In The Cost of Privilege: Taking On the System of White Supremacy and Racism, Chip Smith has written a historical treatise on white racism in the United States. He provides a well researched, detailed account of the cause and effect of white privilege in the United States. The book effectively examines the influence of racial privilege on a broad range of social relations from an international to a personal level. It targets progressive white people who are consciously anti-racist and provides insights for individual self-reflection and organizational change.
Smith examines white supremacy using intersectionality theory, which seeks to explain the ways racism, paternalism, misogyny, and homophobia form a confluence that multiplies and intensifies class oppression while reproducing multiple forms of privilege and oppression. He also reveals much about the racial and gender tensions that exist in white left organizations in the United States. In examining various forms of oppression, Smith demonstrates how we might weave different social movements together by creating intersections of understanding through education and social practice.
Smith, like other researchers, charges that race is a socially constructed concept built on the foundation of slavery and the eradication of native peoples in the United States. Since race constitutes a caste system, privileging the highest racial category, white privilege infests every social, economic, and political category of life in the United States and serves to weaken the shared understanding of oppression particularly among working people there.
White supremacy as we see it today did not exist in the 1600s. During this period, despite the skin color of English immigrants, “white people” did not yet exist. They were lower class English people who had been pushed off their farms in England and turned into a landless, wandering workforce—some of whom got transported to the Virginia colony. In 1620 African and European indentured servants shared a common predicament. It was common, for example, for servants and slaves to run away, steal hogs, and get drunk together. It was not uncommon for them to make love together. White, black, and native workers, bonded and free, cooperated to counter the harsh class oppression of the plantation elite.
This developing solidarity threatened profits and created a profound sense of physical insecurity in the planter class. Their backs were to the Atlantic. They were living on stolen land next to dispossessed native peoples. They were outnumbered by exploited, abused, and resentful servants and slaves—along with poor freemen who were little better off. Virginia’s governor described the situation, “How miserable that man is that Governes a People where six parts of seven at least are Poor Endebted Discontented and Armed.”
It took decades to alternately reward and punish Europeans into becoming white—into acting reliably in the interests of the European ruling elite, rather than out of solidarity with their class sisters and brothers from Africa. One by one the colonies consolidated the slave system—lifetime bondage, severe penalties for running away, distinctions based on color for a whole range of offenses, and the banning of intermarriage. In 1705 the Virginia colony confiscated all property owned by slaves including the livestock raised for personal use and sale. The 1705 code also made clear the many privileges granted to “Christian white” limited-term bond laborers. One provision kept the master from beating a white Christian laborer without a court order. And “freedom dues” of guns, corn, and money paid at the end of an indenture went only to white workers, since they alone could serve out their period of indenture.
The planter class also restricted the rights of free black people. Smith tells us that laws banned people of African descent from holding public office, from bearing witness in court against a white person, from “lifting his or hers hand” against a white person, and from holding a gun or other weapon whether “offensive or defensive.” This sanction against self-defense had a gender dimension. This contributed to the development of the peculiar U.S. form of white male supremacy. In principle, according to the author, any European-American male could assume familiarity with any African-American woman. That principle came to have the sanction of law. Free African-American women had practically no legal protection in this respect, in view of the general exclusion of African-Americans, free or bond, from giving testimony in court.
Smith posits that this period shaped the European-American workers’ new, specifically white identity in the context of a developing settler state. The system of laws and practices slowly and forcibly socialized Europeans into aligning themselves with the ruling class and not with their black peers.
The book highlights that in the United States social discourse continued to strengthen white supremacy and perpetuated white privilege. The program of the Jacksonian White Republic gave all white men, regardless of property ownership, the right to vote—and at the same time moved systematically to deprive free black people of their voting rights. Connecticut took action in 1818. New York imposed a property requirement that excluded nine out of ten potential black voters in 1821. In subsequent years North Carolina, Tennessee, and all the Northwest states of that time except Wisconsin denied black people suffrage.
During the 1850s the white republicanism of the Jackson era shifted among some workers to a “free white labor” outlook, opposed to the extension of slavery, but remained firmly anti-black. Oregon’s constitution, for example, excluded all black people from the state.
The book provides pages of examples of the advantage of being white in the United States. White people live longer, are paid higher wages, have better health care and better housing, enjoy a better quality of life, and are portrayed more positively by television, newspapers, movies, and other media.
Smith indicates that whiteness is maintained because many whites enjoy privilege without themselves being personally racists. The white ruling class exploits both white workers and workers of color and uses racial privileges to sustain their rule. White workers benefit in comparison to workers of color, while at the same time being exploited for their labor power. This is a crucial point made by this book. It points to the fact that ending exploitation and the system of racial privileges that support it is in the interests of white working-class people as well as people of color. But in order to accomplish this, white people will first have to recognize that white privilege exists.
Smith offers numerous examples showing that many continue to deny the reality of white privilege. He points to a Gallup poll that found that 79 percent of whites believed that blacks had as good a chance as whites in their community at securing employment. A 1997 Kaiser Foundation poll found that more whites than in the past believe there is very little racial discrimination and that blacks have as good a chance as whites of succeeding today. Many social researchers indicate that white supremacy is defended by modern eugenics and bad science that misuses IQ and statistical methods. Also, in an attempt to appear more moderate, racists package their message as a populist appeal for equality by using “reverse discrimination” to defend white rights and to reverse the reforms made by people of color.
White privilege and white supremist ideology had far-reaching effects on the white working class and trade unionists—such as Samuel Gompers, who refused to admit Asian workers into the union movement and failed to organize black workers. White privilege also influenced the thinking and actions of prominent “class fighters” and socialists like Eugene Debs who refused to see race as a distinct category of oppression and saw racial oppression as only an economic issue. According to the author, Debs believed that social inequality due to race was a fraud and that economic equality would put an end to social inequality.
Smith combines several theoretical perspectives and methods for analyzing the exploitive character of class, race, and gender relations in the United States and these provide the foundations for changing them. He examines examples of active resistance to class-, race-, and gender-based oppression and combines three critical theories simultaneously to analyze class, race, and gender dynamics. He uses a class perspective to advance the idea of the abolition of whiteness. He takes a nation-based paradigm from the nationalist traditions of African Americans and Chicanos—traditions also found among Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, and Native Hawaiians—to formulate an understanding of national oppression and the need for self-determination. He combines these critical paradigms with feminist theory to formulate the concept of intersectionality, which provides a methodology for combining the opposition to patriarchy with the opposition to white privilege, thus creating, at least theoretically, a means for uniting larger sectors of the working class around discourse that will effectively weaken the hegemony of capital.
Viewed separately, Smith argues, each type of oppression has its own form of resistance struggle: self-determination for national struggles, working-class advancement for the class struggle, and the end of patriarchy for women and people excluded from the male/female dichotomy. But each contradiction gets layered over the one before, so an intersectional analysis of U.S. society and its dynamics comes closer to reflecting the reality people actually live each day. Also, since the struggle against patriarchy, the oppression that has persisted the longest, has only taken shape as a thoroughly liberatory project in the last thirty to sixty years, it will, once grasped, almost certainly recenter the way social justice activists view the long-term struggle to transform society. Smith puts forward the idea that for social justice movements to be effective they must put working-class women of color at the center of their institutions and their organizing strategies.
To put it simply, Smith argues that patriarchy interpenetrates with race and class. Understanding one oppression requires an awareness of all three—and the profound impact each has on people’s lives. This is not to deny that capitalism is a system founded upon the exploitation of wage labor and that working-class struggle is central to its abolition. However, the class struggle is overlaid with others and, as a matter of politics, all of the struggles are central. In any given situation, one contradiction may be primary and need the most attention, while the others are secondary. But all contribute to the unique reality of the moment. And each contradiction is central to creating a core strategic alliance among the oppressed groups and their movements. Smith believes that only such a historic bloc of forces will allow all oppressed peoples—and each such person taken individually—to feel they are included in the movement’s vision of the future. And only such a broad-based alliance could develop the moral and political strength to make an effective challenge for political power and then use it to achieve national liberation, end the class system, and carry social transformation through to the complete elimination of racism and patriarchal oppression.
By using an intersectional paradigm, Smith provides a useful book for addressing the complex relation between class-, race-, gender-, and sexuality-based oppression in the United States. In addition, the book provides some practical ideas for self examination and reflection and some criteria for creating organizations that can effectively take on the system.