Be careful what you ask for

Jason Okundaye argues for abolishing ‘whiteness’ as a category.[1] So um, first, ‘abolition’ in an earlier context referred to abolishing prisons.[2] Second, in the present context, it refers to the possibility of abolishing the police[3] and/or criminal injustice systems (I support the abolition of all of the above,[4] and Okundaye does not even actually mention them[5]), but:

As abolitionism surfaces as the central organising principle of the second wave of Black Lives Matter activism, we need to recognise that one of the things that needs to be abolished is the category of ‘whiteness’ itself. The existence of whiteness is dependent on the subjugation of a racialised other. As such there is no way to extract or preserve whiteness from white supremacy. Without the subjugation of Blacks through a project of racial essentialism, whiteness as a category ceases to exist. Whiteness is not a biological reality, but a description of social relations defined by class, ownership and property rights.[6]

Okundaye adopts as a premise that “[t]he existence of whiteness is dependent on the subjugation of a racialised other,” which is partly tautalogical, and from the whole of which, of course, it follows that “there is no way to extract or preserve whiteness from white supremacy.”[7] Okundaye implicitly assumes that power relations are inherent to distinction, which may be true when such distinctions become hierarchically invidious monisms,[8] but is not necessarily inherent to distinctions themselves, as with that between apples and oranges. (Do apples have power over oranges? Where do grapes fit in?)

Okundaye would be correct to define ‘whiteness’ as a social construction—we who are white are white because we, more generally as a society, agree that we are white—but he instead defines it as “not a biological reality,” which in itself is correct, but rather as “a description of social relations defined by class, ownership and property rights.”[9] Despite the pale hue of my skin and my admittedly constrained white privilege, such a definition completely obliterates my identification as white: I am poor, own next to nothing, and accordingly have few property rights, a problem brought to the fore by my limited housing options. And even with a Ph.D., I can’t get a decent job, eviscerating my access to the class[10] that Okundaye identifies ‘whiteness’ with.[11]

My own example exposes Okundaye as himself relying on a stereotype of whites as wealthy and powerful, in contrast to another stereotype of poor, powerless Blacks. Both wildly over-generalize (see, for examples, Barack Obama, Clarence Thomas, Ben Carson, and Condoleezza Rice). Some might even call these stereotypes racist. Certainly they essentialize. These generalizations themselves rely on another social construction, money,[12] that directly relates to power and opportunity.[13]

There is certainly an intersection of race and class, as Pittsburgh vividly demonstrates, but confounding the two clarifies nothing, renders some of Okundaye’s post incoherent, and the remainder mostly banal.

Most profoundly, however, in a context where humans seem intrinsically to distinguish between “us” and “them,”[14] Okundaye would need to answer how race categories would be replaced: He should be careful what he asks for, because doing so does not in itself lead to a more equal, more just society.

  1. [1]Jason Okundaye, “Abolish Whiteness,” London Review of Books, June 16, 2020, https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2020/june/abolish-whiteness
  2. [2]Angela Y. Davis, Abolition Democracy (New York: Seven Stories, 2005).
  3. [3]Zak Cheney-Rice, “Why Police Abolition Is a Useful Framework — Even for Skeptics,” New York, June 15, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/06/police-abolitionist-lessons-for-america.html
  4. [4]David Benfell, “Defunding the police is, at best, a baby’s first step,” Not Housebroken, June 15, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/06/15/defunding-the-police-is-at-best-a-babys-first-step/
  5. [5]Jason Okundaye, “Abolish Whiteness,” London Review of Books, June 16, 2020, https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2020/june/abolish-whiteness
  6. [6]Jason Okundaye, “Abolish Whiteness,” London Review of Books, June 16, 2020, https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2020/june/abolish-whiteness
  7. [7]Jason Okundaye, “Abolish Whiteness,” London Review of Books, June 16, 2020, https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2020/june/abolish-whiteness
  8. [8]Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich, Transforming Knowledge, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2005).
  9. [9]Jason Okundaye, “Abolish Whiteness,” London Review of Books, June 16, 2020, https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2020/june/abolish-whiteness
  10. [10]David Benfell, “About my job hunt,” Not Housebroken, n.d., https://disunitedstates.org/about-my-job-hunt/
  11. [11]Jason Okundaye, “Abolish Whiteness,” London Review of Books, June 16, 2020, https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2020/june/abolish-whiteness
  12. [12]David Benfell, “Cats are smarter than we are. Really,” Not Housebroken, October 30, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/10/30/cats-are-smarter-than-we-are-really/
  13. [13]John Asimakopoulos, The Political Economy of the Spectacle and Postmodern Caste (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2020); Regina Austin and Michael Schill, “Black, Brown, Red, and Poisoned,” in Great Divides, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 440-448; Robert D. Bullard, “Environmental Justice for All” in Great Divides, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 418-430; Lisa Catanzarite and Vilma Ortiz, “Family Matters, Work Matters? Poverty Among Women of Color and White Women,” in Great Divides, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 165-172; Peter W. Cookson, Jr., and Caroline Hodges Persell, “The Vital Link: Prep Schools and Higher Education,” in Great Divides, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 380-391; G. William Domhoff, “The American Upper Class,” in Great Divides, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 156-164; Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein, “Making Ends Meet at a Low-Wage Job,” in Great Divides, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 173-185; Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed (New York: Owl, 2001); Herbert J. Gans, The War Against The Poor (New York: Basic, 1995); Herbert J. Gans, “The Uses of Undeservingness,” in Great Divides, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 85-94; Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites (New York: Crown, 2012); Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities (New York: HarperPerennial, 1991); Jonathan Kozol, “The Savage Inequalities of Public Education in New York,” in Great Divides, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 392-410; Charles Lee, “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States,” in Great Divides, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 431-440; C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2000); C. Wright Mills, “The Structure of Power in American Society,” in Great Divides, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 139-145; Jeffrey Reiman, “Weeding Out the Wealthy,” in Great Divides, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 146-155; Kanishk Tharoor, “The Exclusivity Economy,” review of The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business by Nelson D. Schwartz, New Republic, April 21, 2020, https://newrepublic.com/article/157153/velvet-rope-economy-book-review-rich-exclusivity-hides-inequality; Marta Tienda and Haya Stier, “The Wages of Race: Color and Employment Opportunity in Chicago’s Inner City,” in Great Divides, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 224-234; Ralph H. Turner, “Sponsored and Contest Mobility and the School System,” in Great Divides, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 71-76; Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory, ed. Charles Lemert, 6th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2017), 94-101.
  14. [14]Simone de Beauvoir, “Women as Other,” in Social Theory, ed. Charles Lemert, 6th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2017), 268-270.

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