Dissecting Racial Privilege and Class

In contemporary society, “whiteness” is more than a category of pigmented skin. It is a social construct, an advantageous societal badge, a cultural phenomenon — an implicit privilege ingrained in the Western psyche. Likewise, it has connotations that permeate culture, especially those of us who are part of the American variant. The United States has, arguably, experienced the most racial upheaval of any nation in its brief history as a republic. Therefore, it is easy to see the remnants of a past white-supremacist society still festering, albeit not as explicitly as it once was. Now, the issues are implicit rather than explicit, covert rather than overt — they poison our culture as hidden systemic issues, inculcated in the American experience, rather than with symbolic elements that we tend to associate racism with (i.e. the Klu Klux Klan, Jim Crow, etc). Perhaps this poses a greater problem than ever before, since many white Americans have washed their hands clean of the matter after the granting of legal rights in the 1960s. Before such events, racism was in full-view and exposed by movements calling for its destruction during the Civil Rights era and prior. Sadly, these mass-movements have now largely disappeared, since they were mostly in conjunction with Vietnam anti-war protests, and they have escaped the public eye, despite the same problems still persisting.

The reasons for racial complexes are, from my understanding, directly linked to an understanding of class and distributions of affluence. Any hegemonic group, be it cultural or racial, is granted its creation and subsequent dominance by controlling capital and concentrating power. White elitism was a direct product of such concentrations. During the time of the slave power, power was granted to rich white slave-owners by the state. The relationship shifted with the end of the “plantation elites” and the development of racist capitalism in the South, but the dichotomy of oppressor-oppressed in the black experience was little changed. They were barred from many employment opportunities and promptly stripped of political rights after the establishment of Jim Crow once the Union troops left the former Confederate states with the sham of a compromise in 1877.

Convict leasing was actively used in the building of railroads in the South.

In relation to class, it’s quite clear how Jim Crow acquired its luster among white working Americans living in the South. Although their wages were low, their conditions horrid, and their hours long — at least they were white. They found a racial scapegoat. Thus, white capitalists justified their expropriation through a racial lens and trapped freemen in contracts that essentially re-instated elements of slavery, with convict leasing that sold “criminals” to private parties for their bidding. Racism in the south functioned as a buffer to prevent conflict aimed at industrialists. It created a rift between laborers, deviating their attention from inequality and subsequent efforts at unionization.

The issue with class disparity is that it creates the illusion of superiority. The hegemonic status of certain groups corresponds with inequities in wealth; when a group of individuals (i.e. whites, Protestants, etc.) are mostly congregated to one rung of the social ladder, it grants them a higher worth. Rather than attribute their privilege to the lottery of birth, they psychologically justify their position with some innate characteristic — be it race, religion (which is oftentimes taken as birthright), or ethnicity. With centuries of rule by white moneyed interests in the United States, it seems likely that the racist undertones of contemporary society began with class inequality. Therefore, class disparities preceded racist justifications, rather than vice-verse, through the expansion of markets by imperialist forces and expansionism.

In contemporary American society, these same cards are at play, although the deck has been shuffled a bit. The use of “code language” fills the right-wing political arena, which still caters to affluence and power as it always did. The last election of 2012 perhaps signified the last potential “hoorah” for white America — what pundit Bill O’Reilly calls “the real America” — in continuing the hegemony that was once fully enjoyed. The issue is the fact that many white Americans, particularly those in conservative circles, are supposedly “outraged” by the government’s catering to minorities. Some go as far as calling it discriminatory, or reverse-racism, against whites. The severe delusion of these reactionary whites is that they see their marginal decrease in privilege as under-privilege.  In retrospect, opportunities are merely equalizing (slowly), not absurdly flipping inversely from white to black. This white anger manifested itself in the past election, with the white vote rallying over Romney and the South vehemently against President Obama. To put it simply, racial politics are at play once again, despite the political right’s insistence that their criticisms are based purely on some disingenuous merited assessment.

Hence, given its elaborate history, privilege is an absurdly difficult topic to wrestle with due to it potentially being “offensive.” Some political commentators have wrongly grown wary of initiating such discussions and insist we live in a “post-racial” society. They believe firmly that if we ignore the race issue, it will simply disappear. Despite their, perhaps, benevolent intentions on the surface, this exasperates the problem rather than curing it. Yes, granted, I would thoroughly like to live in a post-racial society — but, point being, we don’t. Thereby, analyses in racial relations are still crucial in assessing current conditions because we, sadly, still live in a racist society. You can deny such claims, but you are under a grave misapprehension by personally muting the cries of racial injustice in contemporary American society. Out of ethical respect, we should listen and actively take note.

***

Race, Class, and “Whiteness Theory”

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