How White Privilege is Deployed as an Anti-Liberal Weapon

Masses are always breeding grounds of psychic epidemics.  - Carl Jung


. . . it is the hallmark of integrity, both personally and professionally, to own one's projections, and to be open in principle to owning all of them. This makes a person whole….            -Sharon Shir


If anything has characterized the Obama Presidency, it has been the appropriation of liberal ideas and language in the service of uninterrupted neo-conservative governance:  mentioning climate change in the SOTU while opening new areas to drilling, channeling liberal desire for universal health care into a boon for the insurance industry which lies at the heart of the problem, saying forcefully that no civilians will be killed by drones before doubling down on the drone policy of the previous administration, promising the most open administration in history before prosecuting whistleblowers in historic numbers.  There are many things to say about this claim and much to argue.  My intention here is to examine a tactic that has served well for marginalizing long-time liberal politicos, a tactic that includes cooptation of liberal views, then perverting them in order to demonize the very people who would champion the cause.  I speak of the idea of white privilege as popularized by Tim Wise.

I assume that a central tenet of what may be called liberal or progressive or leftist worldviews is a focus on the welfare of the many; a focus on a level playing field in politics; on commitment to government of the people, by the people, and for the people.  Democracy itself is a liberal idea.  In their purest forms, left views are broad, inclusive, and open.  The left must achieve its goals through solidarity among the many rather than the exercise of power by a few, such as through ownership of a chain of propaganda outlets or million dollar political “contributions” or pressuring of employees to vote in the best interest of the company rather than in their own self-interest. This reality was acknowledged in two famous and since aggressively suppressed Citigroup Plutonomy Memos, which, among many other shamelessly pro-plutocracy analyses, described an important obstacle to rule by the 1%, as the poor having "equal voting power with the rich.“

Why has the Obama administration worked so hard to protect government secrecy?  Why was so much money and effort spent in suppressing the Plutonomy Memos?  Why is Julian Assange treated as such a threat?  There is more subtlety to the goals of wikileaks than is obvious on the surface; Julian Assange contends that one way to combat rule by the plutocracy is to disrupt their ability to maintain an internal reality tht is coherent but different from the reality created for the public.  On the other hand, it should be clear that the 1% understand very well that an effective counter to their one person/one vote problem is to prevent formation of a coherent consensus among the left.  I believe that one of the most effective tools for marginalizing long-time proponents of inclusion and the needs of the many has been to deploy a perversion of the notion of white privilege as a weapon.

Among liberals who care about social justice, white privilege has proved an impressively reliable wedge between normally like-minded politicos, creating countless bitter web polarityfests and often causing lasting ruptures down the seams of leftist blogs.  My hope is to point out the aspect of Wise’s approach that ensures that it will create division rather than healing, to explicate the ways in which adhering to Wise’s vision as gospel has worked to cause some liberals to harshly condemn others by shouting down attempts to offer correctives (specifically, these disagreements have often served to marginalize critics of President Obama).  I will briefly touch on how a healthy approach to the issue of white privilege might look.

I assume throughout this discussion that the aim of the constructive participant is to create healing rather than for assigning blame or for selfish gain of any type, including political advantage.  I assume that both clear vision and hope of success from the left include embracing inclusiveness and metanoia rather than division and paranoia.

I was first exposed to Tim Wise, interestingly enough, in July 2008, just as the Obama gang were destroying civil discourse in the liberal blogosphere, deploying relentless harassment and coarse invective to hound Hillary Clinton supporters off such websites as DailyKos.  My reaction to Wise was sympathetic but with a specific criticism.  Little did I know that the viciousness and lack of integrity that greeted my critique would define the response to those attempting to argue for the historic liberal vision of inclusiveness and solidarity empowered by healthy open dialog.  Little did I know that my critique of Wise as scapegoating would prove to be a foreshadowing of widespread scapegoating of my fellow liberals.


In essence, white privilege is an example of complicity.

The Political Responsibilities of Everyday Bystanders by Stephen L. Esquith

For Esquith, being responsible means holding ourselves accountable as a people for the institutions we have built or tolerated and the choices we have made individually and collectively within these institutional constraints. It is thus more than just acknowledgment; it involves settling accounts as well as recognizing our own complicity even as bystanders.

Here are some current examples of complicity:  if you paid taxes to the United States government at any time over the last eight years, you are culpable for acts of torture, invasion of sovereign nations under false premises, drone strikes that necessarily kill non-combatants, and other crimes against humanity.  If you live in the country that consumes well over its fair share of the earth’s resources, then you are complicit in the deaths of thousands of people by starvation.  If you burn more fossil fuel than you need to burn, then you are complicit in climate change.  These are examples of complicity, but we find very little discussion of them; instead, we find virtually all efforts of well-meaning people going towards identifying the culprits and finding ways to either change their behavior or limit their influence.  Most normal humans pursuing blame-based strategies will react poorly to being challenged as part of the problem of climate change or war crimes.  If they are aggressively accused of being terrible people for such complicit behavior, few people are likely either to examine their complicity more closely or to make efforts to change their behavior.  This is normal human behavior.  In short, complicity is a complex and delicate subject.  Restoration of wholeness to a complicit society is impossible without empathy, respect, and a firm commitment to healing from all participants.

I will touch briefly on how a mature, constructive discussion of complicity looks, but first let’s have a look at how Wise comes at the issue of white privilege:

Indignation doesn't work for most whites, because having remained sanguine about, silent during, indeed often supportive of so much injustice over the years in this country--the theft of native land and genocide of indigenous persons, and the enslavement of Africans being only two of the best examples--we are just a bit late to get into the game of moral rectitude. And once we enter it, our efforts at righteousness tend to fail the test of sincerity.


Whites refuse to remember (or perhaps have never learned) that which black folks cannot afford to forget...Most white people desire, or perhaps even require the propagation of lies when it comes to our history. Surely we prefer the lies to anything resembling, even remotely, the truth. Our version of history, of our national past, simply cannot allow for the intrusion of fact into a worldview so thoroughly identified with fiction. But that white version of America is not only extraordinarily incomplete, in that it so favors the white experience to the exclusion of others; it is more than that; it is actually a slap in the face to people of color, a re-injury, a reminder that they are essentially irrelevant, their concerns trivial, their lives unworthy of being taken seriously. In that sense, and what few if any white Americans appear capable of grasping at present, is that "Leave it Beaver" and "Father Knows Best," portray an America so divorced from the reality of the times in which they were produced, as to raise serious questions about the sanity of those who found them so moving, so accurate, so real. These iconographic representations of life in the U.S. are worse than selective, worse than false, they are assaults to the humanity and memory of black people, who were being savagely oppressed even as June Cleaver did housework in heels and laughed about the hilarious hijinks of Beaver and Larry Mondello.

To thinking people, there is truth in these words.  No, silly television sitcoms did not acknowledge the horrendous aspects of society.  And yes, all whites who benefitted from the second class status of African Americans are complicit.  Failure to be aware of the injustice in their society is an example of human failure.  Upon first reading these words, I felt no resistance to acknowledging these truths, but I was also disturbed by the sloppy reference to “most white folks”, to the blanket denial of “most white folks” the fundamental human prerogative of expressing indignation worthy of respect, for the insulting physical description culminating in the word “idiot,” for the ridiculous claim that “most whites” neither deserve to assume moral rectitude nor even are sincere when attempting it.  Further on, we find the claim that being moved by “Leave it to Beaver” is tantamount to a “slap in the face” to people of color.  These are dehumanizing descriptions.  This approach is a paranoid one--one of blame, insult, and scapegoating.

Attempting to improve conditions for one group at the expense of another is the hallmark of conservative ideology—it is a mortal enemy of liberal goals.  Are people of color in any way lifted up as a result of indiscriminate shaming of all whites?  Splitting humanity into groups defined by general characteristics is a cornerstone of demagoguery and the essential characteristic of the racism Wise proposes to combat.  Wise’s use of scorn, belittling, indiscriminate stereotyping of broad categories of people, and confusion of collective responsibility with individual culpability all virtually ensure that relying on his vision will create division.  Wise’s view is essentially a paranoid one employing thinly disguised scapegoating.  Working toward what Sam Keen has called metanoia requires an internal attitude and personal commitment to the work that is in several ways at direct odds with Wise’s approach.

This does not mean that I believe white privilege does not exist, nor does it mean I believe nothing can be done about it.  Before looking more closely at the ways in which Wise’s paranoid vision translates into conflict and division, let’s briefly visit a constructive approach to the problem of complicity.  The following descriptions spring from a truly liberal spirit, embodying in their sensitivity and care the aim of furthering awareness of a common humanity, promoting healing of old wounds, and decreasing the likelihood of future violence caused by past behavior.

As an aside, I'll mention that irony and paradox abound in the current national dialogue.  This is confusing and makes attempts at definition slippery--at the same time a common thread of cooptation and perversion, of paradox and irony, runs through many topics on both the micro and macro level.  The point of view described here is highly generalizable and also brings clarity to detail.  As an example, I began studying complicity when Barack Obama won the White House on a tide of progressive support; I fully expected a period of painful national self-examination of our complicity in crimes against humanity.  It was not long after inauguration that it became clear that there would be no such self-examination, that those who pushed for prosecution of war crimes would be treated to the wrath of the Obama team, with charges of racism being a favorite method of marginalization.  Now I find myself tapping the research I did in order to defend liberals against charges of racism rather than in order to further healing of the war crimes which the Obama administration has ignored.  As I said, irony abounds, and the slippery national dialogue has done an excellent job of turning truth on its head.

The following discussions spring from study of experiences in Germany after the Holocaust, South Africa after apartheid, and other cases.  One method that has helped to bring people to terms with their complicity in horrendous crimes has been re-enactment.

“Complicity in Mass Violence”, Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly 24 No. 4, Stephen L. Esquith [pdf]

Re-enactment is a particular kind of democratic political education that can make better use of the notions of complicity in an age of escalating violence and deepening poverty across national borders. To be effective as democratic political education, re-enactments must prompt democratic deliberation, not substitute catharsis and polemic for it.

Note that both venting of emotions and debate are seen as blocks to healing.  There is a place for all of this, but for healing to occur there must be clarity of purpose for each activity: are we creating a safe space for venting by victims or perpetrators or are we discussing in order to reach practical decisions or are we hoping to increase personal awareness of collective responsibility?  Each different goal requires a different approach.  Confusing the goals is certain to lead to the kind of bitter invective and confusion we have seen.

The report [of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission] criticized the Commission itself for focusing on exceptional perpetrators while ignoring the “little perpetrator” in each of us: “ . . . it is only by recognizing the potential for evil in each one of us that we can take full responsibility for ensuring that such evil will never be repeated.”


There is a need for the concept of complicity as a type of political responsibility not reducible to individual moral guilt or legal liability. Complicity in this sense is a symptom of compromised democratic citizenship, that is, alienation from the democratic political process. In this sense, victims, perpetrators, and bystanders share an important characteristic: for complex and different reasons they all find themselves outside the democratic political process. This kind of damage to the body politic can only be repaired through democratic political education.

Each person is encouraged to recognize the potential evil in himself, a potential shared by all humans, and as a society we are encouraged to come to terms with collective guilt.  Note, however, that this is not the same as reducing responsibility to individual moral guilt, which only encourages projection as discussed below.  As an example of liberal inclusiveness and common humanity, notice the understanding that each group, in different ways, faces the same problem--alienation from the democratic political process.  Finally, a central idea in seeking to heal collective guilt is democratic deliberation.

As stated at the outset, functional democracy depends on respecting each voice, on making decisions that serve a heterogeneous population rather than attempting to force everyone to see things in the same way, which is an authoritarian approach.  In the mature discussion, all parties are granted humanity and full respect.  The goal is to create conditions under which individuals might best come to terms with their own complicity, in their own time and in their own manner.  There is no pre-assignment of blame followed by an attempt to grant safe haven to those participants who have passed the test by fully accepting their complicity while condemning those who failed to rise to the challenge.  Metanoia rather than paranoia is the context.


Projection, the Bane of Collective Responsibility

Now this doesn't have to be guilt-inducing. It's more in the spirit of, I'll join the human race, I'll acknowledge that I have faults just like the rest of you. I apologize for acting like I was above the human condition.

Constructive engagement with complicity, toward the end of strengthening a culture’s equal commitment to the welfare of all, necessarily involves introspection, an individual willingness to recognize the common humanity among victim, perpetrator and bystander.  Attempting to assign blame and to shame culprits is the opposite of this approach.  One of the more galling aspects of the deployment of white privilege as weapon of division has been the indulgence of blame in the name of bringing unity.  Blame springs from the human trait of projection, the most stubborn challenge to individual and collective responsibility.

Here is Ken Wilber’s description of projection.  It encapsulates the most important ideas in this essay:

[Ken] Wilber cites the witch hunt as one of the clearest instances of projection: "The witch hunt begins when a person loses track of some trait or tendency in himself which he deems evil, satanic, demonic, or at least unworthy." Wilber calls a person's dark side a little black heart, something we all possess. Believing that he has no little black heart, the witch hunter assumes an air of righteousness. Because he finds it very uncomfortable, he resists his little black heart: "The more he resists it, the more strength it acquires and the more it demands his awareness. Finally, because he can deny it no longer, he does start to see it. But he sees it in the only way he can - as residing in other people. He knows somebody has a little black heart, but since it just can't be him, it must be someone else." All that remains is to find someone onto whom he can project his shadow. He then despises this someone with the same passion he feels against his own dark side. It is also interesting to note that those who most vehemently seek to root out the devil become most like him in their actions. A pre-occupation with rooting out heresy shows the power of projected doubt.

When people read this description, there is the ironic tendency to focus on how other people need to learn this.  Understanding how projection works does not automatically confer awareness of one's own projections; disciplined introspection is necessary.  It is no coincidence that many of the attempts to force certain Obama critics from websites and to paint certain bloggers with the brush of racism have been called witch hunts. Through the process of projection, it is a simple matter to pervert liberal desire to confront complicity by encouraging projection of all one’s own negative qualities onto someone else.  Wise’s language explicitly encourages such projections.  There is double irony in the fact that the process of becoming aware of one’s own complicity is at heart a process of dropping projection rather than indulging it.  With his blaming tone, Wise actually decreases the chances of making an unconscious person aware of his own complicity.  He can only hope to preach to the choir, and in doing so, he is encouraging the choir to see the blame as resting primarily in others, thus feeding the cycle of paranoia and group hatred.  To accuse others of projecting is necessarily self-parody.  This is not to say that the topic cannot be broached productively; rather, it is that intention and tone are paramount.

Sharon Shir

. . . Only when a person becomes aware of the things they have been hiding from themselves can they realistically be asked to take responsibility for what they are doing. Until then, they will experience the effects of their disowned activities, but remain in an irresponsible attitude towards them. In my experience, only a non-judgmental attitude on my part enables another person, if they so choose, to drop their defenses in my presence and acknowledge that they, indeed, do know what they are about. I think we human beings are often very afraid of being judged as bad by others, and I think this fear is one of the primary operating factors that hold self-hiding and dishonesty and human discord in place.

If the goal is to help a person stop projecting onto others in order to become aware of her own complicity, then judging that person as bad is the exact opposite of what should be done and creating fear would be a good way to almost ensure no progress is made, yet we find such behavior nearly universally present in contentious discussions of white privilege.  In such discussions, I find that my attempts to point out the fatal assumptions and attitudes produce ever more virulent condemnation, bringing claims that my "resistance" to buying into the entire theory, lock stock and barrel is proof that I am unconsciously complicit.  Even if these bogus accusations had merit, hurling them solidifies the divide.  For some actors, this divide is the goal, as explained at the outset.

Salvation from this kind of thing comes only when someone can see they are projecting, and begin to take responsibility for their projected qualities. This takes encouragement, some intellectual understanding of the nature of projection, a non-judgmental stance on the part of the helper, and the insight that withdrawing the projection will actually restore some sense of dignity, power, and freedom to the person doing the projecting. The key "motive" (only half-conscious) for projection is that it allows the projector to shed responsibility for the negative quality. It's not me that is hostile, it's that other guy, so I don't have to do the work of dealing with my anger, I can just sit back and accuse the other of being so gosh-darned hostile. When a projector (any of us) takes responsibility, and says, "Well, I guess it's true in some way that I am hostile (or whatever)," everybody around him can breathe a sigh of relief. Unconsciousness has now been replaced by a modicum of consciousness, and therefore, hopefully, responsibility….  Now this doesn't have to be guilt-inducing. It's more in the spirit of, I'll join the human race, I'll acknowledge that I have faults just like the rest of you. I apologize for acting like I was above the human condition.


Wise’s Approach to White Privilege Uses Projection to Create Division

In preparing this essay, I revisited the discussion from when I first responded to Wise in July 2008.  At the time, I could not have imagined that the resistance to entertaining even the slightest critique to Wise’s problematic words would result in the kind of ganging up and berating that would become the hallmark of efforts to sideline and discredit critics of President Obama.  My initial remark spawned two days of a site-wide bitter battle between one small group and anyone who dared challenge them.  The discussion was marked by twisting of meanings, personal attacks, refusal to acknowledge the meaning of straightforward language, general condemnation and scorn--all behavior which became hallmarks of bullying Obama apologists from the 2008 primary season and on through his first term to this day.  I was so naïve; look at my rosy outlook and good-natured entry into what I expected would be discussion:  “Good essay, NL, those words are indeed powerful.  And I resonate with most of what he says.  But I have a problem with one aspect of them.  I bring this problem here, where presumably most people are thoroughly imbued with self-criticism of the country and are distinctly not racist.  I wouldn't muddy the water in some other venues.”  Who would have guessed that 2008 would ever look like a haven of innocence?  Here is more of my response:

There is a problem in human nature.  The problem is not exclusive to the Europeans.  It's just that they won the fight.  I embrace a lot of what Wise says--it's brilliant in places--but I reject his self-satisfied and righteous critique of an entire culture.  First, it has little chance of swaying people to his point of view given how defensive they would feel, but worse, it encourages an attitude which blames others, or a certain group, for the problems of human nature.

These days I'm feeling a desperate urgency around the need for people to get off their high horses and take a look at their own behavior and attitudes.  To grapple with the things in them that prevent them from taking an expansive view of the world which wants what is best for every single being in it.  Take the demonization out, and I love Wise's essay.

The telling point is that, in all the heat and passion, there was never discussion of the points I hoped to raise.  Here is a summary of how non-responsiveness looked in my first ever attempt to discuss these questions:


C:  Wise's quote seems excessive in places.

R:  Wrong.  It's not excessive.

C:  It is excessive in criticizing watching Leave it to Beaver.

R:  Wrong.  I don't see where it criticizes watching Leave it to Beaver.

C:  It claims that being moved by Leave it to Beaver amounts to a slap in the face to people of color and calling their concerns unworthy.

R:  Wrong.  It just says that Leave it to Beaver was inaccurate.

C:  Here is precisely what it says word for word.

R:   I think Leave it to Beaver was a cute show.

C:  You may think it is cute, but the author does not.

R:  Wrong.  He was just saying it wasn't accurate.

C:  He said it was inaccurate and also said finding it moving was a slap in the face to people of color.

R:  We've been debating this a long time with no movement on either side.  It's time to quit.

The debate has been refined over the intervening years, so that now, it can be carried on automatically, with a word or two conveying a world of meaning.  A challenge to the simplistic view of 50's whites as evil is instantly met with a charge that, "Aha.  You disagree.  This proves that you are avoiding coming to terms with your own complicity."  Such self-parodying approaches to complicity and projection have become accepted wisdom among many well-meaning and committed liberals: anyone who questions negative images of white culture during the 50’s and 60’s must automatically be avoiding his own complicity.  The paradox and reverse thinking in this state of affairs has caused me to scream more than once.

Trying my best to put a point on it

We find a double irony in this slippery state of affairs; they are slippery with the grease of human delusion.  To begin, there is the paradox of deploying a notion of collective responsibility for racism in order to indulge projection and create scapegoats.  Then there is the paradox that those most committed to the liberal vision of universality and common humanity are likely to react to this paradox with criticism and thus find themselves branded (projection comes so easily to us humans) as some of the most intransigent in accepting their own guilt.  There is evidence for these claims.  More than once I have seen people respond to the personal attacks and ad hominem first with the objection that the attacks are unfair on their face, refusing to justify who they are or to discuss any detail of their personal life.  This is a logical, fair stance--blaming the messenger is a distraction.  But when these same people have been pushed so hard that they decide to reveal a bit of their personal stories, time and again they turn out to have extensive first-hand experience in mixed race situations, pursuing racial equality in the real world, and even in mixed race marriages.  These are the liberals whom Obama and his 1% constituency fear.  These are the liberals most likely to be marginalized by those pushing an idea that is a perversion of liberal thinking.  It is convenient indeed, for the Obama agenda, that the same people whose broad compassionate vision causes them to reject facile discussions of white privilege are the people most likely to feel strongly about the horror of drone attacks, torture, the maldistribution of wealth, and the other offenses against liberal views.

Thus do well-intentioned liberals become convinced that those with the most profound understanding and commitment to the liberal ideal are the most intransigent in blocking progress.  The result is a fatal division in which those with the surest understanding of leftist ideals become marginalized by their own allies who are pursuing liberal goals through fatally flawed means, but whose flawed vision nearly guarantees an inability to hear a critique of these flaws.  It might even be said that the heart is ripped out of liberalism, with the "purists" who explicate the liberal idea most insistently being seen not as touchstones but as enemies.  Liberal ideals are coopted in the pursuit of superficially liberal but ultimately paranoid policies.   Thus are the 1%, the conservatives who pursue concentration of wealth and power, inoculated against the only viable threat to plutocracy: solidarity.

I hope I have managed to elucidate the pattern as I see it.I can only hope that the current essay will be received as more than an extended apology for racism or a petty attempt to defend my ego.  Hope does spring eternal.


Kentridge:  “To say that one needs art, or politics, that incorporate ambiguity and contradiction is not to say that one then stops recognizing and condemning things as evil.   However, it might stop one being so utterly convinced of the certainty of one’s own solutions. There needs to be a strong understanding of fallibility and how the very act of certainty or authoritativeness can bring disasters.




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Well, that's a load off my chest

geomoo's picture

For those who did not engage in these battles over the last four years, it will be difficult to imagine the degree of stress and hurt involved.  On first encountering the kind of subterfuge and destruction of discourse connected with this idea, I resisted like mad.  I determined to respond to every misrepresentation of what I was saying or mischaracterization of me as a person over a marathon couple of days.  When I finally saw there would be no end to it, I mined the conversations and created a summary.  The summary is not a parody--it is my best attempt at an honest cutting down of the interactions to their essential meanings.  The result was an essay entitled Call and Response in Kafka Kountry.  To those who have been in the battles, the disrespect and slippery logic will look all too familiar; for those who have not seen it, it will be hard to believe it actually went down that way.

Anyway, this is my favorite of those interactions, and a nearly perfect encapsulation of what has been done to some:

C:  It is crazy-making to be called nothing but wrong repeatedly by several people.

R:  Will you own then that you have been the crazy one here?

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Oh,and speaking of self-parodying

geomoo's picture

It occurred to me throughout the writing of this that to the extent that I blame a set of people for what has occurred, to that extent I am indulging what I am criticizing.  We are all human here, and skillful practice of taking back projections and staying away from blame can only be accomplished, for the vast majority of us, under carefully controlled conditions.  The comments section here could very well contain anger and blaming.  I hope we can find the humility to appreciate that these habits, which are forgivably human, are as much of a problem when coming from us as when coming from others.

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Calling out bad behavior and ad hominem attacks IS blame

Tyree's picture

But it is warranted inasmuch as you (and others of us at the time!) were making sincere, nuanced comments and observations that were being met with crude insults and accusations without substance or evidence. The irony was that several of the attackers were demagogues who knew they were being manipulative and hypocritical, but many were their naive, often "nouveau petty-bourgeois enlightened," as you might say, who had little knowledge of anything other than what they were told by their leaders (Wise, others who fanned the flames on DKos and elsewhere in the supposedly liberal blogosphere).

You're dead on the money about the legitimate issue of historic and current white privilege being misused as a bludgeon to suppress debate about both actual white privilege AND any issue that was critical of America's first "black" president. It was inexcusable and shameful, and yes, I blame those who tarnished a legitimate concept by their abusive, warped use of it as a weapon rather than a topic of discussion.

Anyway, well said, Geomoo. Many of us have struggled long and hard for many years to understand the history, psychology, structural and individual nature of discrimination and human power dynamics -- from many perspectives, and I'll be damned if some DKos shitbird who has the zeal of the converted is going to tell me I'm a racist for not agreeing with Obama, or that he or she (the acolyte) is among the true enlightened for signing off on whatever Obama (or his toadies) believe is right.

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I have been told time and time again on several

temptxan's picture

left leaning websites that I just don't understand because of my "white privledge", that is what causes me to question policy decisions made by the current administration, not the policy decisions themselves. My party "creds" were questioned, I was told that I wasn't part of the "base" and I have been blamed for the loss of the house in the mid-terms for my failure to see that my white privlege is causing it all. It is all bunk. Many of those expousing these very statements are themselves, victims of their own preconceived ideas. A most excellent post geomoo. Thanks.

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Yes, it is very real to those of us who've been there

geomoo's picture

I struggled with whether to look for examples of what we're discussing here, because to the uninitiated, it surely looks like exaggeration at the very least.  But it is quite the opposite--the situation is actually much worse than depicted here.  I left out the part where people have been called racists, night riders, cockroaches, etc.  This leaves out the emotional impact of extended character assassination of people who care a lot about what they're involved in.  It has been hell for some of us.

It is impossible for us to distinguish, without evidence, how much of the dialogue has been intentionally perverted by political operatives and how much of it is sincere but, in my opinion, misguided.  Whatever the facts, the results have been spectacularly successful.  Even my friends think of me as off-the-charts strange in my analysis of current politics while the unreal liberalism of Obama seems all too real to them.

An image that came to me, that I left out of the post, is that of the heart being torn out of liberalism and artificially implanted in Obama, so that it is Obama who is looked to as the champion while the "professional left," "purists," and "effing retards" are sidelined.

Thanks for reading.

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You need to consider

cmaukonen's picture

that there is no way you can know what it means and what it is like to be black or asian or lataino of native american in this country.  Because you are not and never have been. Any more than you could relate to being an alcoholic or a cancer patient.

Any feeling you would have comes from a purely intellectual understanding and perspective.

Liberalism and progressivism and what not have changed considerably over time. Prior to WWII these ideals were not embodied so much in the college educated crowd - since they were in the minority at that time. Few people or their children could afford to get a college education. So these ideal were more embodied in the working class, blue collar and unionists.

It was not until after the war with the fortunes of those who served and their parents with the GI Bill and the economic prosperity it and the cold war military industrial expenditures tit brought about - almost exclusively to the white population - that college education became a reality for most.

It was then that liberal ideals became embodied in the intellectual class but at the same time these people and the lower working classes became more and more estranged. Where in the intellectual classes embraced civil rights and gender  equality and opposed the wars, the working class held opposite views on these subjects. And though many still considered themselves liberal, they did so on different subjects. Mostly having do to with labor rights and economic issues.

Little of this has changed. In fact this schism has increased. The liberal class has not moved more to right so much as the far left has move more to the left. Talk of Marxian economics and socialism  - which was rarely done even in the intellectual circles in the 1950s through the 1980s - is done pretty commonly right now.  Gay rights and marijuana legalization and ecological considerations were equally avoided.  

Our views now are no longer constructed my only 3 major networks and a handful newspapers or media controlled entertainment monopolies but by a vas away of sources the world over. And each has it's own birds of a feather group. Including the Obama and democratic cheer leaders.  

So what you are attempting to describe is pretty normal for the situation, I would say. And then there are those who hold on to their ways of thinking and viewing the world with a death's grip simply because it gives them comfort in a very uncomfortable world. Much the same way an alcoholic holds on to his bottle even though it is killing him/her.



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I will refrain from dismissing this comment out of hand

geomoo's picture

on the grounds of "ego" or being "agenda-driven", although I see  no reason to believe there is not at least as much of "agenda" behind this comment as behind my views as presented.  I don't mean to be petty, I'm just saying there is something "you need to consider" there.

I'm in my 60's.  I lived through much of what you describe.  I appreciate the analysis which has much truth and certainly can provide a springboard for discussion.  I find it over-simplifies, which of course is unavoidable.  I also disagree strongly with a few of the contentions.

I wonder what race you are and on what grounds you assume that you have something to tell me about "what it means and what it is like to be black or asian or lataino of native american in this country".  I don't need such instruction, nor do I fully accept the claim.  I expect my imagination is as good as yours and, more importantly, when I grew up in the south, my grandparents had a maid and a physical laborer who lived in a shack on their property.  I have been in that shack, which had only newspapers on the walls to keep the cold breezes out.  I have seen those hungry children.  I have an imagination.  I'm sorry, and I assume you don't mean to be, but for you to start out with a "you need to consider" tone--well, it seems the assumptions never end.

I have been the only white person in more than one job I have held.  I have been the only white person in the bar with my friend, who was so color-blind that he led me into his bar without even thinking of my race, and endured the glares of anger.  The bar tender looked at me harshly, then finally shrugged and said aloud, "I have no choice but to serve him."  That was a scary moment, but I endured with all the courage I could muster because the anger was understandable, because I have always been committed to doing what I could to break down the barriers between the races.  It was not lost on me that what I felt was only a fraction of what any of those black men at that bar have felt often.  Why do I tell this story?  Because I have been close to this situation, I have imagination, and I have empathy, so I assume that I am as capable as you of taking into account the differences in circumstances of my experience and the experiences of others while remaining acutely aware that is impossible to fully walk in another man's shoes.

Your assertion that the intellectual and working classes became more estranged after the gilded age, well, I just find that strange.  And assertion that intellectuals did not discuss communism before recently is just plain backwards.  My extremely wealthy and horribly rightwing stepmother (think a signed photo of Bush the elder on the piano) was a communist in paris in the 1930's.  I disagree strongly with the contention that "the liberal class has not moved more to the right", but arguing that point is its own thing.

It seems to me that you have brought up a lot of things in a didactic mode.  I notice that you have not commented on the meat of the diary, the issues of projection, of misuse of white privilege to create division rather than healing, the issue of complicity which, to my way of thinking, should be a burning concern of most caring liberals today.  I could be forgiven, I believe, if I thought you came into this comment section with your ego having reacted to the essay and with a desire to push your agenda, but that would indeed be petty, as it is petty to mention it.  We are all human, after all, and I can talk about our common humanity much more skillfully than I can practice remembering it.

I have a lot to say about several false notions which have recently emerged from the beginning place of "you can't know how they feel".  Frankly, I don't have the heart to engage them.  I'll just say that I believe there are no limits to compassion in combination with imagination.  If this discussion is inexorable and there's nothing I can do to stop it, I at least wish the suffering of victims of drone strikes or victims of torture would receive equal billing, with condemnation of Obama's policies in these realms being as strong as the desire to defend him on the basis of white privilege.

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I am white..

cmaukonen's picture

I do not use my imagination for such things and do not claim EVER to know what it is like to walk in anyone else's shoes or posses knowledge of anything I have not experienced myself.

Doing so would be superficial at best and condescending as well. Completely dishonest.

There is no way I would know what it's like to be any minority in this country. And for that matter neither would Obama as he has no linaged in that area. Nor has he any experience of what it is like to be poor and black.

His skin maybe black but his insides are white upper crust. No one in DC has any clue fo none of them know what its like to be dirt poor.

I have been dirt poor but I know not what it means to be dirt poor and a minority. Since that is a very, very different situation than being a dirt poor white. Being a dirt poor white means you have a chance of changing that condition. Being a dirt poor minority means you have little - if any chance of changing that condition. And that is something I have a very hard time relating to how it feels.

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I see things differently, as stated

geomoo's picture

but if it is so that one person can never know what it is to walk in another person's shoes, then surely that truth holds in all directions.  It is inconsistent to hold that as true on the one hand, while on the other hand claiming to be able to say what motivates white people to criticize Obama, claiming to be able to spot racists and call them out, and other bold assumptions that are regularly being made when this topic of conversation arises.

I have seen the claim made that people who have been persecuted are automatically experts on all facets of persecution.  They say that, if you haven't been there, then you can't know.  I'll tell you a place I have been that no person of color has ever been, a Sunday dinner with white racists all around the table.  That is information as well, information as crucial to a full understanding of a complete picture of institutionalized racism as is the experience of those who suffer under the system.  To put it simply, if the notion of white privilege opens the door to being able to tell someone what they are really thinking and feeling, only unconsciously, then I offer that black trauma--the psychological effects of years of persecution--is equally likely to create unconscious, unexamined thoughts and behavior.  Suffering does not necessarily create accurate awareness--it can as likely produce blind anger.  No one has a right to tell anyone else what their experience is.  No one.  At bottom, each person deserves to be treated with respect, as a human.  It is a hard row to hoe, but if we seek a society of humanity and justice, the human flaws even of the worst of us must be seen as part of the fabric of humanity, a fabric in which we all play our more and less conscious roles. This does not mean that evil cannot be addressed.  I refer you to the ending quotation.

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Very well said, Geomoo

willibro's picture

As someone who has had to face some of the same kind of feedback, I am grateful for your thoughtful analysis. This comment is the icing on the cake, I think. I've witnessed the same stuff, and learned from it some of what you did.

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I'm fascinated that you would profess to never using

Tyree's picture

... your imagination to TRY to put yourself in the shoes of others -- be they blacks or other "ethnic" minorities, poor people of color, women, LGBT folks, etc.  Just because you can't know precisely what it was like for other people's lives doesn't mean you should try. Wouldn't you agree?

Thus is created the utterly illogical, false "You just don't understand" dichotomy that purports because someone has not lived in the shoes of someone else, they have NO IDEA what that person's life might be like. And for that matter, people's individual experiences even within the same group can vary so widely as to invalidate any ability to themselves claim to understand their own "group" any better than someone else. I guarantee you that the life of a dirt poor white person is a lot closer to that of a poor black person than it is to a rich 1% white person. The dirt poor white person may have a slightly better chance of moving up in class in the United States, but it's still bloody piss-poor these days. Cross-cutting categories such as class can be far more important than skin color or gender in some cases, and not in others.

While I believe that you are sincere and without ill-intent in saying what you did, I think you inadvertently buy into exactly the kind of logical fallacy flogged by Tim Wise and others whom geomoo rightly criticizes for their dehumanizing arguments. You SHOULD be using your imagination in the employ of sympathy OR empathy. How else can we try to promote good public policy and understanding amongst ourselves?


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I do not agree with your interpretation of American history

sartoris's picture

Cmaukonen, you seem to be casually dismissing a great deal of American history.

It's as if you have never heard of the American progressive/labor movement.  Americans did not talk about or embrace Marxian ideas until recently?  That's not only wrong, it's remarkably wrong.  Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, John Reed, Bill Haywood, these heroes of American history read Marx, discussed him and were fighters for the liberties of all peoples.  The American progressive movement was born out of the labor movement, not out of the intellectual class who played around in college.  Removing the labor movement from the progressive movement is like discussing the abolitionists without talking about the role of the church.  The progressive movement's power is inextricably linked to the power of labor.  One need look no further than the percentage of the population that is unionized to see the power of the progressive movement.  Labor is weak in the South and it always has been, hence the lack of the strenght of the Southern progressive movement.  WWI was not a popular war for Americans and if anything it was supported more by the intellectuals than by the working class.  WWII was a different war for multiple reasons.  For one thing, America was actually attacked by another nation.  That sort of thing arouses an emotional response from people.  Heck, just look at how Americans wanted revenge for the terrorist strike of 9/11.  The draft riots that took place in the Civil War were not only limited to New York City.  The very fact that a draft had to be implemented is proof that the working class (also known as the fighting class) did not support that war with sufficient enthusiasm.  Americans are neither as blood thirsty nor as ignorant as popularly believed. 

I am in agreement with you that it is impossible to imagine what life is like for a member of another race.  I can read about the life of an American Indian, but I can only understand it on an intellectual level.  The topic of race relations is very difficult to discuss in a rational manner.  An urban American has a different point of view on race than a rural American.  I think that without a doubt white priviledge exists.  I find the concept very uncontroversial.  Of course being white is easier in America.  What progressives should (and I what I believe they have been doing) be doing is working for policies that ensure equality for all Americans. 

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SOME Americans embraced Marxist ideas, but never anything...

Ohio Barbarian's picture

close to a majority. Most didn't because either they bought into the Horatio Alger mythos, or their religious leaders said it was anathema, or simply because they believed in the prevailing propaganda of the time. 

I think the majority thing has something to do with Cmaukonen's reply, but I'm not completely sure. 

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my apologies if I misinterpreted

sartoris's picture

Hi, Ohio.  I would have to say that SOME Russians embraced communism and some Chinese probably found Mao to be a murderous thug.  I just don't subscribe to the belief that Americans were or are as ignorant as portrayed in the movies.  I don't want to get into a big discussion on this topic though because it's a subjective discussion and not worth pursuing.

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I believe

cmaukonen's picture

if you read my post, I said the prior to WWII the left was strongest in the working classes and unions. In the 1950s if nearly was extinguished by anti-communist fervor and even discussing it could get one fired. So such subjects were more for casual meetings of the intelligentsia.  


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Sorry, but that's not true, either

Tyree's picture

There were larger numbers, sure, among the working class/labor movement, but there were many upper and middle class who embraced the tenets of everything from communism (red diaper babies, e.g.) to Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal social democratic principles. And during the abolitionist movement before and during the Civil War, the upper class feminists/suffragettes allied with them in a collective human rights effort (that only fractured when it became obvious that black males only were going to be allowed by the white male power elite to get full citizenship, and not women of whatever color).

Your history is not helpful to your argument here, is all I'm saying.

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Very thought provoking essay, geomoo.

priceman's picture


Specifically on the human condition and interaction with regards to reconciliation when it comes to coming to terms with society's problems and the aftermath with regard to racism within our Institutions. You don't deny White privilege exists yet discuss how it is discussed as the barrier circa Tim Wise's essays which you gave credit to except for the lack of tact. I thought you were fair to all opposing views while expressing your own on this quite well in this essay.

Me personally this has happened, but it's amazing how caring about the data with regards to the housing and foreclosure crisis as well as the new Jim crow and the drug war will shut people up who try to inoculate Obama from criticism by trying to couch it in accusations of white privilege when the data they have to ignore within the Black and Latino communities to defend this POTUS is massive and the pain and complicity there is much more stark than being born white in a racist society one can't change. Neither can anyone else that is not a member of the 1% so class plays in as it always has. MLK knew this and many were mad at him for going to Memphis but it was important. This was an excellent documentary. I always cry when I watch these. 



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geomoo's picture

I'll have to watch it later.  Yes, my friends tell me there is a form of the sort of bullying and pressure tactics we're talking about in the black community as well, with critics of the President facing mistreatment.  It is painful to see the distrust and alienation all around, even among those who desperately need to make common cause.  And it all fits a larger picture--the aim of the 1% seems to be what Glenn Ford called, in a perfect use of language, the "n****rizing of the middle class".  This is perfectly parallel to Wise's efforts not so much to lift up the downtrodden as to degrade the dominant class.  White America has more in common with downtrodden black America with each passing day, as the maldistribution of wealth worsens.

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Yeah, that's a tough question, and a good one

geomoo's picture

I was aware of that issue in the writing.  I would refer you to the worldview I describe as what I'm talking about and leave it to you to consider whether the world "liberal" is quite accurate.  I think in part of the Enlightenment, of the ideas which were codified in the American revolution. The crucial thing, in terms of this essay, is commitment to the welfare of the many, which naturally means a system of government which shares power.  Democracy, one person/one vote, as opposed to plutocracy--power is proportional to wealth and social standing.

Perhaps this brings a little clarity.

Don't hold back.  I'm interested to read your ideas, even if they are challenging to my thesis.

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It offends me

LaEscapee's picture

when others assume the life I have lived, or the things I have seen.

I understand and am willing to acknowledge that others have had diffenrt experiences but what pisses me off is that those same people dismiss any experience or opinon other than their own. We all travel a different path and gain knowledge if we are willing to acknowledge that anothers may have been different but together is the way we find truth and understanding. To accuse others of not understanding how the world works without knowing the pain they have felt personally is a cop out and an attempt to divert our own complicity.

White guys that attempt to point out what is wrong with white guys are doing nothing more than projecting that others are at fault.

Yes "white privelige" exists but to use it as a wedge against those that accept that fact is no better than the white guy that blames everything on "the blacks".

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I'll try to go with your definition of liberalism. As I ...

Ohio Barbarian's picture

understand it, you mean something akin to the great Liberal Englishman, John Stuart Mill, with his "greatest good for the greatest number" philosophy. If I combine that with the Enlightenment ideals of the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of property, and with the more modern concept of "one person, one vote," I think we have a common frame of reference. 

My problem with liberalism is that it assumes that all people, at least law-abiding ones, have a right to property, and that leads to all sorts of problems. Like the right to do whatever one pleases with one's property, be that one's land, spouse, pets, or slaves. Or the right to acquire however much property one can, such as money, which leads directly to many of the problems America, and most of the rest of humanity, for that matter, have today. This sense of a right to property leads to entitlement and ultimately celebrates one of the baser human emotions: greed. 

No matter how much liberals seek to curtail the excesses of the above, and no matter how much they have succeeded, and I'll grant you that, there have been wonderful successes, they won't ever quite get around to addressing the heart of the problem. The right to property is also essential to capitalism, and capitalism might as well be Mammonism, or plutocracy, as you put it, for that is where it inevitably leads. 

Now I'll get to the point that usually pisses liberals off. Most liberals, both historically and in my own personal experience, come from relatively comfortable lifestyles and, while they feel that the excesses of the capitalist, or any other propertarian, system must be reined in and controlled for the greater good, they are never willing to do anything for that same greater good that might actually negatively impact their own comfortable lifestyles. For example, a liberal making 200 grand a year will say "Tax the Rich more, but not me! I'm not rich! I'm barely making it!" 

From where I, and most Americans, sit, it reeks of hypocrisy. Liberals also have the annoying habit of trying to force people do what they think is good for them, always backed by the good, rational, scientific arguments of the time, be that forcing them to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, or saturated fats, or requiring them to put their children in ever-more-expensive car seats, or banning circumcision because it's genital mutilation. And then they wonder why they are hated. Then they wonder why the conservative argument that they are trying to impose a nanny state is accepted by the very people they are trying to help. 

As far as white privilege goes, I see that as a separate issue, mostly. White privilege in America ultimately stems from the last great migration in human history, that of the European peoples to the New World. Those people, and my ancestors were among them, wanted all sorts of things, but primarily land of their own(there's that property thing again) and the freedom to see that either themselves or their children or their grandchildren could lead better lives than their ancestors in feudal or industrial, class-conscious Europe. 

And, for a long time, they succeeded. The indigenous peoples of the Americas were too few, had too little resistance to disease, and had no gunpowder. The Africans who were brought over as cheap labor didn't have gunpowder, either, were ruthlessly exploited, and weren't even considered quite human by the vast majority of white people for centuries. Those prejudices still linger, in spite of the best efforts of some liberals, and ultimately that long history is the source of the white privilege of which you so eloquently speak. 

Hey, it happened. But it's not my fault, or yours. Feeling guilty about it serves no useful purpose. My black neighbors aren't at all upset when I tell them who and what my ancestors were; they understand that's just the way it was. So long as I want the same basic things they do, such as a better standard of living for ourselves and our children(change of pronoun deliberate), we get along just fine. They certainly don't want my pity, or the pity of any other white person. What they want is the same thing I want: justice. 

But if justice isn't also economic justice, it just ain't justice. Either to me or to them. As Cmaukonen up there said:


Being a dirt poor minority means you have little - if any chance of changing that condition. And that is something I have a very hard time relating to how it feels.

The thing is, these days there's little difference between being a poor minority or a poor majority. Neither group has any significant chance of changing that condition in our current system. That is both our weakness and, ultimately, when the majority finally realize that, our strength. 

Sorry for the long ramble, but I hope I made at least some sense. OTOH, I'm not THAT sorry; your essay was pretty damned long, too :)

I've gotta go to bed. Work. Paycheck. Roof over heads, all that. Hope to hear more from you, Peace Cow. 

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your portrayal of limousine liberals is false and stereotypical

sartoris's picture

Hey, Ohio.  I am surprised at your description of, in your words, most liberals.  I would suggest that you are falling into a stereotypical portrayal that is not based in fact.  The fight for the 8 hour day began after the Civil War and it was not a fight brought about by rich liberals.  The progressive movement is not a movement founded by the rich or a movement dominated by the rich.  Rarely, in American history have the men and women who fought for the basic freedoms that Americans now take for granted been from the gilded class.  

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You are skewing my point. Nicely done, but still askew.

Ohio Barbarian's picture

I never once used the words "rich" or "gilded." "Relatively comfortable" by the standards of the time was the term. The fight for the 8 hour day may have begun after the Civil War, but it did not succeed until it was taken up by first a large section of the middle class and then by part of the upper class, such as people like the Roosevelts. 

The progressive movement may not have been founded by the rich, but it has been led and then co-opted by them, usually after they felt really threatened. So my description of the perception of liberals, especially by the working class, is really quite accurate, IMHO. 

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lets look at your own words

sartoris's picture

you said:

Most liberals, both historically and in my own personal experience, come from relatively comfortable lifestyles and, while they feel that the excesses of the capitalist, or any other propertarian, system must be reined in and controlled for the greater good, they are never willing to do anything for that same greater good that might actually negatively impact their own comfortable lifestyles.

Now, I simply have to disagree with everything in this statement.  You explicitly state that most liberals are from the comfortable class.  On what are you basing this statement?  The ideas of the New Deal were not those of Roosevelt.  He was not a lifelong crusader of even the basic tenants of the New Deal.  I could manage some sort of agreement with your statement if you had prefaced it by saying something like, some liberals in governnment come from comfortable lifestyles.  You made a sweeping generalization and I responded.  If I skewered your point then please feel free to provide a little more clarity to your point.  You cannot be seriously suggesting that the labor movement was led by those from, in your words, comfortable lifestyles.

Don't misinterpret my response as an attack on you.  I'm simply challenging your statement/belief regarding the 'background' of 'most liberals'.  I think the background of people such as Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King more accurately reflects that of the majority of liberals as opposed to the background of a Ted Kennedy.  I enjoy your contributions, so again, please don't think I'm just trying to argue with you.   

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No, I think if you meant to attack me I'd certainly know it.

Ohio Barbarian's picture

I'm not thin-skinned, either, and I don't dish out what I can't take, and don't respect those who are incapable of the same. I think we'll have to disagree on my statement which you italicized. The working class people who led the labor movement were not liberals, in my opinion. More like social democrats, democratic socialists, some undemocratic socialists, and some communists. 

IOW, they understood that they were in a class war. Liberals don't like that concept. They're more of the "We're all in this together" types, and by "We" they mean everybody in society. I don't believe that, not for a second. 

FDR did what he did, in my opinion, because it was necessary to save his own class from destruction, as the following exchange illustrates:

Reporter: Why isn't America Socialist today?

Eugene Debs: Three words. Franklin. Delano. Roosevelt. 

FDR saved capitalism from itself. A significant accomplishment, but that's what he did. He did other things, too, such as lead America to victory in a fight for its very survival, and he helped to destroy a great evil that was loose in the world. He also changed his own beliefs in his last few years, and his proposed Second Bill of Rights is proof of that. I'm not own of those Socialists who scoffs at FDR's very real accomplishments on behalf of the working class. In fact, I voted for Obama in 2008 because I thought he might just be FDR II, which would have improved my lifestyle and that of my children immensely. 

I got conned. My bad. 

As for LBJ, I see him more as a Social Democrat than a liberal, and MLK was pretty much a socialist, IMO. As for my statement, I stand by it. 

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Which is why

nemesis's picture

I never describe myself  as a liberal..  Words have specific meanings, and until we start using them as intended, we can't communicate effectively.  Using the term liberal as you did, your points about the liberal class being relatively comfortable made sense.  Particularly with liberals like Tim Wise.  College professors tend to live inside study bubbles, and look at populations as math problems.  Liberal college professors live to have their studies talked about.  His work is the very definition of liberal, name many of his following is liberal college professors of one kind or another.  Those that use this work as a cudgel also seek power within their in-group.  The "othering" liberals have engaged through this work, had the subject matter been any other ethnic group, would be ridiculed as a hate organization by the SPLC by now.  And the ugly part is it's not about rigthning past wrongs, or even current wrongs; it's about petty power plays within the academic. circle.  


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Great comment! Thanks for bringing that here!

geomoo's picture

Well, a lot to react to there.  With respect to the essay, I'll just put my cards on the table:  we're not really talking about white privilege; we're talking about a cynical use of the concept for purposes of preventing a truly liberal consensus from forming.  I don't believe those who are responsible for this becoming a topic of conversation ever had any intention of working toward constructive engagement with this complex issue.  Look around you.  Does this look like a society whose powerful members have any interest whatsoever in doing something about torture of African Americans in prison, to list one obvious and perhaps underpining aspect of white privilege?  It's a fake discussion, like the austerity debate and so much else that obfuscates real issues.  I have no doubt whatsoever that you and I and any number of us could have a sometimes heated but nuanced and productive discussion about the real issue of white privilege.  Actually, among the vast majority (liberalism again) I believe we would find good intentions and some degree of useful insight.  The more's the pity, as good-hearted nature has been successfully pushed aside as determinative of policy, what with all the terror and scapegoating and all.

What else?  Impressive definition of liberalism.  Huzzah.

Referencing your quote about blacks having less chance than whites of changing their position, there is an irony here just as runs through all attempts to discuss this stuff.  I mentioned in another comment what I believe to be one of the most succinct quotes of our time.  Unfortunately, the quote includes a word that offends many, a word that I think needs to be said out loud to make some points.  But I follow the lead of one of my AA on-line friends and refrain from spelling it out.  Glen Ford calls what is happening "the n****rization of the middle class".  Just as racism in the south was often fed by extreme poverty, so that a white families clung to the fact that they were better off than their black neighbors even though they were all near starvation, so racism is a useful tool  in this time of austerity.  Race fights are quite useful for blurring the true lines of conflict, which are between the haves and the have nots.

"Most" liberals come from wealthy lifestyles.  This is problematic.  We have to use words to discuss, and this sentence is a valid one, but for beginners, "most liberals" is almost as problematic as Tim Wise's "most whites", certainly in the absence of statistics.  I'm not trying to undermine your point here so much as to acknowledge something I expect you'll agree with me on while also acknowledging that we need language and generalization if we are talk at all. There are liberals and there are liberals.  If we look at public opinion on specific policies--my favorite determination and the one I think most valid--then we see that the US is a decidedly liberal nation.  Ask people to self-identify, and you get dramatically different results.  Finally, and to the point of the essay, in my experience the most likely perpetrators of the kind of marginalization and self-righteous insistence on white privilege are wealthier black and white citizens, while, without exception, in my personal experience every single object of these accusations of racism and denial of white privileges, the ones I have "known" personally from the web, has been very poor.

We are in agreement about pity but I will go even further to say that, in my opinion, there is a certain relatively common guilt-based inclination to allow special allowances to blacks which is harmful.  I believe that to the extent that such attitudes are useful to blacks for achieving short-term goals, they are tempted to participate in it.  To me, this is a continuation of the historically imbalanced relationship.  This is a complex topic and, in most venues, I could not even discuss it without being called a racist, but I think it is real. To put it succinctly, if we are to establish relationships which are not mutually manipulative, then we need to treat one another as human and as responsible.  This is not to deny the validity of reparation and a special responsibility among whites to make whole what they have exploited.

Yes, justice.  So I ask, does the kind of discussion of white privilege promoted by Tim Wise increase the chances of finding justice?  Institutional problems need institutional solutions.  Indentifying individual racists or deniers of white privilege will never lead to justice.

Guess I'll stop there.  Thanks for the terrific addition to the discussion.

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You have some real good points there, and I simply don't have

Ohio Barbarian's picture

the time right now to address all of them. All I'll say is that a different economic system based on real social good, not just the making of profit, would take care of many of the very real problems you describe naturally and in due course. Again, if you don't address the issue of a system based on profits, you don't have a chance of solving the fundamntal problems. 

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Your essential point is very interesting

geomoo's picture

I'll be trying to think how to relate this topic to capitalism.  I guess a starting point is that capitalism will necessarily create an over-class and and underclass.  We are certainly in agreement about capitalism being the source of many and likely most of our ills.  Capitalism leads to authoritarianism of some form or other.  This is the opposite of the liberal state.

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Thanks for reading so carefully

geomoo's picture

You're right--it's really long.  I wish I had read this piece by Henry A. Giroux before posting this. I think I'm trying to get at a specific example of what he's talking about.  This is long, too, but to me, it's one of the best things I've read in a long time.  It would probably be more useful to read Giroux than to give me any more attention.  I think my complaint in a nutshell is that discussions of white privilege are "decontextualized" serving "to erase the broader relations and historical contexts" that give it meaning.  This would not be a big problem were it not being used to provide cover for authoritarian extremism.


The debate in both Washington and the mainstream media over austerity measures, the alleged fiscal cliff and the looming debt crisis not only function to render anti-democratic pressures invisible, but also produce what the late sociologist C. Wright Mills once called "a politics of organized irresponsibility."  For Mills, authoritarian politics developed, in part, by making the operations of power invisible while weaving a network of lies and deceptions through what might be called a politics of disconnect. That is, a politics that focuses on isolated issues that serve to erase the broader relations and historical contexts that give them meaning. These isolated issues become flashpoints in a cultural and political discourse that hide not merely the operations of power, but also the resurgence of authoritarian ideologies, modes of governance, policies and social formations that put any viable notion of democracy at risk.  Decontextualized ideas and issues, coupled with the overflow of information produced by the new electronic media, make it more difficult to create narratives that offer historical understanding, relational connections and developmental sequences. The fragmentation of ideas and the cascade of information reinforce new modes of depoliticization and authoritarianism

At the same time, more important issues are buried in the fog of what might be called isolated and manufactured crises, that when given legitimacy, actually benefit the wealthy and hurt working- and middle-class individuals and families.


Look at this quote from Arundhati Roy:


This theft of language, this technique of usurping words and deploying them like weapons, of using them to mask intent and to mean exactly the opposite of what they have traditionally meant, has been one of the most brilliant strategic victories of the czars of the new dispensation. It has allowed them to marginalize their detractors, deprive them of a language to voice their critique and dismiss them as being "anti-progress," "anti-development," "anti-reform," and of course "anti-national" - negativists of the worst sort. To reclaim these stolen words requires explanations that are too tedious for a world with a short attention span, and too expensive in an era when Free Speech has become unaffordable for the poor. This language heist may prove to be the keystone of our undoing.

Roy uses the word "tedious" to describe attempts to unravel the mess, thus the tedium of this essay.

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About liberals "forcing" people

geomoo's picture

I do hear this, but there is a reason.  Not to say this is not a problem, because it is.  Still, because liberals think of the common good, they are indeed into measures which affect everyone, things like getting vaccines to stop epidemics.  Of course, the issue has been over-stated ad nauseum by corporations who want to be given free reign instead being forced to do things like have food inspected.  I do believe there is a liberal over-reliance on legal remedies which specify behavior in response to isolated problems, things like specifying how high the railing should be at an industrial plant rather than having a knowledgeable person be trusted to look around for unsafe conditions.  But for all their squawking, what are called conservative politicians have proved just as ready to control Americans.  Anyway, wanted to make the point that it makes sense that those with social conscience focus on society-wide solutions and behaviors, which is not always a bad thing.

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Adherents of all ideologies have a tendency to force other

Ohio Barbarian's picture

people to conform to those ideologies in the name of the common good, for their own good, or  because since the ideology, or religion or lack thereof, is clearly the One That Explains It All and anyone who thinks otherwise is clearly evil or demented. 

To zero in on America, for the last generation or so the conservatives, by whom I mostly mean the free-market worshippers, have increasingly gained the upper hand in this because they have always had more money, and lately, more political power. For example, there is the current assault on food stamps and other aspects of what's left of the social safety net(a subject I intend to address in detail in a post), where conservatives claim that eliminating those programs will actually benefit the recipients by forcing them to "stop depending on the government" and get out there and work hard, thereby helping their own self-esteem. 

The backers of this vision say that those receiving such things as food stamps, unemployment, or Social Security are lazy and are "takers" from the "makers." Going too far can still backfire, as Romney discovered to his dismay when that 49% remark of his made it into the mainstream media. Ironic that the anonymous wielder of the cellphone recorder of Romney's speech to some of his elite fellow 1%-ers was probably someone making less than $10/hour for a catering service, and someone who does more hard work in a day than Romney has in decades. 

What's so hard about playing with numbers on a screen, which is what investment types actually do all day? Who is the real "taker" here? 

On the far authoritiarian Left, there's the example of Stalin, who would sometimes sentence those who disagreed with his politics to insane asylums because his views were solidly grounded in "scientific socialism," therefore anyone who disagreed, even other Communists, were clearly in need of professional help. There are still a few people around today who think like that. 

I've personally run into the same tactic from self-described liberals who advocated voting for Obama in 2012 as the "lesser of two evils," and accused those like myself who voted our consciences for one of several third party candidates as insane because we were somehow actually voting for Romney. Not that I think Romney could really be much worse for the likes of me and mine, anyway, but that's besides the point. 

I suppose I'm harsher on liberals than conservatives because I know the latter are usually my enemies, while I expect liberals to more often than not be on my side. But when I see people who wrap themselves in the "progressive" flag and betray me again and again when push comes to shove in the name of pragmatism, it just pisses me off. 

Great, thoughtful essay, Geomoo, original and comments included. 

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Point being, just because there are some lazy liberals

Tyree's picture

doesn't mean all are, just as not all whites are racist and all minorities egalitarian or powerless. The essence of the argument that white men have traditionally run and benefitted most from the power structure is accurate, but to then paint everyone as equally culpable (and therefore shutthefuckup, etc.) if they're white, or free from any culpability or responsibility for how others are treated if they're NOT is crude and counterproductive.

And, for what it's worth, I find that your lazy, privileged armchair liberals example tends to exemplify Obama supporters far more than it does my fellow progressives -- who treat Obama as a politician who is steadily gutting the liberal ideals of the Constitution, the New Deal, and Great Society, all the while sheltered from criticism just because he's black.

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Thanks for this great essay and the food for thought.

Futbol Dad's picture

There is no doubt that white privilige is very real. But, at times, the concept is weaponized to stifle dissent from - typically -the left.

And experience comes in many ways. Not all whites are oblivious to how racism is institutionalized or internalized by our fellow whites. And, we might have even had experiences that were particularily enlightening about relationships between the races.

For example, when I was in the Army, I made the mistake of going into a bar in in a small white town in Georgia with a black friend. We were both complacent, perhaps because of spending so much time in the Army where the races worked, lived and slept together on a daily basis.

After Desert Storm, I went with a black friend to his home town in Mississippi and stayed there for a week. Even years later, I gained imsight about myself from the experiences I had in that small Mississippi town. 

The point being that I think it is projection to assume that my experiences as a white male have been insulated from any kind of experience with the very real, at times, conflict between the races. But as someone who was born and raised in the near-West suburbs of Chicago, I also have experience with the harmony that can be acheived between the races. I'm not sure the Tim Wise approach allows for that.




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No it doesn't allow for it.

nemesis's picture

Because that's not the point.  Tim Wise is selling Tim Wise.  If you challenge a point, any point,, you run into a buzz saw.  I saw an essay by one of his cohorts where someone who was a supporter of these theories asked a clarifying question.  The guy was trying to follow the logic, clearly.  But the essayist first told him that 1) his racism held him back from enlightenment and 2) it wasn't the essayist's job to educate him.  After six or seven attempts, the questioner gave up because he couldn't break the wall of defense.  It was breathtaking.  Finally someone else suggested that the questioner was just, you know, asking a real question.  Then an answer came.  


This shit is just like Scientology.  You are not clear, that is why you don't understand why....

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