The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics – George Lipsitz

Created by politics, culture, and consciousness, our possessive investment in whiteness can be altered by those same processes, but only if we face the hard facts openly and honestly and admit that whiteness is a matter of interests as well as attitudes, that it has more to with property than with pigment.

It’s often said that white people talking to white people is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for dismantling racism in the United States.  The Possessive Investment in Whiteness is an entry into this discussion.  George Lipsitz identifies his own social location, making connections to his upbringing as white, Jewish, and middle class, while he delivers a critical understanding of how racism works through the exploration of the idea of whiteness.  The principal move he makes in this book is to posit whiteness not only, or even primarily, as a set of attitudes, but instead also as a set of possessions: first, there is the literal possession of real estate (and other attendant) forms of material wealth that are distributed racially unequally in the United States. 

The gap in real estate ownership and possession of equity can be traced pretty damningly to post-WW2 housing policies like redlining, where loans were given to people who lived in white neighborhoods, by law, at higher rates than people who lived in neighborhoods whose census data indicated that more people of color lived in them.   For many white people of this generation (myself included), this means the money they used to make a down payment, often inherited of given from still living parents, was possessed by their parents, to some extent anyway, because they were white, and able to buy houses at a time when home ownership became much more widely available, and leverage that capital in the ensuing half-century.  This is complicated (and I’m not doing a great job explaining it), but it’s probably the single biggest factor in the unequal distribution of wealth across race in the United States.  Lipsitz’s opening chapters, like Ta Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations,” as well as the third episode of PBS’s Race: The Power of an Allusion (“The House We Live In”) each enumerate just how and why this went down.

And it went down in a way that lays bare how ignorant the commonplace “my family never owned slaves”/”I come from a family of poor immigrants who came here after the civil war is over” is in these discussions.  Once you have read Coates, Lipsitz, or seen that PBS episode, if you continue to say “we never owned slaves” you are arguing in bad faith.  It’s really as simple as that.  And this is likely true even if you didn’t inherit anything material from your parents: Lipsitz goes on to argue that “whiteness” as a heritable possession takes on any number of other dimensions, mostly falling under the heading of housing, education and employment.  His argument in these chapters seems to assume this more than prove it, but then, I’ve read and encountered statistics so compelling in so many other places that I’m okay with that.

So overcoming racism will mean, for Lipsitz, taking action to break up the inequalities built into these inheritances, not only changing the attitudes of white people.  There’s a dialectical interplay between possession and belief, as he sets it forth, that can be maddening to disentangle.  One of the things I took most from this book is the ability to see that as a dialectic, which helps me understand why some of these discussions gets so tough so quickly.

Beyond this analysis in its opening chapters, the rest of Lipsitz’s book is more in the “cultural studies” vein, which I found helpful as an English teacher.  He undertakes investigation of different forms of texts, texts created by white people and by people of color, to try to illustrate a method for deconstruction of this dialectic, and its replacement with something more explicitly oriented towards justice.

It’s a very abstract and academic book in some ways, but in others, very straightforward – here’s a longer passage from the second-to-last chapter that really set forth the project which white people (myself included) must take on:

We need to ask ourselves why whiteness works this way and what we are going to do about it. What enables the recipients of unearned privileges to present themselves as put-upon victims? If we were to apply the methodology that Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein deploy in The Bell Curve to explain the behavior of black people, we might be tempted to ask questions about which genes account for white America’s predilection for plunder and seeming incapacity for complex thought. But we know better. The problem with white people is not our whiteness, but our possessive investment in it. Created by politics, culture, and consciousness, our possessive investment in whiteness can be altered by those same processes, but only if we face the hard facts openly and honestly and admit that whiteness is a matter of interests as well as attitudes, that it has more to with property than with pigment. Not all believers in white supremacy are white. All whites do not have to be white supremacists. But the possessive investment in whiteness is a matter of behavior as well as belief, it requires us to take action, not merely assert good intentions… In the years ahead we will have ample opportunities to see what white people are made of, to see whether we can transcend our attachments to the mechanisms that give whiteness its force and power. We need to learn why our history has been built so consistently on racial exclusion and why we continue to generate new mechanisms to increase the value of past and present discrimination. How can we account for the ways in which white people refuse to acknowledge the possessive investment in whiteness even while working to increase its value every day? We can’t blame the color of our skin. It must be the content of our character.

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