In the wake of the tumultuous Back Lives Matter protests, “white privilege” is the phrase of the day. Everyone uses it, and everyone seems to know what it means.
After all, whites could attend better public schools back in the days of Jim Crow, they could live in better neighborhoods, and they could go to colleges and universities from which blacks were expressly barred. They could enter a store or walk down a street without having to worry about being lynched if they said something wrong to a member of another race, and they could vote without fear of someone burning down their house.
So isn’t this the “white privilege” that everybody’s talking about, i.e. the privilege of living free of terror and degradation? Yes, but it’s also where things get complicated. Because the phrase applies to all whites by virtue of the color of their skin, it implies that all somehow benefit from racism. But is that really the case? What about poor whites who are also economically oppressed and whose minds are twisted by a sick and dangerous ideology that does them nearly as much harm as it does others?
Are they privileged? Harper Lee’s 1962 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is a book that many Americans claim to have read but few understand. It’s been packaged as a heartwarming tale of liberal uplift. But at its best it’s an exploration of the dark and spooky world that Jim Crow made for poor southern whites in the depths of the 1930s Depression.
A particularly powerful chapter deals with a white child who is humiliated when his teacher asks why he doesn’t have a lunch pail (as they called it in those days) like everyone else. His eyes are “red-rimmed and watery,” his complexion colorless “except at the tip of his nose, which was moistly pink.” The book goes on: “Walter Cunningham’s face told everybody in the first grade he had hookworms. His absence of shoes told how he got them. People caught hookworms going barefoot in barnyards and hog wallows.”
He’s so poor, in other words, that his family can’t afford food or shoes. “The Cunningham are country folks, farmers, and the crash hit them hardest,” Atticus Finch explains. When his daughter, Scout, invites her classmate home for a decent meal, Walter piles food onto his plate like a starving man and then inundates it with molasses. “He probably would have poured it into his milk glass had I not asked what the sam hill he was doing,” she relates.
“The silver saucer clattered when he replaced the pitcher, and he quickly put his hands in his lap. Then he ducked his head. Atticus shook his head at me again. ‘But he’s gone and drowned his dinner in syrup,’ I protested. ‘He’s poured it all over – ’”
With that, the housekeeper yanks Scout into the kitchen for a lecture.
“He ain’t company, Cal, he’s just a Cunningham – ”
“Hush your mouth! Don’t matter who they are, anybody sets foot in this house’s yo’ company, and don’t let me catch you remarkin’ on their ways like you was so high and mighty!”
Cal is black, but she knows as well as anybody – better, in fact – that any “privilege” Walter Cunningham enjoys is nothing but a cruel joke. Later, when a mob of white men come to lynch the accused black rapist Tom Robinson, Walter’s father, a dirt farmer who “had probably never seen three quarters together at the same time in his life,” is among them. Scout calls him out:
“Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch … I go to school with Walter. He’s your boy, ain’t he? Ain’t he, sir? … He’s in my grade, and he does right well. He’s a good boy, a real nice boy. We brought him home for dinner one time. Maybe he told you about me, I beat him up one time, but he was real nice about it. Tell him hey for me, won’t you?”
Cunningham hangs his head in shame and goes home. It’s a desperately sad story about an indebted farmer who is so thoroughly boxed in that the only way he knows to express his anger is by attacking someone whose situation is even worse.
This is the “white privilege” that everyone is prattling on about nowadays. What they don’t grasp is the spuriousness of it all, the fact that privilege in this context is nothing but a con, a way of insuring that despairing white farmers would string up impoverished blacks rather than join with their natural allies against the people who were really running the Old South. Theodore W. Allen, the scholar who did more than anyone to popularize the concept, nonetheless warned that it was a double-edged sword.
“In the South,” he wrote in 1967, “where the white-skin privilege has always been most emphasized and formal, the white workers have fared worse than white workers in the rest of the country. The white-skin privilege for the mass is the trustee’s privilege, not release from jail, merely freedom of movement within it….”
Southern whites were a step above blacks, but still neck-deep in the mire. While blacks paid a price for racism, they did as well – not as much, certainly, but a price nonetheless. While “To Kill a Mockingbird” describes a world seeming far removed from our own, the situation today is not all that different. Not only is the South still corrupt and undemocratic, but so is the U.S. in general. The police are out of control, economic polarization is shooting through the roof, unemployment is in the double digits, and the coronavirus epidemic rages unchecked. Most of all, a frozen eighteenth-century constitution allows tiny well-placed minorities to lord it over the democratic majority just as they did during Harper Lee’s childhood. Workers of all colors and races need to overthrow this failed republic and give America “a new birth of freedom,” yet dangerously confused concepts like “white privilege” get in the way.
Theodore Allen’s reputation, in this writer’s opinion, is vastly overrated. His approach to the racial question was narrow and hysterical in a late-Stalinist sort of way. But at least he was a former Communist Party member burning with indignation against capitalist inequality. It’s a quality that the yuppies who run Black Lives Matter definitely do not share as they rake in millions in donations from the Ford Foundation, George Soros, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos. What does it matter if the class roots of racism wind up obscured as long as corporate contributions continue to flow?