A guest post from Rebekah Grace Potts, to respond to a friend, asking about white working class folks, shifting demographics, and how large changes in the US over the last 30-50 years have cost that demographic dearly. The author indicates that you are welcome to share, with attribution, for non-commercial purposes.
Please correct me if I’m mis-remembering your question, but I think it was something like: “I’m not exactly disappointed by them losing privilege in this country, how am I suppose to empathize with and mourn that?” Well, the short answer, from one Catholic to another, is that we are to love our enemies. Full stop. Whomever they are, whyever they have come to be enemies, we are called first to love. Now empathy- if Jesus is our example- is at the heart of loving. That’s what love is about, that and desiring- more than anything else- the Good for another. And so that’s simple, but not easy, and as is often the case (at least for me) it’s not entirely clear what that even means. I’m reminded of a friend asking, “So how, exactly, do I get parenting guidance from the Virgin Mary? Is there a decoder ring for this?”
So let’s start with something I think most of us know, and contrast it with what we say now, and the shift in meaning. Privilege means: a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people. The word comes from the Latin, meaning private-law. Now we’ve come to only embrace the negative implications of that meaning- that is to say, the notion of ‘white privilege’, or privileges associated with nobility and aristocracy. Those privileges are often understood to mean exemption from the public law, and impunity to harm others- the privilege to lynch, for example, or the privilege to rape one’s wife (a crime in all 50 states just for the last 23 years), or still, the privilege to commit war crimes without censure- but likely praise- a traditional long-standing privilege of the aristocracy. Now to be certain, if that was the only meaning and implication of the word, it would be an awful thing and we should be working to eradicate it. Post haste. But that isn’t the only meaning the word carries. It is actually, in and of itself, a neutral term. There are a great many privileges that are unassailably good. I consider it my privilege to raise my children. It was a remarkable privilege to be my parents’ child. I’ve always bristled at the notion of ‘white privilege’ because it belies the reality that there are special rights, advantages, and immunity granted to members of the Black community *by the Black community*- and I’m not talking about affirmative action here. I’m talking about the way, as a bi-racial person, I am all too clear that I’m not a member of the community, and not welcome to the special rights and advantages, and not a trusted part of the group. That insider status is clearly a privilege. [as an aside, I think the white privilege conversation has a place in the white community, for their own edification. but non-whites don’t need to spend their energy and time explaining white supremacy to white people, as if they weren’t here, living with it like the rest of us. and reinforcing the idea that non-whites are powerless and gain nothing of value from their own communities that no one else has access to… but I digress.] It is also a privilege- and few know it- to belong to a place, and have that place belong to you. You really can’t even extend that privilege- you just have to be of a place, and that place has to embrace you- the privilege just comes with the territory.
So first of all- we have to understand- we’re not just talking about working class whites losing the privilege to lynch (or any of the socially toxic side of privileges). We’re talking about all of it fading out of reach- the good and the bad- to the point where we’re not even talking about privileges any more, but basic human dignity. Consider- didn’t your heart break just a little, at the very news of Bill Cosby’s serial rapes? It certainly broke in two and bled nearly out for the women he raped- but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the way in which he belonged to American Blacks and we don’t get to have that anymore, there’s just no redeeming him. Remember how he always had those HBCU sweatshirts on, on the show, you know; and how while the show was for everybody, part of it was for Black America, and just Black America. Now the fact is, the man’s a rapist, a peddler of respectability politics, and many other things I’ll not bring up. I wouldn’t want to pretend that he wasn’t those things to preserve his image for the Black community- but I’m not going to lie: his public downfall carried a real sense of loss [so much loss, that some are unable to countenance the mountain of evidence against him]. Or consider the deaf community and their very real fears about the erasure of the deaf community itself as medicine slowly cures deafness… I could go on. But I submit that it is uncharitable to assume, that the only thing at stake for working class whites is the freedom to lynch (et al). There is clearly a contingent that openly mourns that- but there’s so much more to the story than that.
Speaking of the openly mourning contingent- this brings me to point two. Even the openly mourning folks are human beings and worthy of compassion, especially the openly mourning folks. They have been broken, and broken in an awful way- robbed of key parts of their very humanity. Now, they may have left the door unlocked when these parts of their humanity were stolen- but I don’t really want to get into victim-blaming here. Mostly, I just want to affirm them as human beings, loved by G*d just like me.
And now that I’ve spoken of this robbery- let me get to the heart of the matter- point three. For American whites, and working class whites *in particular* there was a bargain reached with the Devil, or rather the ruling class. It’s very simple, they won’t get any *real* advantages in society- things like ownership and autonomy- but in return for not getting any of the pie, they can mercilessly vent their legitimate rage onto a designated underclass, while the ruling class looks the other way, even enshrining those ‘rights’ into law for a while. How is it said? “I might be nuthin’ but at least I’m not a nigger.” It’s a potent salve for the disaffected. Now you could say that working class whites could have simply refused the bargain- but the alternative was… unsavory. The alternative was to become a member of that designated underclass. Consider, during the lynching era- many logical allies to American Blacks immigrated here- Italians, Chinese, Indians, and Mexicans; and Natives already here. But those alliances never materialized as the racial terror also functioned to send a message to those that might forge cross-racial alliances, that if they wanted to integrate with blacks, they could get lynched like them too. So Italians in particular, assimilated into whiteness- but all of those groups have historically engaged some degree of assimilation to whiteness, along with performing the required rejection of Black America, that purchased a modicum of insulation from racialized terror. Consider also during the colonial era, the gradual distinction drawn between indentured servants by what was then a new category of ‘race’. Failure to respect and endorse the racial line in the sand was punishable by extreme violence. And the point here, in its entirely, is to leave folks fractured along racial lines- so much so that folks will perform these dynamics without even being told to- so that no one can mount a credible challenge to the ruling class. So now, in the 21st century, working class whites find themselves not only with none of the pie- but also the thing they were supposed get in return, and the whole culture that’s grown around it (good, bad, and gruesome) are fading inescapably from reach. It’s just painful to lose cultural ground like that- even if the ground was rotten all the way through and irredeemable. There’s a contingent of folks that will reach and scrape and fight to get it back- a little bit like the folks insisting on Cosby’s innocence in the face of everything that’s come to light. But back to Jesus, and his example. With regards to the depredations of the ruling class- this is where Jesus started flipping tables and throwing chairs. So we owe it to ourselves, and to Jesus, to find the compassion we need to connect across class and racial lines and form healthy alliances that allow us to call the ruling class to account. Our failure to do so, is a failure to love.
Solidarity Forever ❤