All Roads Lead to White Privilege

by: David Sirota

Wed May 05, 2010 at 16:00

I'm finishing up my book right now, and am on a chapter about race and white privilege. During my research, I came upon this lengthy article on the Tea Party movement in the latest edition of the American Prospect Alternet. It provides a telling (if mundane) example of how in our persistently racist politics, all roads - even "progressive" ones - always seem to lead back to deifying white privilege.

The article does a commendable job showing how the Tea Party demographic - according to polls, predominantly suburban, upper-middle class and white - has in the past "only been able to maintain a sense of their own power by their place at the top of the heap" and that today a "sense of lost privilege is stoking the drive toward (Tea Partiers') 'ethnonationalism." Liberals, says the article, "have largely failed to address" this resentful motive behind the Tea Party's disparate causes.

All of that is absolutely true (as I will further expand on in my upcoming newspaper column on Friday). And yet, what ultimately does the article suggest progressives do to combat this?

What's a Progressive to Do? To halt the destruction that would follow in the wake of a successful Tea Party movement, progressives need to do two big things: thwart the growth of the Tea Party movement, and organize as a counter-force. To hold the growth of the Tea Party movement in check, progressives will need to be strategic in their messaging, making arguments for enlightened self-interest to suburban white men for progressive causes.

In other words, instead of building the strength of progressives' burgeoning multicultural coalition through overtly anti-racist themes that explicitly challenge white privilege, the article asks progressives to fight white privilege by immediately privileging political messages that coddle privileged whites - that is, by trimming the progressive message into one that makes sure not to offend/counter white resentment. This, despite the resounding electoral success of progressives' multicultural coalition in the last two elections, and despite Census data showing America will soon be a majority minority (read: non-white) country.

Look, I'm all for universalist progressivism, and I believe that a strong progressive platform - even the anti-racist tenets - will naturally appeal to many white people. But the idea that progressives have to either A) specifically prioritize a message that appeases to privileged whites and/or B) tailor their message so as to avoid offending those who value white privilege - well, this would, unto itself, further strengthen the very white privilege that is at the root of so many American problems.

If I had to guess, the article's author wasn't consciously aware that it was doing this. But that's the whole point: White privilege in America today is so omniscient, so assumed, so embedded in everything, that it is even forwarded by some liberal voices as the answer to the very problems it creates. And the fact that so many of the liberal voices that inadvertently perpetuate these rhetorical parameters (particularly magazines, pundits and think tanks inside the cloistered Beltway) are catering to a mostly white privileged audience of elites means that they rarely - if ever - are called out for their contribution to an inherently racist paradigm.

CORRECTION: The original post wrongly identified the publisher of the article in question as the American Prospect. It should have identified Alternet as the publisher (I got confused by the fact that the author of the piece used to write for the Prospect). I sincerely regret the error. Oh, one other thing - evidently Adele Stan (who, by the way, I think is typically a very solid reporter) is furious that I didn't name her in the piece (and evidently, the desire to see one's name in lights knows no bounds among journalists, huh?). So I guess I apologize for not mentioning her name, though the omission was deliberate: my post wasn't designed to be a commentary on one journalist, but on progressive journalism itself.

David Sirota :: All Roads Lead to White Privilege

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Insane (4.00 / 8)

In my home state, these guys are just the same bitter old fundamentalists and racists who have always been the right-wing dead enders. Who cares if they're having tea-bagging parties. All bitter old white people already always vote. They may be more enthusiastic, but unless they can start voting twice, it doesn't matter.

In my county, the Democratic party wants to cut opposition to tasers out of the platform. Fail to appease conservative voters who will never vote for us and piss off our minority communities, all at the same time. Everyone loses.

they create communication obsticles (0.00 / 0)
Although raceism is visable in all teahadist meetings, I don't believe it to be their defining feature.

Remember when Dick Armey invented this astroturf armey, their first entrance into advocacy was at the town hall meetings. And their contribution was to shout down all opposing views. Threats of violance and displayed wepons were also used as props in this effort.

We all understand the tactic of filling the air with noise to prevent conversation, it's just that most on the left don't agree with it. I feel that refusal to discuss issues disqualifies that group from the political debate, and leaves them unapproachable. This also makes them immune to new facts and therfor "out of range" of teaching efforts.

Our efforts should be used to persuade individuals that have not already closed their minds, and to expose and ridicule all who prejudge whial deliberately avoiding accurate knowledge.

Government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob..... FDR

[ Parent ]
I view their analysis differently.... (4.00 / 2)
The fact is, something like universal health care benefits white male suburbanites as much as everyone else, but they are too blinded by racism and classism to see it.

The goal is to make these folk realize that they are working against their own self interests.

REID: Voting against us was never part of our arrangement!
SPECTER: I am altering the deal! Pray I don't alter it any further!
REID: This deal keeps getting worse all the time!

Minimizing Racial Division (4.00 / 1)
I think I agree with you.  I'm way left of the Democratic Party on most issues but I think if we embrace racial minorities to the exclusion of the white middle class we'll be doing the bigots work for them.  It does this country no good to have two parties - one white and one brown.  

As a practical matter, if the white suburban middle class can only identify the Democratic Party as the party of minorities (and goodness knows the party is afraid to stand for any progressive issue including ones that defend the middle class), then they will not be able to identify with the party and they will not vote for a party they can't identify with.  

[ Parent ]
Example? (4.00 / 2)
if we embrace racial minorities to the exclusion of the white middle class we'll be doing the bigots work for them

Please cite a single moment in American history where this has ever - EVER - happened.

The idea that we have to seriously worry that America will prioritize minorities over white people is such a wild fantasy of hard-core white racists it's hard to even believe it was aired on this site.

[ Parent ]
Demographics (0.00 / 0)
It hasn't ever happened before because the demographics haven't been there for it to happen.  But it was only a few weeks ago when the NY Times reported that we're approaching the time when a majority of babies born in the US are minorities.  In 20 years, they could become the majority of new voters.  No problem there unless we arrange it so race and ethnicity determine party identification.  It's too close to that being the case already.  I'm just saying don't give in to the temptation to reinforce that division.  No matter the fact of white privilege, whites are going to become increasingly nervous about their perceived loss of status.

[ Parent ]
No, only racist whites. (4.00 / 3)
Normal whites understand that democracy is not a zero-sum game.

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
"if we embrace racial minorities to the exclusion of the white middle class" (4.00 / 4)
You don't get it. Embracing minorities does not exclude the white middle class. It excludes the portion of the white middle class that is strongly motivated by bigotry.

The way to win more of the middle class is to fight for their interests rather than cutting deals with the insurance and pharma industries to deliver a shitty healthcare bill that may or may not be barely better than nothing and letting corporate lobbyists write our trade agreements and letting Wall Street take us all to the cleaners. It's really not that complicated.

[ Parent ]
Yes, fight for the middle class (4.00 / 1)
Yes, fight for the middle class!  We sure do need a party that will do that.  I'm just saying that in the absence of a party that still has a strong identification with fighting for the middle class, people will find other reasons to choose their party identification and you can't underestimate the power of race and culture.  Democrats are decades behind the curve fighting for the middle class.  They lost out to Reaganism in the first place because the white middle class felt abandoned.  

[ Parent ]
Democrats are the ONLY party (4.00 / 4)
that fights for the middle class. Ever. It just happens to be a vision of the middle class that also includes black and brown people. Republicans beat us up over this because they do not want black and brown in the middle class.

I know whose side I'm on, and I also know who's going to win this thing in the long run.

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
Is it not possible (4.00 / 2)
to embace BOTH minorities AND the "white suburban middle class"?

Is this really an either/or situation, or is that perspective being used as a wedge to divide and conquer?

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."

[ Parent ]
White Privilege (0.00 / 0)
I am sorry, but I do not quite see the point of this.  Many whites are as badly off as the racial minorities; how are they "privileged."

David Sirota is better than this.

And as for the comment above:  the white male suburbanites do see the benefits of universal social services like Social Security, it is just that they-and everybody else-have never been offered them by the Democratic and liberal establishment, who have a total fixation on limited, targeted programs, partly because one can still be "liberal" and yet at the same time be fiscally conservative (targeted programs spend less money) and economically conservative (they do not involve things like nationalizations, government intervention in the economy, and labor unions).  

Pathetic (4.00 / 4)
If you think, as a whole, white people are "as badly off" as racial minorities, you are not living in the United States of America. Look at unemployment, wage and health insurance rates, just for starters.

The fact that white denial can be as insistent as what you've expressed here is exactly the problem - and exactly the problem that so-called liberals perpetuate when pretending that universalist policies alone are the way to right the economy.

[ Parent ]
Sirota (0.00 / 0)
Sorry to have offended you, but I still stick to my guns.  Didn't one read somewhere that the majority of people who are poor and who are on welfare are white?  And do we not have very few (actually one) universal social services, and do we not need more?

P.S. I still like your columns.  

[ Parent ]
The Democrats want the suburbs and "real" America, not those "Multicultural" areas being attacked by "culture warriors." (4.00 / 3)
The fact that most of the multicultural coalition resides within cities makes it impossible for the National Democratic Party to endorse them.  In order to do that, they would actually have to find some way to engage in the culture war, make a positive argument for supporting urban America, and run the risk of being targeted by the same stereotypes that took down ACORN.  Democrats are terrified of being identified with urban centers, where incarceration, cutting gigantic holes in the social safety net, and selling-off everything to private corporations to "handle" is the answer to every problem, including education.

The Democrats are selling their urban base down the river in their effort to be Republican Lite, and, after bailing out the Big Banks, they sit silent and watch many cities sink further and further underwater.
Jesse Jackson is right, "We need a comprehensive urban policy plan now."
But hardly anyone in American politics is willing to take this challenge on, or even mention it. While those that will play right into the Republican xenophobia platform by pretending this is all about race, nothing about culture (because, apparently, there is no urban culture worth defending) and not at all about region or place.

Tea Party demographic "upper-middle class"?? How about 81% middle class and lower? (0.00 / 0)
In the NY Times CBS poll of Tea Party sympathizers, Question 98 asks: "If you were asked to use one of these five names for your social class, which would you say you belong in - upper class, upper-middle class, middle class, working class, or lower class?"

The answers for the Tea Party sympathizers are:

Upper 3
Upper-middle 15
Middle 50
Working 26
Lower 5

I debunked the spin put on the NY Times CBS poll at docudharma, here, using Natasha Charts's diary.

Perhaps you know of some other poll that shows how "upper middle class" the Tea Party'ers are?

435 Dem Primaries 2012
Coffee Party Usa

I just took a look at the alternet article that Dave references (0.00 / 0)
And it references the CBS Times poll. However, it distorts the poll the same way cassiodorus did at docudharma (probably because he didn't read Street and Maggio's bs-spin article carefully enough; I'm not accusing him of deliberately spinning things this way, though he sure did swallow the spin of Street and DiMaggio up.)

Page 41 asks about total family income, not for the respondents income.  And if 75K for a family of 4 is upper middle class, then I'm a monkey's uncle. I calculated the hourly wage for a working family with total family income = 50K, headed by two working adults, at a whopping $12.50/hour per worker. That allows for a miserable savings rate of 4.8% of income (using assumptions from Natasha Chart's diary) - and that's if nobody gets sick and your kids are perfectly poised to realize their dreams with a high school education (i.e., forget about college).


I just did some math, using Excel, to get a more quantitative notion of how fantastical Street and DiMaggio's spin was. I calculated the weighted average, for both Tea Party, plus non-Tea Party, for all but the highest income bracket, using the middle value of each income range. (The highest range, "over $100,000", not only doesn't state a finite upper bound, because of the presence of millionaires and even billionaires in our society, throwing it into a calculation of averages would completely distort the sample, even if I knew everybody's income, exactly. E.g., if Bill Gates was included, and he counted as a non-Tea Partyer, then we would accurately conclude that the average non-Tea Partyer was rich compared to the average Tea Partyer, but that would have no hope of giving us a fair picture of what economic life was like for the majority of both Tea Partyers and non-Tea Partyers.

income / non-TP / weighted/  TP/ weighted
7500 10 75000   5 37500
22500 22 495000   13 292500
40000 16 640000   17 680000
62500 18 1125000   25 1562500
87500 12 1050000   11 962500
total 78 3385000   71 3535000
43397        49788

That's a difference about about $6,400 (49788 - 43397) for a household - about $540 per month. In a 160 hour work month, that means that a single earner household worker is making a whopping 540/160 = $3.37 per hour more, if he's a Tea Party'er. That's about half of minimum wage. Oh, praise the Lord! If I'm middle class, and get a $3.37 per hour raise, I'll be sitting pretty in the UPPER middle class. That'll make me so damn comfortable that it's simply worth it being called a racist by smear merchants who love to throw that epithet around! Yup! With my extra $3.37 per hour, I can afford to buy me and my family the finest ear plugs money can buy. Woo, hoo!


If I throw out 7 of the 12 from the non-TP sample, from the 75-100K bracket, so that I am dealing with exactly the same amount of people, the difference in household income goes to about $10,000. While I'd call that significant (who wouldn't like a $10,000 bonus?), if we take the non-TP sample as "average Americans", and presume that their average (sans the over 100K segment) family income makes them "middle class", it still seems ludicrous to call 10K more, per year, enough to put those spoiled rotten Tea Party-ers in the "upper-middle class" category.

David, if you still do a radio show, I'd like you to seriously discuss it there, but not just stop there. The really important question is not whether people are irrational and tribalistic - of course they are. No, the important question is "If people refuse to participate in rational analysis and discourse, to the best of their ability, despite their innate tendencies towards irrationalism and tribalism, how do they expect to fix democracy in America?" I'd invite Medea Benjamin of Code Pink onto such a show. She initially went to Tea Party's with the thought of mocking them, but after actually meeting and talking to those people, she decided instead to reach out to them.

Why, David? Is she a fool, or is she, perhaps, serious about achieving results in a democracy, where compromise is essential? Or, is there some other explanation for her behavior?  

435 Dem Primaries 2012
Coffee Party Usa

[ Parent ]
Let's estimate the effect of racial composition on the alleged "upper-middle class demographic" (0.00 / 0)
Let's assume that non-TP has 10% black households, and the TP has 0% black households.

According to this reference, at

Real median income did not change between 2002 and 2003 for non-Hispanic white households (about $48,000), black households (about $30,000) or Asian households (about $55,500).

If I use these numbers, and assume, further, that the TP is non-Hispanic white, and the non-TP whites are non-Hispanic, and the rest of the non-TP black, then I will expect, immediately, that  the average wage in the non-TP group will be depressed. Hmmm, let's see how much of a difference a weighted average would be:

30,000/48,000 = 62.5%

(30,000 x 1   + 48,000 x 9 ) / 10 = 46,200 per year

That's versus a TP average of 48,000 per year, for a difference of $1,800 per year.

Well, good golly, Miss MollY: $1,800 /  $6,400 =  28%.  So that whopping $3.37 per hour 'superiority' in wages isn't quite so awesome, if we're talking about comparing white TP and white non-TP. I don't want to figure it out, exactly, even with the assumptions I've made, but we can see that it'll be in the neighborhood of 72% of $3.37 per hour, or $2.43 per hour.

$2.43 per hour, David. After taxes, about two bucks an hour. So, David, do you still support the fantasy of an "upper-middle class" demographic for the Tea Party'ers? And more importantly, do you appreciate how corrosive to fixing democracy propagating such myths are?

If I was a greedy plutocrat, I'd be laughing all the way to the bank. After all, how likely are lefty populists and righty tea baggers to cooperate, politically, where they can, if they're projecting all sorts of negative fantasies into each other? (Helped, of course, by incompetent or dishonest people like Street and DiMaggio on the left, as well as gasbags of the right, like uber-clown Rush Limbaugh, who thinks that Obama should have consulted the brainy Sarah Palin to help him deal with the oil catastrophe in the Gulf.)

435 Dem Primaries 2012
Coffee Party Usa

[ Parent ]
self identification (4.00 / 4)
Self identification seriously distorts class in this country.  I know people who sympathize with the tea baggers and have family income in excess of $500,000 who would not describe themselves as "upper" and might even describe themselves as middle class.

I remember reading an article where a dentist said she was "middle class because she worked for a living."  Yeah, sure.

In the past, a large number of poor people described themselves as middle class.  The distortion of the 60s has been turned on its head as upper middle and even some upper class individuals now describe themselves as "middle class."

[ Parent ]
which is why the QUANTITATIVE DATA is of such interest (0.00 / 0)
You didn't say anything about that, even though you posted after I calculated my weighted average, which works the data from the same poll.

However, I now invite you to do exactly that. Does the QUANTITATIVE DATA support the notion of an "upper-middle-class" Tea Party, or not?

435 Dem Primaries 2012
Coffee Party Usa

[ Parent ]
White Privilege is a problem (0.00 / 0)
but I think there is more going on here and Sirota's response to the American Prospect misses the same point that they missed.

Both were focusing on Suburban, Middle Class Whites.  Even if racism suddenly disappeared from our culture and there was no more White Privilege, these folk would still not be for progressives causes because they align their interests with those who are economically better off.  They would continue to be reactionary due to Class Privilege.

The place where White Privilege is a problem in forming a Progressive Coalition is not with Suburban, Middle Class Whites but with rural and urban working poor Whites.  These folk suffer a lot from Class Privilege and even Liberals (Bill Mahr for example) think it's okay to stereotype them and demean them.  It's okay to call them hicks, hillbillies, red necks, White Trash, Trailer Trash or some other demeaning term because of their socio-economic class and the culture and accents that go with it.

It is here that racism and White Privilege have the most effect because these poor White folk have little else but White Privilege.  If racism evaporated out of our culture and there no longer was such a thing as White Privilege, these folk would naturally align themselves with the other marginalized people in this country, the non white people.  But racism is alive and well and White Privilege is still here and these folk instead align themselves against their natural allies.  The racism of these folks is the most virulent, because it matters most to them.

We must address White Privilege.  But we also must address Class Privilege without it being used as an excuse to legitimize White Privilege.  We need to find a way to make it clear to those with White Privilege but without Class Privilege that they are being screwed and those screwing them are using the very White Privilege they cherish to distract them from the screwing.

Educate, Agitate, Organize, Mobilize, Act!

They are not privileged - they just think they are (4.00 / 3)
You over state your case. Racism - like all xenophobia - is a tool used by the plutocracy to divide the middle and working class. Far from being part of the ruling class with postions of privilege, suburban white people are more like the "petty bourgeois" described by Karl Marx. These "shop-keepers and professionals" deparately want to see themselves has part of the upper class or plutocracy. Mr. Stan simply argues that the "progessive movement" has failed to educate or explain to this poor misguided souls that alliance with the plutocracy is not in their enlightened self interest and that the plutocracy is merely using them to maintain their real position of privilege.  


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