This essay, on racism and ‘white privilege’, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 14 June 2020, under the headline ”White privilege’ is a distraction, leaving racism and power untouched’.
The transformation has been bewilderingly swift. Six years ago, most Americans thought that police killings of black suspects were ‘isolated events’. Now, three out of four accept that there exists a systemic problem. Support for Black Lives Matter has risen more in the past two weeks than over the past two years. And far from feeding Donald Trump’s base, the flames consuming US cities have diminished the stature of the president while, so far, not exacerbating the polarisation of the nation.
The attitudes not just of the public but of major institutions, too, have metamorphosed. The NFL, which for the past four years has condemned players ‘taking the knee’ to the national anthem in protest at racist killings, now acknowledges it was wrong. Nascar, that most Trumpian of US sports, has banned Confederate flags. Corporation after corporation has publicly affirmed support for Black Lives Matter.
In Britain, too, the ground has shifted. From nationwide mass protests to a new national conversation about statues and history, from footballers and politicians taking the knee, to Yorkshire Tea telling a critic of Black Lives Matter ‘Please don’t buy our tea again’, public life seems irrevocably changed. When demonstrators toppled the statue of slaver Edward Colston in Bristol, only a minority of Britons supported their actions. A majority, however, thought the statue should be taken down legally, something unimaginable even a few months ago.
From one perspective, the shift in public attitudes expresses something positive: the rejection of racism, the understanding that Black Lives Matter means not ‘only black lives matter’ but ‘black lives matter, too’. Yet, attitudes rarely change as if at the flick of a switch. The speed of the recent transformation reflects also the febrile character of contemporary politics. Volatility and polarisation are expressions of the same phenomenon: the detachment of politics from its traditional social moorings. It’s an issue much discussed in recent years in the context of the rise of populism and of the shifting allegiances of working-class voters. Over the past few weeks, we’ve witnessed one of the unpredictable expressions of the current unpredictability of politics.
As the old moorings have become detached, so politics has become driven as much by cultural or psychological anxieties as by material concerns – witness the influence of identity politics or the reframing of working-class grievances in terms of cultural loss.
Politics has always relied on symbols, rituals and performance. Today, though, it can feel as if politics has been consumed by performance. Consider the way that we now talk more about ‘white privilege’ than about ‘racism’. The problem of racism is primarily social and structural – the laws, practices and institutions that maintain discrimination. The stress on ‘white privilege’ turns a social issue into a matter of personal and group psychology.
‘White people, you are the problem,’ writes the Chicago Tribune columnist Dahleen Glanton. ‘For white people,’ the US-based British writer Laurie Penny insists, ‘acknowledging the reality of racism means acknowledging our own guilt and complicity.’ White people wash the feet of black faith leaders as atonement for their sins and religiously acknowledge their guilt. Such demonstrations of public obsequiousness are performances that make individuals feel better about themselves but also keep the structures of power and discrimination untouched.
Viewing white people – all white people – as ‘guilty and complicit’ distorts political issues and deflects from real causes. In America, black people are, as the Sentencing Project observes, ‘more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, and they are more likely to experience lengthy prison sentences’. And more likely to be killed by the police, too. Yet studies also show that the problems faced by African Americans are not due simply to white people, or even to white police officers, but to a system of justice that is structurally deeply unjust.
Nor is it just African Americans whose lives are devastated by the injustices of the justice system. More than half of those killed by US police are white; and while, proportionately, police killings of African Americans have fallen in recent years, that of white people has sharply risen. Some analyses suggest that the best predictor of police killings is not race but income levels – the poorer you are, the more likely you are to be killed. Other studies have shown that the startlingly high prison numbers in America are better explained by class than by race and that ‘mass incarceration is primarily about the systematic management of the lower classes, regardless of race’. African Americans, disproportionately working class and poor, are also likely to be disproportionately imprisoned and killed. There are, as one report observes, ‘two distinct criminal justice systems: one for wealthy people and another for poor people and people of color’.
In Britain, there are far fewer police killings (292 deaths in custody and 40 fatal shootings over the past 15 years), but here, too, black people are disproportionately the victims – forming 3% of the population but 8% of deaths in custody. The majority of killings are, however, of white people – 249 of the 292 deaths in custody and 26 of the 40 shootings – and probably mainly poor and working class (though these figures are harder to obtain).
Or take Covid-19 deaths. The disproportionate impact of the virus on BAME communities is well documented. But class inequalities are important, too – people living in the most deprived areas in England and Wales have died from coronavirus at twice the rate as those in the least deprived areas.
Race and class are not competitive causal categories to be set against each other. Minorities are an integral part of the working class and they often have similar experiences of state authority. Race and class shape people’s lives in complex ways.
Given the volatility of politics, what feels now as a fundamental transformation of public consciousness may seem less so in a month or in a year. What is certain, though, is that inequalities, whether of race or of class, cannot be reduced to the question of white privilege or challenged by eliciting guilt. Symbolism and rituals are important. But the heart of the problem lies in warped social relations and deformed institutional structures. As we search for new political moorings, we need to think not just of identity and psychology but of the material and the social, too.
The image is by Adrià Fruitós for the Washington Post.