The Many Uses of the Myth of White Racism

One of the great deficiencies in Marxist social-political theory has always been its belief that economic interests trump all other interests. Now, people certainly have economic interests. But they have other interests as well – religious, moral, cultural, national, etc. And these other interests will sometimes trump economic interests. For instance, prior to World War I many Marxists held that in the event of war among capitalist nations the working classes of Europe would be unwilling to fight against one another. But these Marxists were badly mistaken. For it turned out that nationalistic loyalty – in other words, feelings of patriotism – was more important to workers than international solidarity based on socio-economic class.

We see an example of this kind of thing in the USA today. If you’re a Marxist you’d think that white working and lower-middle class people would form a political alliance with black working and lower-middle class people, since both blacks and whites of these classes have similar economic interests. But there is no such alliance. Whites from these classes, though traditionally Democratic, more and more tend to vote Republican, as was very much the case in the 2016 presidential elections. Blacks from these classes, on the other hand, vote at the 90 percent level (or above) for Democrats.

Why is this?

There is a widespread belief among African-Americans that whites tend to be anti-black racists. This racism, it is conceded, is not as bad as it was many decades ago. But it’s still bad enough, though now more subtle. It is still making equality between the races impossible. Nor is this racism found in all whites; most notably, it is not found among white liberals, who are vociferously anti-racist. But as long as blacks believe that racism is common among ordinary whites, this belief makes it impossible for working and lower-middle class blacks to co-operate politically with working and lower-middle class whites. For black voters, race trumps socioeconomic class.

Let us assume that this belief in widespread white racism is erroneous, a myth. Because of lack of space, I won’t attempt to prove that it’s a myth, as I believe it is. I will simply postulate it for the sake of today’s discussion.

But if the belief is erroneous, where does it come from? Why does it prevail so widely? One source for the belief and its popularity is, of course, black demagogues – for example, the “Reverend” Al Sharpton and the Black Lives Matter people. It is their stock-in-trade. They promote the false belief because it gives them fame and influence and income.

But behind race-hustlers like Sharpton and BLM is a far more powerful force – white liberalism. It is white liberals, above all those white liberals who dominate the mainstream national media, who made Sharpton a civil rights leader. They lifted him up and told black Americans, “Behold, here is your principal spokesman.”

More recently, they have cast him aside and instead nominated the BLM movement as the official spokespersons for black America. This is a remarkable development. At least Sharpton had to work for many years to win the support of white liberals; he earned the elevation they gave him. But BLM was elevated overnight. One day they barely existed; the next day they were the official successors of Martin Luther King Jr. With the sudden elevation of BLM the white liberal mass media was very clearly saying, “We can make and break black leaders.”

But why do white liberals wish to promote the belief that all whites (except of course themselves) are anti-black racists? Three reasons. (1) This gives white liberals a great feeling of moral superiority. If white racism is the greatest of all American sins, and if white liberals are the only white Americans who are racism-free, then white liberals must be very fine people indeed; almost saintly (in a secular sense of that word).

(2) The myth justifies the many privileges upper-middle class white liberals have. “Since we are so morally good, we deserve our many benefits.”

(3) The myth blocks the possibility of a more or less conservative political alliance between working and lower-middle class blacks and whites. Such an alliance might serve to hinder the advance of a number of favorite liberal causes, e.g., abortion rights, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, and the undermining and marginalization of old-fashioned Christianity in both its Catholic and Protestant (these days mostly evangelical) forms.

If the national focus is on race instead of socio-economic class, the public is less likely to notice that white liberals belong to a relatively small and highly privileged social class. By and large, they are very well-educated and have often attended the same elite universities; they have good jobs and good incomes; they live in good houses in good (and very safe) neighborhoods; their children go to private schools or very good public schools (that is, schools in high-income suburbs, far from any ghetto schools); they own good cars; they travel to interesting places; they drink good wine and good coffee; and so on.

These people don’t mind if the public resents the top one percent; but they don’t want the public to resent the top five or ten percent, for that’s a resentment aimed at them. So it’s important for them to steer the conversation towards talking, instead, about white racism.

In sum, well-to-do white liberals don’t want us to think of society in terms of social class, for such thinking will serve the interests of society’s somewhat lower classes. And they certainly don’t want to encourage an identity politics or pursuit of interests based on the older categories of family, nation, and religion. Instead, they want us to think in terms of race, for that will protect the interests of the liberal upper-middle classes. Their interests.

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America and, most recently, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist.