Understanding White Privilege – its sociological origins.


In an effort at understanding white privilege from an historical perspective, I wrote a post back in January. In this post, I’m into understanding white privilege from a sociological perspective. For a variety of reasons, one engaging perspective of this sort by sociologist Alan G. Johnson starts off with the notion that the British were instrumental in the development of the idea of racial superiority.

According to Johnson’s perspective,  the British were not the first to believe that they were superior to other groups. What they introduced, which is at the core of the concept of race, is that superiority and inferiority were located in the body itself and passed on through reproduction…* 

Understanding white privilege – its sociological origins.

In Johnson’s own words, “The history of white privilege is a long and complicated story, too long and too complicated for me to tell completely here, but what I can do is identify major aspects of the story as a way to show how the sociological model works.

“We begin with the long history of the British struggle to conquer Ireland and subjugate its people. This structural relation of dominance along with British frustration in the face of stubborn resistance, gave rise to a cultural belief that the Irish were an inferior and savage people, not merely in the organization of their societies, but in their very nature as human beings. The British came to view the Irish as something like a separate species altogether, possessing inferior traits that were biologically passed from one generation to the next. In this, the British were inventing a concept of race that made it a path of least resistance to see other peoples as subhuman if not nonhuman, making it easier to objectify them and more difficult to feel empathy for them as members of their own kind, both integral to the exertion of control over others.

“When the British came to North America, they brought with them both cultural views of race and the expectation of their own position of dominance as a structural feature of any society they might establish. To this was added the explosive growth of industrial capitalism as an economic system in the 18th and 19th centuries, whose structure is organized around the capitalist’s ability to control the conditions and resources on which profit depends. In the early stages of capitalism, for example, markets were the object of that control as capitalists bought goods in one place and took them to another where they were in scarce supply and could command a higher price than the one originally paid. Later, as capitalists became involved in the production of goods, profit depended more on the ability to control workers and natural resources than on markets – the less the capitalist pays for labor and materials, the more is left over for the capitalist to keep.”

The Middle Passage.

Commercial goods from Europe were shipped to Africa for sale and traded for enslaved Africans. Africans were in turn brought to the regions depicted in blue, in what became known as the “Middle Passage”. African slaves were then traded for raw materials, which were returned to Europe to complete the “Triangular Trade.

The Middle Passage was the crossing from Africa to the Americas, which the ships made carrying their ‘cargo’ of slaves. It was so-called because it was the middle section of the trade route taken by many of the ships. The first section (the ‘Outward Passage’ ) was from Europe to Africa.

As I learned from  a recent visit to East Africa, traders from Zanzibar and from Portuguese-speaking areas of Southeastern Africa contributed to the Middle Passage portion of a triangular trade  route. See the “warped” triangle in the map below.

Map for understanding white privilege - the Middle Passage.

Understanding white privilege – the Middle Passage.

In the Middle Passage portion, 10 million Africans—esp from the areas noted in red below, but also from areas on the other side of Africa—survived  (an estimated 20-40% died) and ended up in the New World. European powers such as Portugal, England, Spain, Franceas well as traders from Brazil and New England—dominated this trade.  

Understanding white privilege cont’d.

Again, in Dr. Johnson’s own words [italics are mine],

“The ecology of North America lent itself to agriculture on a massive scale, and the capitalist demand for land and cheap labor far outstripped the available supply. Most of the land that was to become the United States was gained through a system of military and political dominance that relied on deceit, broken treaties, and military conquest that included the use of forced migration and genocide, practices that today would be considered crimes against humanity. Most of the labor was drawn from the population of indentured European servants, Native Americans, and Africans, none of whom were initially held in a state of perpetual slavery. The structure of the capitalist system, however, and the British cultural predisposition to see themselves as inherently superior as a distinct race of people, combined to lay down a path of least resistance leading in that direction.

“Attempts to convert indentured white servants to permanent slavery failed because most were from England and had too strong a sense of their rights as individuals to allow it. It proved equally impractical to enslave Native Americans because they could easily escape and disappear among native populations. This left black Africans, who were not among their own people in their own land and whose physical features stood out among the rest, leaving them with no place to hide should they manage to run away. They alone were selected for the status of permanent slavery.”

What do you think of Johnson’s sociological explanation? Does it help you in understanding white privilege?

Incidentally, tho slavery is no longer legal anywhere in the world, control and exploitation of others still remains. Enslavers count on social isolation, unfamiliar languages, and confiscated passports, among other things, to exploit laborers. Examples of current-day forced labor include:

-Debt Labor —where an individual is compelled to work to repay a debt which may impossibly high. So, may never be free.  
-Sex Slavery — where women/children/even men may be bound to the sex industry by force or psychological manipulation.
-Child Slavery —  where under-18 laborers are controlled by force, deception, or psychological coercion.  
-Domestic Servitude —  where domestic workers (in home settings) become enslaved when employers use fraud or coercion to keep them working.

Can you believe this? Moreover, can you believe sex trafficking occurs via major airports near many of us? It’s a common way to transport enslaved sex workers.

* Johnson recommends we consult Theodore Allen’s  Invention of the White Race, Audrey Smedley’s  Race in North America, and Nigel Davidson’s The African Slave Trade where the author traces the development of the idea of biological differences with the advent of the slave trade. 

To learn about CLEFT HEART: Chasing Normal, click the Amazon or Barnes & Noble buttons in the margins. Or click the image of the book cover. My coming-of-age memoir has intertwining love stories, mystery, tragedy, and triumph.

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