Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Is "Straight White Male" The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is? Part One

John Scalzi makes that argument in Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is by comparing the real world to a computer game where everyone starts as equals.

But that ain't the real world. Here's what Martin Luther King knew in 1967 that's still true: "In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike."

At least one commenter at John's blog got it. Michael Kirkland said, "I’m thankful for all the advantages I have over Herman Cain’s daughter. I really dodged a bullet there."

The lowest difficulty setting in any capitalist game is being born rich.

ETA: I have no success explaining the problem with identitarianism to identitarians, but I've found a blogger who may do better because he starts closer to them: Identitarianism’s class problem | MattBruenig.

ETA 2: And because identitarians see the world in Manichean dichotomies, as Adolph Reed Jr. notes in The limits of anti-racism, no, this doesn't mean I think there's no more racism.

ETA 3: Class and intersectionality | MattBruenig.

ETA 4: Steve Brust's reply is better than mine: Scalzi’s Latest: But I didn’t get MY say!

ETA 5: Yeah, I keep trying to figure out how to explain this. Rev. Thandeka did a good job in Why Anti-Racism Will Fail:
The privilege that, according to the anti-racists, comes with membership in white America, actually belongs to a tiny elite. Let me illustrate this point.

Imagine that business and government leaders decreed that all left-handed people must have their left hand amputated. Special police forces and armies are established to find such persons and oversee the procedure. University professors and theologians begin to write tracts to justify this new policy. Soon right-handed persons begin to think of themselves as having right-hand privilege. The actual content of this privilege, of course, is negative: it's the privilege of not having one's left hand cut off. The privilege, in short, is the avoidance of being tortured by the ruling elite. To speak of such a privilege -- if we must call it that -- is not to speak of power but rather of powerlessness in the midst of a pervasive system of abuse -- and to admit that the best we can do in the face of injustice is duck and thus avoid being a target.

My point is this. Talk of white skin privilege is talk about the way in which some of the citizens of this country are able to avoid being mutilated - or less metaphorically, to avoid having their basic human rights violated. So much for the analogy. Here are the facts about so-called white skin privilege.

First, 80 percent of the wealth in this country is owned by 20 percent of the population. The top 1 percent owns 47% of this wealth. These facts describe an American oligarchy that rules not as a right of race but as a right of class. One historical counterpart to this contemporary story of extreme economic imbalance is found in the fact that at the beginning of the Civil War, seven per cent of the total white population in the South owned almost three quarters (three million) of all the slaves in this country. In other words, in 1860, an oligarchy of 8,000 persons actually ruled the South. This small planter class ruled over the slaves and controlled the five million whites too poor to own slaves. To make sense of this class fact, we must remember that the core motivation for slavery was not race but economics, which is why at its inception, both blacks and whites were enslaved.

Second, let us not forget the lessons of the 1980s. As former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips reminds us in his book The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath, "For all workers, white-collar as well as blue-collar, their real average weekly wage -- calculated in constant 1977 dollars -- fell."

Third, let us also not forget that today, numerous companies are opting to lower standards for job qualifications for their work force rather than raise wages and thus cut into profits. Jobs paying $50,000 a year or more have twice the share of the job-loss rate than that they did in the 1980s.

The result of these contemporary economic trends is the most acute job insecurity since the Great Depression. As economist Paul Krugman has pointedly argued in the November 3, 1997, edition of the New Republic, the modern success story of America's booming economy rests on the bent backs of the American wage earners. The economy is booming because wages, the main component of business costs, are not going up. And wages are not going up because the American worker is presently too fearful to stand up and make demands. Downsizing has shaken worker confidence. Unemployment insurance last only a few months, and the global labor market has undermined the American worker's bargaining power. These basic economic facts, Krugman argues, have created one basic psychological fact for the typical American worker: anxiety.

A strong economy no longer means job security for most white middle-class Americans -- and they know it. This awareness, however, has not produced a rebellion against the rich but, rather, frenzied attempts by downwardly mobile middle-class whites trying to keep up the appearance of being well-off. Such appearances, however, include a penalty: debt. As Harvard social theorist Juliet B. Schor reminds us in The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer: "between a quarter and 30 percent of all American households live paycheck to paycheck; and In 1995, one-third of families whose heads were college-educated did no saving."

I do not call this economic condition in white America, white skin privilege. I call it white middle-class poverty. Talk of white skin privilege is a distraction from this pervasive problem in white America. Talk of white privilege, to paraphrase a statement of Martin Luther King Jr. can feed the egos of poorer whites but not their stomachs.
ETA 6: There's a little bit more in Part Two, but the best reply to Scalzi is Emma Bull's in Part Three.


  1. Haven't read the links yet, but it looks like Scalzi not only left off economic status, he also left off health issues. I don't think that I'd particularly want to play the game set to "Straight White Severely Autistic Blind Male" for instance. (No, not even if I got to be rich.) It isn't that that would necessarily be a horrible life... but it sure wouldn't be an easy one.

    1. High on the reasons I focus on economics is health care is always better for rich folks. There's a famous quote about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: "Sure he was great, but don't forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards...and in high heels!" -- Bob Thaves

      Rich folks and the working class have all the same basic human problems, but the working class have them without a safety net.

      Hmm. Should tidy that up into a tightrope metaphor. In the next draft.

    2. Sure. Although there are some health issues that health care in its current form doesn't really do much for no matter how much money you have. (And the rich people tend to get really bitchy about it when they realize that.)

      I see that Scalzi included wealth, charisma, constitution, etcetera in his metaphorical game as character traits. He would probably say that we all have the same basic human problems, but non-white folks have to deal with them with extra hurdles in the way.

      So I suppose the real argument is whether certain things are default settings (built into the game) or traits (built into the individual) and which is which. But the variations of what constitutes "identity" in "identity politics" strike me as being arbitrary at best.

      Also, I agree with Brust. :)

    3. What's funny (in a not-funny way) about rich people bitching when health care can do nothing is they get to bitch in much more comfortable circumstances.

  2. Holy shit, the point, you have missed it by a mile. You are wrong in your first sentence. Read Scalzi's post again, then read your first sentence and see if you can spot your error.

    1. I played your game, but I suspect you missed my point because you share Scalzi's world view. He thinks wealth is a separate form of privilege in our capitalist society, rather than its most fundamental form. That's a notion that only people who're privileged--which is to say, rich--can maintain. Really, a homeless white guy has it worse than Oprah in her $50 million mansion.

      And because I have to keep pointing this out to folks with your world view, rejecting your model of power does not mean racism and sexism don't exist.

    2. Nobody is saying that the homeless white guy is better off than Oprah. Nobody. Only you.

      Have you figured out your error yet?

    3. Really? In your model, white maleness is the default form of oppression. In my model, wealth is the default form.

  3. Hey, if you want to continue to make shit up about what other people say in order to feel like you're right, it's no skin off my nose.

    1. Well, since your nose is here, I'll admit that sometimes I think the purpose of the internet is to make shit up, but I do my best to avoid that 'cause I'm just obsessive about facts. So I'm curious. What do you think I made up?