by Walter Smolarek
White privilege “has existed as long as there have been white people,” but the material basis for it is declining in the U.S. “Large sections of white youth are undergoing a process of proletarianization.” Although this slow process “does not instantly enlighten those stricken with white chauvinism,” polling data seems to show that “white supremacist ideology has significantly weakened its hold on the consciousness of about 2 in 5 white youth.”
The Decline of U.S. Imperialism and the Structural Crisis of Whiteness
by Walter Smolarek
“The bar for white radicals must be set at a high level if we are to be allies of the Black movement.”
A wave of struggle has exploded across the country, as people take to the streets on a sustained basis following the Ferguson Uprising. While the sharpest period of confrontation may have passed for now, there are promising signs of the health of this movement. Other recent instances of struggle against racist injustice took on a mostly spontaneous, episodic form, but there is reason to be hopeful of the revival of the fight for Black liberation and the end of white supremacy on a mass scale.
As has been historically the case, the struggle of Black people has had the strength to draw in various other sectors of society into motion. For many white youth, the dominant narrative of this process has not contributed to the formation of a bloc capable of carrying out a revolution. It has instead sought to reconfigure white identity. Is becoming a “white ally” the way forward, or should the aim be instead to smash the institution of whiteness?
An ideological framework that views all types of oppression as equivalent, independent and self-acting can encourage the development of issue and constituency-based movements for reform, rather than a movement for radical, structural change. One can fight for LGBTQ liberation, for example, but abstain from the fight against white supremacy. However, those who seek the total transformation of society view all oppression as bound up in a single system. Identity politics inhibits the development of a historically-grounded, objective analysis of the dynamics of U.S. society, leaving participants in the struggle unable to effectively formulate strategy and anticipate the direction of events. This elevates leaders from the petty bourgeoisie, which continues to privilege whiteness and white concerns and to be about ultimately a reorganization of whiteness, rather than its demolition. The bar for white radicals must be set at a high level if we are to be allies (in the real sense of the word – those able to make a concrete contribution to victory over a common enemy) of the Black movement.
As the ruling class of the United States scrambles to address major diplomatic, political and economic crises, one of the oldest and most treasured pillars of their system is undergoing a structural crisis – whiteness. This is not the product of simple demographic shifts, although these are not inconsequential, but rather the new period of history the world has entered, in which major renovations must be made to global capitalism to ensure its survival.
Whiteness and imperialism
Since the ascendance of imperialism, whiteness has been inseparably bound up with this project for world domination. I use the term imperialism to denote not a policy choice, but a stage in the development of capitalism. As capital’s natural tendency towards monopoly operates, finance becomes dominant over industry, and expands not only in the home market but is exported around the globe. The capitalist state is compelled to protect these investments and open up new opportunities for exploitation using a combination of the most horrifying brutality imaginable and well-crafted subtleties.
For as long as almost anyone can remember, the United States has been the dominant imperialist power. It has not always been this way. The much larger empires of Britain and France were eclipsed only after the end of World War Two, when the architecture of world politics was redesigned on the basis of U.S. hegemony. The once-mighty European powers were in ruins, a bloc of socialist states came into existence for the first time, and there was fear of a return to the Great Depression once the war stimulus ended. Insulated from the devastation of world war by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and in possession of an unprecedented industrial and military juggernaut, U.S. imperialism was the only power capable of rescuing the system. Colonialism was reconstituted as neo-colonialism, and U.S. capitalists took the biggest market share.
This international arrangement led to dramatic changes domestically. Shaken by growing radicalism during the 1930s and terrified at the greatly strengthened position of the world communist movement, the ruling class turned to its most tried and true method of retaining power – using reactionary whites as a bludgeon against progressive struggle. White privilege has existed as long as white people have, but the Cold War presented an unprecedented challenge that warranted an unprecedented payment. The era of the suburban white began.
The ideological apparatus of the capitalist state gave it a different name – the American Dream.
Establishing the new whiteness
White people function as the oppressor nation in the context of the United States, a country that includes the Black, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Indigenous and many other oppressed nations. However, whites do not constitute a nation in the traditional sense of sharing a common language, culture, geographical territory and economic activity, but are rather a Frankenstein of European nationalities that have been granted a common political status. While these characteristics have converged over time, successive waves of European immigrants were not immediately white. This changed after World War Two, when all southern and eastern European nationalities were definitively incorporated into whiteness (although arguably it would take Jewish people, also not exactly a nation, another few decades).
Several mechanisms were employed to bring about this qualitative upgrade to white privilege. With some notable exceptions, the leadership of the labor movement was largely backwards on the question of race or at least failed to fully support the struggle for Black liberation and other national liberation movements. This meant the gains won by the upsurge in labor militancy (the largest strike wave in U.S. history came the year after the end of World War Two, when the anti-fascist truce expired) were unevenly distributed in favor of a white “aristocracy of labor.”
“The gains won by the upsurge in labor militancy were unevenly distributed in favor of a white “aristocracy of labor.”
However, suburban white privilege involved not only wage increases and other traditional economistic demands, but the elevation of a large section of the white population to the professional and semi-professional strata of society. The main engine of this was the G.I. Bill, which provided widespread working class access to a college education for the first time. But this is apartheid America – the only ones in a position to fully take advantage of this and then find corresponding employment were whites and their families.
White upper-strata workers and new professionals were whisked away from the cities and into the suburbs. Although it came with a sense of soul-crushing isolation (any observer of white suburban drug use can attest to this), living conditions were miles ahead of the urban neighborhoods they used to inhabit. This was facilitated by massive government intervention. Between 1934 and 1962, $120 billion of housing assistance was provided by the federal government – over 98 percent of this went to whites.
This deepening and broadening of whiteness was a highly expensive project for the ruling class, but was made affordable by the uncontested hegemony of U.S. capital in the imperialist bloc. This would hold true from 1945-1973, begin to crack after the 1973 crisis, and enter a period of serious decline in the current era.
The structural economic crisis of 1973 was resolved primarily through the deindustrialization of the imperialist countries and the introduction of the neo-liberal regime of capital accumulation, with financialized speculation at its core. The iron law of “last hired, first fired” shielded whites from the most devastating effects of the crisis, but it still shook one of the main pillars of the new white privilege. As the jobs capable of sustaining an aristocracy of labor began to disappear following the 1973 crisis, poverty and unemployment reemerged for many white families who falsely believed that these phenomena were things of the past.
This period was particularly turbulent not only for upper-strata white workers who managed to get into the suburbs, but also for the section of the white population that was “left behind” in the cities. Urban working class white populations are generally very small, although in some cities like Philadelphia and Boston they still constitute a sizeable and politically important force. Lacking revolutionary political leadership, this ironically but predictably led to a further entrenchment of loyalty to white supremacy. That said, there are some cultural aspects of the lives of the old white proletariat that are far preferable to the smug arrogance of suburbanites.
“Following the 1973 crisis, poverty and unemployment reemerged for many white families who falsely believed that these phenomena were things of the past.”
Events in the 1970s appeared to point towards world revolution, but this momentum was reversed in the 1980s and culminated with the overthrow of the Soviet Union and most other socialist states in the early 1990s. After the defeat of the socialist camp in the Cold War, the managers of the system hoped for a "new American century" of unquestionable U.S. imperialist hegemony. While the 1990s appeared to confirm this prognosis, the new century itself has seen just the opposite. Economic and military setbacks have called into question the post-Cold War arrangement. The absence of a bloc of socialist states was a historic victory for U.S. imperialism, but it also removed the main incentive that other capitalist powers had for accepting a second-rung position in world affairs.
The military defeat suffered by U.S. imperialism at the hands of the Iraqi resistance challenged the myth of American invincibility and its ability to dictate the course of world events. The installation of a stable puppet regime in Iraq, following a similar operation in Afghanistan, was supposed to be the beginning of a sweep through the Middle East that would remove all nationalist government from power. With the Iraqi people's victory, U.S. imperialism lost the initiative on the world stage.
The U.S. ruling class has recovered from worse setbacks, but their failure in Iraq was followed shortly by the outbreak of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The neo-liberal model, made necessary by falling rates of profit, spectacularly imploded and ushered in an era of uncertainty and stagnation in the imperialist core of the world economy. Only massive bailouts and the creation of a semi-permanent life support system called quantitative easing was able to stop the free-fall, and time will tell when the next major disruption occurs.
“Economic and military setbacks have called into question the post-Cold War arrangement.”
During this period of great turbulence for the U.S.-led imperialist powers, several of the larger formerly-colonized countries have greatly expanded their economic and diplomatic clout. This is most prominently expressed by the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. High growth rates and government policies generally favorable to the development of a domestic productive base have opened up space for these and similar countries to pursue an independent foreign policy. This is not what the new American century was supposed to look like.
The new economic powerhouses are now in the beginning stages of mounting a serious challenge to the Bretton Woods institutions. The rise of U.S. imperialist hegemony involved the creation of several new international organizations. At the 1944 Bretton Woods conference, representatives from the non-fascist imperialist states gathered in New Hampshire and agreed to form the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and the embryo of what would decades later become the World Trade Organization. The dollar was made the main reserve currency of the entire capitalist world. These were critical mechanisms used to construct the U.S.-dominated world order that made possible the existence of the suburban white.
The 2014 BRICS Summit in Fortaleza, Brazil was the clearest sign of this yet. This gathering formalized the creation of the New Development Bank with $50 billion of initial capital, and a $100 billion Contingent Reserve Arrangement that could lessen member states’ dependency on the U.S. dollar. Although the political language used in the announcement was non-confrontational, the reality of the announcement is anything but. Other institutions of “south-south cooperation” independent of the Bretton Woods institutions have also appeared on a regional basis. This includes MERCOSUR and its more socialist-oriented counterpart ALBA in Latin America, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a Chinese initiative that challenges the role of the imperialist-backed Asian Development Bank.
Old whites and new whites
For those who seek the revolutionary transformation of society, the most important dynamic created by the decline of suburban white privilege is the generational chasm opened up between young whites and their parents and grandparents. Large sections of white youth are undergoing a process of proletarianization that has far-reaching implications for the structure and stability of U.S. capitalism.
Induction into suburban white privilege operates as a circuit. First, they go to college. Next, they get a job with a high salary. Finally, they purchase a home and cruise to retirement. This system is experiencing a malfunction on all fronts.
Much attention has been given to the rising cost of a college education, without a doubt because this disproportionately affects whites. However, these figures carry great meaning once they are placed in their proper context – the structural crisis of whiteness. Adjusted for inflation, over approximately the last 10 years tuition has increased by 33 percent at private 4-year schools, 17 percent at public 2-year schools and 54 percent for public 4-year schools. This has led to an explosion in debt, with outstanding students loans totaling over $1 trillion. This is the largest source of private debt in the country, including credit cards.
Meanwhile, the gap between unemployment levels for whites and Blacks is, while still appalling, notably narrower among youth. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for those over the age of 35, the Black unemployment rate was 2.13 times as high as the white unemployment rate in 2012, while the ratio was 1.72 for those between 25 and 34. A study conducted by the Harris polling corporation on behalf of job search engine CareerBuilder.com found that of those who graduated college in 2014, only 32 percent have secured a job that requires a college degree. The National Employment Law Project found in 2014 that 22 percent of jobs lost during the economic crisis paid between $9.48 and $13.33 an hour, but these low-wage positions account for 44 percent of job growth over the last four years.
“Of those who graduated college in 2014, only 32 percent have secured a job that requires a college degree.”
Finally, to deal with the quintessential symbol of the suburban white, new home prices are significantly outpacing the price of existing homes. Home ownership and the equity it represents is the foundation for financial stability for the remainder of adulthood. However, the 2008 crisis has set in motion a major divergence between the price of new homes and the price of existing homes. It is increasingly becoming more difficult for white youth to become home owners than their parents. Prior to the Great Recession, the gap between the median sales price of new and existing single-family homes fluctuated between 15 and 20 percent, while this widened to 30-40 percent following the crisis. Saddled with huge student loan debts, young whites not only have to pay more, but lack the cheap access to credit that their parents enjoyed.
This breakdown in the suburban white privilege circuit is reflected in whites’ attitudes about the future. According to a 2013 report compiled by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, the percentages of whites and Blacks who agreed with the statement “The way things are in America, people like me and my family have a good chance of improving our standard of living” were roughly the same from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s. However, at the onset of the Great Recession these numbers sharply diverged, hovering between 60 and 75 percent among Black respondents while declining every year since 2006 for whites, dipping below 50 percent for the first time in 2011. After 2006, the number of Black people responding “better” to the survey question, “During the last few years, has your financial situation been getting better, worse, or has it stayed the same?” was larger than whites for the first time.
Further evidence of the structural crisis of whiteness can be found when pollsters use the most widely recognized code word for suburban white privilege – the “American Dream.” In the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2014 American Values Survey, 45 percent of whites said that the American Dream still holds true, while 47 percent responded that it “once held true, but not anymore.” The poll defined the American Dream as “if you work hard you’ll get ahead” – a foundational myth of white supremacy. That half of whites no longer believe this points to the considerable magnitude of the dilemma facing the ruling class.
Revolutionary leaders have often likened racism to a disease, which infects the masses of white people. This is accurate, and we can go a step further in our diagnosis. In the era of the decline of U.S. imperialism, the white population has been stricken by political schizophrenia. The proletarianization of many young white people raises the stakes and heightens polarization. What can remedy their situation – militant defense of white supremacy or hatred of the system and loyalty to the emerging movement for Black liberation?
Since the crisis, the development of “middle class” whites’ political consciousness has followed two sharply divergent trends – the Tea Party and the Occupy movement. The Tea Party aims to mobilize the most hardened reactionary elements of the white population as a shock force to take up the political space that may otherwise be occupied by those hostile to the system. It is a semi-fascist force that cannot be reasoned with, only smashed by the mass movement of the people. The Occupy/Tea Party dichotomy largely falls along generational lines, with younger proletarianizing whites expressing generally progressive sentiments but lacking a deep understanding of the dynamics of white supremacy. Young (“millennial”) whites are therefore the ones of principle interest – an investigation of their political attitudes can help us understand the degree to which it will be possible to win over this section of the newly-enlarged white proletariat to revolutionary struggle.
To avoid painting an overly optimistic picture, it should first be noted that the slow process of proletarianization does not instantly enlighten those stricken with white chauvinism. A study conducted by MTV (not exactly an intellectual powerhouse, but certainly well-resourced enough to carry out accurate market research) found that 68 percent of millennials (not just white youth) believe that “focusing on race prevents society from becoming colorblind.” 65 percent of millennial whites opposed racial preferences (affirmative action) regardless of historical context, and 48 percent expressed the outrageous position that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against people of color.
However, the task of a revolutionary is to understand motion in society – it is a fatal, subjectivist error to think that attitudes are fixed and stagnant. Our orientation and expectations towards proletarianizing white youth should also be informed by their attitudes relative to the older generations that grew up when suburban white privilege was secure.
“65 percent of millennial whites opposed racial preferences (affirmative action) regardless of historical context.”
If the current wave of struggle is in fact the beginning of a resurgence of the Black liberation movement, then the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the primary causes. A Pew survey taken the week after Zimmerman was found not guilty showed that whites approved of the verdict by a 49-30 percent margin (21 percent were undecided). This tendency to approve of the verdict held true in all white age ranges except for one – 18-29 year-olds, who disapproved of the verdict by a 2 percent margin (41 percent to 39 percent).
Another Pew poll taken at the beginning of 2014 compared different generations of whites’ attitudes towards the role of government in providing social services generally and its responsibility to provide health insurance specifically – highly racialized questions in the context of U.S. politics. 39 percent of millennials said that they preferred a “bigger” government with more programs, as opposed to just 23 percent of baby boomers and 27 percent of “generation X”. 43 percent of white youth supported universal health insurance, as opposed to 36 percent of older whites, who are far more likely to actually use such a program.
Polling on these three representative issues is evidence that white supremacist ideology has significantly weakened its hold on the consciousness of about 2 in 5 white youth. This number may grow along with the strengthening of a radical pole of attraction in U.S. politics. Should revolutionaries fail to take advantage of the fissures opened up by the structural crisis of whiteness, the ranks of white supremacist reaction will be greatly strengthened. To whites, and white youth in particular, history will pose the question – fascism or socialist revolution? The former is a fool’s errand; the latter is the future of humanity.
Walter Smolarek is a student at Temple University in Philadelphia.