Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Elusive Privilege

At first read, perhaps, Brianha Joy Gray made a point Thomas Frank and so many others have made when she wrote in January 2018

Importantly, Democrats should make clear that the white supremacy Trump peddles may benefit working class whites, but its benefits are marginal compared to the material rewards that would come from a class conscious, progressive, political agenda.

Gray understood "there is real danger in artificially divorcing Trump’s broader economic agenda from his racism. Doing so has the potential to bolster the flimsy relationship between working class white voters and the Republican Party."  Moreover, she acknowledged (as do few in the left or in the mainstream media) "that for an unsettlingly large percentage of white-Americans- many of whom feel abandoned by liberals- the identification of Trump with whiteness is not a critique." (She meant "criticism," not "critique," the latter being an analysis and not necessarily negative.)

Moreover, Gray realized

for all he maligns non-whites, Trump is far from a champion of the white race. Even at his most bigoted, one can tease out the financial incentives that operated in symbiosis with his prejudice. His relentless campaign against the Central Park Five was not only evidence of his callow disregard for criminal justice and the civil rights of the accused, it reflected his personal interest in the greater policing of New York City, the increased safety which most (wrongly) assumed would follow, and the correspondingly higher value of his Central Park-facing properties. The housing discrimination for which Trump is famous was enabled by a lack of fundamental respect for black renters, yes, but it was also likely motivated, in part, by a desire to extract the maximum fees from his properties. Trump wrote off entire nations as “shithole countries,” but while those “shitholes” were uniformly brown, it strains credulity to believe that he would have made a stink about wealthy, non-white nations like Japan or Saudi Arabia. Even Eric Trump’s foot-in-mouth defense of his father’s racism speaks some truth to power: “My father,” he says, “sees one color: green. That’s all he cares about.”

This is all standard, albeit valid, boilerplate of the populist left, which often notes "the role racism has played in dividing the poor and preserving power for the wealthy." Gray even quoted President Johnson's "prescient warning that 'if you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket.'”

"While Trump is a racist," Gray emphasized, "he is no zealot. His "true religion" is not racism but "avarice" and "it seems more apt to describe him as a plutocrat." Yet

despite his governance of grift, the mainstream left has committed to a narrative in which Trump is defined predominately by his racial antagonism. He’s our “first white president.” The “lowest white man.” Similarly, his supporters, who certainly should be criticized for being, at best, indifferent to Trump’s racism, are painted as motivated solely by racial animus rather than the blend of economic populism and bigotry that has long been used to foment a potent nativist anxiety.

Instead, Gray recognized, almost uniquely, that

it’s important to draw attention to the ways in which our liberal language increasingly pushes the idea that anti-blackness and pro-whiteness are always in diametric opposition, leaving no space for forms of oppression which subjugate subsets of both groups.

This leaves inevitably and inextricably to the truly revelatory money quote:

When we describe Trump as pro-white, we are complicit in the transformation of a man infamous for his commitment to wealth into an ideologue committed to the betterment of most American people.

This means all Gray thinks it means, and more. She believes that the Democratic Party must not "take for granted" what Charles Blow terms the "unassailability of white privilege." However, her entire critique calls into question the increasingly chic concept of "white privilege."

There is, as she both implicitly and explicitly argued, a class privilege. But she resists the logical implication, that "white privilege" is largely (albeit not completely) ephemeral and chimerical. It is a diversion from policies intended to reinforce the power and privilege of the economic elite of whatever race.

This is the North Star, the guiding ethos, of the Republican Party, which has stood by President Trump, despite his destruction of norms and common decency, because he has delivered the Party's donor base a tax cut.

If the identification of Trump with whiteness, as Gray was bold enough to point out, is less a negative than a positive among white Americans (such as those who provided Trump's margin of victory in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania), characterization of those voters as benefiting from "white privilege" will continue to backfire. President Trump's policies not only fail to improve the lot of most white Americans; they are not intended to improve the lot of white Americans.  Yet, linking the policies of a president who is apparently racist to "white privilege" reinforces the notion that as they harm blacks, they help whites.

Poor, working-class, (even middle-class) whites do not possess a privilege, but instead exist under a lesser burden.  Bandying about "white privilege"- or as Gray would argue, "racist" trivializes the struggles of poor, working-class, and even middle-class white Americans. It will convince ever more whites that policies undermining blacks will inevitably benefit themselves. 

That is not only electorally counter-productive for the Democratic Party, which must persuade voters that the impact of conservative GOP policies is not a zero-sum game. Insisting that they are encased in a cocoon of "white privilege" is not only counter-productive, but demeaning and in essential part,

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