The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

White Privilege or White Middle-Class Poverty?
By Thandeka
Sidebar to Middle-Class Poverty by Thandeka

September/October 1999

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(from the 1999 General Assembly workshop Why Antiracism Will Fail)

Imagine that business and government leaders decreed that all left-handed people must have their left hand amputated. Special police forces and armies are established to find such persons and oversee the procedure. University professors and theologians begin to write tracts to justify this new policy. Soon right-handed persons begin to think of themselves as having right-hand privilege. The actual content of this privilege, of course, is negative: it’s the privilege of not having one’s left hand cut off.  The privilege, in short, is the avoidance of being tortured by the ruling elite. To speak of such a privilege—if we must call it that—is not to speak of power but rather of powerlessness in the midst of a pervasive system of abuse and to admit that the best we can do in the face of injustice is duck and thus avoid being a target. 

My point is this. Talk of white skin privilege is talk about the way in which some of the citizens of this country are able to avoid being mutilated—or less metaphorically, to avoid having their basic human rights violated. So much for the analogy. Here are the facts about so-called white skin privilege. 

First, 80 percent of the wealth in this country is owned by 20 percent of the population. The top one percent owns 47 percent of this wealth. These facts describe an American oligarchy that rules not as a right of race but as a right of class.  One historical counterpart to this contemporary story of extreme economic imbalance is found in the fact that at the beginning of the Civil War, seven percent of the total white population in the South owned almost three quarters (three million) of all the slaves in this country. In other words, in 1860, an oligarchy of 8,000 persons actually ruled the South. This small planter class ruled over the slaves and controlled the five million whites too poor to own slaves. To make sense of this class fact, we must remember that the core motivation for slavery was not race but economics, which is why at its inception, both blacks and whites were enslaved. 

Second, let us not forget the lessons of the 1980s. As former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips reminds us in his book The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath, “For all workers, white-collar as well as blue-collar, their real average weekly wage—calculated in constant 1977 dollars—fell.” 

Third, let us also not forget that today, numerous companies are opting to lower standards for job qualifications for their work force rather than raise wages and thus cut into profits. Jobs paying $50,000 a year or more have twice the share of the job-loss rate than they did in the 1980s. 

These contemporary economic trends have resulted in the most acute job insecurity since the Great Depression. As economist Paul Krugman argued in the November 3, 1997, New Republic, America’s booming economy rests on the bent backs of American wage earners. The economy is booming because wages, the main component of business costs, are not going up. And wages aren’t going up because the American worker is presently too fearful to stand up and make demands. Downsizing has shaken worker confidence. Unemployment insurance last only a few months, and the global labor market has undermined the American worker’s bargaining power.

In light of all these facts, I don’t call white America’s economic status white skin privilege.  I call it white middle-class poverty.

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