Race, class and the wages of whiteness

[This is an expanded version of notes for a presentation I made to a discussion group at First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y., last Sunday.]

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who was recently elected Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, had this to say about this political philosophy in an interview back in 2021.

There’s a difference between progressive Democrats and hard-left democratic socialists.  It’s not a distinction that I’m drawing.  They draw that distinction.  And so clearly, I’m a Black progressive Democrat concerned with addressing racial and social and economic injustice with the fierce urgency of now. That’s been my career, that’s been my journey, and it will continue to be as I move forward for however long I have an opportunity to serve.  There will never be a moment where I bend the knee to hard-left democratic socialism.

Black progressives do tend to tackle issues first and foremost with an understanding that systemic racism has been in the soil of America for over 400 years.  Hard-left progressives tend to view the defining problem in America as one that is anchored in class. That is not my experience as a Black man in this country.  And perhaps that’s where we have a difference of perspective.

What this shows is that there are the two perspectives among American liberals and progressives about justice for black American citizens.  

One prioritizes fighting racial injustice.  The other prioritizes fighting economic injustice.

One says the main problem is oppression of black people and other minority groups by the whites.  The other says the main problem is the exploitation of the have-nots by the haves.

One sees African-Americans as an oppressed nation, like the Irish under British rule or the Poles under Russian rule.  The other sees black people as individual American citizens who have been unfairly excluded from the mainstream of American life.

One defines its mission as overcoming exclusion and marginalization.  The other sees its mission as fighting exploitation.

Both agree that African-Americans and other minority groups are entitled to equal justice and equal treatment.  But one says they also are entitled to equal representation.

I’ll call these two viewpoints racial essentialism and class essentialism.  Nobody I know uses these words, although some use the negative terms “race reductionism” and “class reductionism.”  However you label them, I think these two viewpoints exist and are important to understand.

Both viewpoints are held by intelligent people with good intentions.  I agree with one more than I do the other, but I will do my best to state the strong arguments for both sides.

If you’re a person of good will of good will, you may wonder what the problem is.  Why not fight both racial discrimination and economic inequality at the same time?  Why should this even be a problem?  The answer lies in differing views of the nature of racism.

The late, great W.E.B. DuBois explained American racism as “the wages of whiteness.”  

He said Southern plantation owners told poor white sharecroppers that, as low as they were on the social and economic scale, they at least could have the satisfaction of knowing they were considered superior to black sharecroppers.

A similar story was told to poor European immigrant sweat-shop workers in the North.   An Italian-American acquaintance of mine once remarked that he always felt he was made to feel he was “not quite white enough.”

So racism is an artificial idea created by elite white people to keep lower-class and working-class white people divided against each other.  The whites received no economic benefit, but they received a psychological  benefit 

If this is so, the way forward is to show get non-elite white people to understand that race is an illusion, human rights are universal and the best way to improve their condition is to join forces with their black fellow citizens for the common good.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The view of the historic civil rights movement – DuBois himself, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. – has been a campaign to get white people to understand that human rights are universal, race is an illusion and blacks and whites should unite for the common good.

But there was another stream, based on racial solidarity.  It has gained strength because of the perceived failure of the civil rights movement.   It is represented by the Black Muslims, the Black Panthers, the Black Power movement and the Critical Race Studies movement.  I think it was represented by the black empowerment movement in the Unitarian Universalist Association.  

All of them were a reaction against the historic civil rights movement because of its perceived failures.


The adherents of white I call racial essentialism say the idea of a color-blind society is a pipe dream.  The belief in important biological differences between the races may be an illusion, but racism is so baked into the white psyche that the differences may as well be real.

They say that when blacks and whites unite for supposedly common goals, the blacks usually get the short end of the stick.  Although black people did benefit from the New Deal somewhat,  many programs – in housing, labor laws, veterans benefits – were structured so that blacks on average got less than whites.  And this was intentional.

Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, who are considered champions of the common people against banking and mercantile interests, were slaveowners.  Woodrow Wilson, another famous progressive, was a segregationist.  Franklin Roosevelt compromised many New Deal programs to appease Southern segregationists.


Derrick Bell

Derrick Bell, whose followers founded the Critical Race Studies movement, was a lawyer for the NAACP Legal and Defense Fund who argued for school integration.  But afterwards he wondered whether he had done the right thing.  He came to think that black people would have been better off if they controlled their own schools and agitated for “separate but equal in reality.”

White allies of black people are not necessarily drawn from the bottom ranks of society.  They are more commonly college-educated middle class idealists.

Some labor unions – the Knights of Labor, the International Workers of the World and the Congress of Industrial Organizations – championed racial equality, at least in name, because they believed.  But the largest, the American Federation of Labor, resisted desegregation.  

A.  Philip Randolph was the head of a labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.  But during Randolph’s lifetime, most of the railway brotherhoods – the locomotive engineers, brakemen, etc. – excluded black people.

There are disparities between black and white people who seem to be in the same boat.  A typical black wage-earner will be worse off than a typical white wage-earner with the same income, because the black wage-earner is less likely to enjoy generational wealth.

And in any case, having a middle-class income and status does not necessarily shield you from racism.  Take Henry Louise Gates, a Harvard professor, and his encounter with a policeman who entered his home.  Ellis Cose, a successful black businessman, wrote a book about the racism he and his peers experience, despite their supposedly privileged status.


Racial essentialists conclude from all this that black people need to organize as a separate group to protect their own interests.  Rather than advocate for abstract goals such as racial integration and colorblind justice, they should agitate for the things that will directly improve their condition.  They seek not just equal citizenship and equal treatment, but equal representation.

They welcome the support of individual white people and make alliances with majority-white groups, but they do this as a collective group. 

An example of this is the FIGHT organization here in Rochester in the 1960s, which demanded Eastman Kodak Co. hire black people.  There was a white support organization, but whites did not participate in FIGHT’s decision-making process.  They presented their program and let whites decide whether or how much they would support it.

Meanwhile whites are admonished to struggle against their own racism, conscious or implicit. 


One argument against racial essentialism is that not all black people think alike, and not all of them have the same interests.  Black people who aren’t racial essentialists risk being branded as not authentically black.

Another is that economic inequality is wider than average racial inequality.  Economists generally agree that the upper one-hundredth of the U.S. population have greater wealth than the bottom nine-tenths.  

Suppose things could be changed so that the elite group was 15 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic, half female and appropriate percentages of other racial, ethnic and LGBTQ groups.  How much would really change?

Most Americans who are struggling economically are white, but, in proportion to their numbers, more black people are struggling.  

Among restaurant workers, it is typically the black employees who work in the kitchen and the white employees who wait on customers and get tips.  That’s wrong.  But even if you got rid of these disparities, restaurant workers would still be badly off.  The main problem is the plight of service workers as a class.  I would say black and white restaurant workers have more in common with each other than they do with corporation lawyers of their own race.

Also, diversity programs are sometimes used as a wedge to keep black and white employees apart.  This was my experience in diversity training at Gannett newspapers back in the 1990s.  Nowadays, there are bogus “wages of blackness” with the same goal as the older “wages of whiteness.”


Shirley Sherrod

Shirley Sherrod, a black woman who grew up in rural Georgia, gave a famous speech to the NAACP about racial and economic injustice.  She was 17 years old when her father was murdered by a white man, who went free.  The sheriff of her county killed a number of black people and suffered no consequences.

Years later she was the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s director of rural development for Georgia.  A white farmer came to her for help to keep his farm from being foreclosed upon and, even though he was asking her for help, she perceived that he was also asserting his superiority.  She did what her job required her to do, which was to refer him to a white lawyer who’d gone through a training program sponsored by her agency.

She said she figured “his own kind would take care of him.”  But weeks later, as the foreclosure deadline approached, the white farmer came back to her.  The lawyer was doing nothing, he said.  

She went with the farmer and found that the lawyer had not filed under the chapter of the bankruptcy law that would have allowed him to keep his farm.  The lawyer she finally found that could help him was black.

“Well, working with him made me see that it’s really about those who have versus those who don’t, you know.,” she said.   “And they could be black, and they could be white; they could be Hispanic.  And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people — those who don’t have access the way others have.”


All these things are complicated, but I don’t think the complexities are too great for people of good will to untangle.  The struggle for greater racial equality has to be part of a struggle for greater equality generally, and the struggle for racial justice has to be part of a struggle for justice generally.


Will Hakeem Jeffries Succeed Nancy Pelosi as Speaker? by Edward-Isaac Devore for The Atlantic.  From 2021.

Speech at the Georgia NAACP 20th Freedom Fund Banquet by Shirley Sherrod.  From 2010.


One Response to “Race, class and the wages of whiteness”

  1. Kenneth Bryant Says:

    Thanks for this piece. I think black people bear the dual burdens of race and class unlike working class whites. However both are equally important so we need to reject false choices and fight for both. I disagree with those black activists and thinkers who downplay or deny class. However I disagree with those who deny or downplay race in favor of class too. Moreover I believe in reforming Capitalism to make it work for everyone rather than replacing it with Socialism.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: