Two phrases have come up over the last week. One is the old, “Racism is prejudice plus power,” the other is, “White people need to recognize that they benefit from racism.” It struck me that one thing going on here is that the words benefit and power are being used in a way that I do not think useful for understanding and fighting the injustice that affects all of our lives–yes, all of our lives, even if some more than others.
When we are told, for example, that white people, or straight people, or men, have “power” this seems to mean (I speak under correction), have advantages. But power, at least in the social sense, means the ability to force another to do what you wish, through violence or its threat, or economic coercion.
It seems as if there is some sort of magical transformation happening here: “Almost everyone who has actual power is white and male, therefore, if you are white and male, you have a share of that power.” Is that actually the thinking? If it is, I hope my expression of it is sufficient to show its absurdity.
The working class only has power when it is united, and racial and sexual divisions are used to prevent that unity. That is why I do not have the benefit of any sort of decent health care: because racism and male chauvinism (to be sure, along with many other things) have been used to keep the working class from exercising its power to destroy the parasitic health insurance and profit-based privately-owned pharmaceutical companies. I am denied the benefits of scientific discovery because those divisions interfere with the power we need to prevent the gutting of NASA and other research programs that could increase human knowledge. I do not have the benefit of living in a world where everyone around me has access to education and culture. I do not have the benefit of truly effective mass transit, of efficient renewable energy, of a program to fight climate change. All of these are things that could be, and must be, fought for by a united working class. But the working class is kept divided by, among other things, racial prejudice.
So, no, I do not benefit from racism. If my sex, my race, my sexual preference, and even more, my fairly comfortable (if uncertain) middle-class income mean that I am less oppressed than many of my brothers and sisters, this does not mean I benefit from racism. And it certainly does not mean I have power.
In essence, you are telling me that I should work to make those who are more oppressed than me as oppressed as I am. Seriously? Is that the best we can do? Perhaps you claim it is a “start?” That someday in the future all racism and sexism will vanish, and we will all be equally oppressed, and then we can work together? Well, first, no, I don’t think that day will ever come without the destruction of capitalism, and, secondly, I think that this “start” works to drive the class apart, to set sections of the oppressed against each other.
And then there’s a purely tactical point: If you actually manage to convince someone that he benefits from racism, is that a very strong argument that he ought to devote himself to fighting it? It seems to me that part of the fight against racism involves pointing out the ways in which it hurts everyone.
To summarize: if, instead of working as hard as possible to increase, accent, and solidify categories such as race and sex, we were to devote our efforts to bringing the working class together, fighting ignorance where it occurs within the class as part of organizing its independent strength, we could actually do something that would give us all power, and work to the benefit of the entire working class, and, ultimately, the human race.