The shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin in the US earlier this year sparked a wave of anti-racist anger across the country.
But when some white people wore T-shirts with the solidarity slogan “I am Trayvon Martin”, others replied that they had no right to—because as white people they were part of the problem.
In both Britain and the US this position can seem like common sense. We often hear the stark notion that when it comes to racism, white people are the problem. But does this really explain where racism comes from and who should be blamed for it?
At first it seems so. After all, most incidents of racism we come across involve white people expressing prejudiced attitudes to black people and acting upon them.
This argument is closely bound up with the idea that racism is driven by “white privilege”. This theory is particularly popular among US liberals.
It argues that white people benefit from living in a racist society. They justify this privilege by embracing racist ideas, either consciously or unconsciously. So anti-racism has to start from white people acknowledging their hidden motivations.
Again this theory seems superficially plausible. If black people are oppressed in society, surely it follows that white people are privileged? And if that is the case, surely this white privilege is the source of racism more generally?
But there are problems with these explanations that should make us stop and think twice. To start with, white people often oppose racism—while some black people partially accept racist ideas. Theories of racism that blame white people in general, or decry their alleged privilege, struggle to make sense of these cases.
Moreover, these theories ignore an important difference between privileges and rights. Privileges are unfair advantages that should be taken away. Rights, in contrast, are universal and ought to apply to everybody.
Figures show that the police stop and search black people disproportionately often. This is clearly a racist state of affairs. But it would scarcely be any kind of justice if the police responded by stopping white people all the time as well.
The point is that nobody—black or white—should be subjected to this kind of harassment.
Racism operates by denying black people their rights, not by granting privileges to white people in general.
Of course there are cases where white people who genuinely are privileged act in an obnoxious racist manner in order to preserve that privilege. But racism in general is not driven by these cases, nor are white people in general genuinely privileged in this manner.
There is a more fundamental problem with theories that blame white people for racism. They necessarily focus on individual attitudes and individual transformation. This encourages a passive attitude that is politically debilitating. And it takes the focus away from society at large—which is the source of racist attitudes in individuals.
Once we put the focus back on to society, certain key features of that society loom into view—features that “white privilege” theories either ignore or downplay.
We live in a grossly unequal capitalist society where the vast majority of people, black and white, work to generate wealth for a small and genuinely privileged elite. This is what socialists call the ruling class.
This economic structure of a ruling class exploiting the working class affects every aspect of our existence—how we eat, where we sleep, what we do with our daily lives.
Class division is the fundamental backdrop upon which all other injustices are played out. And it is the key to unlocking questions about why racism persists and how we can fight it most effectively.
One obvious point about this unequal society—and one that is not lost on the ruling class—is that all working people are exploited and thus have a common interest in overthrowing the ruling class.
This is why the ruling class has, since the earliest days of capitalism, always worked hard to generate divisions between working class people. Our rulers want us to lash out at each other rather than directing our anger upwards.
We can see how this operates in societies where racism has been particularly prominent, such as the southern states of the US. White people were and are encouraged to see themselves as better than black people and participate in keeping black people down.
But they did not gain any material benefit as a result. On the contrary, the division meant ordinary white and black people were both materially worse off than those in the American north.
The US anti-racist WEB Du Bois wrote of the south in the 1930s, “There probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply.”
The bosses benefited from this state of affairs, he added. “It must be remembered that the white group of labourers, while they received a low wage, were compensated for by a sort of public and psychological wage.”
But this “psychological wage” is not a material benefit for white workers. On the contrary, it stops them from seeing their own interests and ends up making their own situation worse.
Another reason why socialists should reject “white privilege” theories is that in practice they lead to passivity and withdrawal from politcal struggle.
If white people benefit from racism, it is difficult to see how they can help fight against it. Socialists need to show that both black and white benefit from breaking down racism.
That means that racism should never be ignored and should always be fought. This is why it is vital for white socialists to join black people on demonstrations such as those demanding justice for Trayvon Martin.
There is nothing natural about racism. In fact for most of human history there has been no such thing as racism. People may have held a range of prejudices including fear of strangers—but the idea of classifying people into a hierarchy of “races” is relatively new.
Racism as we now know it first emerged with the Atlantic slave trade in the 16th century. Race theories were used to justify the horrific oppression of Africans and square that oppression with emerging notions of human equality.
So racist ideas flow from class society. Children are born free of racist attitudes and have to be taught them. But our rulers encourage us to accept racist ideas. They hope that white people will blame black people for the lack of jobs and services while escaping any blame themselves.
We are often told that racism is a disease affecting the lower orders of society—one that can be cured through education by our superiors.
This is the opposite of the truth. Racist attitudes are more common among the rich than the poor. Working class people are far more likely to work alongside, socialise and form relationships across racial divides. Dividing the working class is in the interests of the rich, not the poor.
The most successful challenges to racism have been led by movements from below that have brought ordinary black and white people together in a common struggle for justice.
The US civil rights movement is one example, as is the movement against the fascist National Front in Britain in the late 1970s. These movements have had working class people and working class organisations at their heart.
Racism is not a side issue for socialists, one to be set aside or downplayed in favour of class struggle. On the contrary, it is vital and necessary for working class activists to be “tribunes of the oppressed” and fight every injustice in capitalist society.
Frequently this means challenging racist attitudes and arguments inside the working class. White people in general are not to blame for racism—but this does not let anyone off the hook on this issue.
In the end we will only get rid of racism by getting rid of the capitalist society that gives rise to it. And that is the duty of all of us—black and white.