Scholars working within the tradition of class-based analysis of society disagree about whether the concept of “white privilege” has a rightful place in a historical materialist analysis of the ways that race and racism operate in capitalist society. In his 2006 book, The Trouble with Diversity, Walter Benn Michaels argues that focus on identity-based oppression is inherently at odds with the struggle against class exploitation. He writes, “we love race—we love identity—because we don’t love class,” suggesting that diversity initiatives and antiracist measures mostly function to pull the curtain over class relations.1Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble with Diversity (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006), 6. In 2008, Michaels went on to argue that identity-based oppression is merely incidental to capitalism, writing “even though some capitalists may be racist, sexist and homophobic, capitalism itself is not.”2Walter Benn Michaels, “Against Diversity” New Left Review 52 (July/August 2008), https://newleftreview.org/issues/II52/articles/walter-benn-michaels-against-diversity.
Cedric Johnson has argued that “notions of white privilege” are inherently “liberal individualist” in a way that puts them intrinsically at odds with anticapitalist politics.3Cedric Johnson, “The Wages of Roediger: Why Three Decades of Whiteness Studies Has Not Produced the Left We Need,” Nonsite.org, September 9, 2019, https://nonsite.org/article/the-wages-of-roediger-why-three-decades-of-whiteness-studies-has-not-produced-the-left-we-need. And Adolph Reed has put the point perhaps most sharply, insisting that not only deployment of the white privilege concept but also all “antiracist politics is a class politics; it is rooted in the social position and worldview, and material interests of the stratum of race relations engineers and administrators who operate in Democratic Party politics and as government functionaries, the punditry and commentariat, education administration and the professoriate, corporate, social service and nonprofit sectors, and the multibillion-dollar diversity industry.”4Adolph Reed, Jr., “Antiracism: A Neoliberal Alternative to a Left,” Dialectical Anthropology 42 (2018).
But the concept of white privilege can and should be articulated in a manner that is both true to its common, everyday usages and compatible with a Marxist, class-based analysis of capitalist society that understands racial hierarchy in its context as a weapon of elite class domination. Skepticism regarding the place of the white privilege concept in Marxist analyses of race is often motivated by perfectly legitimate concerns about whether it obscures the fundamental character of that class domination. Yet, one gives up much more than one gains in rejecting this concept and failing to appreciate its significance—indeed, its indispensability—to a Marxist analysis of race, racism, class, and class exploitation. As absolutely crucial as it is for Marxism to retain its specific character and distinctness, Marxists must also be prepared to make common cause and find points of overlap with all committed fighters in the struggle against racism.
In what follows, we will explore the grounds of disagreement among Marxists regarding white privilege, and then go on to develop an analysis of white privilege that both addresses the skeptics’ reasonable concerns and preserves the concept’s essential insights and usefulness in theorizing the concrete manifestations of racial capitalism. We will go on to discuss two important sources of inspiration for present-day privilege theory: Du Bois’s “public and psychological wage,” and McIntosh’s “invisible knapsack.”
A Marxist analysis of white privilege is distinct from this and has more to offer both as an explanation of its character and persistence, and as a guide to political action aimed at abolishing it altogether. The discussion laid out in these pages will account for the skeptics’ tendency to regard white privilege as a concept emerging out of a liberal context. However, to point out correctly that white privilege is a problem liberalism can’t solve is not yet to show that the problem itself is an illusion, or that it is not a proper object of Marxists’ attention.
The Case Against Marxist Skepticism
Marxist skepticism about white privilege tends to proceed from a concern that the concept obscures two important features of the interplay of racism and capitalism, features that a Marxist analysis foregrounds. These are, first, that the existence of racial hierarchy under capitalism is largely a consequence of capitalist domination, and second, that the advantaged position white workers experience vis-à-vis people of color (and especially relative to Black workers) is itself also a feature of capitalist domination over those same white workers, and that it serves to further entrench the oppression and exploitation which those same white workers experience at the hands of the capitalist class.
Let us further unpack this skeptical concern. It is related to a worry that perhaps in speaking of “white privilege,” “whiteness,” “white supremacy,” etc., one loses sight of the fact that whites are importantly differentiated by class in ways that matter to the question of how much power any given white person wields in and over the society in which they live. As Mike Cole puts it, “the devastating effects of social class exploitation and oppression are masked by [critical race theory’s] blanket assertions of ‘white supremacy’ and ‘white privilege’.”5Mike Cole, Critical Race Theory and Education: A Marxist Response (London: Palgrave, 2009), 26. The category of whiteness brings the poor, homeless person racialized as white under the same category as the uber-wealthy, white CEO. By then suggesting that they both benefit from such a thing as white privilege or white supremacy, one risks flattening and ultimately erasing the significance of the class differences among those who share whiteness.
Worse, one also runs the further risk of reinforcing the ideology of whiteness that, historically, functions mainly as a tool of capitalist supremacy. It is precisely in the interest of economic elites to insist that they share a racial identity and racial interests with some large subset of workers. It would seem to follow from this that white workers genuinely do benefit from the existence of a system of white supremacy. If that’s true, then the material basis for solidarity between white and Black workers is undermined. The case for white workers to oppose white privilege becomes a merely ethical demand, one that enjoins them to act contrary to their interests as whites.
So the worry is that by suggesting that there are privileges some people enjoy by virtue of their whiteness, one might downplay the sense in which they enjoy these privileges by virtue of their position relative to the interests of capital. And one might also buy into and reproduce what is an essentially racist logic about the supposedly shared whiteness of white workers and their bosses. In conceding that white workers have an interest in whiteness, the worry goes, one might break up the very ground on which an argument for multiracial working class solidarity stands.
Here is another way to state this skepticism about the white privilege concept. One might allow that it is true of any given individual worker that, within this system of racial capitalism, it is better, all things considered, to be categorized as a white worker than as a Black one. Yet, for workers, it would be even better still to do away with the system of racial hierarchy altogether, and this is true whether or not one is a white worker or a Black one. As economist Michael Reich established in his groundbreaking study, Racial Inequality, “white workers lose from racism while rich whites, capitalists, and a few privileged workers benefit.”6Michael Reich, Racial Inequality: A Political-Economic Analysis, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 109. Indeed, it is in those parts of the US where racial wage disparities are greatest, that white workers are least well-off economically, and where we find the highest levels of economic inequality overall.
The system of racial hierarchy in which white workers are allowed to enjoy freedoms and resources denied to Black workers is one which induces and mobilizes white workers, against their own best interests, to maintain a system that is oppressive and exploitative of all workers, including themselves. Johanna Brenner and Robert Brenner described this latter phenomenon in their 1981 observations on “Reagan, the Right, and the Working Class,” arguing that, especially in circumstances of capitalist triumphalism and the disorganization of the working class, it is key to recall that “workers are not only collective producers with a common interest in taking collective control over social production. They are also individual sellers of labor power in conflict with each other over jobs, promotions, etc.”7Robert Brenner and Johanna Brenner, “Reagan, The Right and the Working Class” Against the Current 1, no. 2 (Winter 1981), 30.
Those who draw skeptical conclusions regarding the white privilege concept refuse to get on board with racial analyses that assert the reality of white privilege, at all. They suggest that instead of exhorting white workers to “check their privilege,” we should instead be encouraging them to see how their whiteness is in fact nothing more than a sop at best and, at worst, a chain around their neck, tying them to elites with whom they in fact share practically no interests in common.
But there are a number of reasons why Marxists should embrace the white privilege concept. These reasons fall, broadly speaking, into two categories: theoretical/conceptual and political/rhetorical. The theoretical complaint, in a nutshell, is that the white privilege concept suggests white workers benefit from capitalism when in fact they too are exploited, and white racial identity is one of the tools used to exploit them. But merely identifying whites’ advantages vis-à-vis nonwhites does not itself entail that white workers are better off with capitalism and racial domination than they might be without it.
In fact, this distinction reflects how we talk about privilege every day, in all sorts of familiar contexts. For example, we might say of prisoners that some of them are placed into a category which affords them greater privileges: better food, more family visits, a lighter workload. No one is then led to the odd conclusion that to say that the prisoners in this category are afforded some privileges is also by itself to suggest that these prisoners benefit from their imprisonment or even that they benefit from the imprisonment of those who enjoy fewer privileges. That simply does not follow from our everyday understanding of what it is to be in a privileged position. We make perfect sense of the claim that privileged statuses can exist within a system of overall domination.
With respect to the political and rhetorical implications of skepticism about white privilege, it should be noted that such skepticism is routinely—and quite reasonably—met with incredulity or even outrage. People look around at a world in which whites obviously enjoy all kinds of advantages relative to nonwhite people and wonder, “how can any thinking person possibly deny the existence of white privilege?” To deny the reality of white privilege both makes Marxists seem out of touch and cedes the conversation about white privilege entirely to analyses that incorrectly maintain that white workers are better off with white supremacy than they would be without it. While skeptics point out that privilege theory often mistakes a superficial appearance for a deeper, essential fact, they in turn make the same error in the opposite direction: they assume that because the superficial appearance of white privilege misrepresents and obscures the underlying capitalist processes and relations that give rise to it, white privilege is not “real” and therefore does not deserve Marxists’ attention as an object of careful analysis. Perhaps they suppose our analysis of race will be tidier and more accurate if we swept this phenomenon aside as illusory and not meriting further theorization. But appearances are precisely how we come to know essential processes and relations, and so the more productive approach for Marxists is to acknowledge white privilege as real and also to explain the counterintuitive manner in which it arises from a program of disfranchisement of workers, and functions to further the exploitation of all workers, including those categorized as “white.”
The white privilege concept is itself completely compatible with Marxist analyses of race and racism, and it is absolutely necessary in order to engage with people who are serious about the struggle against racism. As Marx wrote in the Eighteenth Brumaire: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”8Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Marx and Engels: Collected Works, vol. 11 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1979), 103. The very same could be said of how one does race theory. By refusing to participate in the discussions that are shaped by this concept, we would unnecessarily isolate and silo ourselves from important debates and struggles. It is very clear—indeed, indisputable—that one section of the working class is categorized as white and afforded relative privileges on that basis. The most pressing remaining questions regard why that is, and what social elements are capable of uprooting this system of racial hierarchy.
What is White Privilege?
I have so far argued that Marxists should embrace the white privilege concept and not be dismissive of privilege theory. But I haven’t said much yet about what I take white privilege to be. That is by design as what we are after here is a concept that both captures and preserves the distinct insights of Marxist class analysis with respect to race, and that recognizes the insights of theoretical perspectives that foreground other aspects of identity. It has therefore first been necessary to say a bit about what we will want out of a viable white privilege concept before moving to the task of defining it for our purposes.
I use white privilege to describe the whole complex of material and social advantages that white people have, relative to non-whites (and often in especial relation to Blacks), within a system of white supremacist, racial capitalism. In the context, for instance, of the United States, these advantages include such material goods as higher incomes, better schools, and better health outcomes. They also include more “intangible” benefits that flow from having a racial identity that is associated in racist ideology with beauty, goodness, intelligence, and innocence. Such association can breed psychological benefits such as greater confidence, self-esteem, sense of belonging, and overall mental and emotional wellbeing.
The qualification that these are advantages that whites have relative to nonwhites within a white supremacist system is absolutely crucial. In other words, nothing about the white privilege concept itself, defined as it is here, settles the further question of whether white workers are better off within a white supremacist system than they would be in a system of racial equality. This is important because one of our aims is to describe the phenomenon of white privilege in such a way that Marxist and other theories of race enter into conversation with one another about the very same phenomenon.
To say, simply, that one group of people enjoys a set of privileges is also not yet to say that the privilege schema in question is unfair or unjust. For example, there is nothing inconsistent or incoherent in suggesting that one child in a family has earned the privilege of driving the family car, while another child has not. And it does not generally raise our hackles to learn that one child has the privilege of staying out until midnight because she is seventeen, while another child does not have that same privilege because he is three. Certainly, it is no fault of his own that he has yet to leave the toddler stage. So, whatever is wrong with a system of uneven privileges, it cannot be the mere fact of unequal rights and freedoms, and it cannot be merely that these privileges are not all “earned” in the strictest sense.
White privilege belongs to a whole family of privileges associated with identity categories, such as “male privilege,” “straight privilege,” “cis privilege,” and so on, which are part of a constellation of unfair advantage that privilege theory seeks to describe. Privilege theory does not, of course, seek to give an account of every right, freedom, or advantage that could reasonably be called a privilege in everyday English usage. So, what unites this particular set of privileges into a grouping that deserves the special attention—and moreover, the disapproval and disavowal—of theorists for social justice?
It is useful here to harken back to the origins of liberal thought about freedom, as a bourgeois reaction to feudalism and aristocratic privilege. When we look to the writings of classical liberal theorists such as Locke and Rousseau, what we find are ideas that were quite politically radical in their time. In particular, these authors insisted that individual human beings are innately free, independent, and rational, and that they had a right and obligation to pursue their own individual self-interest. We can recognize the hypocrisy and incoherence in the way these ideas were often expressed concretely and put into practice. However, it is also important to recognize them as a strike against earlier political models that took for granted that human beings were born into positions of political authority and obedience to which they were entitled just by virtue of the circumstances of their birth—irrespective of their individual fitness for those positions and without the assent of the individuals over whom they rule. To the extent that liberal political theory has a kind of allergy to certain forms of unearned privilege, this is written into its DNA as a progressive political reaction against feudalism.
In this sense, much of what’s wrong with white privilege can be spelled out on broadly liberal terms. A system of white privilege ignores the specific qualities of individual persons and thinks about them only in terms of their membership in a group—the white “race.” On the basis of this categorization, and nothing else, it grants the members of this group all sorts of rights, freedoms, and economic advantages that nonwhites are denied—again, through no fault of their own. This is not a system that any rational nonwhite person could or would agree to or prefer over a system of racial equality because it runs directly counter to their own rational self-interest.
Similarly could be said, of course, of the other forms of privilege that constitute the subject matter of privilege theory. Privilege, in this context, refers specifically to rights and freedoms that one has on the basis of one’s group membership, when membership in that group is not intrinsically relevant to the question of whether one ought or ought not to have that right or freedom. The fact that seventeen-year-olds may drive cars while three-year-olds may not, is properly speaking a matter of privilege, of course, but not in the way that matters for us in this context.
Privilege theory’s connection to liberal individualism and meritocracy is important for understanding both its theoretical potential and its limitations. On the one hand, liberalism at its birth, liberalism as a reaction against feudal privilege, is also liberalism at its most radical and revolutionary. To the extent that contemporary privilege theory stands within that potently and creatively destructive tradition, it is a welcome theoretical intervention. On the other hand, privilege theory in its liberal expression shares a weakness with other forms of liberal political analysis. Namely, liberalism spares capitalism from the same harsh critique it gives to other schemas of unfair and unearned advantage. It regards capitalist relations as the result of individual merit and stamps them with its moral imprimatur. In fact, there are many things to criticize about the privileges that capitalists enjoy, but what matters most for us here is a question about causation.
Marxist and left liberal social theorists can of course agree that no special advantages should accrue to anyone just by virtue of their being white, male, straight, cisgender, etc. But Marxists go one step further. A Marxist analysis of privilege argues that the class relations that liberalism is content to preserve are themselves the genesis of relations of unfair privilege which, were they being consistent, liberals ought also to condemn. Without a radical analysis of capitalism, we can explain much of what is wrong with white privilege but not say very much about how to do away with it.
Twentieth-Century Roots of the White Privilege Concept: Du Bois
In the previous section, we connected modern-day privilege theory to liberalism’s radical political roots as a reaction against feudalism and aristocratic privilege. But in addition to this conceptual background, the white privilege concept has more recent roots in the study of racial hierarchy in the Post-Civil War Southern United States. It emerges as part of the answer to a question: how did the relatively small Southern white planter class, with economic interests in common with practically no other group in the South and fresh from military and political defeat, regain and consolidate its hegemony over Southern economic and political life?
The system of chattel slavery in the US South always had much in common with European feudal aristocracy—a connection that Southern white elites sought to emphasize through their cultural habits of manners and dress. They considered themselves cultured and refined, while regarding their Northern counterparts as somewhat vulgar. Yet, of course, just as landed aristocracies and rising merchant classes had managed a sometimes uneasy, sometimes quite warm peace throughout Europe, so the Southern planter class with its pretensions to aristocratic leisure had developed in such a way that it could only blossom within a broader context of capitalist exchange. The contradictions inherent in this arrangement came to a head and exploded in the Civil War. Economically, politically, and ethically, the underpinnings of capitalism are grounded in a system of “free labor,” in which individuals consent to sell their labor for a price.
Chattel slavery (although, notoriously, not all forms of slavery) was abolished with the Thirteenth Amendment, which made all forms of slavery and involuntary servitude unconstitutional except as punishment for a crime. In other words, enslavement was reconceived as no longer an illiberal deprivation of rights and freedoms based on accident of birth and refounded as a just consequence of individuals’ choices. The elite Southern planter class had then only to translate their pseudo-aristocratic privilege into liberal (or at least pseudo-liberal) terms of individual choice and consequence, a process Michelle Alexander has brilliantly illuminated in her book, The New Jim Crow.9Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010).
The locus classicus for the white privilege concept is the analysis that W. E. B. Du Bois puts forward in his Black Reconstruction, first published in 1935—although nowhere in Black Reconstruction does Du Bois use this specific term. Instead, Du Bois writes of a “public and psychological wage” paid to white workers. Among contemporary discussants of white privilege, it is relatively common to abbreviate Du Bois’s phrase to a “psychological wage.” However, that this “wage” was also “public,” is absolutely essential to an analysis of the concept as Du Bois conceives it.10W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1935).
Classical liberal political theory is not especially amenable to thinking of human social life in terms of groups that act in concert as single agents, have entitlements by virtue of their group membership, or bear responsibility qua members of that group. Indeed, as we have seen, this informs much left liberal opposition to systems of group-based privilege. However, this also cuts liberal analyses of privilege off from the kinds of explanatory resources that are at work in analyses such as those by Du Bois, which regard the “public and psychological” wage as an invention and instrument of the elite white Southern planter class wielded in order to secure and maintain their political, economic, and ideological dominance over the social world of the American South.
Without understanding the sources of identity-based privilege as located in class-based privilege, it is difficult if not impossible to explain why the schema of white privilege was so successful. That the small group of elites who had an interest in maintaining it also happened to enjoy collective economic and political hegemony in their society is absolutely essential to Du Bois’s explanation. He writes: “[T]he theory of race was supplemented by a carefully planned and slowly evolved method, which drove such a wedge between the white and black workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest.”11Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 700.
Du Bois’s specification that white and Black workers have “practically identical interests” is typically excised from present-day liberal accounts of white privilege that implicitly adopt the standpoint of an individual white worker ensconced in a capitalist society whose forms of social life are assumed as an immutable given. Of course, from that point of view, it is better to be white than to be non-white, and even, if one assumes that racial capitalism is here to stay, better to have white supremacy than to be without it. The only thing that could be said against white privilege, then, is that it is “unethical,” which probably does not matter much to someone who is suffering badly even with the social privileges that their location within racial capitalism provides. Especially if we say that the wage is mostly “psychological,” it loses its inherent connection to a whole system of class domination that makes white workers worse off than they might otherwise be. But this connection is there, in Du Bois’ description of white and Black workers as two groups with “practically identical interests.”
Moreover, the particular method Du Bois describes by which a “wedge” was driven between white and Black workers is one that could only have been implemented by a group with economic and political hegemony over society. White workers, Du Bois goes on to write,
were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. […] White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule.12Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 701.
According to Du Bois’s analysis, the phenomenon of white privilege is both a consequence of and a bulwark for elite economic domination over society. This form of domination is a system of privilege that remains largely immune from liberal critique. We will further address the limitations this places on liberal opposition to identity-based privilege in the following section that takes up the more recent roots of privilege theory in Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”
Twentieth-Century Roots of the “White Privilege” Concept: McIntosh
Contemporary privilege theory’s more recent origins lie in a 1989 essay by the feminist and antiracist scholar and activist, Peggy McIntosh. She was herself influenced theoretically, politically, and personally by the work of Black feminist scholars. In her essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” McIntosh relates that she recognized the need to confront her own privilege as a white person within the white-dominated feminist movement as a result of being challenged by Black feminists who pointed out the racism of their white fellow activists.13 Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (1989), https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/mcintosh.pdf. She also cites the influence of the Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977, and its emphasis on a system of “interlocking oppressions” such that feminist activism could not be abstractly isolated from the work of antiracism.14Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement,” in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism , Zillah Eisenstein, ed. (New York: NYU Press, 2019), 355-61.
McIntosh describes white privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.” As in Du Bois, the privileges of whiteness are described in financial terms, there as “wages” and here, in McIntosh’s essay, as “unearned assets” that she can “cash in.” Whereas the logic of “wages” places white privilege squarely within a dynamic of relations between capital and labor, “unearned assets” places McIntosh’s discussion of white privilege into a context of left liberal uneasiness with economic and social advantage that isn’t individually earned. The means by which she has come into possession of these unearned assets is less clear in McIntosh’s discussion than it is in Du Bois’s metaphor of the “public and psychological wage.”
Also telling are the scare quotes that McIntosh uses around the word, “meant,” when she says that she was “‘meant’ to remain oblivious” to her white privilege. They suggest an ironic distance from the full implication of what it is to say that she was meant to remain oblivious. For of course, without the iron, there must be an agent who acts with intention, and who does truly mean for her to remain oblivious to the fact of her unearned—and unfair—privilege. In Du Bois’s telling, there is in fact such an agent—white economic elites. McIntosh, however, does not offer a theory of how these interlocking privileges came to be—a weakness generally shared by liberal accounts of privilege.
It is largely as an affront to liberal ideals of individualism and meritocracy that McIntosh criticizes white privilege. In particular, systems of privilege render her into “an oppressor” and “a participant in a damaged culture,” rather than “an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will.” Privilege is immoral because it makes it the case that “one’s life is not what one makes it,” and because “many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.”
One important and quite correct aspect of McIntosh’s discussion of privilege is her insistence that racism, sexism, and other forms of identity-based oppression depend upon the participation of groups that are dominant within the respective hierarchies: white supremacy cannot function without the participation of the white masses; sexism cannot function without the participation of men; and so on. These systems, ultimately, are constituted by the combined activity of people in relation to one another.
However, what is difficult to see from within McIntosh’s liberal framework is that these forms of privilege, oppression, and domination are not most fruitfully conceptualized as deviations from an individualistic liberal moral order in which “one’s life is what one makes it.” Insofar as this is the morality of capitalism, it serves to justify a socioeconomic system that necessarily concentrates social power into the hands of a small economic elite, and this power includes the power to shape public narratives around choice and desert. One’s life is not just what one makes it—it is what one makes out of a whole history of social activity leading up to the context within which one chooses. McIntosh’s account of privilege, power, domination, and the systemic nature of oppression deftly describes a subjective lived perspective on what it is to be in the world as a committed left liberal social justice activist who has white privilege. But her adherence to liberalism’s tenets regarding the conditions under which power, advantage, and dominance are sometimes legitimate, earned, and morally unobjectionable, prevents this analysis from revealing that the font of the unfair privilege she rightly abhors is in so-called liberal fairness itself.
As we discussed at the outset, Marxist theorists tend to be divided on the question of whether or not we should utilize the concept of white privilege, and of whether the concept is itself perhaps at odds with a historical materialist analysis. But white privilege is a perfectly good phrase used to describe a particular feature of racial capitalism and white supremacy: namely, that white people tend to enjoy a wide range of freedoms and entitlements that nonwhites are denied. Moreover, the concept has deep roots in Du Bois’s notion of the “public and psychological wage,” an idea borne of his achievement in applying Marxist class analysis to the situation of Blacks in the Southern US after the Civil War. It is vital that we preserve Du Bois’s insights and legacy as central in thinking through the relationships between race and class.
With respect to how Marxists should theorize and seek to dismantle white privilege, (at least) two challenges lie before us, and they are closely interrelated. The first, is that we should not principally rely on liberal conceptions of fairness and individual merit in order to explain what is wrong with white privilege. White privilege is wrong not because it contradicts an ideal liberal order in which hierarchies of privilege, power, and access to goods are perfectly acceptable but only if one’s place in the hierarchy is “earned.” It is wrong because it is an instance of the very same hierarchy and domination which liberal capitalism itself necessarily instantiates and reproduces.
The second challenge is to show that Marxism as a political practice is the orientation best positioned to abolish the system of privilege based on race. This, of course, is the work of Marxist antiracist activism, and it is inherently connected to the project of abolishing all forms of domination of one part of humanity over another. Recognizing the existence of white privilege within and without our ranks is a key part of this work. And it is necessary for forging the political links among the working class that can help render it capable of overthrowing all privilege, oppression, and domination.
1 Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble with Diversity (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006), 6.
2 Walter Benn Michaels, “Against Diversity” New Left Review 52 (July/August 2008), https://newleftreview.org/issues/II52/articles/walter-benn-michaels-against-diversity.
3 Cedric Johnson, “The Wages of Roediger: Why Three Decades of Whiteness Studies Has Not Produced the Left We Need,” Nonsite.org, September 9, 2019, https://nonsite.org/article/the-wages-of-roediger-why-three-decades-of-whiteness-studies-has-not-produced-the-left-we-need.
4 Adolph Reed, Jr., “Antiracism: A Neoliberal Alternative to a Left,” Dialectical Anthropology 42 (2018).
5 Mike Cole, Critical Race Theory and Education: A Marxist Response (London: Palgrave, 2009), 26.
6 Michael Reich, Racial Inequality: A Political-Economic Analysis, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 109.
7 Robert Brenner and Johanna Brenner, “Reagan, The Right and the Working Class” Against the Current 1, no. 2 (Winter 1981), 30.
8 Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Marx and Engels: Collected Works, vol. 11 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1979), 103.
9 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010).
10 W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1935).
11 Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 700.
12 Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 701.
13 Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (1989), https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/mcintosh.pdf.
14 Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement,” in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism , Zillah Eisenstein, ed. (New York: NYU Press, 2019), 355-61.