Is the Working Class Just Racist?

LET’S STATE RIGHT UP FRONT that racism is an issue in the white working class, and it goes back a long way.

An ugly racial dynamic arose after the Civil War when Southern elites pitted the white working class against newly freed black people by communicating that, although poor whites might be “white trash,” at least they weren’t black.134 By offering poor whites the “wages of whiteness”135—the social dignity of membership in the dominant race—planters made them more willing to accept wages and farm tenancy contracts that left them dirt poor. This dynamic has a very long history, reaching right up to the present day. Reuel Schiller’s 2015 book, Forging Rivals, showed that, since the New Deal, the Democratic Party’s ambivalence about pursuing cross-racial coalitions generated laws that drove African-Americans and whites apart.136 “Trump was masterful at this,” mused historian Suzanne Lebsock in an email to me, “stooping to race baiting to alienate working-class whites from the black and Latino workers with whom they had the most in common.”

The wages-of-whiteness strategy protected the elite from a cross-race coalition of the disenfranchised. That’s the coalition America needs now: the interracial coalition for economic justice Martin Luther King, Jr., proposed a half century ago.137 It was a difficult and controversial proposal for King then, and it hasn’t gotten a lot easier. But we need to try. The first step is to ensure that we are not doing unconsciously what the post-Civil War planters did intentionally: pit working-class whites against people of color.

Elite whites do this when they comfort themselves about racism by displacing the blame for racism onto other-class whites. Julie Bettie, in her insightful study of working-class girls, observed, “[O]ne marker of having progressive politics is displaying oneself as antiracist, and this can, at times, unfortunately manifest as a demeaning of and distancing from white working-class people, who are constructed as stupid and racist.”138 Many conservatives as well as progressives do this. Commented Jacqueline Ferrara* on my HBR article, “Great article, but it will fall on deaf ears. The only acceptable narrative is that those who voted Republican [in 2016] did so because they are racists, sexists, stupid, or all three.”

There’s an element here of privileged whites distancing themselves from racism by displacing the blame for racism onto less-privileged whites. If you think you’re not racist at all, drop this book and head immediately to to take an implicit association test. “Everyone’s a little bit racist,” joked the musical Avenue Q, and if you’re only a little, I’m impressed. About half of whites automatically prefer white people over black people.139 Implicit association test results show that MDs, college grads, and MBAs did not score lower for implicit racial bias than did high school grads.140

Among liberals it’s a mark of sophistication to acknowledge that everyone’s a little bit racist, yet professional-class racism slides conveniently out of sight in discussions about working-class whites. Another facet of the problem is that whites from different classes are racist in quite different ways. Among the professional elite, where the coin of the realm is merit, people of color are constructed as lacking in merit. Among the white working class, where the coin of the realm is morality, people of color are constructed as lacking in that quality.

The strong antiracism norm among the PME should not be mistaken for a lack of racism. My favorite study of racism in the white-collar context is the “Greg”/“Jamal” study. The study sent out identical resumes, some with white-sounding names, some with African-American-sounding names. The study found that Jamal had to have 8 additional years of experience to get the same number of job callbacks as Greg; the higher the quality of the resume, the stronger the racial bias became.141

I am part of a team (with psychology professor Richard Lee and sociologist Su Li) that developed a 10-minute Workplace Experiences Survey designed to measure workplace climate. When used in a national study of engineers, the survey found that engineers of color were more likely than white male engineers to report prove-it-again bias: engineers of color had to prove themselves over and over; other people got credit for ideas they originally offered; their ideas were less likely to be respected.142 These self-reports confirmed that the racial bias documented by 40 years of lab studies shows up in today’s professional workplaces.143

Working-class racism is different. First of all, it’s more explicit: studies consistently show more explicit racist statements among whites without college degrees than among whites with them.144 According to an influential study of working-class whites in Canarsie, New York, in the 1980s, these whites viewed African-Americans as lacking family values and a healthy work ethic—the same weapons settled living whites use to place themselves above both professional elites and hard-living whites. “It’s really a class problem,” said an educated housewife from working-class Canarsie. “I don’t care about the color of a person if they’re nice people. The black parents in the school programs I work with are beautiful and refined people. They’re like us.” What drove these Canarsie residents crazy were “ghetto” black people: “Flashy cars, booze, and broads is all they care about. They don’t even want to get ahead for their families!” “Beneath the surface of apparently racial judgments was the ineluctable reality of class cultures in conflict,” concluded sociologist Jonathan Rieder.145 I see what he was saying, but it’s not just a class problem: associating hard living with African-Americans—that’s a brand of racism.

Whites who were antiracist, Lamont found, grounded their understandings of black people in the view that there are “good and bad people in all races,”146 believing that hard workers of all races are equals. Said an oil company foreman:

No matter who you are at Exxon, you’re making pretty good money, so it’s not like you’ve got a disadvantaged person. Their kids are going to good schools. They’re eating, they’re taking vacations because of Exxon. You don’t see the division or whatever, so Exxon kind of eliminated that because of the salary structure. . . . With black people, you talk sports, you talk school, you’re all in the same boat. . . . You know, you talk to the guy, and you went on vacation, and he went on vacation.147

Note the consistent logic: if you live a settled life, you’re a good person.

To summarize, settled working-class whites, whose claims to privilege rest on morality and hard work, stereotype black people by conflating hard living and race. Professional-class whites, whose claims to privilege rest on merit, stereotype black people as less competent than whites. There is no excuse for either kind of racism. Here’s the point: privileged whites should stop justifying their refusal to acknowledge their class privilege over less-privileged whites on the grounds that those “others” are racist.

I’m not denying that some people who voted for Trump are white supremacists. After all, one of the few newspapers to endorse him was the newspaper of the KKK. Trump’s campaign rhetoric included beyond-the-pale racist statements about Mexicans, proposals to violate the Constitution by discriminating against Muslim immigrants based on religion, and a promise to build a wall between the United States and Mexico.148

Trump’s racism also helped him with some supporters who experienced his comments as a delicious poke-in-the-eye of elites. To these supporters, Trump broke with political correctness taboos in a daring way. That’s a dynamic our country can change—and has to change. The goal of mainstream politicians of both parties should be to drive a wedge between the viciousness of white supremacy and people who are basically decent but tired of what they see as “political correctness” that ignores the very considerable challenges faced by working-class whites while directing them to feel sorry for a whole range of other groups.

The first step is to avoid writing off all Trump voters. “I know these Trump voters,” wrote Ben Richards, who works for the YMCA in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Most of them are not racists or bigots or sexists or xenophobic. They simply wanted someone to fight for them, or at least appear to. These Trump voters were disgusted by his outlandish behavior and his derogatory comments.” Indeed, 20% of Trump voters had an unfavorable opinion of him, and 17% of Trump voters approved of the job Obama was doing at the end of his term.149

These issues are complicated. One class migrant wrote to me:

Your article brought me to tears. . . . I was raised in a blue-collar, religious, racist, nationalistic home. I am now a flaming liberal with a master’s and a high-paying corporate job. . . . Your article deeply articulated the view of my family in a way they never could. I don’t believe they are hateful, or racist, or stupid. They’re mostly afraid. Afraid of the brown skin people. Afraid of the day they can’t live in their own home any more. Afraid of global economics. Afraid of those who dare claim their God is not real. Afraid of sexually empowered women. Afraid of the scientific utterances they can’t understand related to climate change, so they just reject it outright. Fear manifests in many ways, but it’s the same root. . . . I’ve also concluded that we liberals own 99% of the responsibility for Trump’s election. It’s easy to dismiss him as a con man and enumerate Hillary’s huge list of qualifications. But she could never connect with my WWC [white working-class] family, and Trump can. I don’t blame him or his voters one bit—he’s just a con man who saw an opening, and they’re just supporting someone who gives them a voice—we’re the ones who failed. And we need to own that.

His feelings are complex and are shared by many of the flood of class migrants who have written to me. He acknowledges racism but doesn’t believe his family members are bad people.

His message is an important one: what his family needs is not a lecture about racism but a conversation about fear. “Telling people they’re racist, sexist, and xenophobic is going to get you exactly nowhere,” said Alana Conner of Stanford. “It’s such a threatening message. One of the things we know from social psychology is when people feel threatened, they can’t change, they can’t listen.”150 What causes people to change their minds are conversations designed to make a connection with them, through honesty and empathy. That worked when activists canvassed to assess—and create—support for transgender rights.151 Two-thirds of the recent sea change in acceptance of marriage equality stemmed from a gradual process of people changing their thinking.152

Fear of “brown people” and anti-immigrant feelings may stem from the fact that mass immigration returned to the United States in the 1970s for the first time since 1910153—which has coincided with the white working class’s fall from blue-collar grace. It’s easy to confuse correlation with causation, and there’s some of that going on, associating the good old days with the old white days.

Another factor is that there has been more immigration to rural areas.154 Jennifer Sherman found that those who remained in the rural area she studied after the local mill closed down stressed the importance of place, which “conveniently conceals their inabilities to easily adapt to unfamiliar circumstances.” Fear of what lay outside the isolated valley where her subjects lived was a strong motivating factor in their decision to stay.155 These were not people well equipped to cope with a massive influx of immigrants.

One way to help ease tensions is to create a national discourse that acknowledges and respects traditionalism and hard work, values shared by both immigrants and working-class whites. In the 1990s, Lamont found approval of immigrants for exactly these reasons.156 A difficult challenge is that working-class whites, themselves disciplined by rules, tend to disapprove of those who don’t follow them. True immigration reform would make this problem abate or disappear, but that hardly seems on the horizon.

The road will be a bumpy one, and there’s a lot we can’t control. One thing we can control is the elite’s class condescension, which has driven working-class whites into the arms of the far right. Arlie Hochschild reflected back on Louisiana whites’ sense of loss, and whom they blame. “I’ve had enough of poor me,” said a mayor who started out as an instrumentation foreman at Phillips 66. “I met this one black guy who complained that he couldn’t get a job. Come to find out he’d been to private school. I went to a local public school like everyone else I know. No one should be getting a job to fill some mandated racial quota.”157

Note the class resentment. Because I study social inequality, I know that even Malia and Sasha Obama will be disadvantaged by race, advantaged as they are by class. But Hochschild aptly maps the sense of losing ground, the contour map of resentment. “After the 2008 crash . . . some got rich, others got poor. And you didn’t want the government playing favorites on top of that.”158 In the past roughly 20 years, the proportion of whites who felt their standard of living is worse than their parents’ increased from 13% to 21%.159 During that period, liberal “feeling rules”—norms about how one should feel—mandated sympathy for the poor, for people of color, for women, for refugees, for LGBTQ individuals.160 Caring about working-class whites is optional—a private frolic some indulge but most don’t share.

Hochschild, with her unerring sense of metaphor, sums it up. The Tea Party members she befriended in Louisiana felt like people patiently waiting in line, living settled lives that required hard work and self-discipline, only to “see people cutting in line ahead of you! You’re following the rules. They aren’t. . . . Some are black. Through affirmative action plans, . . . jobs, welfare payments, and free lunches, . . . they hold a certain secret place in people’s minds. . . . Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers—where will it end?” “I live your analogy,” commented one of her Tea Party friends. Hochschild points out that “virtually all those I talked with felt on shaky economic ground. . . . They also felt culturally marginalized.”161 Their traditionalist views were held up to ridicule by the national media; they felt belittled and besieged. Referring to people like this as “deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton did during the campaign,162 is not a great way to win them back.

Many things we can’t change, but here’s one we can: we can communicate that we believe that the injustices experienced by working-class whites are ones elites have a moral obligation to address. It’s only human to place much of the world’s vast reservoir of injustice outside of one’s personal ambit of responsibility. We do not immediately drop what we are doing, sell all our worldly goods, and fly to Calcutta to distribute the proceeds in the streets. Why? We see the injustice, but don’t see it as our responsibility to redress. Historian Thomas Haskell’s elegant study documents how slavery went from being seen as an unfortunate-but-unavoidable reality to being seen as a pressingly unethical outrage. Quite abruptly in the eighteenth century, slaves were included in Europeans’ ambit of responsibility.163

Once white workers were placed outside liberals’ ambit of responsibility, they wrote off “those below” as lacking in morals, grit, and taste. “My fellow liberals should have listened to me and other liberals from white working-class backgrounds. They should have listened to those of us they call hillbillies, rednecks, hicks, and toothless idiots. They should have understood that we don’t live in a ‘fly-over’ state; we live in our home,” commented Erin Brown.* (“Fly-over” is another casual class insult that passes for wit.)

“We try to be right-living, clean-living people,” a former pipefitter told Hochschild, who also noted her friends were proud they had the “moral strength to endure”164 and talked of “being churched” with as much pride as her crowd might talk about being “highly educated.” They were proud of their Christian morality and deeply wounded when it was depicted as homophobic ignorance. Said one Tea Party member, “the American Dream is more than having money. It’s feeling proud to be an American, and to say ‘under God’ when you salute the flag, and feel good about that. And it’s about living in a society that believes in clean, normal family life.”165

Hochschild recognizes that her Tea Party friends felt a loss not only of blue-collar jobs; they also felt a loss of blue-collar honor. “For along with blue-collar jobs, a blue-collar way of life was going out of fashion, and with it, the honor attached to a rooted self and pride in endurance.” The communities they are so proud of are commonly depicted as insular and closed-minded.166 A gospel singer told Hochschild how much she loved Rush Limbaugh. Hochschild was mystified until she realized that her attraction to Limbaugh stemmed from her sense that Limbaugh was defending her against insults she felt liberals were lobbing at her—that “Bible-believing Southerners are ignorant, backward, rednecks, losers. They think we’re racist, sexist, homophobic, and maybe fat.” Rush Limbaugh protected their pride.167

If you don’t want to drive working-class whites to be attracted to the likes of Limbaugh, stop insulting them. More than that: seek to understand and respect the logic of their lives. Acknowledge that their folkways work as well for working-class lives as professional-class folkways work for elite ones.

Doesn’t white working-class people’s sense of entitlement to decent jobs reflect white privilege? Sure it does: even during the glory days, when blue-collar whites’ wages were spiraling up, and the FHA was helping them buy homes, those jobs and houses were not equally available to African-Americans.168 But for the left to dismiss white working-class demands on grounds of white privilege . . . what’s the message? That white working-class people aren’t entitled to the American dream? Isn’t the right message that all Americans are, regardless of race?

Another crucial step is to apply to the white working class the kind of analysis applied to other groups who face structural disadvantage. We bend over backward to understand why many poor women have children very early, attentive to the structural factors that make that a logical choice and the cultural factors that make it an attractive one.169 But when it comes to working-class whites, social structure evaporates. I have never heard anyone fault inner-city black people, and say they deserve to remain in poverty, because of their refusal to move where the jobs are. But working-class whites? Their refusal reflects “stubborn immobility.”

Would working-class whites be so furious about “political correctness” if they were among those whose challenges were recognized? Not likely. We won’t know how much racism falls away until we stop insulting working-class whites and try including them within our ambit of responsibility.

Does that mean abandoning people of color? Of course not. We must not assume a zero-sum game: that if we care about gender, we don’t care about race; and if we care about race, we don’t care about class. Claiming we can focus on only one issue at a time also ignores people who belong to more than one group, such as black women or working-class LGBTQ people.

There’s no empirical evidence to suggest that addressing one vector of social inequality will necessarily hurt those affected by a different vector. The Workplace Experiences Survey shows that not only people of color but also women and individuals with disabilities report they have to prove themselves over and over again, much more so than majority men.170 Addressing prove-it-again bias through structural reforms will level the playing field for everyone.

In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr., called for an interracial coalition for economic justice, and he tried to unite a broad range of religious, civil rights, and labor groups to achieve a “Freedom Budget.” Along with traditional civil rights goals, that budget included a full-employment policy with public works jobs for those idled by capitalist boom-and-bust cycles and raising the minimum wage to a living wage.171

King understood that what we need to address is social inequality—all of it. Fifty years later, we still do.

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