Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Chip Smith Speaks on “The Cost of Privilege”

Author/Activist Discusses How Racism Has Defined the U.S.


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“Talking about racism is a taboo subject; society and the media try to ignore those who bring up the topic,” Activist San Diego founder Martin Eder said at the beginning of a meeting he sponsored at the World Beat Center in Balboa Park September 14 featuring Chip Smith, Fayetteville, North Carolina activist and author of The Power of Privilege: Taking On the System of White Supremacy and Racism. Though at times racism seems if anything overly discussed in society and the media, Smith’s presentation and the “interactive dialogue” Eder tried to evoke in his design of the meeting’s agenda showed what he meant: that not only was the U.S. founded on the racist exploitation of people of color, but even American Leftists, progressives and liberals have frequently hobbled themselves by unconsciously buying into the racist assumptions of mainstream society.

Smith began his talk by discussing “why it’s important to come to terms with and appreciate white privilege” and describing the situation in Fayetteville. Like San Diego, Fayetteville is a military town — it’s right next to Fort Bragg — which, Smith explained, “puts the war in Iraq in front of us every day.” Also in the Fayetteville area is “the largest hog-processing plant in the world, Smithfield” — a factory the United Food and Commercial Workers has been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to organize for 15 years. Smith said the Smithfield plant was also the target of one of the recent raids staged by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) against employers who use undocumented immigrants as workers. Fayetteville is also near Raliegh, headquarters of Black Workers for Justice and the target of a successful campaign by a unit of the United Electrical Workers (UE) to organize sanitation workers.

After making the point that Fayetteville isn’t a sleepy old Southern town but a hotbed of struggle around both labor and race, Smith offered “a brief history of white privilege.” He explained that when the first successful British colony in America was founded in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 “the workforce was white indentured servants,” many of whom had been encouraged to emigrate by the harsh punishments for minor crimes in England at the time. “People could be executed for stealing bread,” he said. Though African slaves were imported into Virginia as early as 1619, Smith explained, they didn’t become common until 1676, when, in what became known as Bacon’s Rebellion, white and Black freedmen and indentured servants joined together to challenge the local elite.

“The elite followed the example of the British in Ireland, where they had brought in Scottish people and given them privileges over the Irish,” Smith said. “They reduced the terms of service for white indentured servants and instituted slavery. They also prohibited racial intermarriage, and this was the first time the word ‘white’ was used in U.S. law.” Ever since, Smith argued, the white power elites in the U.S. have used the same divide-and-conquer strategies whenever a successful interracial resistance appeared to be organizing. The 1862 Homestead Act reserved all but five percent of the homesteads to whites at the same time the U.S. was arming Blacks to defend the Union in the Civil War. All but 2 percent of the jobs in America’s growing textile industry were reserved to whites. The Southern counterrevolution after the Reconstruction era (1865-1877) imposed racial segregation and limited African-Americans mostly to farm labor and domestic work.

This pattern continued into the 20th century, Smith explained. After World War II the U.S. government passed the GI Bill of Rights, which guaranteed financing for returning veterans to buy homes and go to college — but the subsidies “overwhelmingly went to white people because they did nothing about the ’redlining’ of the suburbs and the exclusionary policies of colleges and universities. … When things begin to open up, the system responds with privileges for white people. It was true after the Civil War, after World War II, and after the 1960’s and 1970’s, when the system de-industrialized the inner cities and introduced both drugs and a ‘war on drugs’ that targeted people of color.”

Smith acknowledged that he didn’t begin his research in the abstract. As a member of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, he was originally working on an update of A House Divided, that group’s 1981 statement on racism and its effects on American society, politics and economics. In 2000, he said, “I joined a committee to do that, and after 1 1/2 years I was the only one left.” He explained that his group was “looking at the structure of society, the role of the media, and a gut level of the understanding of identity and class consciousness.” What he wants people to become aware of from reading his book, he said, is not only the differences in material well-being between whites and people of color but “the different kinds of ways white people are privileged, and the cost to the people who have the privileges” as well as those who don’t.

In his call for the meeting, Eder had stressed that the program was to be an “interactive discussion” rather than a traditional lecture followed by a question-and-answer session. The meeting began with four participants — Gloria Davidson of Veterans for Peace, musician and cultural activist Rodney Hubbard, Native American/Chicano studies instructor Eduardo Aguilar and midwife and activist Sarah Davis — reading passages from Smith’s book and putting their own glosses on his text. After the readings, but before Smith’s talk, participants were instructed to pair off with someone they didn’t know for a 10-minute dialogue on “how has the existence of social privilege affected my life,” and the meeting closed with an audience discussion (in which Smith joined) on the lessons learned from the meeting.

The audience was about evenly divided between whites and people of color, and some of the final comments were provocative. “I liked the questions we were asking, and what steps would it take [to end social privilege],” African-American peace activist Lace Watkins said. “One of the first questions we were asked is how our social privileges make it easy for us. I know the things I bring to the table. I struggled for five years to buy a house because I didn’t want to be part of a financial system I think is evil. I cooperate with [the system] a lot more than I think I do. I collude a lot.” Challenging other audience members to “call each other on the privileges we have,” Watkins said to the whites in the room, “If you live in a neighborhood that is less than 50 percent people of color, you live in a segregated space.”

“You have to look at who we are as a nation, and how this [racism] works,” said Hubbard. ”It’s happened in this country for 500 years, and probably before that. White and Black people were living and working together, and then they weren’t. You have all these things that split people by race. I grew up in Europe and came here in 1968, at age 10, and didn’t get it at all. I talked with a Cockney accent and got my ass kicked a lot. I have five brothers and sisters, and nobody in our family married an African-American. That’s how I grew up.”

“I have strong feelings about the issue,” said former San Diego Foundation for Change executive director Joni Craig. “I had an experience two years ago with a progressive funders’ group that divided into two groups: people of color and ‘pink people.’ The people of color group said I should be with them because I’m registered with a [Native American] tribe, and the white group said I had privilege and should be with them. These are issues no one should have to deal with in order to combat racism.”