The classic left-wing strategy for discussing racism is to stress how the bosses use it to divide and conquer the working class -- keeping unions weak, wages low, and living conditions insecure. But history shows that whites often accept, even actively enforce, racist discrimination and sometimes violence even when it ends up hurting their own material comforts and leads to upper-class political domination.
Heather McGhee, in her new book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, recounts how Southern whites supported closing public swimming pools and schools – putting those facilities out of reach of those without sufficient wealth to buy their way in to privatized alternatives – rather than allow these facilities to be desegregated. She asks, “Why is student debt so crushing in a country that once had excellent universities that were cheap or even free? Why is American health care such a disaster? Why is our democracy being strangled by minority rule?...Racism is a huge part of the answer.”
Fighting against society’s institutional structures and social norms is risky and requires a belief in one’s personal and collective power that most people have been taught not to have. It’s much easier to go with the flow, to fit oneself into the larger currents and patterns of society. It shouldn’t be surprising that most white people don’t fight against the overall society’s racial patterns. Rebels pay a price. Being “normal” keeps you attached. And, at least for the first generation or two of post-WWII Americans, things did get better – homes (and vacation cabins) were bought, food was on the table, life expectancy rose.
In fact, the structural racism that all Americans are born into, along with its multiple types of institutionalized white privileges, provide a powerful material and financial incentive to go along with racism. Most whites are better off than most Blacks, even if not as secure and well-off as they potentially could be. Yes, there is a potential possibility for society-wide higher living standards and deeper democracy if racism is eliminated. And it is possible that these overall improvements will trickle down to ordinary white families. But all that are possibilities that may or may not occur. The benefits – material and otherwise – of white privilege are immediate and visible. McGhee points out that, “You have to have an oddly high opinion of white people to assume that most will react to learning about the advantages of whiteness by wanting to give it up.”
But even if we can convince people that they’d be financially better off in a non-racist world, we’d have to deal with the deep history of racist culture that permeates our society, and the personal feelings of racial connection or separation that that culture has led individuals to internalize. At that level, material benefits aren’t enough – I was once asked how much I’d have to be paid to join a different religion, or promote racism, or even vote for Donald Trump: the answer was that my deepest beliefs cannot be so easily bought. And neither can most people’s.
To oppose racism, we need motivations stronger than holding on to the material privileges of whiteness or even the hoped-for improved living-standard promises of solidarity.
For all my analytic materialism, I think that fighting racism requires – in addition to radically reforming the economic and political structures of our country and world – taking culture, values, and religion seriously. We need a lever bigger than money to move people’s minds. We need to help people feel the pressure of a higher power and be inspired by more fundamental values than dollars. This is why it is so important to push every priest, minister, rabbi, and Iman to denounce racism and discrimination. This is why we need political leaders to keep repeating the highest ideals contained in our founding documents -- that all people are created equal and share an inherent right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in whatever manner they choose. This is why it is so important that we promote anti-racist culture of every type, and that celebrities – no matter the source of their prominence – be held to a strict standard of non-derogatory language. And we all need to push all of these culture-shapers beyond the limits of being “color blind” to acknowledge that given our nation’s past and continuing structurally ingrained racism we have to take affirmative steps to address the historic load and contemporary trauma of racial discrimination.
We may never totally eliminate racism or any other of the core discriminations that so painfully contort our society. But, at a minimum, it is possible – and absolutely necessary – to grind down the serrated knife edges that so brutally rip apart the lives and bodies of so many people and so distorts the humanity of the rest of us.