Summary: Anthropologist Maximilian Forte explains white privilege, one of the hot button issues of today’s America. The concept has swept America. Where did it come from? Is it helping or hurting America?
By Maximilian C. Forte
From Zero Anthropology, 7 January 2018.
Reposted with his generous permission.
To the extent that “white privilege” continues to exist in the US, is it the highest form of privilege? How might a focus on domestic race relations misdirect us from an examination of US society in its proper geopolitical context?
Related to the last question: is this introverted, America-centric focus itself a sign of “American privilege”? In practice today the tendency that is frequently exhibited in saying “check your privilege,” is to personalize, to reduce to the level of inter-personal rhetorical tactics what originally pertained to a large-scale, structural phenomenon — that existed over, above, and against the mere attitudes and utterances of individual agency. That is what gave the concept some power, because it referenced inequality that persisted despite what any individuals might do or wish.
The rhetorical tactic of personalization, however, becomes counterproductive when it is used for inter-personal goal scoring rather than doing anything concrete to attain fundamental social and cultural change. However, beyond this, would an account of “white privilege” be sufficient to explain or understand US dominance? Would it paint an accurate picture of social relations in the US? Marxists would generally scoff at the notion of social stratification driven by race rather than the economic system of material production. But would a conceptualization of “American privilege” fare any better?
Check Your White Privilege?
The concept of “white privilege” is a prominent one in American academia. A search for the phrase in Google Books yields 105,000 results, which suggests this is also a profitable concept supported by publishers. Raised to the level of canonical knowledge it has been institutionalized in some quarters: taught to school children in Ontario for example. By now, many readers will have encountered the colloquial phrase, “check your white privilege”. (How one is supposed to go about “checking” this privilege remains unclear, nor is it clear what will be achieved by “checking” it. And is the “checking” meant to be an act of examination, or one that counters such privilege? In all honesty I often find American grammar to be baffling.)
There is considerable debate around the concept in the US, and a significant amount of criticism, both in academia and public commentary. Four of the features that concern me the most about how US white privilege has usually been conceptualized are…
- that it is rooted in a long-term continuity that approximates stasis;
- benefits and entitlements take centre stage in what is ostensibly invidious competition;
- it emphasizes race above all other social cleavages; and, following from the last point,
- it melts social class divisions.
Clearly much of the inspiration for the concept is derived from an understanding that the formal end of slavery in the US, as elsewhere, did not result in a termination of racism, both of the everyday and institutional kind. This is a useful reminder not to confuse de jure with de facto change — not to assume that changing laws automatically results in changing cultures or customs, which would be a great lesson for neoliberal cultural imperialists to finally learn. The historical origins of the concept are also a valuable reminder that, in the US, what is now criticized as identity politics originated as largely a white-dominated affair before the civil rights movement.
The critique of white privilege is an understandable reaction to that system of identity politics that had all blacks drinking from separate water fountains, sitting at the back of the bus, and that kept them away from ballot boxes. That so much public commentary seems to forget this history of identity politics, may be due to the unconscious tendency to place blacks in the category of “race” and “identity,” while whites alone occupy (upper) class positions.
The four features listed above also point to some of the main problems with US theories of white privilege, a list that grows longer as you keep reading this article. One might think, if you subscribe to the concept, that the whole point of racism is just to produce racial inequality, not capital accumulation. The concept suggests an understanding of privilege, but then loses sight of privilege’s sources and purposes. It is difficult to think of when and where identity politics were not first and foremost the creation of the dominant class, since this class had the power to make identities stick and institute them as political objects to begin with. However, race has dominated over class in US academia since the 19th-century. Thanks in part to the sterilizing effects of the last Cold War, Marxist class analysis is a latecomer to US campuses, a relative novice in fact. Thanks to the sterilizing effects of the new Cold War, class is once again the target of a campaign from all sides of the political spectrum, primarily targeted by neoliberals and their new left allies.
We apparently also need to be reminded of how identity politics and divide-and-rule are almost synonymous. As with colonial rule abroad, divide-and-rule also has a domestic function, which is to discipline the working class by erecting a hierarchy among the dominated classes. However, one of the most counterintuitive contentions behind the white privilege idea is that one can somehow be powerless and yet privileged at the same time. Where is the privilege in being discriminated against as “white trash”? What constitutes a privileged “hillbilly”? If there is “white privilege,” then those non-college educated working class whites, living shorter lives than their parents, must be personally responsible for their own misery.
Besides being a form of victim-blaming, prized among neoliberals, the “white privilege” concept air brushes capitalism from the picture. Even more questionable would be any conspiratorial assumptions that somehow whites entered into a secret pact to share everything among themselves, a notion that was famously lampooned by Eddie Murphy in a “mockumentary” on Saturday Night Live (when it still pretended to offer comedy). As the concept exited from academia and became a commonplace term in social media, it has generally tended to tilt closer to the version mocked by Murphy.
Analysis reduced to caricatures has been turned into a blunt instrument. Now white liberals can disingenuously accuse other whites over their unacknowledged “white privilege,” often used to shame the white members of the working class that were once the base of the Democratic Party. This was before that party underwent neoliberal structural adjustment, after which the emphasis was on individual“human rights,” on superficial and token (low cost) social reformism that favoured minorities, on rendering American workers disposable and replaceable, and breaking class itself down into competing status groups. Now even arch neoconservatives, proud imperialists, and war-mongers like Max Boot can virtue signal about white male privilege — as evidenced by his recent fake conversion, an expression of an abysmally dishonest moral narcissism that is exploited for petty anti-Trump politicking. It was Fox’s Tucker Carlson who read Boot’s article correctly: “Max Boot will say anything if they just let him invade Iran”. However, this still leaves us with the question of whether a concept of “American privilege” would result in some improved understanding. Before we get to that, a few words about class warfare.
Forbes 2012 list of the Richest People in America.
Hiding Class Conflict.
A series of rebuttals were published that aimed to either counter, qualify, or better contextualize the statistical case for race-driven police brutality that was routinely advanced by Black Lives Matter activists. To me, what was striking about a number of the rebuttals (aside from the volume of data) is that they seemed to paint a picture even worse than that painted by BLM. Rather than denying that there is a disproportionate amount of police violence in many of the cities where blacks have a major demographic presence–what also stood out is that low-income whites were also being targeted in great, or even greater numbers. One study published in the journal, Criminology & Public Policy, found that police officers are “three times less likely to shoot unarmed black suspects than unarmed white suspects”. The study appears to fortify studies from past decades that showed half as many white suspects shot by the police carried any guns, compared to black suspects.
It has also been found that 12% of white and Hispanic homicide deaths were due to police officers, while only 4% of black homicide deaths were the result of police officers. Another interesting finding is that black police officers are three times more likely than their white colleagues to shoot at black suspects. Whites are almost exactly half the fatalities (49%) of all police shootings in the US. More telling, another analysis found that 95% of reported police killings were in neighbourhoods with incomes under $100,000 — with the average neighborhood family income where a killing occurred being $57,764, and the median family income was $52,907.
Moreover, as Adolph Reed Jr. pointed out: “the states with the highest rates of police homicide per million of population are among the whitest in the country: New Mexico averages 6.71 police killings per million; Alaska 5.3 per million; South Dakota 4.69; Arizona and Wyoming 4.2, and Colorado 3.36”. Finally, in terms of an increase in the number of police shootings, whites have suffered a greater increase than blacks: “From 2000 to 2013, the number of whites killed by the police increased 57%, while the number of blacks killed by the police increased 42%”. If this is what “white privilege” amounts to, it doesn’t seem like a privilege anyone would want. Theories of racialism do not explain any of these facts. To the extent that “white privilege” and “white supremacy” are believed to exist, they do not have an obvious, logical, causal role in generating such facts on the ground.
What is more apparent instead is that what various branding exercises (as Reed calls them) have done is to reduce class conflict to various distracting labels, empty of historical sources, context, and purpose. This is not just “police brutality”. The police, staffed almost exclusively by the working class, readily engage in coercion to contain the working class. The police have been effectively schooled into acting on class prejudice, thus we have black officers readily shooting black suspects just as we have white officers doing the same with white suspects. To then focus on a single “race” among the victims, is to indulge in the long-standing classism that has met with official approval in the US and which best suits neoliberal purposes.
In 2016, when more articles started to come out that sought to explain the supposedly mysterious phenomenon of the “Trump supporter,” it seemed as if there might be an American reckoning, a rediscovery of poverty, class inequality, and alienation in the US, a thaw in the glacier that hid class inequality and working class struggles under deep layers of ideological ice. From articles exploring the lives of unemployed coal miners, to charity drives to support the rural poor in West Virginia, to reports about the fall of life expectancy rates among the white working class, to heightened alert about the opioid crisis, unemployment, homelessness, rising numbers on food stamps, the Rust Belt, flyover country — right down to Fox News hosts using the forbidden phrase, “working class” (at least for a while) — it seemed as if a major transformation was at hand. (The Fox narrative has now returned to the myth that all workers are “middle class,” or the working class is opaquely romanticized by Sean Hannity as the “forgotten men and women”. Hannity never has any actual working class people on his show to share their stories.)
Either way, it seemed that 2016 would finally break the American illusion of a country of plenty for all, of prosperity and wellbeing that were universally enjoyed, that “made America great”. The “land of milk and honey” narrative that sold the “American Dream” to countless millions of gullible and/or desperate persons in the global periphery, seemed to have finally crashed. Some, such as Obama, insisted that America was “already great” — thereby unwittingly making the argument for the existence of “American privilege” — while others who rallied behind “make America great again,” in using the word “again” suggested that something had been badly broken. There was insufficient “privilege” in the present, one might have said, hence time to return America to its past level of privilege.
Jeff Latchaw, a homeless man, looks at a pool of water from a recent rain storm at a homeless tent city March 4, 2009 in Sacramento, California.
A Fight Over American Real Estate.
At the same time as the ostensible beginnings in a transformation in public consciousness seemed to be occurring, calls to “check your white privilege” seemed to grow louder — perhaps this is due to the Black Lives Matter movement cresting in popularity just as the Make America Great Again movement began to gain momentum. The juxtaposition of new eye-opening exposés of the American socio-economic wastelands, with assertions that their inhabitants experienced “privilege,” seemed like too much of a contradiction. At best, it seemed as if a concept that once showed signs of nearing the right track, had been derailed, and fell into a partisan gutter. At worst, it seemed like the emptiest, most callous expression of crass indifference to all poverty and inequality. The only problematic poverty would be the poverty of those with a certain skin colour–and if that view is not an expression of racism, nothing is.
However the assertion suggested something else: a desperate attempt to preserve what has become the master narrative for everything posing as social analysis in the US today, that being “race relations”. Americans could supposedly not afford to let class creep back in, or the race industry might lose valuable real estate. Given what was outlined by Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant nearly 20 years ago, with reference to US cultural imperialism, it was therefore not surprising to find an African-American scholar transport her society’s obsessions with “race” all the way to the ex-industrial regions of the UK, in a supposed “analysis” of the root causes of Brexit which, sure enough, were predetermined to be all about “race” and specifically “white supremacy” (because Brexit voters are evil, ignorant racists, naturally to be impugned for being white).
Which “races” were involved is a big mystery however, especially as the focus of the immigration debate centred on Polish migrants to the UK, the largest of all the foreign-born populations in the country. Neither “Poland” nor “Polish”1 are ever mentioned in such spurious analyses (published by Verso Books, of course) that, more importantly, reflect the generic, one-size-fits-all mentality of globalized American academia. That Americans (regardless of skin colour) not only like to see themselves in everyone else’s story, but also have the power to publish and promote their views, is another sign that tempts one to think that American privilege is real.
Continuing with the theme of American cultural imperialism in academia,2 we had the example of Rochelle Gutierrez, a professor at the University of Illinois, advising us that mathematics “operates as Whiteness”. Aside from decent rebuttals like this one, and leaving aside the possibility that the press had once again distorted and simplified a decent argument, I was taken aback by the arrogance of the assertion of mathematics as white — it struck me as something only an American would say, possibly with a streak of guilt-ridden self-praise. The notion that mathematics is to be associated with either white people or westerners is already flawed — while still making a better argument that math is not culture-free, others at least took the time to describe the mathematical principles that have been developed by cultures around the world. Were the Maya astronomers white westerners? Were the pyramid builders in Egypt strangers to geometry? What can be said about India? What about China? What about the fact that the very word “algebra” is Arabic? What about the Arab numerals we use?
I thought: good lord, where would such a person come from, who could even for a moment think “math is white,” it was just so amazingly, unforgivably, dumb. But then I thought: carry on, because your debate about math being white is not stopping all those Chinese mathematicians and scientists who do not concern themselves with the skin colour of math and are instead busy at work, burying you.
Not only did the “white privilege” focus fail to convince me that it could adequately take into account actual facts on the ground, it struck me that the whole construct had a self-obsessed American character to it. Did it make matters better for Iraqis that the bombs dropped on them fell from planes piloted by African-Americans, or that a black general gave the order, because at least they were not being annihilated by representatives of “white privilege”?
However, what was the use of complaining? If some insist that essentially there is no meaningful difference among “whites,” that they are all “privileged,” and that no matter their actual situation they have all “benefited” from a system of white domination, then we too can use this same amalgamating, homogenizing, and essentializing principle. However, instead of just applying it to one demographic sector of the US, we will apply it to the entirety of the US. Hence, behold American Privilege — something you are going to have to “check” before you presume to address us Non-Americans. (Although some of us are really Sub-Americans, or American Clones, but let’s not complicate matters.)
Debating “American Privilege.”
What I discovered was that I was far from alone in realizing that “American privilege” is not just an important counterpoint to “white privilege,” it may be its lost long-lost parent. Reading discussions about American privilege can however become rather annoying — annoying, in so far as writers commonly restrict themselves to making simple little generalizations, such as “you are privileged to be an American,” “this is the land of privilege,” or “some Americans are privileged, and others are underprivileged”. Most treatments restrict “privilege” to a mere idea, a way of seeing or thinking about oneself, or as a tool of discourse, like it had no material reality. That is one result of identity politics and the dominance of the race relations industry in the US — the constant narrowing of debate to the level of navel-gazing, reduced to a form of narcissism that obsesses about “how I see myself” versus “how others see me,” a fixation with self-fashioning and moving through society always on the alert for anything devaluing one’s status.
In reviewing some of the articles on “American Privilege” that one can find online, there are those that proudly affirm that privilege exists for all Americans, regardless of race:
“American privilege is present, pervasive, and potent for all those workers. Even the poor amongst us can afford big screen TVs and fancy cell phones if they work hard…. American privilege ensures that even our poor probably live better than kings and queens of yesteryear, and certainly better than most of the world’s population today”.
Others also paint a portrait of America as a cornucopia. They revel in the fiction that there is no real poverty in the US. Not all of those who write such things are white — this black conservative uses “American privilege” precisely to deny “white privilege”. (On the other hand, white privilege subscribes to the myth of America as a cornucopia for all supposed whites.) If there is any value at all to such articles, it is in offering us a valuable lesson: that some notions of “American Privilege” can be used for propaganda, as complement of American Exceptionalism.
Interestingly, right wing Americans who might ordinarily be critical of increased immigration, now are instead proud to point to immigration since it is convenient for their argument: “No wonder so many immigrants aspire to the American Dream. They are not uprooting their lives and flocking to the U.S. because of white privilege”. The collection of foreign peoples is like living votes of confidence that “America is alright,” that “America is still Number One”. What is routinely ignored by such affirmations however, is that the US has invested many millions of dollars, with the work of agents in the tens of thousands, over a period of seven decades, in selling the “American Dream” all over the world and investing in Americanization/modernization. What a surprise, that mass advertising and always insufficient “development” can create some little demand (overwhelmingly, around 97% of humans continue to remain in their countries of birth).
Using the idea of American privilege as a critique of US imperialism, we have examples such as Caitlin Johnstone’s article. In that piece she argues that if people in the US think “interventionism” and “warmongering” are just words, and not reality, it is probably owing to their “American privilege” (which again reduces privilege to an idea, an attitude, a form of [un]consciousness). Johnstone then expands on the idea in a stinging attack on how identity politics suit the neoliberal/neocon elites:
“Two words: American privilege. Democrats will gleefully accuse their political opposition of white privilege, male privilege, straight and cis privilege in their attempts to hand the government over to politicians who want to topple governments and drop cluster munitions on cities overseas, because the alternative might make things a little uncomfortable for them at home. How many of my readers were accused of ‘white privilege’ for their decision to back Jill Stein over Hillary Clinton in the general election? Quite a few I’d imagine. They’d rather have elected a President with an extensive history of supporting disastrous military intervention after disastrous military intervention, who was promising to shoot down Russian military planes over Syria and provide ‘military responses’ for Russian ‘cyber attacks’, than fight the political system that forces them into voting for World War 3 in a pants suit. All because the orange guy said he’d build a wall”.
Still critical in asserting the existence of American privilege, others emphasize a particular attitude: “American privilege brings with it the luxury of obliviousness”. Expanding further…
“not having to bother, unless one chooses, to learn about other countries; and not having to bother, unless one chooses, to learn about how U.S. foreign policy affects people in other countries. A corollary privilege is to imagine that if people in other countries study us, it’s merely out of admiration for our way of life. The list of American privileges can be extended. For example, Americans can buy cheap goods made by super exploited workers in Third World countries; Americans can take a glib attitude toward war, since it’s likely to be a high-tech affair affecting distant strangers; and Americans can enjoy freedom at home, because U.S. capitalists are able to wring extraordinary profits out of Third World workers and therefore don’t need to repress U.S. workers as harshly”.
Others also affirm that American privilege exists in enjoying a lifestyle that is ultimately the product of despoiling others: “My American lifestyle and the privileges I enjoy are a direct function of genocide”. In attempting to define American privilege, it’s not surprising that the ideational approach is dominant: “American privilege — the blind spots in our perception which prevent us from seeing our country in its true light”. (There are also articles such as this one, that one, and the other one, which use “American privilege” in their titles, and then proceed to neither define nor explain the concept.)
“Attitude” is a big deal for Americans, so we should expect to find it defining almost everything that is social, political, and economic or cultural. The belief that “success” largely depends on one’s “attitude,” that you can have whatever you want if you want it enough, and that improving your attitude improves your chances of reaching your goals–has been sold to Americans by generations of priests, pop-psychologists, propagandists in public relations, politicians, a long line of self-help gurus, and even some academics. “Having the right attitude” is one of the oldest working myths of US society.
For the “American privilege” concept to be useful, it should incorporate but also go well beyond individual consciousness (lack of interest in the wider world), and include social structure and political economy. We would need to see not only the lion’s share of world capital accruing to the US, we would also need to see this capital distributed among the whole of the US population. If we should instead find that a disproportionate share of the wealth and power is concentrated in the hands of a tiny class section at the top (plus their class allies overseas), while a disproportionate share of the costs and sacrifices are distributed to the mass of the population below, we would be forced to ask: where is this privilege? What privilege is it that has me risking my life as a soldier, to pay my debts and raise a family, while others enjoy champagne on their yachts?
We would also need to see examples of all Americans enjoying the power to make decisions that secure their world dominance. American privilege would mean that US imperialism produces benefits for US society as a whole — but the problem is this: when did imperialism ever bother itself with improving the lives of everyone in the imperial mother country? It’s true that social reformers arriving on the scene well after the imperialist project had already been launched, could and did push for social welfare, but imperialism itself was never devised as a tool of social welfare (though it might be sold as such, and could sometimes produce unexpected benefits).
One could equally make the case that the ideologies, methods and technologies of imperial rule were re-imported into the so-called mother country and then used against working class and marginalized populations (which involves a broader understanding of “blowback”). It is also important to remember that imperialist warfare is always class warfare. One begins to sense that this is very complicated, and will require delving into large heaps of European and American history, backed by extensive statistical analysis–well beyond the reach of this one article.
In the adaptive appropriation of the “white privilege” concept, all stand condemned, as all are either complicit or all have benefited somehow from the US’ global dominance. However, to be slightly more elevated some choose to not just revel in their new found validation of anti-Americanism: the idea of “American privilege” is instead used as an approach to criticizing imperialism. Of course this assumes one agrees that imperialism has historically been “disadvantageous” to those on the receiving end (some do not agree, and they point instead to the spread of English, Cricket, and the Good News, etc.), and it also assumes that one understands how the US is and has been an imperialist power for the past two centuries.
The Stain on the American Name.
What strikes me when reading American political commentary is — aside from a few exceptions — the general lack of “diversity” when it comes to Americans reflecting on their American specialness and their special “role in the world”. Americans attack each other over who would dare deny American Exceptionalism: as the official religion, all must swear by it. Prominent politicians give speeches about “America’s role in the world,” as if it were almost natural to have one, that is, a role in the world. I spent two summers in Central America, and I cannot once recall hearing a Costa Rican or a Guatemalan ever utter a word about their “role in the world”. But Americans are special, privileged people, who believe that they automatically deserve to have a role in everyone’s affairs. They cannot help themselves — they just cannot stay away, and this is even true in academia. They need to author themselves into everyone else’s story, which is also why there is scarcely an American film set in another nation that does not feature an American protagonist. We would should just stand back and watch them arrange our affairs for us — for their own benefit, to be precise.
By now the reader will have noticed my use of the word “American”. Some will want to urge me to stop using this with reference to US citizens, because in the Americas we are all Americans. Sorry, but people in the US can keep the term now, it has been ruined beyond repair by them, and we don’t want to confuse the rest of the world. As with everything else apparently, they had to takeover something that was never theirs, or not theirs alone, and they had to monopolize it and then distort it into something repulsive and alien.
Marking this lack of political diversity in American commentary on America’s role in the world, leads one to uncomfortable conclusions: that all major sectors of American politics bear the stain of imperialism. We can do a quick survey right here:
(1) The Democrats, and Hillary Clinton, craving conflict with Russia to the point of fomenting a new Cold War, seeing Russian conspiracies everywhere, with select Hollywood celebrities even doing commercials declaring war on Russia. Never mind state structures whose agents daily labour at producing evidence-free claims of Russian “intervention” (conveniently left undefined).
(2) Donald Trump (not to mention Republican neocons), apparently keen to do everything necessary to ensure war with North Korea, while also threatening Iran, occupying Syria, and virtually turning Afghanistan into a permanent colony. Trump laments the trillions of dollars wasted in nation-building in the Middle East, but then proceeds to waste hundreds of billions more (in his first year alone), for the purpose of making wars abroad.
(3) Steve Bannon and the so-called “alt right”? Bannon has a special fixation on China, with reasserting US hegemony, and going to war with China on trade. Not only that, his Breitbart runs stories that should be totally irrelevant to the alt-right, but instead are curiously prominent — grossly propagandistic pieces that slam Venezuela, Cuba, Zimbabwe, and so forth, repeating the classic, standard, US prejudices about the Third World, and worst of all, (brown-skinned) socialists. The Bannonites are littered with other contradictions as well: denouncing “corporate fat cats,” yet championing capitalism and running campaigns funded by billionaires; denouncing war-mongering globalists and yet Sebastian Gorka recently offered gushing praise for Nikki Haley, someone who was resolutely anti-Trump (until he won). No relief is to be found in this quarter either.
(4) Bernie Sanders, surely he must be a major exception. Sanders? This would be the same Sanders who loves colonialist Winston Churchill, almost as much as he endorses NATO, democracy promotion, liberal imperialism, all while denouncing the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela, and formerly Libya. Forget it, there is no relief here either. At one point even Jill Stein seemed to call for foreign intervention in Syria, at the time Aleppo was being liberated from the hands of brutal jihadists–so if you went to Stein looking for relief, little was to be found.
Therefore, if we wanted to be unfair and class all Americans as imperialists who seek to maintain American privilege, we could easily do so — and with more evidence in favour of our concept than is the case with white privilege which, to be fair, is not evidence-free either.
Delinking from US Dominance.
In the rest of our world, that vast area where we “Non-Americans” reside, there is an unfortunate tendency among select elites and impressionable followers to believe that what the US wants for us, it wants for the best. However, we should take great care with the “gifts” they wish to bestow upon us — because what they distribute abroad is precisely what they restrict and control at home. That includes: democracy, health care, and guns. Why is that? It is because each of these has been weaponized (except for guns, which are already weapons). Democracy is promoted overseas, and used to unseat established governments and even whole state structures, while it is actively regulated, monitored, and restricted at home, if not despised outright.
Health care in the US is for those who can afford it — but for some reason this never stops the US military from delivering free health care to countless numbers across the world during US military exercises (the Flickr accounts of all the branches of the US armed services are littered with images of such health care delivery — which is why I sarcastically advised Americans to seek Honduran or Filipino citizenship if they want to receive free American healthcare). This was part of the US’ “soft power,” its desire being to project US power as beneficial to its targets, with the US standing in as a global baby sitter, nurse, doctor, and step-father.
Also, for as much as American liberal commentators moan on about the need for gun control, they are the first ones to send or sell vast amounts of weaponry into virtually every conflict zone on the planet. Hillary Clinton — quick to push herself to the front whenever there is a noteworthy mass shooting (there are so many that some escape wide notice) — always demanding greater gun control in the US, is the same Hillary Clinton who saw to it that jihadist lynch mobs in Libya got all the guns they desired.
The “gift” of academic Americanization also comes at a cost, with not just a transfer of capital — of all kinds of capital — from our countries to the US, but also other significant costs, including intellectual ones. Thanks to Americanization via globalized neoliberalism, our campuses have become importers of the kind of liberal totalitarianism one sees prevailing in the US. We now have endless rounds of conferences, speakers, exhibits, and articles in university media, all engaged in a grand denial of reality, that is, a denial of their own responsibility for making the “Post-Trump” and “Post-Brexit” world possible. What we witness is a desperate effort to claim partisan monopoly ownership over all that is true, good, and beautiful — only to achieve the opposite of each of these.
In terms of US dominance, it would no longer take anyone much effort to compile charts, graphs and maps showing the unequal distribution of wealth and resources in the world, accruing to the benefit of a blob on the map called the USA. We could have lists showing the amount of meat consumption per capita in the US, or energy consumption per capita, compared with other countries — and they had better be per capita figures, because this is the way to lie with statistics and pretend class differences do not exist. We could go further and reduce American privilege to a calorie count, or a measure of fuel consumption.
One could produce charts showing which country reaps most of the rewards of most armed conflicts on the planet — the US. We could add to this the lengthy chronology of US armed interventions around the world, over a span of 200+ years. We could present maps showing the global distribution of US military installations, and other maps showing the dozens of countries where US Special Forces currently operate. We could have bar graphs showing how the US rivals the combined entirety of the rest of the planet when it comes to military spending. We could produce a statistical breakdown of the controlling shares of votes that the US maintains in the IMF and World Bank. Other charts could show how the US controls global financial circuits. We could do all of this, all over again (it’s been done, by many, for decades now) — and it would prove beyond a doubt that something looking like American privilege actually does exist.
Both white privilege and American privilege respect differences to a limited degree. White privilege perceives differences in US society according to race, but ignores class differences. American privilege perceives difference in the wider world-system, but ignores social, political, and economic differences at home. Neither concept can comprehend the existence of a transnational capitalist class, many if not most of its members being neither white nor American. American privilege exists to the extent that one ignores the severe differences among Americans, just as white privilege downplays those differences — because both conceptualizations are premised on the idea that benefits are indeed shared, even if not shared equally. Both conceptualizations automatically deny as a possibility the fact that benefits might not be shared at all. After all, it’s not very capitalist, this whole “sharing of benefits” thing — on the other hand, the “privilege” theorists are not known for publishing epic tomes on capitalism.
And this is the other irony of the American privilege idea: it validates trickle down economics as actually working, and working to the benefit of all Americans. One cannot assert that trickle down economics over the last 30 years has failed Americans, and then turn around and assert that all Americans benefit from the imperialist system which they lead. That is because not all Americans lead the imperialist system, which is instead dominated by a small, transnational capitalist class.
Imperialism’s Second Nature.
The reality is that anti-imperialist tendencies do exist within the US, and there are publishers devoted to the publication of books and articles that feature an anti-imperialist theme — and that has also been true, off and on, for over a century. Some prominent figures in American history even characterized themselves as “anti-imperialist,” from Andrew Carnegie to Mark Twain. There are also reasonable facsimiles of anti-imperialism, or refractions of anti-imperialism that appear under the anti-war, anti-intervention, and anti-globalization banners.
My approach is one that stresses not just class differences among Americans, but also cultural and political ones. Perhaps as a sarcastic move, as part of a heated polemic, I would be tempted to speak negatively of “American privilege”. However, with all of that, there is still reason to worry that serious differences within the US never seem to amount to enough to stop the US’ imperialist bent, which by now has become so ingrained that it is virtually a second nature, seeping its way deep into almost every corner of American life.
Imperialism has become so naturalized and diffused, that it has been distilled and distributed as a mindset, percolating down to the level of everyday principles of social interaction. It’s interesting to think of how something that is structural, pertaining to international political economy, can spawn a set of everyday attitudes that people live by, even when they are far removed from the cockpits of imperial power. Here are seven basic examples of imperialism transformed into social norms:
that I should be able to say or do what I want, to make any allegation, cast any aspersion, cheat anyone, and there will never be any consequences, because I am untouchable, even invincible;
when I finally suffer the consequences of my actions, I deny their reality as consequences — for I am the perpetual victim, I am innocent, I am the best who suffered at the hands of the worst;
I come first, and what I am, and what I have, is always the best, top of the line — I am always better than you, or what I have is better than what you have;
I am morally entitled to take a certain course of action — but because I am superior to you, if you take a similar action in your defense then you are to be condemned, and any comparison is to be automatically rejected as a “false equivalence” — my hypocrisy is privileged and beyond question and will not answer to your “whataboutism”; and,
that what I require to live well and to live safely, is entirely different and separate from what all others might also require, because my needs/wants are special;
that all others must treat me well, as I would never treat them;
others should always be aware of me, while I will offer no such recognition in return.
These are basic, routine operations (even US academics reproduce them). What is important is not calling such operations “American” as much as it is to notice the fundamental transfer of costs and revenues that is common to all of them: you incur all the costs, and I accumulate all the gains. You lose. I win. This is the basic structure of extraction that is one of the features of imperialism, and it cannot help “contaminating” the culture of the leading imperialist nation. Some might point to these tendencies as evidence of American privilege; I would instead see them as by-products of imperialism, attitudes that are widely shared because it costs nothing to share them, useful too if they can shore up domestic political support for imperialism.
Friends of Anti-Imperialism?
Beyond published political commentary, matters become even more disconcerting when it comes to American political behaviour during national electoral seasons, especially where presidential elections are involved. Just when we Non-Americans might have thought that we had anti-imperialist allies in the US, we discover they are riven by all sorts of secondary contradictions. It turns out that they cannot be trusted to take any of the best opportunities to make gains on the anti-interventionist front, because ultimately other concerns overtake them: health care, education, and don’t forget “race relations”. Whatever affects them personally, including whether particular personalities appeal to them, seems to trump consideration of which position may make the best sense, at any given moment, when it comes to either halting or at least weakening US imperialism.
It’s understandable, when you consider that Americans are forced into thinking there are few available options. On the one hand, there is the Republican establishment, which stills insists on being frightened by Donald Trump, even after getting most of what they wanted — no matter, they persist in doing combat with an illusion of a radical Trump, a Trump who threatens real change. It is not so irrational either: in fighting “Trump 2016” (even after he was deposed by “Trump 2017”), what the Republican establishment is actually doing is fighting the supporters of Trump 2016, lest they ever dream of power again. This would explain the monumental hypocrisy of figures like John McCain and George W. Bush, the most acerbic unilateralists now denouncing Trump for disrespecting the UN — two arch neocons, whose continued dishonesty is now celebrated in the “liberal” media.
Also remarkable is this American art of projection — where you accuse your opponent of doing everything you already do, or of being what you are. Both McCain and Bush are guilty of what they criticize in their speeches — they criticize Trumpist nostalgia, by being nostalgic; they condemn isolationism, and they isolated the US; they mock old dogmas that have ended up in the ash heap of history, only to dig around in that heap for their own dogma:
NOSTALGIA: for when America was a respected world leader (respected?);
ISOLATIONISM: when sanctions, censorship, wars, promoted by neocons, have done far more to isolate the US than any withdrawal from a climate change treaty;
THE ASH HEAP OF HISTORY: yet droning on with the tired old dogma of American Exceptionalism.
(The irony of the last one is not to be missed: it’s from that same ash heap, where North Korea supposedly dwells, that the US faces being reduced to an actual ash heap.)
If not the Republican establishment, Americans can instead turn to the liberal media’s daily, freaked out psycho-fests, where screaming, frowning, splenetic hyperbole, ritualized tearless sobbing, or even real tears can be seen. Such media do not only tell Americans what to think about, they go a step further and tell them what to think. The media’s distrust of their own audiences is just that pronounced, that they take no chances on the possibility of audience members thinking for themselves. This repellent attitude might make anyone feel sympathetic toward anything the media hate. One can understand how some would have voted for Trump just to smite this neoliberal class of blighted darlings, just to take one long hot piss on their incessant self-flattery, just to boot them from their pristine perches and fill the sky with their pompous little feathers.
So it is not so difficult, even without deeper probing, to see the conflicts that can overwhelm American voters, at the cost of what is important to their would-have-been allies abroad.
Is there American Privilege?
The conclusion I ended up with is a knotted one, or one that keeps folding in on itself until it disappears. The argument for white privilege seems impervious to American privilege (and a great deal more), yet the construct of American privilege itself is based on broad generalizations and can serve to reinforce the ideological propaganda of US imperialists. Cancelling American privilege cancels the white privilege within it, leaving us with nothing. Except, that we do not actually have nothing: we have older theories that did a much better job — however imperfect — in trying to account for both internal inequality and exploitation within the US, alongside the US exploiting other nations and expanding a system of international inequality. This takes us back to the 1940s–1960s, with centre-periphery theories that were developed by “Non-American” scholars. We also have newer theories of the transnational capitalist class. Of course, it is one’s privilege to ignore both.
(1) “…things really changed in 2004. Poland was one of 10 countries to join the E.U. that year, and Britain was one of just three member states to allow these new European citizens to work immediately in the country. Polish citizens were now part of the European principle of freedom of movement. Prompted by high unemployment and low wages at home, many young Polish citizens opted to be a part of it: About 2 million Poles have left the country since 2004. While significant numbers of the Polish citizens headed to Germany and Ireland, Britain was the intended destination for many: With an estimated headcount of 850,000, Polish citizens are the largest group of foreign citizens in the country” [emphasis added]. Source.
(2) Similar arguments could apply to the internationalization of the standard American sociological formula for studying social divisions, always reduced to race/ethnicity, gender, and class — this is now the classic American menu. Ask for proof to be provided that these are the dominant ways in which all other societies organize themselves, and you will be left unsatisfied. At least that was my experience when querying why an American scholar writing an ethnography of Trinidad & Tobago, focused on “race, gender, class” — had the person not noticed the special importance of region, religion, and generation in organizing social divisions? That is, which part of the country you came from, which god(s) you worshipped, and whether you were an elder or youth, were also paramount lines of division.
I do not recall the answer, and I wonder if there was one. I also apparently lost a job opportunity once because after a long talk I gave on Carib indigeneity, I was asked point blank: “what about gender?” That’s it, the person even refused to elaborate, just repeating: “what about gender?” I had talked about “men” and “women,” but apparently that wasn’t good enough, so I was truly at a loss. The person on the committee rooting for me then slumped over and clapped his hand to his forehead when he heard my reply: “I like gender! I think everyone should have at least one”.
- Bandler, Aaron. (2016). “5 Statistics You Need To Know About Cops Killing Blacks”. The Daily Wire, July 7.
- Bishop, Alan J. (1990). “Western Mathematics: The Secret Weapon of Cultural Imperialism”. Race & Class, 32(2), 51–65.
- Bloss, Araquel. (2016). “American Privilege”. The Progressive Independent Party, August 6.
- Boot, Max. (2017). “2017 Was the Year I Learned About My White Privilege”. Foreign Policy, December 27.
- Bourdieu, Pierre, & Wacquant, Loic. (1999). “On the Cunning of Imperialist Reason”. Theory, Culture & Society, 16(1), 41-58.
- Boyd, Delainey J. (2016). “American Privilege”. Odyssey, July 25.
- Bush, George W. (2017). Remarks by President George W. Bush and Mrs. Laura Bush at the “Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In The World,”October 19. George W. Bush Presidential Center.
- CBC. (2014). “What is white privilege?”. CBC News, November 27.
- Dreher, Rod. (2017). “University Of Hate Whitey”. The American Conservative, October 26.
- Dreher, Rod. (2013). “American Privilege”. The American Conservative, May 13.
- Emejulu, Akwugo. (2016). “On the Hideous Whiteness Of Brexit: ‘Let us be honest about our past and our present if we truly seek to dismantle white supremacy’”. Verso Books, June 28.
- Forte, Maximilian C. (2016). “Canadian Anthropology or Cultural Imperialism?”. Via Academia.edu.
- Forte, Maximilian C. (2014). “A Flickr of Militarization: Photographic Regulation, Symbolic Consecration, and the Strategic Communication of ‘Good Intentions’”. In Maximilian C. Forte, (Ed.), Good Intentions: Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism (pp. 185–279). Montreal: Alert Press.
- Fox, James. (2015). “Police recklessness, not racism”. USA Today, August 9.
- Galtung, Johan. (1971). “A Structural Theory of Imperialism”. Journal of Peace Research, 8(2), 81–117.
- Hartigan, John. (2005). Odd Tribes: Toward a Cultural Analysis of White People. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Hinckley, Story. (2016). “New evidence that what we think about cops and race is far too simplistic”. The Christian Science Monitor, July 13.
- Jackman, Tom. (2016). “This study found race matters in police shootings, but the results may surprise you”. The Washington Post, April 27.
- Jilani, Zaid. (2015). “95% of Police Killings in 2015 Occurred in Neighborhoods With Incomes Under $100,000”. AlterNet, July 24.
- Johnstone, Caitlin. (2017). “Democrats Have a Nasty Case of American Privilege”. Newslogue, February 8.
- McCain, John. (2017). Remarks by Senator John Mccain at 2017 Liberty Medal Ceremony, October 16. Press release: Office of Senator John McCain.
- McCarthy, Andrew C. (2016). “Police Shootings — Black vs. White, Narrative vs. Fact”. National Review, September 24.
- Parker, Cynthia Silva. (2009). “On American Privilege”. Interaction Institute for Social Change, April 20.
- Reed, Adolph, Jr.. “How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence”. Nonsite, September 16.
- RT. (2017). “Math equals white privilege? US professor’s claim in new book raises eyebrows”. RT, October 25.
- SNL. (1984). Eddie Murphy: White Like Me. Saturday Night Live, December 15.
- Schwalbe, Michael. (2002). “The Costs of American Privilege”. CounterPunch, October 4.
- Street, Paul. (2017). “Against Identitarian and Generational Divide and Rule”. CounterPunch, December 29.
- Taylor, Adam. (2016). “Britain’s 850,000 Polish citizens face backlash after Brexit vote”. The Washington Post, June 28.
- Walsh, Joan. (2013). “Recognizing American privilege”. Salon, February 7.
- Weaver, Mason. (2017). “‘White privilege’? Embrace ‘American privilege’!” WND, September 14.
- Williams, Noel S. (2014). “American Privilege”. American Thinker, December 16.
- Wise, Tom. (2014). “It’s not White Privilege, it’s American Privilege – Pulling the Mask off of Collectivist Fascism”. Freedom Outpost, December 27.
A few of the many many books about white privilege
[amazon_link asins=’1429242205,1587434008,1593764251,0415874270,0830843930,0991331303,B0784Z69RQ’ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’thefabimaxiwe-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’e4eaaf03-f1f0-11e7-8e43-4db01f95d6cb’]
About the author
Maximilian C. Forte is a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (2012) and Emergency as Security (New Imperialism) (2013). See his publications here; read his bio here.
Anthropology after empire is one built in part by an anthropology that is against empire, and it need not continue, defensively, as a discipline laden with all of the orthodoxies from which it suffers today. Indeed, the position taken here is that there can be no real critical anthropology that is not simultaneously critical of (a) the institutionalization and professionalization of this field, and (b) imperialism itself.
Anthropology, as we approach it, is a non-disciplinary way of speaking about the human condition that looks critically at dominant discourses, with a keen emphasis on meanings and relationships, producing a non-state, non-market, non-archival knowledge.
For More Information
Ideas! For ideas about using your Holiday cash, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.
- An anthropologist looks at our New Victorianism: Imperialism, and Identity Politics.
- Congress did a great thing 50 years ago, but rot from that day has spread and taken root.
- Racism is the dark side of populism. Will it divide and defeat us?
- Hard data from Harvard about police violence & race.
- Warning: the income gap between races is widening in America.
- On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let the GOP remember its great betrayal.
- America’s unspeakable problem: African-American’s crime rates.
- About a cause of America’s rising tide of hatred. We can still stop it.
- Left and Right use race as a way to divide America.