black communities, may have broken laws to give tenants loans that maximised profits as they could easily outbid first time buyers. It is issues such as these, the pervasive, material disparities which have concentrated generational wealth in the hands of white communities and generational disadvantage in the hands of black communities that should be the focus of anti-racists, not trivial ideas such as ‘white fragility’. These are not injustices that can be solved simply by more representation of black people within the highest echelons of power, but only through the de-privatisation and de-commodification of housing at a minimum.
Another consequence of viewing racism through a reductive, individualistic lens is the over-medicalisation of the problem, which treats racism as a pathology on the part of its perpetrators. As Kenan Malik writes, “It was not unconscious bias that made a police officer place his knee on George Floyd’s neck”. A meta-analysis of nearly 500 studies found that unconscious bias training only had a “weak” effect on the behaviour of individuals. Reframing racism as a product of original sin, an aberration that could never be held by ‘normal’ people simply absolves those who are responsible for perpetuating it, as racial bigotry can, and often is, the product of a sound mind. The Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, for instance, all tested as medically sane, had high IQs, and included a disproportionate number of PhDs. Far from being the irrational judgement of an insane mind, racism is the mendacious, calculated judgement of the elites who perpetuate it, to provide a constant stream of alienated unfree labour from those they impoverish, to divide and conquer and to subjugate. Only an approach that acknowledges the systemic and institutional manifestations of racism can grasp this central point.
The systemic racism on which the United States was founded, that still exists today, cannot be expunged with ‘unconscious bias training’ or the recognition of white fragility. The injustices will remain, but white corporate consultants such as Robin DiAngelo will become very rich. What is required is not white guilt but white solidarity on a mass scale, such as has been seen in the recent protests, and a recognition that, as Karl Marx stated, “Labour in the white skin cannot emancipate itself where in the black it is branded.”
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