Whites Won’t Give Up on Racism

Mychal Denzel Smith recently posted an article on The Nation that’s a worthy read. In it, he argues,

…White people have to let go of racism. From the avowed racist, to the anti-racist activists, to the “I’m not a racist, I have two black friends” folks, to the “I don’t see color” people and everyone else between or on the margins…

I loved the article. It raised points we rarely see in print, even in places like The Nation. But, as I’m sure Smith would agree, white people aren’t really going to just give up racism. Why? Here goes.

Smith provides part of the answer when he says,

…the genius of racism is that you don’t have to participate to enjoy the spoils. If you’re white, you can be completely oblivious, passively accepting the status quo, and reap the rewards.

He’s right. Even the most liberal whites have benefited from racism, including the most grotesque forms of it. Think about it, you didn’t need to belong to the KKK in 1950s America to enjoy almost exclusive rights to better schools and the best jobs, not to mention a housekeeper who earned next to nothing while laboring without ordinary worker protections. And I don’t just mean in the South. Racial terrorism under Jim Crow pushed millions of blacks to migrate to Northern cities where they faced lower wages, segregation, and overt, often violent, racism.

Today, whites still passively benefit. For instance, whites aren’t individually responsible for racist drug laws. But white users drive the most lucrative parts of the illegal drug trade. Whites and Blacks use drugs at about the same rate, but whites use more expensive drugs, and blacks constitute a much smaller percentage of the population, making the volume of their illegal drug consumption decidedly smaller.

Yet blacks, not whites, are profiled as drug users and dealers. Because racial profiling causes law enforcement to concentrate their efforts in black communities, more black people are caught. Once caught, blacks are more likely to go from arrest to prosecution to prison, where they suffer, on average, longer sentences.

The protective quality of white skin makes it unlikely whites will give it up until blackness ceases to be so dangerous to one’s health. But white resistance to racial equity is about more than protection. Whiteness is worth cash money. Throughout the world, darker skinned people invest money into skin bleaches and cosmetics to lighten our skin at the risk of illness. We pay the price, and companies reap huge profits, because there’s a real advantage to whiteness.

Historically, the value of white skin is demonstrated by the fact that one could successfully sue for damages related to being wrongly labeled black, but there was no financial value placed on being wrongly labeled white. We live in this history and all that we’ve inherited from it, including our parents estates (or debts) and, for some, companies like Wachovia Corporation, R.J. Reynolds, J.P. Morgan, and Aetna that were created with capital generated from slavery.  Just ask the heirs of these companies if racism pays.

Many argue that it’s unfair to put the burden of guilt on ordinary, wage earning whites. It’s true that the capital accumulated through genocide, the slave trade, and slave and coolie labor has been distributed extremely unevenly. But while white people constitute the largest group living in poverty in America, they aren’t the poorest by race, nor is the incidence of poverty nearly as high for whites as for Latinos, Native Americans, African Americans, and the least advantaged Asian ethnic minorities. And per capital income remains higher for whites than any other group by race, including Asian Americans.

When significant redistribution of wealth has occurred, whites have benefited more. For instance, the government redistributed some wealth via the G.I. Bill last century. That Bill provided, among other things, home ownership opportunities to white veterans that many black veterans, particularly in the South, were denied. Massive infrastructure development in the mid-twentieth century produced jobs for many, but these too were often denied to people of color. Because this happened at a time when the U.S. economy was recovering from a devastating depression, these exclusions have an enduring legacy revealed in the racial wealth gap between black and white people. And this gap has worsened since the crash of the housing market, an event precipitated in part by irresponsible lending practices originally invented by banks in order to prey upon people of color.

Most whites may experience the material benefits of racism in the form of crumbs, but they are held in thrall by the tantalizing promise of more, often voting against their own interests, specifically because that promise is more likely to be honored if you have white skin. This promise is fundamental to the mythos of American exceptionalism. For most of U.S. history, social mobility was impossible for non-whites. But until the end of the Civil War, coming to America was a near guarantee of social mobility for European migrants who were given the incentive of Indian land and slave labor to help settle the continent.

Today, that promise still pays off in advantages beyond greater wealth and significantly lower unemployment rates for whites. For instance, in this TedTalk, model Cameron Russell argues that she’s the beneficiary of a cultural legacy that advantages white people. One way she measures that advantage is by pointing out that a 2002 study of models showed that of 677 top models in that year, 27 were non-white, or less than 4%. The industry that defines “pretty” seems to believe that consumers are 25 times more likely to relate to beauty in a white woman as opposed to in a woman of color.

These advantages are everywhere. They are, in fact, so ubiquitous that most of us who are victimized by them, including white women who don’t look like Cameron Russell, don’t even notice. The evidence adds up to big a no to the question, will whites give up racism? Nope, there’s too much at stake. The end of racism, unfair though this reality may be, is up to us.


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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

5 replies on “Whites Won’t Give Up on Racism”

Readers may be interested in the work of the anti-white supremacist, working class intellectual/activist Theodore W. Allen (1919-2005), author of “The Invention of the White Race” (1994, 1997: New expanded edition, Verso Books, 2012) and pioneering writer (beginning in 1965) on “white skin privilege.” Allen argues that European-American workers should oppose “white skin privileges” and that these “white” race privileges are not only “ruinous” to the interests of African Americans and other direct victims of white supremacy, but that they are also “disastrous” for working people. See and also see
Jeffrey B. Perry

See my webpage (right hand column) for additional writings by, and about, Allen.
Jeffrey B. Perry

I know perfectly well that my whiteness gives me all kinds of privileges: over women of color, in particular. I don’t have to justify what I do. I don’t have to “come on” in any particular way to get respect or attention. In my generation, at any rate, middle class white girls were entitled to protection from abuse as well as the financial support of their husbands. If we did not have much freedom, we had the right to survive, at least.
Most whites I know refuse to see their privilege and adopt this idea of “color blindness.” But for truly unmarked freedom, there is nothing like being a white man. That is why white women led the feminist movement, orginally: because we saw our inferior status compared to the men in our lives. It has been difficult to find solidarity with women of color. There is still a lot of cross-racial tension. A lot!

Thanks, Hattie. I’m happy to know there are people like you out there trying to reach out across race to address the ways in which most of us are victimized by white male supremacy!

You are right and it is nice to hear from a White woman like you. We need more Whites who will tell the truth instead of hide behind lies.

This is a very well written article and it is poignant as well. It is nice to expose racism and how it affects Whites and Blacks in America.

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