Make White Workers John Brown Again

Make White Workers John Brown Again

A house in rural western Missouri.

A house in rural western Missouri.

Although Trump’s campaign for the U.S. presidency courted and won the hearts of rich white Americans, more attention has been given to the support he received from the so-called white working class. As a result, much ink has been spilled in the last months debating the role of the white working class in electoral politics and in larger movements for liberation. While most of this attention has been nothing more than romanticizing working-class whites—that is, a fetishizing of the white working class that should be ignored—it remains important that we figure out why a sizable portion of white workers not only threw in with a billionaire real-estate developer, but, even worse, supported his openly racist, misogynist, and settler-imperialist campaign. Put slightly differently, even if the majority of working-class whites didn’t vote for Trump, far too many did. Working-class whites also failed, particularly in rural areas, to organize in ways that would have them take a stand alongside other groups against Trumpism. We shouldn’t be surprised by this; white workers explicitly or implicitly supporting or condoning reactionary movements has been foundational to the formation of the United States as a white-supremacist settler colony.

The question, then, is how do white workers break from this tradition of supporting white supremacy and settler colonialism in order to support and participate in movements of marginalized groups for the liberation of all people? That is, as Malcolm X once suggested, how can white workers be more like white abolitionist John Brown, who, anticipating the Civil War, used any means necessary, even giving his life, to fight slavery. In what follows, I want to offer a few thoughts on the place of white workers in the struggle against the interlocking systems of capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy. I share these thoughts from my perspective as a white settler who grew up in a white-majority working-class town in rural America, and who several years ago advocated for a class-first analysis that I have since rejected as a limited and non-dialectical way of understanding the relationship between race, class, gender, and coloniality. In hindsight, I recognize that the latter class-first perspective grew out of a former white-first perspective I had grown up with, a correlation that many class-first thinkers fail to see, let alone confront.

After witnessing the “Patriot” or Liberty movement spread among working-class whites in areas of rural America, I was not surprised that Trump’s “make America great (white-first) again” message resonated where Tea Party politics had started to fizzle out. If the goal of the Liberty movement was to protect white (Christian) America from a federal government that served the interests of feminists, people of color, and immigrants, Trump’s “maga” campaign was not only a defense of whiteness, but, more dangerously, a promise of getting white revenge on a ruling class (“the political establishment”) that had abandoned so-called “common” white folks by catering to Brown and Black people, women, and “globalist” Wall Street bankers. The popularity of both of these reactionary movements among white workers in recent years should be understood as typical in the history of white-working class politics of the United States. Historically, white workers have, almost in every case, as J. Sakai reminds us, upheld and reinforced U.S. empire. One must strain to find examples of white workers organizing to join marginalized groups in the struggle against white supremacy, colonial conquest, and patriarchy. Even in those moments when the class politics of white workers have been radical, they took place when white workers were not yet considered quite white. In other words, white workers were the most radical from the late-19th century to World War One, when they were still racialized as non-Anglo foreigners. In the American context, white workers have, at best, been reformist in their politics; at their worst, they have openly supported white-supremacist violence and genocidal settler-colonial expropriations. What they have yet to become is revolutionary.

I know that making such a claim raises many red flags for those who believe that the primary path for the liberation of all people is the fight against labor exploitation. Despite a checkered past of white workers collaborating with rather than combating capital, those who emphasize the universalism of exploitation in capitalism still hold dear the view that working-class whites possess the potential to be revolutionary, insofar as white workers are objectively exploited by capital and thus have a material interest, as do all exploited wage laborers, in abolishing the wage system. When some versions of exploitation-centered accounts of history do acknowledge the role of white supremacy in capitalism, they tend to see it as an ideology that capitalists wield to divide the working class. In such accounts, the ideology of white supremacy always reaches a limit, it is believed, when conditions of exploitation intensify or when the inequality between white workers and capital exceeds the promised benefits of white supremacy. It is in these moments when white workers have the potential to come together with fellow exploited workers of color and women as allies in the struggle against capitalism.

While I agree that white workers are objectively exploited by capital, I also think that if white workers are to betray the long tradition of supporting reactionary politics we have to reject the idea that economic inequality or class antagonism between the rich and poor will dispel the ideology of white supremacy among white workers. When exploitation intensifies and dispossession spreads among white workers, white supremacy tends to become the solution to which white workers appeal rather than the illusion they see past. As David Gilbert has argued in his analysis of the white working class (a point he has recently repeated in the wake of Trump’s election), “under economic pressure, the spontaneous tendency [for white workers] is to fight harder for white supremacy. While the absolute value of privilege might decrease, the relative value is usually increasing as Third World people abroad and within the U.S. bear the worst hardships of the crisis.” When economic inequality between white workers and capital becomes untenable during times of crisis, or when the spoils of empire aren’t working their way down to white workers quick enough, white workers don’t so much agitate to abolish capitalism as they demand a more colonialist and white supremacist version of it, one that they expect should reward and not impoverish them.

In other words, one solution to the contradiction of white workers’ exploitation has been the intensification of colonial and racial forms of expropriation as a way to secure and protect their cross-class shared status in U.S. capitalism as settlers and masters. While white workers may have a material interest in struggling against exploitation, they also have a material interest in benefitting, economically and symbolically, from settler colonialism and white supremacy. In our settler colony premised on Indigenous, Black, and Brown dispossession, it shouldn’t be a surprise that white workers fight capital (exploitation) by serving and supporting U.S. empire—a fight to preserve and/or restore the privileges and entitlements of whiteness and settlerism and to resolve the contradictions among whites rather than a fight for the freedom of all workers and marginalized peoples, which would require the abolition of whiteness itself.

For example, the reason many white workers joined middle-class whites in jumping on board the Trump train was because it promised to defend white workers against the tyranny of “globalism.” They perceive capitalism’s contemporary stage of global structural unemployment and deindustrialization as no longer respecting the privileged status of white workers in the marketplace and civil society. In place of globalism, Trumpism promised to deliver a restored form of colonial capitalism (America-first economic nationalism) that secures the preferential treatment of the white working class and a greater redistribution of the spoils of empire among white people through the intensification of white-supremacist and settler-colonial forms of repression and violence both here and abroad. Advocating for the mass deportation of Brown people; backing “Blue” lives in order to further repress and murder Black lives; and threatening to ban and genocide Muslims all served as promises to white workers and middle-class whites that the value of their lives in America would increase as the colonized and racialized would be pushed further into the margins of unfree and informal labor, bodily dispossession, exclusion, social death, and elimination.

My point, however, is not to suggest that white workers can’t be revolutionary. Certainly, there are white workers who are proletarian—workers who own nothing but the labor power they sell to capital in exchange for wages—and have a material interest, along with marginalized peoples, in dismantling capitalism. Instead, my point is to say that it’s a mistake to ignore the material role settler colonialism and white supremacy play in managing and positioning white workers so that they do not support or actively sabotage and fight against movements for the liberation of all people. We have to see that white workers who come together and fight against exploitation under the banner of whiteness—which often times declares itself a class politics because it fights against exploitation rather than what they consider secondary issues of racism, colonialism, and gender violence—are actually only fighting for a different version of capitalism and not, as they believe, the abolition of it.

To be clear, this is not to say that white workers are structurally determined racist reactionaries. It is to say that white workers have to construct new class identities in which we dislodge the primacy of the fight against exploitation in order to foreground the fight against white supremacy, settler colonialism, and heteropatriarchy. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor emphasizes, “racism is the central divide between ordinary people in this country, and without a struggle against it, it will be impossible to organize any coherent movement for anything.” This means leaving behind or at least radically retooling old workerist identities and constructing in their place new articulations of working-class identity among white workers that hold together the interlocking structures of colonial, racial, and gender dispossessions and exclusions that exceed the category of exploitation but are nonetheless central to it.

The first step in doing so requires that we let go of the idea that exploitation necessarily produces a revolutionary class consciousness and politics among white workers. Before white workers can meaningfully worry about tackling the structures of wage-labor exploitation, they must first help tear down the structures that historically have prevented them from caring about the exploitation and dispossession of others in the first place. This is not a matter of white workers overcoming false consciousness or rejecting the bribes of capitalists; rather, it involves working to dismantle the material structures of domination of white supremacy and settler colonialism that underpin the wage-labor system. Constructing class identities defined by the fight against such systems of power would allow white workers not only to assist and participate in a multiracial mass movement for the liberation of all people, but also defect from, that is, betray, the reactionary movements led by wealthy white America that have historically enlisted white workers in helping to defeat the liberation struggles of others.


Here I want to reflect on what I have identified are four major obstacles against which white workers must organize in our efforts to create a new class politics that would lead white workers to aid, support, and strengthen movements for the liberation of all people—this would also be, importantly, the movement to destroy whiteness itself as both an identity/culture and power structure.

1. Whiteness and settler sovereignty are not mere economic privileges the ruling class doles out to white workers in order to divide a so-called universal working class, but rather are social statuses (or political ontologies) that place white workers in the same category of colonizer and master as the capitalist owners who exploit them. In other words, no amount of economic inequality can rob the white worker of his “free” and “sovereign” status in U.S. liberal democracy—a white settler status in which white workers are exempted from a life of exclusion, social death, and genocide such as that found (in differential but intersecting ways) in the positions of the Black slave, the Indian, the Muslim and Arab Other, and the “illegal” Latinx and “alien” Asian migrant laborer. Understanding how white workers do not share the same social position as such unfree subjects explains why white workers can fight against exploitation by fighting for racial and colonial exclusions. White workers find themselves caught in the dialectic of the free laborer/wage slave. They feel proud and privileged that capitalism treats them as free workers in which they are granted formal equality or mutual status (white-to-white recognition) with their capitalist owners. Yet they get “angry” and come together as a white settler working class when they feel like capitalism is not respecting this status and treating them no better than colonized and racialized groups. So much of white workers rebelling against exploitation has been this fight to hold the line of what Lisa Lowe calls the “colonial divisions of humanity,” that line of colonial and racial difference demarcating whose life counts as human and whose doesn’t. In other words, it’s the struggle to prevent capitalism from “reducing” white workers to the status of the Native, Black, or Brown unfree subject rather than the actual struggle to abolish the value-form.

This free laborer/wage slave dialectic played out very clearly in Trump’s campaign. One of the most appealing promises Trump made to working-class whites (and middle-class whites) was that he would put whiteness, male supremacy, and settlerism before profits—that he would “return” to valuing working and middle-class whites’ racial and colonial status over the business interests of the ruling class (the “globalists”). His vision of America-first economic nationalism promised to make capitalism (once again) cohere a U.S. white democracy in which the inequality between whites is mitigated or eliminated altogether. And he would do so not necessarily by improving the economic lives of white workers, but by intensifying colonial and racial difference. For example, although Trumpism was a male-supremacist movement in the most obvious and violent ways, Trump nonetheless won the vote of white women, demonstrating how whiteness can provide value to white feminized workers on whom the market still depends for unpaid reproductive labor. If the gendered division of labor subordinates white feminized workers to white male workers, white feminized workers still retain a privileged place in the white nation; it was this status white feminized workers were looking to fortify, as they have done in the past, when they voted for Trump. Moreover, if Trump’s message appeared to have an anti-imperialist (isolationist) and class politics (white workers first) ring to it, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that Trump had the concerns of working people in mind. Trump’s campaign—like Pat Buchanan of the 90s, David Duke of the 80s, Ronald Reagan of the 70s and 80s, George Wallace of the 60s, and Lincoln, Jackson, and Jefferson of the 19th century—was a platform promising greater economic and symbolic equality among whites by increasing the dispossessions and exclusions of Native, Black, and Brown peoples.

2. White workers prove their loyalty to whiteness and settlerism primarily by policing marginalized groups. In doing so, white workers do the bloody work of capital by repressing and containing the populations excluded from the formal economy and waged work. Policing the lives of the racialized and colonized becomes a way for working-class whites to demonstrate their loyalty to a system that promises them preferential treatment and escape from proletarian labor. In Black Reconstruction, W. E. B. Du Bois explains that in the 19th century poor whites of the U.S. south were enlisted by wealthy planters to police black slaves:

[I]t gave him work and some authority as overseer, slave driver, and member of the patrol system. But above and beyond this, it fed his vanity because it associated him with the masters. Slavery bred in the poor white a dislike of Negro toil of all sorts. He never regarded himself as a laborer, or as part of any labor movement. If he had any ambition at all it was to become a planter and to own [Black slaves]. To these Negroes he transferred all the dislike and hatred which he had for the whole slave system. The result was that the system was held stable and intact by the poor white. Even with the late ruin of Haiti before their eyes, the planters, stirred as they were, were nevertheless able to stamp out slave revolt. . . Gradually the whole white South became an armed and commissioned camp to keep Negroes in slavery and to kill the black rebel.

While Du Bois’ example of the poor whites policing Black slaves should be understood as a specific moment in the history of race and class in the U.S., this relationship continues today. The only thing to change, as Frank Wilderson reminds us, are the technologies through which it is maintained. Understood this way, we can see why working-class whites fill the ranks of the police, border patrol, ICE, prison guards, the military, and other jobs directly or indirectly supportive of U.S. militarism. It also explains why they are also too easily swept up by vigilante actions both locally and nationally in which they become the foot soldiers of racial terrorism. Furthermore, as Mike King argues, in recent decades white workers have confronted neoliberalism by supporting the carceral state—racialized mass incarceration and militarized police repression—instead of defending the economic redistribution of the welfare-state in order to strengthen their claim to the saving grace of whiteness and settlerism.

White workers also fall in line when it comes to enforcing the racial segregation of space. While white workers may not live in wealthy white middle- and upper-class suburbs and gated communities, they are much less likely than workers of color to live in “extremely poor neighborhoods” where poverty rates exceed 20%. Or, put inversely, white workers participate in “white flight” to secure a place in white-dominant neighborhoods and towns, and will loyally work to police such spaces against perceived criminal threats of Native, Black, and Brown bodies. Indeed, I know a lot people who would rather live in a trailer or overpriced apartment in a white-majority town or community than own a home for much less in a non-white neighborhood.

3. Historically and structurally, the majority of white workers constitute a labor aristocracy. White workers not only expect but are given access to the best-paying and least-precarious jobs in the labor market as well as access to small-scale real estate in the form of home ownership. Thus white workers can escape or defend themselves from falling into proletarian labor at higher rates than other workers. As a result, white workers expect either to be included in or never to be left out of what is often called the middle class—a labor aristocracy of workers who don’t own the means of production but who own more than just their labor power and receive more than subsistence wages to survive. It is in this way that white workers, despite being exploited, expect to share the same economic status as the petty bourgeois (small-business owners and small farmers) and the managerial class.

For example, Trump cleaned up among these groups, who saw in Trump a platform that promised to preserve and retain their material privileges and power. While, he didn’t do as well among white workers left out of the labor aristocracy, he still managed to capture the support of a good chunk of them. In the general election, he won 35% of white workers with household incomes below $50,000; yet in the primaries, his highest percentage of support came from the poorest group of registered Republican voters. Trump won 63% of primary voters with household incomes below $30,000.

Furthermore, poorer white workers, particularly in rural areas, weren’t actively challenging Trump’s openly white-supremacist movement spreading among their neighbors and taking over their communities. Maybe they voted for Bernie Sanders in the primaries, and then chose not to vote for Trump in the general election. For the most part, however, they didn’t show up in any kind of meaningful, organized, or militant way (barring a few exceptions) to aid in the efforts of workers of color, Native groups, migrant communities, students, and anarchists working to derail the Trump train and stamp out the revival of white-nationalist politics. In short, many white workers, such as those in my hometown, may not have supported Trump, but they also didn’t mind their neighbors putting up Trump signs in their yards, flying “Blue Lives Matter” flags, or chanting “build the wall” at get-togethers.

4. The majority of white workers, particularly rural white workers, are already politically organized in reactionary institutions led by local petty bourgeois elites. If we take my hometown as an example, the petty bourgeois (consisting of small-business owners, independent farmers, and professionals in town such as lawyers, doctors, real-estate agents, and bankers) along with workers of the labor aristocracy lead and administer our community’s economic, political, and social institutions. They run the city council, the county commission, the school board, the chamber of commerce, the local newspaper, the churches, small businesses, youth and adult sport leagues, social organizations, and so on. For poor whites, becoming involved in these institutions and groups provides a pathway for social mobility, leading to more job opportunities and access to a wider network of material support. Yet the goal of these institutions is to advance the interests of the local ruling elites at the expense of the town’s impoverished white workers and workers of color.

In other words, these institutions politically organize white workers to support the reactionary politics of local white property owners whose more privileged livelihoods depend on cheap local labor of poor whites and workers of color. Discussions on how one should vote, how one should understand contemporary political issues, what political causes and movements one should support or even join happen in the bleachers at ballgame on Friday night, at the local bars and pool halls on Saturday night, in the church pews on Sunday morning, at the meeting of the neighborhood-watch group Monday evening, and at the Mary Kay home party on Tuesday afternoon, just to name a few examples. When economic inequality intensifies, as it did following the 2008 crash, white workers behave according to the interests of these reactionary institutions, which in recent years in rural America has taken the form of supporting the Liberty Movement and Trumpism—movements demanding that whiteness and settlerism shield white workers and middle-class whites from the violence of capitalism.

White workers excluded from such institutions, or who don’t find success by participating in them, are characterized as “white trash—that is to say, not white enough. They are seen as moral failures, inept mothers and fathers, trouble-making teens, and “good-for-nothing” non-productive or “ungrateful” workers who deserve their exclusion and poverty. These are the people who don’t attend the local churches (or if they do, hold no special standing within them), who can’t land a steady job and are chronically unemployed, who rent rather than own their own homes (or if they do own homes, don’t treat them as value-producing investments but as places to live and recuperate from work), and perhaps worst of all, it is believed, commit the sin of receiving government assistance or “handouts” instead of “working for a living.” And it can’t be overlooked that working-class white women, particularly single mothers and women in interracial relationships, are disproportionately treated and characterized as white trash. Such a category of not being white enough functions to control potentially rebellious poor whites excluded from the full benefits of whiteness and settlerism. It convinces poor whites to see the cause of their poverty in their own moral shortcomings and personal work-ethic rather than capitalism, while also containing their potential rebellion by marking them as criminal, as the town “losers,” and thus the targets of state and vigilante violence in their failure to be employable, productive workers and respectable property owners.

 Going Forward

If we continue to assume that exploitation will eventually transform white workers into revolutionary actors, white workers will continue to stand in the way of liberation movements, be loyal to empire, and be drawn into white-colonialist or fascist movements. There is no guarantee that white supremacy and settler sovereignty will crack under the pressure of increased exploitation; moreover, it’s anti-dialectical to think so. We are already seeing very clearly that such tendencies are pushing many white workers to join or tacitly condone the growing movement of white fascisms in the United States; the “Traditionalist Worker Party,” like many white fascist groups, postures as anti-capitalist and uses a critique of exploitation in its recruitment strategy of poor whites. If white workers are to join others in the fight against capitalism and the struggle for a different future, we must fight against white supremacy and settlerism. If not—if our fight is only against exploitation—white workers will continue to fight for reformist, or, worse, colonialist/white fascist versions of capitalism.

I’m not suggesting that white workers shouldn’t agitate and organize for improved working conditions, better pay, more benefits, greater job security, joining and growing unions, and working toward a general strike of all workers, an event that would pave the way for the abolition of the wage system. What I am suggesting is that if white workers are not organized according to a class identity of fighting against white supremacy, settler colonialism, and their intersection with heteropatriarchy, we will be fighting for improved working conditions and stronger unions only for ourselves.

The task, then, for white workers, is not to wait on history to save us, but to actively make history by constructing a new class identity that specifically addresses, in order to dismantle, whiteness and settlerism—a new class identity that has white workers putting our lives on the line like John Brown to disrupt and eliminate white supremacy and settler colonialism rather than continuing to defend these systems of domination. This would be a class identity not primarily against the exploitation of wage labor, but rather one that organizes white workers to serve as accomplices to decolonial, anti-racist, feminist, and queer of color liberation movements whose goal is to destabilize and ultimately dismantle the underlying colonial systems of domination, dispossession, and violence that presuppose wage labor, the marketplace, and the U.S. working class. In short, white workers must organize in ways that make us disobedient, or better yet, ungovernable, to white supremacy and settlerism in order to help create the conditions of possibility for white workers to join mass-movement organizing.

Acknowledging how colonial and racial difference cut across and overdetermine the working class in which asymmetrical relationships exist between workers in no way discounts the immiseration of poor whites nor does it shut down possibilities for solidarity among those targeted and taken advantage of by capitalism. In other words, so-called identity politics are not the problem in terms of standing in the way of mass-movement building, as some on the Left would have us believe, (see selected articles from Jacobin and The Nation for examples of this argument), but rather white supremacy, settler sovereignty, and heteropatriarchy. This is not anti-racism for the sake of liberal inclusion and diversity; it’s the anti-racist, decolonial work necessary for the breaking down of the asymmetries among us that stand in the way of class unity in the first place.

At the same time, we should also understand that the success of movements for the liberation of all people will hardly be determined solely by the actions of white workers. Yet if white workers want to free ourselves from the violence of exploitation and from serving as the loyal defenders and enforcers of a system that benefits rich elites, we have to figure out how we can organize ourselves in ways that are accountable rather than opposed to the movements of marginalized peoples. To make ourselves capable, available, and accountable accomplices to the struggles of marginalized peoples, white workers must come to terms with and organize against all the ways in which white supremacy and settlerism make us obedient to U.S. empire. This action requires that the class politics of white workers do not merely “include” or acknowledge issues of “identity.” Instead, it will require nothing less than centering and following the lead of anti-racist, decolonial movements and their intersection with queer and feminist politics. Reflecting on John Brown’s life and politics, Tamara K. Nopper lays out very clearly what is required of white workers:

While John Brown’s practice was problematic in many ways—he still had to be in control and he had fucked-up views that Blacks were still enslaved because they were too “servile” (a white supremacist sentiment)—what I took from Brown’s life was that he realized that moral persuasion alone would not solve racial problems. That is, whites cannot talk or just think through whiteness and structures of white supremacy. They must be committed to either picking up arms for other people (and only firing when the people tell them so), dying for other people, or just getting out of the way. In short, they must be willing to do what the people most affected and marginalized by a situation tell them to do.

What this looks like today and going forward is our urgent task to figure out. Certainly there are examples from the past whose logics it would benefit white workers to recuperate and build on. Notable examples include the politics of John Brown; radical abolitionists organizing militant resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law and expelling slave-catchers from Northern cities before the Civil War; white soldiers defecting from rather than fighting for empire in the U.S.-Mexico War of 1848; the IWW union organizing white workers to fight alongside workers of color not only against exploitation but the violence of the KKK; and poor whites of Chicago organizing in tandem with Black revolutionaries in the 60s and 70s, a time when most white workers were voting for George Wallace or Richard Nixon and supporting U.S. militarism in the Third World. Today, groups such as Redneck Revolt, Torch Antifa, and the IWW and its General Defense Committee, to name a few, promise to carry on this tradition of organizing white workers in ways that get us to break ranks from white settler liberal democracy in order to stand with and not against movements for the liberation of all people.

For areas of rural America, like my hometown, new institutions of material support, political education, and workplace solidarity must be erected that can offer working-class whites an alternative to the reactionary politics of local ruling elites. For example, counter-recruitment campaigns are greatly needed and effective in such areas. I remember in my high school during lunch-period the Marines would table on Tuesday, the Army on Wednesday, and the Navy on Thursday. We also had regular visits from the D.A.R.E. police officer and frequent K-9 searches of our lockers. Guest speakers at school assemblies would also visit and give “scared straight” lectures cautioning us of the dangers of committing crime and ending up in prison. These speakers—many of them cops, highway patrolmen, or former prisoners—would glorify police and prisons for their “tough love” approach to criminality. The presence of the police and military in high schools like mine not only feeds the school-to-prison pipeline but also helps recruit working-class students into the ranks of the institutions of empire where they fight and die for white supremacy and settler imperialism. Campaigns, then, that endeavor to kick the police and military out of schools do the important work, particularly in our post 9/11 context, of delegitimizing and weakening these institutions of death.  

Within these and other organizing efforts among white workers, we also have to find ways to explain plainly and simply how white supremacy and settler colonialism control in order exploit rather than free white workers. To put it bluntly, a liberal humanist empathy politics won’t work to get white workers to be accomplices in the movements of marginalized groups for liberation of all people. What will work is demonstrating to white workers how the loyalty and dedication they offer to whiteness and settlerism is not returned to them in the form of providing for their needs and offering a meaningful life. They are asked to be patriots for a white republic in which they dutifully submit to their exploitation precisely because it means they are conferred whiteness in a white-first nation. Yet such a category must be made to be seen as untenable and irredeemable not only because it’s premised on genocide and social death, but because even though it promises ontological recognition to white workers, whiteness, in the end, makes no guarantees to provide them the means to feed themselves or their kids. This latter point can’t be separated from the former, which is to say, white workers must see that their privilege and oppression within the category of whiteness depends on racialized and colonial exclusions and expropriations. As Otis Madison puts it, “the purpose of racism is to control the behavior of white people, not Black people. For Blacks [as well as Native and Brown communities], guns and tanks are sufficient.”

If white workers don’t come to see and organize against this—if they remain committed only to the fight against exploitation—the looming danger is that, as the structural failures of capitalism intensify, white workers will double-down on white supremacy, finding themselves increasingly falling prey to white fascisms, and repeating their collaboration with capital to sabotage, stand against, and ultimately help crush the movements of marginalized peoples. Thus, no matter how much we talk about exploitation, it is not until white workers organize to support, defend, and put our lives on the line for movements that seek to smash patriarchy, decolonize America, and burn down the American plantation that we will truly become revolutionary actors in what must be an international and multiracial struggle to free all people.

Oliver Baker is a PhD candidate at the University of New Mexico. His research and teaching focuses on the intersecting histories of settler colonialism, racial capitalism, white supremacy, and class inequality in American literature and culture. 

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