Friday, February 27, 2015

White Supremacy Can Make You Poor

Although I decided to skip watching this year's Oscars, I couldn't avoid following the event vicariously through Twitter. At some point in the evening, the narrative unfolding on my timeline became a show in its own right, color commentary of a train wreck happening in slow-motion. Twitter's responses to Sean Penn and Patricia Arquette were so satisfying that I decided not to blog about the Oscars. But one story from that evening did not die and took on a life of its own. This is the story of how feminists should talk about feminism. Even before the Oscars concluded, interested parties tweeted graphs of the wage gap disaggregated by race and gender. These folks insisted upon the need for an intersectional feminism, one that acknowledged how race, gender identity, and sexual orientation complicate monolithic (usually white heterosexual) critiques of power. Other parties, while acknowledging Arquette's poor choice of words, tended to support Arquette and worried that her argument about the sexist origins of the gender wage gap was lost amid the intersectional criticism. Sexism and patriarchy absolutely sustain the gender wage gap. In this blog, I argue that the origin of the gender wage gap also owes to racism and white supremacy, a story that makes ignoring or deferring the relevance of intersectionality that much more perilous.

Not all wages are material. In Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, Derrick Bell reminds us of the psychological wage paid to every poor white person in America, the social assurance that despite the hardships of poverty, poor white people will never be at the bottom of the well, that there will always be black faces looking back up at them. Bell's short story "The Space Traders" imagines a scenario where space aliens visit the US and offer Americans untold wealth, limitless energy, and an end to pollution in exchange for every black person in the country. (A video dramatization of the story offers a quick introduction.) In the story, the President decides to hold a national referendum on the offer, and various pro/con factions organize to state their cases. Business leaders ally against the trade because of how institutional racism lines their pockets, also realizing what else enables their hegemony.
Though seldom acknowledging the fact, most business leaders understood that blacks were crucial in stabilizing the economy with its ever-increasing disparity between the incomes of rich and poor. They recognized that potentially turbulent unrest among those on the bottom was deflected by the continuing efforts of poorer whites to ensure that they, at least, remained ahead of blacks. If blacks were removed from the society, working- and middle-class whites--deprived of their racial distraction--might look upward toward the top of the societal well and realize that they as well as the blacks below them suffered because of the gross disparities in opportunities and income.
Simply, the belief in white supremacy among enough poor white people is what keeps the class status quo in place in America.

As many readers of my blog already know, using race to ameliorate the tensions of class division is an idea as old as, well, the idea of race itself. Our modern-day conception of "race," a heritable identity associated with our skin color that defines our social value, was invented in colonial Virginia. This conjuring did not happen overnight, but between the arrival of the first Africans at Jamestown in 1619 and the early 18th century, the dominant meanings of "white" skin (free labor) and "black" skin (slave) had become established. In The Invention of the White Race: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo America, Theodore Allen traces this process through the development of public policy in Virginia. For example, in 1660, servants "of what christian nation soever" had their bond servitude
limited to a period of five years. By 1705, the colony provided "Freedom Dues" for released "christian white" limited-term bond laborers. These included "to every male servant, ten bushels of corn, thirty shillings of money (or the equivalent in goods), a gun worth at least twenty shillings; and to every woman servant, fifteen bushels of corn, forty shillings in money (or the equivalent in goods)." However humble, these dues helped to establish a class of white settler whose social potential was superior to that of enslaved and free black people but also would never threaten the interests of landowning elites. It would be white people, after all, who coined the pejorative term "cracker," a term whose usage in America depended on the hierarchy of rich white people, poor white people, and all black people.

In "White Poverty," bell hooks describes her experiences as a southern black girl living among other black people, poor white people, and the class of people who her community called "white trash." hooks argues that public debates over poverty fail to drive home the important point that most poor people in the US are white. "It serves white supremacist capitalist patriarchal ruling class interests to mask this reality," hooks explains. "Hence, the almost invisibility of the white poor in mass media." Media coverage of poor Americans paints the color of poverty as black or brown (partly because rates of poverty are higher among black people and Latinos), obscuring the visibility of millions of poor white people. (Former Congressperson Ron Paul recently suggested that the Congressional Black Caucus was anti-war because its members wanted the funds for food stamps. In fact, 40% of food stamps recipients are white.) hooks makes this point not to recenter the needs of white people--Arquette's controversial rhetorical move--but to show how ignoring white people in this way furthers white supremacy. The class divide among white people is not seen as a social issue because of the low public awareness of white poverty, and even when poor whites are profiled, their poverty is not seen as a problem having to do with white supremacy. White supremacy escapes notice as a concern having to do with white poverty.

When we don't consider how racism and white supremacy have kept wages low for white people, then when we do question the gender wage gap, sexism and patriarchy are the only structural factors in play. My argument is different from that which faults Arquette for not mentioning that racism and white supremacy have kept women of color at the bottom of the gender wage scale. I wholeheartedly agree with this criticism. But I am adding that the persistence of white supremacy participates in robbing all women, including white women, of a higher wage. If intersectionality doesn't register for any other reason, it should do so because of material self-interest. (Granted, material gain is only one form of self-interest for white people; the psychological wage of racial superiority may in fact be the Pearl of Great Price for many.) When poor white people do not ally with poor people of color because of white supremacy, then racism artificially suppresses wages for all poor people.

The truth of the matter is that such an alliance can help all workers who are women--and did. Following the Oscars, Patricia Arquette turned to Twitter to defend herself from her detractors and to recommit to her original position. At this point, many feminists withdrew the benefit of the doubt and went after Arquette. One of my favorites belongs to Brittany Cooper, a professor at Rutgers who is "going on strike" because of the burden of explaining intersectionality that falls upon black women. But the best response rang out 140 characters at a time. Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund, took to Twitter to rebut Arquette's claims. Her lesson is so important that I represent it here in its entirety.

Here is an example of black people helping a white woman fight for gender wage equity by challenging a core construct of a patriarchal society: the professional penalty a woman pays for being a mother. One reason the gender wage gap persists is because women must work part-time or even cut short their careers because they are expected to be the primary caregivers for their children. Black people and white people fought together against structural sexism here. And won.

As a Chinese American man, cis and straight, I know that I don't have as much skin in this game as women of any race or sexual orientation. When we're talking about wage equity, Chinese American men as a group are doing just fine for themselves. But what concerned me about talk of the gender wage gap was that the reach of white supremacy was either denied or seen as targeting only people of color. For example, this article smugly mocks transgender discourse in order to chide those critical of Arquette. And this one falsely claims that intersectionality puts feminists in a double bind. In the end, it was Arquette herself causing the most confusion. In her tweets following the Oscars, Arquette mentioned growing up in poverty and becoming a single mother at a young age. One tweet even tried to flip the script.

If any readers are still unsure why some are so angered by Arquette's words, the first reason was her demand for the labor of LGBTQ people and people of color (sometimes one and the same!) in a fight for wage equity that did not seem to include them. But the tweet above, made after those statements, demonstrated no growing self-awareness. By asking why one does not fight for "ALL" women, Arquette seems to accuse LGBTQ people of some kind of minority tribalism that threatens wage equity for all. Let's be clear here. LGBTQ people and people of color are not why we have the problem of a gender wage gap. The bond that people of color have with one another is not the problem. A major problem is the bond that white people have with one another on the basis of their whiteness, whether they ask for it or not. Let's not mystify the origins of that bond of white supremacy even further, especially not with an issue as important as gender wage equity.

1 comment:

  1. This is an extremely interesting article. I've just recently posted an article relating to sexism in female musicians and it would seem that white males dominate this area to. You might find it of interest xx