Dialogue with Barbara Ehrenreich – Connecting White Privilege and White Death?

This article was originally published at Portside. It is framed as a response to a recent article by Barbara Ehrenreich called “What Happened to the White Working Class? The Great Die-Off of America’s Blue Collar Whites

A recent study by economists Deaton and Case shocked the nation: they found that death rates were rising for middle-aged whites. Working class whites with a high school education or less had death rates go up by a whopping 22% in 15 years. How are they dying? Suicide and substance abuse, brought on by “despair.”

We appreciate Barbara Ehrenreich’s examination of this important piece of our new reality in the Lost Angeles Times. Understanding what’s going among white workers is essential for thinking about organizing strategies. Her analysis is that white men in particular have lost jobs, income, and the personal power that comes with economic security. At the same time, she says, African Americans have made social gains due to federal support for desegregation that allow them access to public spaces and that they are “inching toward equality.” The perceived loss of white privilege – “shit, I’m no better off than a `bleep'” – is fuel to the despair of white workers; they have seen a cut in their psychological wage as well as their actual wages. It is excellent that Barbara has put out this position which can jump-start a conversation that white leftists need to have with each other, and with people of color, about race and class.

In that spirit, we beg to respectfully disagree.

First, there has been no loss of white privilege. Privilege is about a differential. If the lowest educated white workers now face “material circumstances long familiar to blacks,” which means being in the ranks of the reserve army of labor with erratic employment, African Americans now occupy an even lower rank: that of “expendable” labor. Their livelihoods are not just precarious, their labor is unneeded: they are more profitable to current U.S. capitalism as non-workers, warehoused by the prison-industrial complex. The downward dive of both white and black workers has been driven by free market global competition, the financial crisis of the mid-2000’s, the elimination under neoliberalism of programs to catch you when you fall down – these are root causes of the steps backward imposed on white workers, and we should be bringing those facts to white workers. At the same time, the reality is that blacks have fallen harder and faster than whites. A good measure of well-being is wealth, assets that allow you to weather hard times. In the 90’s, the median black family had a dime to the white family’s dollar; today, they have only a nickel. White privilege, the system of relative advantages based on race, is a shape shifter; it may look different at different historical moments, but it still animates what goes on in the room.

This is not to blow off the reality of a declining living standard for white workers. The American Dream, a dream come true for white workers post WWII, has been disrupted with a wake-up call. Their painful realization that it was only a dream for them as well as for non-whites – “this should not be happening to us!” – may indeed make them lash out in frustration. Their own analysis of the causes of their lowered status, including the self-blame that is implied by suicide, make them hit the wrong targets.

Second, is there any evidence that there is a link between earlier white deaths and the perception of a loss of race privilege? One could also posit that white workers see themselves as failures vis-a-vis capitalist class whites – after all, there is a 14 year class-based death rate gap between the lowest educated white workers and the highest white earners (while white people still live on average 5 years longer than black people). Now that should piss you off! And it’s some-thing those of us who are anti-capitalists, following on the Occupy mantra of the 99%, should be relentlessly exposing, rather than focusing attention on blacks in a way that makes them seem even vaguely culpable for white misery.

There is a danger in seeing racism as a white working class problem, and that being less educated, workers are easily duped into identifying with their oppressors who are also white. But racism is not more virulent in the working class. Look at the politicians who let New Orleans drown, or the bankers and brokers who devised the scheme of offering only high interest loans to black families who qualified for prime loans; the foreclosures left black communities looking like they had been bombed, and created our own internal refugees. And less education can be a good thing, given the unbalanced views you get on history and democracy in school from middle class white professionals! Organizers must be educators, and workers need to hear different analyses in order to develop their own critical thinking. Part of the problem of much of the white left is that we/they talk about white workers, not with them. And we are more than able to talk the talk: we have historical and current stories that show that black progress does not take away from white workers; in fact, it benefits the white working class. Look at what affirmative action did for white women. Look at the black-led Fight for 15; all workers get a boost.

If there should be any despair causing earlier death, you would think that middle-aged blacks would have rising death rates too. But they have no increase in suicides! There may be a resiliency that comes with being un-privileged for centuries, and a desire for living that comes from being part of a community that is fighting together for better lives for all. Now that’s an anti-dote to white working class despair: organize the multi-national working class against the real culprits in the immiseration of all workers. It’s good for your health.

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