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The Cost of Privilege: Taking on the Systems of White Supremacy and Racism

By: 
Lydia Pelot-Hobbs
Date Published: 
November 01, 2007

FUNDAMENTAL TEXT
Review of THE COST OF PRIVILEGE: TAKING ON THE SYSTEMS OF WHITE SUPREMACY AND RACISM by Chip Smith
Camino Press, 2007

When it comes to books written towards white activists struggling to be anti-racist, the options are limited at best. The Cost of Privilege provides a comprehensive framework for white anti-racist activists that attempts to highlight the intricate ways racism works as a complex system that grants white people undeserved benefits. Part history, part theory, part organizing manual, the book is refreshingly useful for all anti-racist organizers trying to gain a better historical understanding of the formation and past challenges to white supremacy in the US. It is not only concerned with history, but also pushes for new strategies for white folks to take on in the struggle to end racism today.

Smith traces the development of racial formation in the US showing how whiteness has been created and maintained at the expense of people of color's oppression. Starting with the 1600’s, he shows how the US is built on a white supremacist foundation and has actively worked against the liberation of people of color. Smith does not fall into the trap of portraying people of color as only oppressed victims, but outlines the tremendous resistance that African Americans, [email protected], Asian/Pacific Americans, and Native Americans have waged against white supremacy. It is from such resistance movements that anti-racist white folks must learn from and follow if we hope to truly be "allies in the struggle" against racism.

A main difference between The Cost of Privilege and other books written on whiteness and anti-racism is its attention to connecting capitalism in relation to white supremacy. Writing from a socialist viewpoint, Smith especially points to how both white supremacy and capitalism must be considered to understand the struggles of working class people in the US and how white working class people have benefited at the expenses of working class people of color. By critically looking at the history of labor movements, Smith points to the moments organized labor failed to take on racism as a fundamental aspect in the struggle of dismantling capitalism in the hopes that today's labor organizers will commit to an anti-racist politic. Furthermore, Smith's centering of a class analysis challenges many white anti-racists who have failed to see that the struggle of anti-racism is interconnected to anti-capitalism. This push is crucial, as one of the downfalls of white anti-racism has been its inability to really understand and commit to the struggles of working class whites and people of color.

Additive approach

While Smith recognizes the need for anti-racists movements to apply an intersectional analysis to their organizing in order to effectively eradicate the whole system of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy, he at times falls into the traps of an additive approach when considering gender and sexuality. This is evident in his lack of attention to the particularly gendered ways that racism operates in the lives of women of color. Without understanding the different manifestations of white supremacy, how can white anti-racists truly be able to be in solidarity with women of color, queers of color, and trans people of color? By failing to integrate an analysis that fully incorporates gender and sexuality throughout his own text, Smith falls short in completely unpacking the multiple ways racism intersects with other systems of oppression, even as he calls for others to apply an intersectional analysis.

While I do not agree with Smith that a national revolutionary party is the answer to eradicating white supremacist capitalist heteropatriachy, his call for prefigurative politics and a more cohesive strategy among anti-racist white folks in our work for racial justice is fundamental. He argues for an anti-racist politic that is grounded in the self-determination of people of color and other oppressed peoples, an international framework that takes into consideration the ways racism and imperialism ravages both people at home and abroad, and an intersectional framework that truly takes into account multiple forms of oppression. Such clarity in vision is necessary for us to truly build movements for justice.

Despite its weaknesses, The Cost of Privilege is an incredibly useful organizing tool for all white activists striving to be anti-racist. Its thoughtful analysis combined with it's attention to day-to-day organizing practices makes it a fundamental text for white anti-racist organizers.