What’s wrong with the current explosion of disparaging references to ‘white people’? (From now on, white people talk is short for such references.) The obvious complaint would be that it’s racist. But the deep nastiness of white people talk involves something far from obvious. The problem isn’t racism.

White people talk is indeed racist, because it attributes negative characteristics to a biologically defined group. But racism against whites isn’t always, in my view, a big deal.

When Elijah Mohammed preached that white people “were a race of “devils” created by a scientist named Yakub, that was too looney to get upset about. When various black militants in the 60s expressed hatred of white people, that wasn’t a genuine problem either.

It’s not that these views weren’t really racist. Sure they were. No doubt many will say that at least the black militants didn’t really mean all people with white skin. Yes, they did. That’s why they didn’t vent hatred at “some white people; many of course are ok”. They may have believed that some whites weren’t so bad, just as many racist whites believe some blacks are ok — a defense always rejected with contempt. No, those militants were disgusted by people with white skin. It’s not unusual to hate a race in your heart while knowing in your head that not all of them are bad. And those militants had experienced and seen enough to harbor that hatred.

Yet the current vogue of sniping at “white people” plays a role diametrically opposed to its former, militant use. Unlike the racism of the Black Muslims and Black Panthers, ‘white people’ talk doesn’t work against poverty and oppression. It builds on attitudes that take any such efforts right off the table.

The militants and the Black Muslims formed movements dedicated to changing society, changing the condition of all black people. They did not just believe there should be change; they fought for it. Their tactics and strategy were flawed, but they weren’t just on the right side, they were the right side. They did politics, and who can be sure that inciting racial hatred is never justified? Perhaps the fear these groups inspired, quite out of proportion to their real strength, brought some changes that the meticulously non-racist politics of Martin Luther King couldn’t achieve. At least that might have been the case.

But contemporary white people talk is utterly divorced even from efforts to achieve change. Judge it by its lack of results.

Militant politics still exists. Angela Davis has fought, for decades, against police violence and the horrifying conditions of black (and white) people in US prisons. She got nowhere. The woke hordes aren’t rioting in the streets, getting arrested in droves, because of their deep commitment to poor black people rotting in jail. No, the hordes came out parading in pink vagina-toques. Their ranks provide virtually no one out on the streets with Black Lives Matter.(*) But the Trump-era marchers, so utterly unaware of any need to fight for the poor, are well represented, even the most lily-white of them, among the practitioners of white-people talk.

(Much the same holds for foreign affairs. There is much talk, from whites and middle class ‘brown people’, about colonialist, orientalist ‘white people’. No one would dare to claim that this has had the slightest effect improving the lives of the poor and oppressed outside the West.)

White people talk marginalises the poor. To be clear, the preoccupation with white people or, we’ll see, ‘the one per cent’, do not belong to some strategy or deliberate attempt to sideline the homeless, or the people who barely get by on three cashier jobs. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is absolutely no intention to sideline those who struggle. Those who prattle about white people or the one per cent, have no such intention because the poor don’t exist for them. They aren’t in their universe, even to be ignored. Their discourse isn’t a cause of ignoring the poor. It’s an expression and effect of that insouciance.

Since it must be evident even to the wokest of the woke that not all white people reign in splendour today, much of the work of white people talk is done by indignant gestures in the general direction of history.

White people, it seems, became dominant through slavery, exploitation. The white race coasted to its pre-eminence on this river of wrong-doing. This has nothing to do with the real story. The comforts that ‘white people’ enjoy today — &, in many countries, their comfortable non-white counterparts — came from oppressing white people. White pre-eminence was not some collective achievement of the white race. It was an ascent made possible by ‘the 1%’ or so, who coerced the labour and prolonged the suffering of the vast majority of whites. Their ordeal is submerged in a flood of historical nonsense.

The History

The realities of how the white West built its wealth and power have nothing to do with its crimes against non-whites. This isn’t the place for a full discussion of the subject. Here, though, is an assessment of slavery’s economic benefits to Britain, the dominant power and slave trader at a crucial time, the dawn of the industrial revolution:

…the contribution of profits from the slave trade to capital investment in Britain and New England has been exaggerated. Investment in slaving voyages in Britain probably exceeded £1.5 million a year around 1790 and perhaps yielded £I5o,ooo a year in profits. Assuming £5o,ooo of this was invested in new enterprises, profits from the slave trade, therefore, probably contributed under 1 per cent of total domestic investment in Britain at this time. Such calculations do not suggest that the slave trade was vital to the financing of early British industrial expansion.

(David Richardson, “The British Empire and the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1660–1807”, in The Oxford History of the British Empire, Volume II, The Eighteenth Century, Oxford University Press, 1998, (440–464), 461)

The evil of slavery is magnified, not diminished, by the fact that all that suffering was, on a historical scale, for practically nothing. Yet the whole idea that, somehow, a century of slave trade could overshadow a good two millennia of exploiting the lower classes on the European continent is mind-boggling. Some merchants did indeed grow rich off the slave trade. That doesn’t mean the West grew rich off it. (**)

The West’s wealth and power — perhaps 99% of it — was not built on the backs of black people, but of white people. To a very limited extent colonialism contributed to this rise. Note that colonial powers never achieved lasting rule without the enthusiastic collaboration of a large body of non-white fighters, bureaucrats, local potentates and traders. This applies almost everywhere, as well as to that pre-colonial venture, the slave trade. From the same source:

It should be noted, however, that while Europeans controlled the shipping of slaves there is little evidence to suggest that they were able to control slave supply or, except on rare occasions, manipulate prices paid for slaves to their own advantage. On the contrary, control of slave supply remained firmly in the hands of African dealers and merchants, with European traders at the coast being required to negotiate terms of purchase of slaves through local commercial and political elites. Furthermore, even in regions where there were fortified European trading posts, the balance of power in such negotiations seems largely to have rested with slave suppliers. On the whole, the terms of trade-or the amount of goods being given for each slave bought-tended to move heavily in favour of African dealers, at least from the 1750s onwards.65 In effect, commercial and political elites within West and Central Mrica appear to have made large profits from helping to meet the American demand for slave labour.

All this undermines the practice of moralizing about ‘The West’ or ‘white people’. Certainly the ruling and upper classes have much to answer for. But the overwhelming majority of whites had little or no say in their destiny. They worked themselves to death for a privileged minority. They might die in the mines or on the ocean, or as conscripts on the battlefield, or on the scaffold, or starve to death. As late as 1845 in Ireland, then part of the United Kingdom, almost a million met that fate. Even before the famine, those who migrated to America didn’t walk off the boat into some American dream:

In 1843, the city’s two prisons held twice as many Irishmen as native-born Americans; “paddy wagons” carted them to jail. The Irish, along with blacks, were consigned to the bottom of society, scourged by tuberculosis, pneumonia, bronchitis, and scrofula.

In the English countryside, the few who managed to carve out something like their own living were usually ousted by land grabs such as the enclosure movement. Those who tried to supplement their income by poaching ran the risk of being caught in giant bear-traps. Thousands died in mine collapses; thousands more died slowly of black lung disease. That was their White Skin Privilege.

To give some idea of just how the survivors lived, here is a vignette from when the worst of it was well over, at the height of Britain’s power and prosperity:

Rowntree reported that 28% of the city’s population lived “below the nutritional standard which he calculated as necessary to maintain mere physical health.” He found that a craftsman’s wages were just adequate to maintain the ‘merely physical efficiency’ of a family. But he added:

Let us clearly understand what “merely physical efficiency” means. A family living on the scale allowed for in this estimate must never spend a penny on railway fare or omnibus. They must never go into the country unless they walk. They must never purchase a halfpenny newspaper or spend a penny to buy a ticket for a popular concert. They must write no letters to absent children, for they cannot afford to pay postage. They must never contribute anything to their church or chapel, or give any help to a neighbour which costs them money. They cannot save, nor can they join sick club or Trade Union, because they cannot pay the necessary subscriptions. The children must have no pocket money for dolls, marbles or sweets. The father must smoke no tobacco, and must drink no beer. The mother must never buy any pretty clothes for herself or for her children… Should a child fall ill, it must be attended by the parish doctor; should it die, it must be buried by the parish. Finally, the wage-earner must never be absent from his work for a single day.

If any of these conditions are broken, the extra expenditure involved is met, and can only be met, by limiting the diet; or, in other words, by sacrificing physical efficiency.

A little later, in 1904, “half of poor households estimated to have less that 80% of their required calories intakes.”

Every time woke folks excoriate the apparently effortless ascent of “white people” over non-whites, they write out of history the vast majority of white people, and almost only white people, who suffered and died, voiceless, to build the wealth and power of a small minority. They are oblivious to the history of the white unionized working class, who won their once-enviable position through beatings, starvation, killings, and sometimes — as in the case of IWW member Wesley Everest — lynching:

They dragged him back to town behind an automobile, suspended him from a telegraph pole, took him down, locked him in jail. That night, his jailhouse door was broken down, he was dragged out, put on the floor of a car, his genitals were cut off, and then he was taken to a bridge, hanged, and his body riddled with bullets.”

Of course Wesley Everett and other whites fought and died for advantages that also benefited black workers. Sometimes they did this because they actually cared about the condition of black people!

But the woke folks aren’t covering anything up or turning away from the harsh realities of the white past. Instead these realities never enter even on the margins of their consciousness. These fighters for justice smear an entire race while their followers tweet “Preach, sister!” That’s what speaking truth to power has become.

It is not as if language has suddenly lost the capacity to express militant sentiments in non-racial terms. One can speak of the rich, the ruling class, the bourgeoisie, the privileged groups, the powerful, the élite. They might be blamed for the suffering they inflicted. And it is not as if language has lost the capacity to express recognition that the poor, the peasants, the workers, the coal miners, the serfs, the factory maids, the fishermen and weavers were compelled to underwrite the rulers’ wealth and power with their blood and tears. And just as the bogus history of “white people” writes most of the poor and hopeless out of the past, so its cousin, “white privilege”, comes along to write poor whites out of the present. White people discourse suggests that whites, throughout history, coasted to prosperity on their extensive privilege. If they ended up destitute, homeless, jobless, well, they must have squandered it all. Or if not, they should have pulled themselves back up on their own bootstraps. How conveniently we end back up, discretely, at the cruelest tropes of 19th Century capitalism.

Note too that the ‘white people’ frequently targets whole areas — the rust belt, the Midwest, red states and — how tellingly — flyover states. When it does so, it marginalises poor blacks as well. But we’ve already seen that woke militancy uses black suffering only to condemn whites as racist. It isn’t associated with efforts to actually do anything for black people.

The point here is not to defend the white race, or even poor whites. Maybe poor whites, like poor blacks, aren’t morally excellent. Maybe they don’t have it worse than the poor of other races. Maybe they have it better. Maybe a lot of poor whites are racist. There has been no honest study of this, so we don’t know. But their racism, whatever its level, is not the cause of others’ misery. It is not for lack of access to the crappy jobs or poor housing or bad food of the white poor than the non-white poor lack for jobs, housing, or food. So the focus on the real or imagined sins of even these white people raises questions about the role of white people talk.

We seem to be back at a mind-set dating back at least to 16th Century England’s poor laws, which sought to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor. (In the Middle Ages, the distinction was unknown.) And ever since, this mind-set has been deployed against the poor and oppressed, from slaves to poor blacks to ‘drunken Irish’ and contemporary Britain’s ‘chavs’. Relief, even compassion, comes with a sort of moral means test. This again is no coincidence.

The emergence of white people talk finds its roots in America’s utter failure to help the victims of de-industrialisation. It dates back at least to the failure of the 1970s war on poverty, unsurprisingly followed by Regan’s assault on ‘welfare bums’. Now it has spread to the left with its vision of rust belt jerks. It is not only that poor whites deserve nothing because they are immoral. (The Marxist left always had the Lumpen­proletariat, a term sometimes referring to the long-term, politically clueless, unemployed and ‘rabble’.) It also divides the have-nots. Poor immigrants deserve much because they are good, apparently every last one of them, even better than that, because they will all become clean-living, economically beneficial upstanding bourgeoisie. (Best of all for the comfortable classes, the deserving poor who serve them may be hoped to become allies against the resentful rust belt losers.) For one and all and across the political spectrum, the Reaganite principle holds. The white poor are undeserving. Interestingly, since that can’t be said about the black poor; they simply don’t exist. You never hear about them any more.

Why have these attitudes prevailed outside their traditional home on the right? Partly, I think, because leftists and liberals no longer have any confidence they can solve the economic problems that have gutted whole regions. As one thoughtful historian has put it,

We live in a world where it has become hard to think critically about the principles on which society is organized. Everything conspires to make us acquiesce in the world as it is, to discourage the belief that it can be radically reordered on more just and equal lines. {Stephen A. Smith, The Russian Revolution. A Very Short Introduction, Conclusion.

So instead we pursue false representations of equality and justice — for any pursuit which doesn’t put the poor first is a sham. Hence the descent of progressive militancy into the largely verbal world of identity politics — here is an area where political energies find an outlet.

It is not that these problems have acquired new urgency. It is that they are the only problems that people can bring themselves to feel urgent about. And that is because identity-politics problems are failure-proof: they are oriented towards condemnation rather than results. They are premised on the belief that various forms of bigotry are deeply entrenched and will be with us for the foreseeable future. Who could detect failure where a lack of results simply testifies to the intransigence of bad attitudes?

Finally, against a background of political despair, perhaps most of those who condemn ‘white people’ have found a new focus of allegiance, the blue state upper middle classes. Here — where wokeness is most assiduously practiced — are the right-thinking progressives who have passed some moral test. Though it would be unseemly to promote this class directly, it can be championed discretely by its inclusion in “the 99%”. The banner of justice is unfurled to glorify those who make up to $400,000 a year. How much more rewarding this crusade must be than a bitter struggle to improve the lives of the poor.

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(*) Update. This was written when BLM consisted almost entirely of black people demonstrating against police killings. Much later, BLM numbers exploded. The demonstrations now consist of black and many white people demonstrating against ‘white racism’ and for absurdities like ‘defunding the police’. This no longer has any tactical link to any plausible, specific remedies of anything suffered by the poor of any race, including police killings. It now marginalizes these people, black and white, once again.

(**) The case of the US is similar, though less important: in slavery times, the US was a relatively minor contributor to the West’s economy. In 1820, Western Europe had more than ten times the US GDP. Even the historians who claim slavery made a massive contribution to the US economy allow that its share of US GDP was around %5. Attempts to inflate the significance of this figure have been, it seems, decisively refuted.

For 36 years, Michael Neumann taught philosophy at a Canadian university. He blogs at insufficientrespect.blogspot.fr, mostly on Syria and Egypt.