56 pages 1 hour read

George Lipsitz

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

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1998

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

George Lipsitz is a prominent scholar in the interdisciplinary fields of ethnic studies, American studies and Black studies, and the author of The Possessive Investment in Whiteness. The first edition of the book was published in 1998 and subsequent, updated editions of the book appeared in 2006 and 2018. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness is a collection of essays in which Lipsitz investigates the racialized system in contemporary society that advantages white people due to their investment in a stratified system that offers opportunities for asset accumulation for whites and obstructs the same benefits for people of color. Some of the essays were published in the 1998 edition of the book while Lipsitz has included new material that ensures the relevance of the text for the 21st century.

This study guide refers to the 20th Anniversary Edition published in 2018 by Temple University Press.

Content warning: This guide discusses racism and racist brutality and murder.

Summary

For Lipsitz, the possessive investment in whiteness is a system in which private prejudice and public policy combine to reaffirm the racialized hierarchy in American society. The monetary advantage of whiteness arises through inherited wealth and discriminatory practices with regards to housing, employment, and education. Lipsitz includes epigraphs for each chapter, all of which are different quotes by James Baldwin. He also makes frequent references to W. E. B. Du Bois, who is not only an influence for Lipsitz but also for the field of American studies itself. In the preface, Lipsitz relays the story of Bill Moore, a white activist who was promoting racial equality in the south and was shot and killed along a highway in Alabama by white supremacists. Lipsitz argues that the culpability for the murder of Bill Moore is not limited to the man who pulled the trigger but also to the structural institutional forces that maintain white supremacy. In the introduction, Lipsitz assesses the state of race relations in the US and what has changed since the first publication of the book, only to conclude that racial subordination is even worse in the current era.

In the first six chapters of the book Lipsitz shows how the possessive investment in whiteness is experienced in daily life in terms of housing, employment, education, and the legal system. Lipsitz demonstrates how the possessive investment in whiteness is an organizing principle that works surreptitiously so that the structure is cloaked in daily life. He offers a chronicle of racism in American history, from the dispossession of Indigenous Americans to slavery to Jim Crow laws, to portray the institutionalization of white supremacy. Lipsitz also explains that progressive, race-neutral policies entrench the investments in whiteness. He examines how racialized agendas are instituted without the use of overtly racist terms. He demonstrates how mid-century anti-segregation laws were frequently broken and civil rights legislation only left people with the false impression that racism was a thing of the past, which further solidifies the investment in whiteness.

Lipsitz goes on to cover immigrant labor and identity politics, with an emphasis on anti-immigrant policy in California and Arizona. He considers Neoliberalism and Race while contending that people’s experiences of racism vary according to other factors such as class, sexual orientation, and gender. Lipsitz then delves into the relationship between race and war, especially with regards to the experience of people of color in the military in the Second World War. He considers the contradictions after the war in terms of people of color fighting for freedom that they didn’t experience at home. Lipsitz examines Whiteness and Masculinity through the lens of American combat movies.

Regarding the systemic structure of inequality, Lipsitz argues that the possessive investment in whiteness keeps white people from seeing the inequalities in society so that the unfairness in the system seems natural and inevitable. Lipsitz then examines white fragility and shows how the misery of poor whites often translates into deepening hatred of people of color.

Lipsitz examines two examples of media representation and how race is obscured in both instances and effectively rendered invisible. He shows how white violence against Black people is framed in a manner that victimizes the perpetrator. He then explores the fascination and indeed the romanticization of Black artistic and cultural practice. Lipsitz examines the ways in which white desire rewrites Black cultural production stripped of the socioeconomic circumstances that made that production possible. He also provides an analysis of historic alliances between African Americans and various Asian activists both internationally and in the US, while emphasizing the important ways communities work together.

Lipsitz looks at families of resemblance among aggrieved racial minorities, especially in terms of the unexpected alliances they form. For many Black soldiers, the experience in the Asian theater of war was transformational and reinforced a new sense of militancy. Lipsitz examines the similarities between the racism in Mississippi in the 1960s compared to California in the 1990s. He also assesses the destructive combination of Neoliberalism and Race. Lipsitz provides an analysis of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the penultimate chapter, demonstrating how the devastation forced communities suffering from disenfranchisement to leave their neighborhoods that were then taken over by developers. Lipsitz also shows how these communities coordinated different means of self-help to make up for the services lacking in their neighborhoods. Finally, Lipsitz examines the unexpected election of Donald Trump and eruption of anti-immigrant and racial hatred that followed.

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