[Marxism] Is white male privilege an "illusion"? (Was: Re: Troubled time)

Joaquin Bustelo jbustelo at bellsouth.net
Sat Nov 25 12:26:44 MST 2006


Sayan writes: "Once this process keeps happening... and
happening... and happening... how long do you think that they can maintain
the illusion that they are 'different' or 'better' than non-white workers?
Certainly not indefinitely."

The superior position of white males in U.S. society is not an "illusion."
It is a reality. You say, "Well, but when it comes to laying them off,
downsizing them, etc. does their whiteness help them in any way? I suspect
not." 

Suspect again. OF COURSE it helps them! Look at the unemployment statistics
of white Anglos compared to Blacks over a few months, a few years or a few
decades, and you will see that. Look at the education levels, the income
levels, the home ownership rates, every socio-economic indicator you can
think of tells the same story. 

Sayan writes, "But once a white worker loses his job, becomes homeless, etc.
his 'social and economic material conditions' do start approaching that of
the maquiladora worker. Every worker's wages are being pulled down. I
haven't seen any data showing that white worker's wages are remaining
stable."

The *worst* thing a Marxist can do if they want to find out the real
material conditions of working people in the United States is to read
leftist articles about economics. These consist of selected and manipulated
statistics designed to show that the workers are going to be rising up any
day now because the bourgeoisie is wringing them dry. 

I've been reading this garbage for decades, but it was only with the
Internet, when I was able for myself to check out full statistical sets and
not the selected numbers, as well as read a lot about the meaning and
limitations of different statistics, that it finally dawned on me WHY it is
that the U.S. working class as a whole, including white workers, doesn't
rise up in revolt despite constantly declining wages and living standards.

The reason that they don't revolt due to falling living standards is that IT
IS NOT TRUE that their standard of living is falling. It's that simple.

The real standard of living in constant dollars (adjusted for inflation)
hasn't changed much in the United States since the 1970's. 

>From 1973 to 1990, median household incomes declined a total of 3.2%, little
more than 0.1% a year. From 1990 to 2003 it declined a total of 0.48%, about
0.03% a year. 

People who know these figures inside and out and how they are arrived at
will tell you, those declines are beyond the measuring accuracy of the
instruments used to arrive at them. 

Why look at household income, rather than median wages? Because that's how
people really live, that's what determines their standard of living. But
we'll look at median wages shortly.

But first, it is important to realize there is a problem with all these
figures. Which is that government estimates for inflation probably overstate
it; moreover, that is especially true as "standard of living" is perceived
by your average person. 

The "consumer goods" basket on which the Consumer Prince Index is measured
was only fully revamped every ten years until, if I remember right, the
mid-1990's. Now the updating is more frequent, but the pace of change in
consumer goods, especially electronics and related, is even more rapid, so
I'm not sure the situation has improved.

The basic problem is that upgrades in the quality of consumer goods at a
given price level are not captured as price decreases. Think of a computer.
One that three years ago was a top-of-the-line $3000 machine two years ago
went for $1000 and was considered corporate/midrange, today is bottom of the
line and goes for $400. Meanwhile, the bottom of the line computer from two
years ago, which cost $450 then, is no longer available. 

Did the price drop $2,400, $550 or $50? 

The general procedure of CPI calculations has been that an entry level
product is an item and even if the entry level shifts over time, you
consider the two goods equivalent. That's probably mostly right. 

But I say only "mostly" because quantitative changes in the machine --faster
processor, more RAM, more disk space-- lead to qualitative changes in how it
is used. In doing this, it partly replaces or displaces other household
equipment or introduces into the household/consumer sector new capabilities
that were not there before. These enhancement present to consumers as
improvements in their "standard of living," in their possibilities for
material satisfaction and well being, that are in now way quantified in
"standard of living" constant dollar statistics

For example, a good computer now and $800 worth of software (for those that
don't use bit torrent) gets you an editing suite for doing broadcast-quality
TV. Moreover, not a "cuts-only" two-deck suite, but one capable of doing all
sorts of titling, special effects, handling a dozen or more audio channels. 

It literally cost more to rent that capability for ONE DAY 10 years ago than
it does to OWN such a broadcast-quality editing setup today. 

So as the machine changes, and you can do more with it, how do you take that
into account in a CPI? Originally personal computers could serve as word
processors, do spread sheets, handle lists. By the late 80's there were
online services and limited emails. In the mid-90's the Internet opened up.
By the late 90's they were capable of playing and storing music, and in the
past few years of handling video, movies and so on. Today's $400 box may be
considered the "equivalent" of a $1000 box from 15 years ago, because it is
"entry level," the most basic computer an average consumer would buy. But
today it is also my music and movie machine. My banking and bill paying
machine. My discussion bulletin machine. My family photo album machine. And,
increasingly, my telephone.

Moreover, for tens of millions of people it is used instead of renting
movies and purchasing music. It is a media content-getting machine. 

And this sort of idea or phenomenon, albeit less dramatically, applies to
most manufactured goods, not just electronics but cars, washing machines,
refrigerators, heating and cooling systems, and these goods in turn are a
component of the price of all sorts of others, from restaurant meals to
construction.

To this you need to add two factors. 

First, even if it were true that 25 year olds make less today than they did
in 1986, and 45 year olds make less today than 45-year-olds in 1986, today's
average and median 45-year-old makes significantly more than s/he did as a
25 year old two decades ago. 

Moreover, over the years households and individuals build up a stock of
durable goods. When people are 25 they may not be able to afford all at once
a fine stereo system, a fine TV setup, camcorder, digital camera,
washer-dryer, dishwasher, microwave, plates, pots, pans, tools, equipment
for various hobbies and pastimes from golf clubs to scuba equipment to
telescopes. This accumulation of consumer durable personal property over
time creates a tendency toward a greater sense of material-well-being, even
if income did not rise with age, which it generally does.

For all these reasons, it would take a reduction of househoold incomes much
much GREATER than that which has been nominally registered for people to
actually notice, even granting that the government stats are that accurate
and precise, which I don't think they are.

Now consider the DIFFERENCE in median income for different
races/nationalities.

The Median household income for Anglos in 2003 was $48,977; for Latinos,
$34,241 and for Blacks $30,134. 

(However, note that ALL government figures on Hispanics today need to be
taken with a grain of salt, as they are based on an undercount of possibly
up to 20% of the Latino population, overwhelmingly concentrated in the very
poorest strata, the undocumented immigrants.)

But at least on the basis of official figures, the median income of Anglo
households is 43% greater than that of Latino households, and 62% greater
than for Blacks. 

Even assuming government statistics on the decline of household incomes are
good, even doubling, tripling or quadrupling them, white privilege far and
hugely outstrips the change in living standards. 

And in terms of male privilege, at average income of males 25 and over of
$33,517 outstrips that of females of the same ages ($19,679) by 70%. 

Let us now look at wages. Here again the figure to look at is the "median"
(the 50% line) rather than "average" since high income earners pull averages
way up. These are median usual weekly earning of full time wage and salary
workers.

>From 1979 through 2002, median wages for that population as a whole
increased, from $551 to $609 (2002 dollars).

White workers benefitted the most, with the median increasing $57 to $624.
Black workers got a smaller increase, $44 to $498.
The wages for Hispanic workers DECREASED $22, to $423. 

Wages for women as a whole rose $112, to $530.

But the increase was very concentrated among white women, with a $127 rise
to $549.
Black women's wages increased $86 to $474.
And Hispanic women were up only $36, to $396.

>From this, it is easy to deduce that the median wages of male workers did
not change much:

All men, up $10 to $680
Whites, up $18 to $702
Blacks, up $2 to $523
Latinos, DOWN $54 to $449

The obvious hypothesis to explain the decline in Latino wages is the big
surge in immigration since NAFTA, but the data does not support this. Latino
male wages were down almost $100 to $406 in 1996, and have recovered since
then even as the number of young, undocumented male immigrants has
skyrocketed.

At any rate, the data are quite convincing in demonstrating that it is
simply not true that real wages in general have been declining, and
particularly NOT for whites, they have improved, especially for white women.
But the improvement for white women in turn benefits many white men also,
and accounts for part of the disparity in white household income because
white folks by and large live with each other.

Figures for the last year would show a decline in real wages because of the
increase in the CPI due to the price of fuel and energy, which have far
outstripped the rise in nominal wages or nominal prices of other goods.
However, those have stabilized in the last few months.

The idea that there has been a sustained and ruthless ruling class offensive
against the wages and living standards of working people is a MYTH. What the
figures actually show is a policy of holding the line. 

Yes, this or that inudstry is in crisis, or has been wiped out. But I also
know a number of men and women in their 40's and 50's making an ok living as
computer network admins, positions that didn't exist 15 or 20 years ago,
when people like this were making an ok living at GM or Delphi.

On the other hand, the figures show a TREMENDOUS DISPARITY in household
incomes between races/nationalities and in individual income by
races/nationality and gender. 

White privilege and male privilege are not "illusions." They are realities
worth close to a thousand dollars a month to their lower-rung beneficiaries,
double or triple that at professional and managerial levels, and they are
the material basis for white supremacist and patriarchal ideologies, social
structures and discrimination.

Sayan says, "I don't understand why you think that the situation you
describe (white workers thinking themselves as 'naturally superior' and
immune to wage loss or job loss) can continue indefinitely."

I don't know ANYTHING about "indefinitely," but I see no hint that current
economic conditions are leading to a change in the situation that has
prevailed in the U.S. for decades now. 

And given no significant economic change, I think basing one's activity on
the expectation of a significant change in the consciousness of the working
class as a whole is unwarranted.

It is not a question of white workers being "immune." Bad things also happen
to (some) white workers, including hugely privileged workers (airline
pilots!). And it is true that instability and insecurity for all workers
generally is greater today, although I would add that it affects Black and
Latino workers disproportionately. But the case would have to be made that
instability today is much greater than 10 or 20 years ago, or that the
cumulative effect of the instability is leading to changes in consciousness
among working people as a whole. 

That is a hard case to make, because I genuinely do not see any change in
the pattern of sporadic defensive struggles that this sort of thing
produces, and have been seen in the U.S. I think for decades now, and which
have not led to any overall changes until now in the consciousness of the
working class, when viewed as a whole, or the reconstitution of a movement
of the working class as a whole.

Economic conditions are not the only thing that affect consciousness, of
course, although they are very important. It would be wrong to discount any
possibility that a combination of factors will lead to a change in
consciousness. But I think it is foolish to act on the basis of a change
that hasn't happened, that there are no signs is beginning to happen, and
that no one can predict whether it will happen or at least, when.

Joaquín






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