We look at the average white American man and think, “White Male Privilege,” but Joe Six-pack is likely in the same economic boat as everyone else.
The Onion recently posted a biting piece titled “White Male Privilege Squandered on Job at Best Buy” that neatly struck at two of the most divisive and paradoxical aspects of American politics today — race and class. We all may laugh, but the issues it raises are nonetheless vital to halting America’s headlong slide into oligarchy and decline.
The satirical paper “reported” — in jest, of course — that the white man in question advised a patron of the electronics superstore on different qualities of HDMI cables while blithely frittering away “such innate life advantages as greater access to higher education, leniency from the justice system, and favorable treatment from other white males who lead and make hiring decisions at a disproportionately high number of American companies.”
After suggesting that the “AudioQuest gold-tip” was clearly the superior cable for the customer’s various doodads, the Onion reported, this member of “the world’s most affluent and privileged socioeconomic group” spent his break time gobbling down pastries from the employee vending machine.
The joke is twofold. The first part is the allegedly privileged white male described in the fake news story that is oblivious to just how big a failure he actually is. Statistically, our average Joe Six-pack toiling away at one of America’s retail hellscapes should be able to make more of himself — and the piece suggests just how terrible a loser he must be to end up hawking Chinese-made junk at Best Buy. We should, therefore, have no pity for him for being such an abject failure. After all, look at all the advantages he has!
The second, and arguably more important, jibe is the pointed one it makes at those who would use aggregate numbers to gloss over individual circumstances. Those who do lose sight of the fact that the individual being ridiculed by the Onion, in fact, likely enjoys very few of those advantages it cites him as having. Sure, his boss may be another white male and the cops are less likely to hassle him on the street, but those are marginal advantages at best. He is basically in the same economic boat as everyone else.
And this is exactly the point of the satirical piece. For all practical purposes, there are few meaningful differences between this representative member of the white male “elite” and his non-white, non-male economic peers. More than anything else, his life chances and choices — like theirs — are overwhelmingly determined by the economic circumstances into which he was born. Americans will not admit this, of course, as this is the land of rugged individualism and Horatio Alger propaganda stories, but every serious academic investigation of the subject says that is the case.
America is actually a rigidly class-bound society where opportunity for those at the bottom or even just a few pegs above it has become meaningfully constrained since the 1970s. In most cases, this would spark a revolt from below as the growing power and influence of the rich gets challenged by poorer members of society. But this hasn’t happened in America.
The great question is why this revolt hasn’t happened — and if you think it has, then you are deluded. The achievements of the Obama administration, while commendable, are a far cry from the massive investments in education, healthcare and infrastructure that our society really needs in order to become more productive and egalitarian. More depressingly, the effort to get what little we have gotten was Herculean due to powerful vested interests stacked against economic reform.
This is due, in part, to the tremendous power political minorities have in our system of government. The Constitution, of course, rigs the federal government to favor small states that tend to vote conservative, while the gutting of campaign finance laws and other restrictions on the wielding of big money in politics has effectively turned our country into an oligarchy with two branches, each controlling one of our two parties. Given that the way in which we conduct elections guarantees we only get two parties, we would seem to be at something of an impasse.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. If the American working class actually voted its economic interests — as it did during the New Deal era — it would command overwhelming majorities even with the power those vested interests are capable of wielding to stop it.
So, why don’t they?
A big reason is that the American working class is neither unified nor coherent. It is split most obviously by race and ethnicity, but also by gender, religion and even geographical region. This allows politicians from both parties to use these non-economic, yet still highly salient, political cleavages to pick apart the working class and so effectively pit it against itself over issues related to culture and identity.
Doctrinaire Marxists might scoff at the power of these alternative forms of identity and belittle them as being little more than forms of false consciousness that allow their adopters to be duped into voting against their own interests. This may be true, but they are nonetheless an important form of political identity that has often created powerful mass movements all over the world.
Sometimes they can be directed to good purpose — as in the civil rights movement — but in others it can produce ethno-nationalist movements that have led to some of the most reactionary and brutal regimes on Earth. Nazi Germany obviously comes to mind, but so do right-wing movements and regimes around the world. Whole wars have been fought over cultural and ethno-racial identity — it is that powerful a force in human politics.
Here in the United States, strong forms of ethnic identity not only created the civil rights movement and its opposite in the white communities of the Jim Crow South, but also contending forms of ethnic identity that fueled neverending squabbling in America’s immigrant-laden big cities. Here, political machines of the type run by Boss Tweed in the 19th century or Mayor Richard J. Daley in the 20th had to learn to manipulate the demands of the Irish, Polish, German, Lithuanian, Italian and other ethnic groups who made America’s cities their home. Corruption on a massive scale was often the result.
While this ethnic diversity did much to enrich and broaden American culture, it nonetheless made the creation of a broad, multiethnic and multiracial coalition of the poor and working class extremely difficult. Indeed, America’s very diversity was a primary reason the U.S. was seemingly inoculated against socialism during the early 20th century. Capital — quite simply and very effectively — engaged in the time-tested tactics of divide-and-conquer against a population all too eager to embrace it.
For those seeking to better the conditions of the poor through political action, overcoming these ethnic and racial divisions has long been an important goal. Eugene V. Debs, the perennial Socialist activist and presidential candidate around the turn of the last century, noted explicitly that “there is no Negro question outside the labor question and the working class struggle” and “the class struggle is colorless.” Martin Luther King, Jr., too, was of a similar mind, though he avoided using explicitly socialist terminology for much of his career as an activist.
It was only much later — after King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in which he imagined the race working together in harmony and the passage of the Civil Rights Acts — that King turned to campaigning as Debs would have suggested. In the campaign he led before his tragic assassination,King explicitly campaigned on a program of social inclusion for poor people of every hue and stripe. This was probably the closest post-War America has ever come to truly having a mass, multiracial movement against poverty of the kind really needed to make our politics work for working people.
Without King to lead it, however, the movement he spearheaded quickly got lost in the tumultuous politics of the time. Instead of being the starting point for a multiracial coalition of the poor, the civil rights movement collapsed into a much smaller movement aimed mostly at advancing the victims of racial injustice. This was noble and needed, of course, but it was nonetheless a far cry from the much larger bigger mission that King in his later years had envisioned for it.
As the civil rights movement went, so did other parts of the American left — which splintered into many different single-issue identity groups. Thus splintered and divided against itself, the left slid into political irrelevance even as the political right and the economic royalists funding it organized and took over the country. Labor was crushed while the left was distracted, and all that remains of the institutional left today are the identity groups that do little to help poor whites, environmental groups that appeal mostly to the affluent, and the bloody, weakened rump of what had once been America’s great labor unions.
Many on the left today understand how great a mistake this was and many of its more adroit politicians — President Barack Obama included — have tried in vain to use multiracial appeals to broaden the base for progressive causes. It is a hard slog, though, and Obama’s efforts have almost from the beginning been racialized by a radicalized Republican Party and conservative movement who see no advantage in seeing, as Martin Luther King Jr. did, blacks and whites working together in harmony and goodwill.
So what is to be done? Clearly there needs to be more work to build that multiracial coalition, but how this should be done is unclear. Some parts of the white working and middle classes — particularly in the South — will never be mollified by appeals to racial comity. Indeed, they have barely accommodated themselves to the end of legal segregation and they see any attempt by ethnic and racial minorities to seek out a basic fairness as de facto reverse racism and an attack on white people and culture.
This still leaves a huge number of white, working class people who are not racist but nonetheless don’t vote for progressive causes because they don’t trust them. Perhaps they shouldn’t, since liberals and progressives have been much too keen on not paying much attention to them. This needs to change, however, because organizing disenfranchised minority communities — an area in which Democrats and those on the left excel — is simply not enough.
To organize the coalition we need to make real change in this country. And the progressive left also needs to appeal to the white guy working at the Best Buy down the road — no matter how privileged our statistics and mindset make him out to be.