Last week, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (briefly, the DPRK or North Korea) earned some unexpected praise from liberals for its racial politics. This is an odd development coming from this crowd, whom are more likely to discuss the DPRK in US State Department terms as a racist, “Stalinist” dystopia. For those who advocate dismantling white supremacy by any means necessary, the DPRK has decades of praise-worthy experience. Based on the principle that “the great anti-imperialist cause of the Asian, African, and Latin-American people is invincible,” Kim Il sung hosted numerous freedom fighters in Pyongyang during the headiest days of decolonization, including Che Guevara and Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers. Like socialist Cuba, the people of the DPRK have spilled sweat and blood defending national liberation movements throughout the African continent. However, North Korea’s years of revolutionary internationalism have gone unmentioned in widely praised and shared pieces like one written by Kinfolk Collective. Instead, the DPRK is being praised at arms-length for the incarceration of Otto Warmbier, a 21 year-old University of Virginia undergrad. According to the narrative shaped around Warmbier’s arrest and sentencing, the DPRK has momentarily rendered a valuable service by revoking Warmbier’s white privilege. This event and the narrative around it are just the latest in a larger trend, which reduces and obscures wider forms of exploitation by explaining them solely through the relatively narrow discourse of white privilege. The result is a minimizing, distracting, and ultimate whitewashing of both imperialism and the capitalist system it serves.
White privilege as an academic concept dates back to at least the 1930s, when W.E.B. DuBois described the “invisible wage” that being white conferred on the white working class. This “public and psychological wage,” according to DuBois, created an incentive for the white working class to perpetuate white supremacy—it was an integral cog that kept the larger machine running. The concept made its way to popular use through university humanities departments, particularly the work of professor Peggy McIntosh, beginning in the late-1980s, and it’s used to refer to the fact that people who are perceived as “white” aren’t subjected to racism. Today, privilege discourse is the dominant framework for discussing racism. It’s a multi-million dollar industry, as universities, corporations, and the US military institute privilege courses. The dominant position this discourse occupies—especially its patronage by white supremacist institutions like the military and big business—indicates that large segments of the ruling class find the overwhelming focus on privilege discourse to not only be non-threatening, but valuable.
Privilege-focused discussions of the Warmbier case leave out nearly all the information someone would need to understand North Korea’s place in the international system, and why the state functions the way it does. They don’t mention the decades of Japanese occupation, which was fought largely by anti-colonial communists. They don’t discuss the US–imposed partition which split the peninsula in half, the brutal fascist government that was installed in the southern colony, or the almost genocidal war that killed 3 million Koreans and leveled nearly every city. Neither do they mention the relentless existential threats that America levels against the DPRK every day, or the blockade and penetration of the north by spies. As it has for centuries, racism plays a central role in undergirding imperialism. This is especially the case with the DPRK, which the American media constantly portrays through racist caricatures. Think of the case of North Korea vs. Iran: Islam render Iran’s objectively non-existent nuclear weapons program terrifying, while anti-Asian stereotypes make the DPRK’s A-bomb something to be laughed at. However, the focus on a white college student’s privilege doesn’t engage even latter this point—instead, it obscures these facts in favor of an Orientalist portrayal of the DPRK as another despotic Asian tyranny like capitalist Singapore (a comparison the Kinfolk piece makes explicit), noteworthy only when it puts white Bros in their place.
Erasing myriad facts and historical context in favor of the singular discourse of white privilege seems to be getting increasingly popular. Lately, it’s been applied to everything from the US’s atomic bombing of Hiroshima to the murders of black Americans. As far as the latter, the most famous recent example is that of neo-Nazi Dylann Roof. The Kinfolk piece even speculates that his treatment at the hands of police likely emboldened Warmbier. Unlike the black Americans who are murdered by the police and state-sanctioned vigilantes at a rate of one every 28 hours, Roof was safely arrested the day after he murdered 9 African-Americans at a black church in South Carolina in June 2015. Following his apprehension, hundreds of outlets reported that not only did police provide Roof with the customary protective body armor, but a free meal from Burger King on his trip to jail. This last point, for many, catalyzed the idea that the issue of white privilege was the paramount concern in the wake of the Emanuel church murders. “The Charleston shooting is a textbook example of White Privilege,” according to one writer. “Dylann Roof’s treatment proves White Privilege is very real,” wrote another. One headline summarized the tenor of mainstream coverage: “Dylann Roof indicted, white people discuss Privilege.”
Almost immediately after Roof’s arrest, the dominant narrative became about the need to confront White Privilege in order to prevent racist murders like the one in Charleston. For White Privilege, rather than White Supremacy, to so dominate the conversation is already a limited focus on symptoms rather than causes. Beyond the minimizing effect inherent to fixating so thoroughly on Privilege to the exclusion of larger systems, though, there are deeper problems with privilege-heavy narrative. Privilege-centric discussions, like the White Privilege framework itself, deal exclusively with individual identities. If, as the mainstream liberal accounting had it, Roof received kid-glove treatment on account of his White Privilege, then the police response was based primarily on who he was rather than what he did. To the hundreds of paid commenters pushing the Privilege narrative in the aftermath of the Charleston murders, this likely doesn’t raise any red flags. Many of these writers and talking heads compared Roof to George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watchman who profiled, stalked, and murdered black teenager Trayvon Martin in a Florida suburb. Hours after the Martin killing, Zimmerman was free after a quick chat with his local Police Department. However, commenters on both the liberal-left and the right accurately observed that Zimmerman was half-Peruvian, rather than lily-white complected—and it’s not impossible to imagine that under different circumstances, Zimmerman would be looked at askance by Minutemen-types.
Conversely, following Roof’s arrest, there was extensive commentary blasting the Justice Department’s decision to not label the Charleston murders an act of terrorism. Many pundits argued that this was a clear expression of Roof’s White Privilege in action, since “terrorism” has long been a racialized category of political violence. However, many non-white people—including actual al Qaeda members—enjoy special privileges when their goals align with those of the US State Department. Only 3 years after 9/11, the US government was secretly supporting the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (literally al Qaeda), who would become NATO’s shock troops in the war against Qadhafi’s government. Only this week, it came out that the Brussels airport bombers were yet another group of violent extremist criminals who were long known to Western intelligence agencies yet somehow managed to perpetrate a terrorist crime that will further empower the NATO regimes. Neither is it true that whites are never categorized as terrorists. The state shows absolutely zero compunction about branding Caucasians terrorists and handing down decades-long sentences, based on the flimsiest evidence, as long as the politics motivating the action are anti-capitalist, rather than white supremacist. As Tarzie noted in an essential piece on the subject, while the FBI observes that “white supremacy extremism” has been on the rise since the ‘90s, a top domestic terrorism official claimed in 2005 that “The No. 1 domestic terrorism threat is the eco-terrorism, animal-rights movement.” While eco-terrorists and militant animal right activists have yet to kill a single person, the destruction of nature and exploitation of animals are the cornerstone of the capitalist system. When considering the state’s actual relationships to various types of “terror,” alongside the fact that the melanin content of the accused afforded them no special dispensation, it’s clear that the state’s response is being driven by something more than a simple skin-tone analysis.
The relationship between white skin and immunity from state repression is nowhere near as clear-cut as the Privilege-only narrative. Neither, though, is America’s white supremacist system and its anti-black racism in particular. In his book The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, historian Gerald Horne lists numerous examples of black Americans speaking foreign dialects and languages or otherwise affecting some alien identity in order to enjoy some respite from Jim Crow. In a lecture on the book, Horne describes a dilemma the US government faced posed by African diplomats, and what it reveals about America’s white supremacist system:
“The US State Department, when Kenya was rising to independence, it was felt that it would complicate relations with Nairobi if Kenyan diplomats came to Washington, which was then a Jim Crow town, and they would then be subjected to Jim Crow. So it was suggested that the Africans wear badges, so that they would not be mistaken for black Americans. So the point that I’m trying to make is that if racism is a necessary explanatory factor in explaining what has befallen people of African descent in North America…it’s not a sufficient explanation, because if it was wholly sufficient then being able to speak French in Birmingham, Alabama during the Jim Crow era would not have been able to help you at all.”
What Horne is insisting on here is a conception of America’s white supremacist system that incorporates the political dimensions of racism—and that means its economic causes. “[M]y deployment of the terms ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ is intended to invoke the political more than the biological or even the anthropological,” Horne explains. “If the latter were mostly at issue, there would be little need for these Africans to adopt other ‘black’ identities.”[i] Anyone who’s spent time in an American university humanities department or read a lefty website in the last couple decades is likely familiar with the fact that race, and the categories of white and black, is constructed socially. What’s less likely to enjoy mainstream purchase is a traditional radical or Marxist perspective. This view, advocated by critical theorists and historians like Horne, J. Sakai, and Frank B. Wilderson among countless others, holds that ethnic groups became “white” according to the service they rendered to settling America. According to this view; groups like the Irish, Italians, white Hispanics, Slavs, et cetera; became white when they could be relied upon to maintain the settler-colonial Empire and the interests of its ruling class. In practice, this meant the mass-murder of the continent’s indigenous people and the brutal oppression of African-Americans. Reflecting the fact that it’s primarily political and economic in nature, ethnic groups can have their whiteness revoked. This has been the case for Middle Easterners after 9/11, and for various Balkan ethnicities depending on economic or military necessity.
It’s necessary to lay this out because there’s an increasingly popular idea that white supremacy lacks a class component or economic causes. One of the most prominent contemporary advocates for this view is heavily retweeted Black Lives Matter figurehead and former “ruthless” Teach For America administrator DeRay McKesson, who argues that “White supremacy is rooted in the devaluing of blackness, [and] economic oppression is a byproduct.” Anti-black racism, by his lights, is rooted in a pathological aversion to dark skin—thus, McKesson claims, the enslavement of Africans would’ve existed even if it weren’t profitable. The concomitant economic benefits of slavery to the ruling class must’ve just been a happy accident to the slave-owners known as the Founding Fathers.
A centuries-long system of trans-Atlantic slavery carried out mostly to “devalue blackness” is the corollary of a policing system that buys white murderers a free lunch based solely on the shared racial affinity known as Privilege. The singular focus on viewing racism through what Horne called “anthropological” rather than political terms effectively erases the class component that motivates American white supremacy, making it an issue of white derangement. This is the argument made by R.L. Stephens in an obituary for Dr. Frances Cross Welsing, an academic who in 1969 formulated a theory of racial struggle motivated by biology rather than politics. Stephens points out that 1969 was the same year that America’s secret police, in a domestic dirty war against radicals called the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), decided that the Black Panther Party would be crushed, murdering revolutionaries including Fred Hampton and Bunchy Carter. At the same time that socialist resistance groups like the Black Panthers were forging an international struggle against capitalism, imperialism, and white supremacy; Welsing’s scholarship enjoyed the patronage of capital by pushing a world-historical view that blamed those evils on something like collective white antipathy, with racism and capitalism following an irrational desire to protect Caucasian genes. According to Stephens, “Her work, in effect, helped gut Black political resistance by delegitimizing anti-capitalist Black radical politics.”
In 1968, J. Edgar Hoover described the Panthers as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” citing their activism, appeal, and explicitly Marxist politics. During COINTELPRO, dozens if not hundreds of left-wing revolutionaries were murdered, and thousands more imprisoned. An integral component of COINTELPRO was the use of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan as paramilitaries. During this period of state repression, one-quarter of all active Klan members were FBI agents or informants. The 20th Special Forces Group, based in Alabama, deputized a local Klan chapter as its intelligence-gathering wing, allegedly exchanging weapons for information on local black radical groups. The KKK’s actions during COINTELPRO were in many ways a repeat of supremacist violence during the First Red Scare, which reached its peak in 1919 and 1920. According to historian Albert Szymanski, “government complicity with organized violence and intimidation of radicals” was “an important repressive force in this period.”[ii] Groups like the KKK and the American Legion, a paramilitary gang made up of veterans, targeted socialists, communists, anarchists, trade unionists, and labor activists with thuggish repression. Szymanski adds “like the Legion’s early vigilante activities, the authorities turned a blind eye to most Klan activity directed against the left.” Though groups like American neo-Nazis and the Klan are often at odds with the Federal government, as white supremacists they can be relied upon to fight the ruling class’s real enemies. Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report explains
“The FBI’s war has always been against Blacks, radicals, and now Muslims – ideally, Black Muslims. The national security state’s legitimacy is based on (white) mass fear and loathing of the Other, in whose pursuit all civil liberties are extraneous. Such dark energies are not conjured out of thin air, but mined from the deep reservoirs of America’s racial history. Hate sits like a thermal resource to be tapped and redirected at the whim of those in power. The U.S. national security state needs the ferocious hatreds of the [Cliven] Bundys and [Jerad and Amanda] Millers – and the [Tim] McVeighs – to sustain a planetary War-Against-All, a war that, on its own premises, must end with annihilation of the Other.”
All this is to show that the US ruling class’s relationship to supremacist violence is a lot deeper than free Whoppers. So given this history and the material interests at play, when a Dixie-loving admirer of Africa’s apartheid settler-colonies murders 9 black people as part of a “race war,” it seems ahistoric and reductive in the extreme to label his treatment the result of anything so narrow and minimizing as mere “Privilege.”
Many well-meaning progressives might concede that the privilege lens has problems, but maintain that it’s mostly a useful framework for structuring anti-racist politics. However, a series of encounters between protestors affiliated with Black Lives Matter reveals just how bankrupt privilege discourse is as a primary motivating concern. The first was an August 2015 encounter in which protestors confronted Hillary Clinton, during which the protestors performed what Glen Ford called a “self-humiliation.” Providing an object lesson in what happens when the vague, feelings-driven language of liberal anti-racism meets the actual power structure, the future president delivered what could be charitably called a shellacking. Ford writes
After about two minutes of rambling by [BLM activist Julius] Jones on how ‘mass incarceration just doesn’t work’ and ‘you [Clinton] have been in a certain way partially responsible, more than most,’ punctuated by ‘uh hums’ and nods from Clinton, Jones gets to the point: ‘Now that you understand the consequences, what in your heart has changed that’s gonna change the direction of this country?’
Clinton [interrupted]: “Look, I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate….”
In the absence of real demands by #BLM (or any evidence of a developed worldview), Clinton assumes the role of methodical agent of change…. The strategy – if one could dignify it as such – is inherently impotent, which is why corporate lawyer and war criminal Hillary Clinton found it so easy to reduce Jones and his colleagues to school children at an elementary civics class.
When confronted with questions of personal progress and emotional intent, Clinton was able to easily evade any meaningful accountability in realm of what activist Doug Williams calls “Intro to Sociology-style ephemera.” As a lifelong political operative, Clinton was able to brush off insubstantive and largely apolitical appeals to delve into her heart. Given time to properly stage-manage an event, though, Clinton was more than happy to meet “protestors” on these terms. In October 2015, Clinton met with Black Lives Matter activists under the Campaign Zero banner to ostensibly answer questions about American policing. Just how much the Campaign Zero crew represents the Black Lives Matter grassroots is up for debate. Campaign Zero is headed by BLM members – including DeRay McKesson, Brittany Packnett, and Johnetta Elzie – who are on exceedingly cordial terms with the Democratic Party establishment and have been anointed the movement’s spokespeople and signal-boosted by many in high places. One writer labels Campaign Zero’s platform “a reactionary political formation built on a mixture of liberal compromise, neoliberal opportunism and reactionary conservatism.” It’s abundantly clear, though, that for the Clinton campaign an ideal “opposition” is made up of sympathetic, ideologically aligned careerists speaking primarily in the language of privilege discourse. Add cameras and, voilà, the party has been “pushed to the left.” Ford again says
“They appear to believe their mission was to ‘educate’ Clinton (although they would have done far better to have educated themselves on political movement history, practice and theory).
Actually, the #BLM crew’s primary mission was to force Clinton to mentally grapple with white privilege, and to grasp how Black people ‘feel.’ #BLM’s aim is to assure that the next president has a deeper understanding of the workings of racism – presumably, deeper than the current, Black one. In the course of the conversation, Elzie said Clinton ‘…would listen and acknowledge that her experience was totally different than any of the black people at this table. It took her awhile to get there, but she got there. So I’m hopeful that she will continue to have this educational conversation with herself to acknowledge her privilege.’
The #BLM philosophy is that therapeutic dialogue with members of the power elite is politically more effective than the presentation of core demands. (Certainly, it is better for the future careers of the #BLM interlocutors.)”
Again, for Clinton, there’s likely nothing better than a discussion about how she feels about her skin: it has almost nothing to do with her actual policies, and provides ample opportunity for her to adduce her good intentions going forward. These encounters reveal the myriad shortcomings with privilege discourse: its focus on the symbolic and performative over the material, the erasure of history in favor of feel-good personal progress narratives, the non-existence of class concerns, and the funneling of liberal activists into proven dead-ends. These, though, are the logical outcomes of an overwhelming focus on privilege discourse because they are built into it. In a New Yorker interview, Peggy McIntosh, the progenitor of contemporary white privilege theory, explained “The key thing [about the white privilege framework] is to let people testify to their own experience. Then they’ll stop fighting with each other.” When her interviewer understandably asks if it’s meant to be a form of therapy, McIntosh clarifies “I wouldn’t say [it’s] therapy, because psychology isn’t very good at taking in the sociological view. But it has to do with working on your inner history to understand that you were in systems, and that they are in you.” Understanding and checking one’s privilege is meant to be a tool for perceiving one’s place in a larger structure and making space for members of historically disadvantaged groups. It can’t explain the structure, provide historical context, or prescribe a solution. Privilege is, by design, a tool for self-analysis and confession. Making it the paramount theory leads to several outcomes. One is the advent of rituals where activists publicly own and disavow their privileges, as described by Andrea Smith’s “the Problem with Privilege.” Since privilege deals primarily with the internal realm, “These rituals often substituted confession for political movement-building.” While Smith explains that there is a value to the process, “for this process to work, individual transformation must occur concurrently with social and political transformation…through the creation of collective structures that dismantle the systems that enable these privileges.” Privilege doesn’t provide insight on changing anything other than one’s mind, because it’s not supposed to. For a candidate like Clinton, who is marketed as a progressive while upholding the worst aspects of this evil system, a discussion about her internal racial monologue is a perfect place to shunt well-deserved scrutiny.
Smith’s point dovetails with the second, less commented-on development: the minimizing of things like white supremacist violence, or capital’s assault on states that chart an independent course, as expressions of white privilege. Today, as Black Lives Matter protestors work for a way to end police brutality, they may look to previous examples that moved towards this goal. In the 1960s, explicitly socialist movements like the Black Panther Party formulated an answer, which involved primarily material forces. These activists achieved what they did because they understood that a white supremacist state won’t change its fundamental nature due to appeals to a non-existent conscience. As Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale summarized in a 1968 speech, the question is how to make the police “behave in a desired manner.” When directly confronting this state, and the ruling class it serves, privilege discourse is largely useless because the professed feelings of its functionaries are irrelevant to how it behaves. The dominant class must be made to behave in a desired manner. If enough people are going to band together to make it, a necessary first step is seeing beyond minimizing, liberal narratives. But the privilege framework is so prominent precisely because it usefully misdirects from the capitalist system’s causes and functions. Like anything we’re bombarded with, it’s useful for perpetuating the system rather than dismantling it.
Given this, of course the Clinton presidential campaign would embrace messaging about privilege. In January 2016, Clinton was asked about how “white privilege affected her life” at an Iowa forum. “For the duration of January 2016,” according to one culture writer, “it was the foremost topic of conversation. Seemingly each day meant another story about white privilege in the news,” naturally failing to investigate why this is. The writer then praises the “raw Hillary Clinton” for “[avoiding] the three most common pitfalls in discussing one’s own white privilege.” In a speech the following month, Clinton called on the Caucasian constituency to check their privilege. After the Charleston murders, Clinton was one of the most high-profile voices blaming white privilege.
For Clinton to discuss her personal history and cognizance of her privilege is undeniably a win for her, since Clinton has decades of black peoples’ blood on her hands. Dylann Roof became an extremist after reading from a cesspool of white supremacist websites; there’s scarcely a shade of difference between the most deranged racist filth online and Clinton’s 1993 comments about “superpredators.” Burnishing her law-and-order credentials, Clinton dog-whistled a warning about savage (black) youths roaming the streets committing wanton violence, outside the boundaries of humanity, who could only be controlled through state violence. One needn’t go back to the early ‘90s, either—Clinton was instrumental in engineering the blockade of Haiti that killed thousands after the 2010 earthquake, to say nothing of the Clintons’ much longer ugly history on the island. As Secretary of State, Clinton is the single individual most responsible for inflaming an ethnic cleansing campaign that killed as many as 50,000 black Africans during NATO’s destruction of Libya (it was Clinton’s office that pumped out the propaganda about Qadhafi’s government using African mercenaries).
The erasure of this history is a useful and expected outcome of the dominance of privilege discourse to the exclusion of all else. If racist terrorism and imperialism are caused largely by unexamined white male privilege, then the solution is to elect non-whites and non-males. And if privilege is largely denatured of substantive political meaning, then it doesn’t matter what their politics are (as long as they’re Democrats, obviously). Given the economic interests that dominate the Empire’s liberal wing, this means voting for non-white and female neoliberals—in a huge coincidence, privilege discourse’s focus on the individual and symbolic is the essence of neoliberalism. Ultimately, that means electing people like Barack Obama, whom Adolph Reed accurately described in 1996 as
“foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program—the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance.”[iii]
If white privilege is the fulcrum of anti-racist politics, then an exploiter who lacks certain privileges will naturally be more progressive than a white capitalist. The Kinfolk piece on Otto Warmbier discusses Warmbier’s Economics major and involvement as a Managing Director of an “alternative investment fund.” However, this isn’t used an opening to discuss ways in which economic institutions are a tool of softer imperialism; rather, it’s coupled with Warmbier’s fraternity status as proof that he’s a white guy who’s not One of the Good Ones. When a “foundation-hatched black communitarian voice” like Corey Booker, who claims that criticism of hedge funds are “ridiculous” and “nauseating,” is deeply implicated in the worst expressions of finance capital, the class-free liberal response is literally “don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
America’s beleaguered voters got a heavy dose of this in 2012, when one of the dominant narratives around the Obama campaign was that principled leftist abstention was an expression of white privilege. Opposition to the president’s mass-murdering or fealty to Wall Street was turned into the sole domain of white brogressives, manarchists, brocialists, and various privilege-unchecked bogeymen. Following Obama’s re-election, and not letting a good thing go to waste, opposition to US-fomented proxy wars throughout MENA was re-written as yet another example of white privilege. Its full-blown resurgence on the 2016 campaign trail is a sign of things to come. Today, there’s little challenge to privilege discourse’s dominance. Like anything liberal, it can appear stridently progressive given enough attacks from the most vulgar parts of the right. This is particularly true with discussions about White Privilege online: read any of the comments on a given article, and one finds up to hundreds of reactionary comments arguing that racism is a thing of the past, with “white privilege” being a fantasy ginned up by race-hustlers as part of white genocide. This launders privilege discourse, a useful tool for neoliberal misdirection, as a product of the left, with any criticism being rolled-up into the category of “white tears.”
However, anything that is so enthusiastically picked up by race-baiting war criminals, Wall Street shills, school privatizers, and various neoliberal vultures—who are objectively making the lives of marginalized communities worse—needs to be looked at with the most extreme skepticism. These are the sorts of people who want you to see everything solely through the realm of feelings and professions of intent. That tool kit is woefully inadequate to unmaking their world, and it is so by design.
[i] Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. NYU Press. 2014 p. 262
[ii] Albert Szymanski, Human Rights in the Soviet Union. Zed Books. 1984. p. 172
[iii] Adolph Reed, “The Curse of Community,” Village Voice, January 16, 1996—reprinted in Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene, New Press, 2000.