Noel Ignatiev Understood White Privilege and White Supremacy—and How to Destroy Them

The historian, who died this month, spent a lifetime showing how racism reproduces itself.

Collage of segregation signs reading "COLORED WOMEN" and "WE WANT WHITE TENANTS IN OUR WHITE COMMUNITY," and a photo of Noel Ignatiev.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Arthur S. Siegel/United States Library of Congress, Zachary Kervin, Russell Lee/United States Library of Congress, and Ben Shahn/United States Library of Congress.

It is common to hear the rhetoric of “white privilege” used to explain everything from the rise of Donald Trump to the “microaggressions” of the university classroom. Less common is to hear an account of the origins of the concept, initially called “white-skin privilege,” developed by the historian and activist Noel Ignatiev, who died at 78 on Nov. 9. Ignatiev presented an analysis of white supremacy based on a premise that should be uncontroversial, yet now bizarrely seems counterintuitive: The point is to abolish white supremacy, not to endlessly lament its existence while allowing it to perpetuate itself in all its brutality.

In a 1967 pamphlet called “White Blindspot” co-authored with Theodore Allen (who, following the agenda set by W.E.B. Du Bois, first coined the term “white-skin privilege” in his foundational work on whiteness), Ignatiev showed that fighting white supremacy meant seriously reckoning with its historical origins and the mechanisms of its contemporary reproduction. He wrote:

The ending of white supremacy is not solely a demand of the Negro people, separate from the class demands of the entire working class. It cannot be left to the Negro people to fight it alone, while the white workers “sympathize with their fight,” “support it,” “reject racist slanders” etc. but actually fight for their “own” demands.

The ideology of white chauvinism is bourgeois poison aimed primarily at the white workers, utilized as a weapon by the ruling class to subjugate black and white workers. It has its material base in the practice of white supremacy, which is a crime not merely against non-whites but against the entire proletariat. Therefore, its elimination certainly qualifies as one of the class demands of the entire working class. In fact, considering the role that this vile practice has historically played in holding back the struggle of the American working class, the fight against white supremacy becomes the central immediate task of the entire working class.

This was not the tiresome debate over which abstraction, either race or class, was the primary cause of the enormous system of exploitation forged in plantation slavery and persisting in its survivals. It was rather a concrete analysis of how this system developed and persisted. Ignatiev’s most famous work, How the Irish Became White, studied the incorporation of oppressed and excluded European migrants into the club of white-skin privilege, by which the American ruling class exchanged these privileges for the active and enthusiastic personal participation of white workers in white supremacy. The tendency among some socialists today to explain the conservative tendencies of white workers as mere confused class consciousness overlooks the dangerous reality of white-skin privilege and the persistent obstacle it poses to working-class solidarity. Class relations are not a natural fact, nor are they given once and for all. They have to be continually reproduced, against the everyday resistances and rationalities that throw inequality into question.

Yet the opposite error, to view white privilege as the expression of a free-floating and decontextualized power of some individuals over others, simply reified the fictitious social constructions we call race. Whiteness, Ignatiev demonstrated, was not a matter of an innate set of personal traits but of a historical becoming—how the Irish became white—a contingent construction which was in its historical reality tied up with the development of particular forms of labor in American capitalism: the violent and brutal exploitation of slaves, followed by the continued violence of racism in the new regime of wage labor, and the forms of “free” labor whose exploitation was concealed by the invention of the white race and the extension of very real privileges. The political task could only be the abolition of the white race. Ignatiev’s journal with John Garvey, Race Traitor, set this task out in its famous slogan: “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.”

This critique should not be understood as the academic concerns of “whiteness studies” or the liberal guilt complex that confuses the struggle against white supremacy with a cleansing confession of personal privilege. It was rather a component of a lifetime of political militancy. Ignatiev joined the Communist Party in Philadelphia in 1958, when he was 17 years old, and quickly shifted out with a left faction, including Allen and others, called the Provisional Organizing Committee, a sectarian group that quickly degenerated but nevertheless comprised a considerably working-class base, in the large proportion black and Puerto Rican activists.

Ignatiev dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania in 1961 and became a factory worker in Chicago, in a move paralleling that of revolutionaries around the world: to descend into the heart of the capitalist machine to organize with people in all their multiplicity, rather than repeating the political postures of intellectuals disconnected from the everyday stakes of the political struggle. Passing through Students for a Democratic Society, where he delivered the “White Blindspot” critique, he also criticized the appropriation of the language of white-skin privilege by what would become the Weather Underground. The group’s 1969 founding document anticipated, in a more spectacular way, the contemporary expressions of white guilt. They rejected the “white working class” as an agent of revolutionary change, claiming that it had been bought off by its privileges, aligning its interests with imperialism. In the place of the working class, the “Weathermen” presented their own vanguard group as the only solution for white complicity—as what we would now call “white allies” of the black and Third World movements they vaunted in a romanticized caricature. In response, Ignatiev argued that white-skin privilege was in fact contrary to the interests of white workers:

White supremacy is the real secret of the rule of the bourgeoisie and the hidden cause behind the failure of the labor movement in this country. White-skin privileges serve only the bourgeoisie, and precisely for that reason they will not let us escape them, but instead pursue us with them through every hour of our life, no matter where we go. They are poison bait. To suggest that the acceptance of white-skin privilege is in the interests of white workers is equivalent to suggesting that swallowing the worm with the hook in it is in the interests of the fish. To argue that repudiating these privileges is a “sacrifice” is to argue that the fish is making a sacrifice when it leaps from the water, flips its tail, shakes its head furiously in every direction and throws the barbed offering.

Ignatiev then spent a major period of his political life in the Sojourner Truth Organization, which emerged from the late-’60s rubble of SDS and operated until the mid-’80s in the Midwest. Its initial strategy sought to go beyond student radicalism by entering the “point of production” and organizing workers in factories. But the STO also distinguished itself by emphasizing the centrality of the anti-racist struggle in anti-capitalist movements and, with the inspiration of C.L.R. James, tried to find a way of organizing that would go beyond the authoritarian tendencies of previously existing communist and socialist organizations, as well as bureaucratic trade unions, and emphasize the autonomy of the working class. The goal, as Ignatiev wrote in his preface to the STO Workplace Papers, was “developing an organizational form which encompasses and focuses the mass subversive destabilizing motion of the working class—an organizational form which is mass, but is not a union, which is revolutionary, but is not a party.” But he also noted that “we are doing this at a time when the proletariat is under the intellectual domination of the bourgeois class, when the expressions of its revolutionary aspect are isolated, fragmentary and sporadic, when its organizations have turned into fetters.” It was this complexity of everyday life that Ignatiev sought to capture in his most recent project, Hard Crackers.

The hopelessness that accompanies this period of isolation and fragmentation is perhaps what accounts for the flight of the so-called left into posturing and the psychologization of politics, the endless circular discussions of identity that never seem to actually elaborate a program for confronting and destroying racism. Among the lessons we should learn from Ignatiev’s life and work is that the abolition of the white race is not the matter of the self-satisfaction of white liberals but of the unfinished struggle for human emancipation, which awaits the new kinds of organizations that can aim to reach it.