Preface

It’s been quite a ride. In the 18 months after the publication of White Working Class, I spent more time in the halls of Congress than I did in the 25 years I lived in DC. The full range of Democrats and progressives, from Joe Biden to Nancy Pelosi to Bernie Sanders to Kamala Harris, listened to me with apparent attentiveness. I addressed both the House and the Senate committees in charge of Democrats’ messaging. I knew I was making progress when one congressman asked me fervently, “Do you know that two-thirds of Americans don’t have college degrees?” When I first started spouting that statistic, no one in my circle would believe it. Everyone they knew had college degrees.

To my surprise, the book also has been influential outside the United States, wherever people are trying to make sense of economic populism. There’s a Japanese edition, and I have addressed legislators from the House of Lords in the United Kingdom, as well as the Danish and Dutch parliaments and policymakers and journalists from the European Union, Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and France. With the train wreck that is Brexit, pundits in the United Kingdom are especially obsessed with trying to understand working-class anger, ranging from the Guardian to the Financial Times.

Not surprisingly, the growing acknowledgment of the role of class resentment in contemporary politics has been accompanied by resistance. Acknowledging social privilege is never fun, and acknowledging the influence of social class is particularly unsettling to a global elite convinced that its success reflects merit, not privilege. People tend to resist whenever their core identities are threatened.

Conversations with Europeans reflect a long tradition, only recently withered, of class analysis, from Marx to Gramsci. The United States lacks this tradition, and it shows. Resistance to my message in the United States has been fed, too, by a narrative that posits a zero-sum game between race and class. Interestingly, there’s no sense that one can’t support both trans rights and racial justice, or both immigrant rights and gender justice. So it’s unclear why racial equity and class equity are seen as mutually exclusive.

They aren’t. My own research on engineers found that while only one-third of white men report discriminatory standards, two-thirds of people of color do.1 Race is important in professional jobs, but so is class. As one reader wrote to me, “Being a ‘class migrant’ is a struggle that never seems to end.” The research backs her up. One study found that men from elite backgrounds received invitations to interview at top-ranked law firms at more than 12 times the rate of their equally qualified, working-class peers.2 Measures that would help level the playing field for women and people of color in professional jobs—check them out at BiasInterrupters.org—also would help class migrants of all races.

Resistance also reflects the calls to abandon identity politics, forwarded by well-meaning authors such as Mark Lilla.3 Although I find much of Lilla’s analysis compelling, I and many others find his call to abandon identity politics irritating. After forty years of largely ineffectual diversity efforts, white men from elite backgrounds still dominate high-stakes, high-status jobs at the top of every industry. So now we’re supposed to move on?

Class is an identity; let’s make it count. The harsh disdain of elites feeds working-class anger. I am sometimes shocked by the response to my writings: “I wish all these [white working-class] people would die, frankly . . . They are mostly obese and some of them use opiates. They also have guns that they can kill themselves with. It can’t happen soon enough for me,” one reader wrote me.

We’ve tried to work on other vectors of social equality while ignoring class. It hasn’t worked. Predictably, the public discourse that depicts white men as privileged is infuriating to blue-collar families in an era when noncollege men’s wages fell precipitously. A lot more research has emerged documenting this since the initial publication of White Working Class. The Economic Policy Institute has shown that, though wages rose when productivity did in the decades after World War II, that ascent ended in the 1970s; if it had continued, wages would be twice what they are today.4 Raj Chetty and his coauthors have documented that, while virtually every American born in the 1940s did better than their parents, only about half of Americans born in the 1980s do.5 It’s no response to say that working-class whites only achieved the American dream after World War II due to white privilege. That’s true, but irrelevant—surely the point is not that whites deserved to lose access to the American dream but that both people of color and whites deserve to gain access to it.

American workers know they’ve been screwed: they see it in rusted factories, despair deaths, sped-up lives patching together part-time, dead-end jobs. The far right, with considerable success, has encouraged whites to interpret their sharp loss of status through the lens of whiteness, with a consequent rise in open racism.6 The challenge is to explain to the white working class that they have gotten screwed not because they are white but because they are working class. The sooner we start, the better.

This lesson is not limited to the left: misdirected economic populism is not working for conservatives either. The clearest example is Brexit. Cooler heads from both the right and the left need to create a return to economic opportunity as well as new feeling rules that stigmatize derision of all disadvantaged groups. This is not just a possibility—I actually accomplished it. In the course of a single week on tour, I did both an hour-long podcast for left-leaning Slate and an appearance on Fox News, with positive feedback from both. All I did was point out the need for family-sustaining jobs and respect for the dignity of blue-collar men. And I thought: really, how hard is this?

I happen to be writing this from China, where I’m the tagalong spouse accompanying my husband, an expert on privacy and cybersecurity. His descriptions of China made me determined to go, in part because it’s a country with a long history of the kind of geographical maldistribution of opportunity that the United States developed only recently. Jack Ma’s response was to create Alibaba, a tech company that’s a combined eBay, Amazon, and PayPal. While the concentration of so much power is sobering, there are bright spots: a subsidiary trains rural Chinese to use their e-platform to sell agricultural goods and handicrafts to the world, bringing opportunity and talent back into rural areas.

Similar transformation is possible here. What if an electrician in Indiana could use a smart helmet to fix a machine in Thailand? Or if a company in Mississippi could use 3-D printing to sell customized prosthetics worldwide? J. D. Vance (of Hillbilly Elegy fame) is financing new companies in the heartland, and money is pouring in to train tech talent in areas where young people can still afford to buy a house.7 That’s important, but tech talent is just a start.

An often-overlooked key to turning the tide of economic populism is to stop pretending that jobs fall fully formed from heaven. They don’t. They’re designed by people, who create either good, family-sustaining jobs or the kind of unstable jobs that have long demoralized the poor and are increasingly impoverishing the formerly middle class. Soon 60 percent of jobs will be at least partially automated.8 We can design those as either good jobs or McJobs. If we go with McJobs, democracies—and businesses—will continue to pay in the coin of political instability.

The widespread assumption that there is a zero-sum game between addressing the concerns of the white working class and addressing the concerns of communities of color is demonstrably false. If we were to commit to providing good jobs for noncollege grads, that would help communities of color as well as working-class whites. For one thing, communities of color are more likely to be poor; for another, boys born to affluent black families are more likely to experience a fall in class status than their white peers.9 College should be available and affordable to anyone with the drive and the inclination to go, but we also need community colleges to work with employers to help them identify the skills they need and to develop certificate programs employers trust and will therefore hire from. Such programs will also provide paths for formerly incarcerated people, points out Damon Phillips of Columbia Business School, who developed the ReEntry Acceleration Program (REAP) at the Tamer Center to enhance the job prospects of people who have served their sentences.10

A shift away from an exclusive focus on college is a transgressive suggestion in both the black and white communities. In the black community, Phillips points out, many African Americans have been taught since childhood that they need to be twice as good to get half as far, which has led blue-collar blacks to value education more than whites do.11 To question the indispensability of college is controversial, Phillips discovered in the course of his work at REAP. It’s controversial in the white community, too: white elites’ belief in the indispensability of college is integral to their belief that their success reflects a system that rewards the best and the brightest—them.

But providing a solid future without college is important, because when people lose touch with their hopes, they give way to their fears. No one is at their best when they’re afraid. If you don’t like the ugly face of fear, the only effective antidote is to provide hope by providing opportunity.

My own most fervent hope is to communicate one key message: if you care about climate change, or abortion rights, or immigrants, or mass incarceration, you’d better care, too, about good jobs and social dignity for Americans of all races without college degrees. Because if you don’t, racialized economic populism is what you get.

Joan C. Williams

Hangzhou, China

March 2019

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