—Joan C. Williams, White Working Class – Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America “We’re voting with our middle finger.”
—South Carolina Trump supporter “There was no reason why the Left had to abandon its old blue collar base.”
My apologies to Ta Nehisi Coates and the “it’s all about race” school of politics, but by now it should be clear to just about everyone that attempting to achieve a democratic majority by multiplying victim minorities is doomed to failure.
For the four decades we have seen neo-liberal economics at work, white working class fortunes have gone steadily down the drain while diversity enthusiasts aggressively demanded universal sympathy for a growing list of victim groups: the poor, blacks, Latinos, “native” Americans, Asians, the disabled, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, the transgendered, queers, non-binary people, the asexual, along with every possible “intersection” of these identities. Meanwhile, legitimate anger at the economic squeeze imposed on working people from outsourcing and mass immigration from the Third World has been written off as racism, sexism, nativism, and xenophobia. By 2016, the longstanding depression visible throughout rural America was a key factor in elevating Donald Trump to the presidency.
Something unprecedented was at the root of flipping battleground states that had previously gone to Obama to Trump this time: In working class America people are for the first time dying at a younger age than their parents. The death rate of white working class men and women increased sharply in the past generation, a reversal of the trend established over the three decades following the end of World War II. The opioid epidemic is a particularly grim feature of this tragic story.
But in the optic of identity politics, white people are “privileged” by definition, so downward mobility can only be the result of personal failure. In particular, if you are white and don’t have a college degree, and two-thirds of American adults do not, then you are not part of the good life and have only yourself to blame.
As a result, the white working class is virtually invisible today. The movie “A Day Without A Mexican” attempted to show how indebted California is to immigrant labor, but there has been no parallel cinematic attempt to show how the white working class (largely) keeps our power lines working, our buses running, our sewers functioning, our trucks delivering goods to market. They also empty our bedpans, take our X-rays, watch our children, and respond to our 911 calls. Without them, the American Dream that they are increasingly excluded from could not exist. But there is virtually no public depiction of their plight.
Not that these workers want the pious solicitude offered to the poor. They don’t. They simply want to earn a decent life for themselves by working, as they used to be able to do. They want respect for their work ethic and what it has earned them, and recognition that our entire physical infrastructure functions only thanks to their effort, skill, and dedication. A guaranteed income might cover their economic needs, but would leave them with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Similarly, guaranteed paid sick leave, pregnancy leave, or a higher minimum-wage cannot possibly substitute for a steady job that supports a traditionally middle-class lifestyle. That’s what members of the working class used to have and what they still want. Unfortunately for us all, theirs is the identity that identity politics has no place for.
Donald Trump, however, did have a place for them, at least on the campaign trail. The strongest indication of Trump support was a concentration of high-school educated voters, and no one should have been surprised at that. Over the past several decades the Democratic Party has shed all concern for high-school educated workers in preference for professional and managerial elites it laughingly calls the “middle class,” though households made up of such workers (one sixth of the total) had a 2015 income of $173,175. Obviously, this is well above working class, which used to be considered at the heart of the middle class, but today refers to those who are neither rich nor poor, and for that reason are consistently overlooked.
“In the optic of identity politics, white people are “privileged” by definition, so downward mobility can only be the result of personal failure. In particular, if you are white and don’t have a college degree, and two-thirds of American adults do not, then you are not part of the good life and have only yourself to blame…”
In a capitalist society, work is at the core of identity, and here there are sharply divergent attitudes between professionals and the working class. For professional and managerial elites, work is not simply about the lifestyle it affords off the job; it’s about “pursuing your passion,” i.e., finding self-fulfillment in work itself. It also means risk taking for self-actualization; for example, founding an innovative start-up company to disrupt settled patterns that block the way of technical advance. Professionals value sophistication, “thinking outside the box,” and creativity, all of which are primary values for getting and keeping a job if you’re an order giver.
But matters are quite different for order takers. Their lot is to fill rigid, highly supervised jobs that are monotonously repetitive. Medical technicians, factory workers, bus drivers, construction workers, truck drivers, orderlies, nurses, and cashiers cannot “follow their bliss”; they have to develop the stability and dependability to support their families. Furthermore, to adopt an attitude of creative risk-taking would be evidence of “having an attitude,” which just gets one fired. For the working class, the goal is developing the iron will to do a detested menial job for forty years without complaint. Self-fulfillment is simply irrelevant.
In a largely unionless economy dedicated to profit extraction and nothing else, working class family life goes something like this:
There’s no time to live, but it’s the only way to survive.
Theoretically, they could increase their income by moving where there are more and better jobs to be had, but working class Americans have good reasons to be wary of the paycheck nomad lifestyle professionals embrace as a matter of course. Moving around the country in order to ascend a career ladder that places money above every other consideration holds little allure. Maintaining one or even two full-time jobs in order to have a settled life in a familiar area is typically preferable. Close family and friends offer the only balm there is for the daily humiliation of being bossed around for low pay. Partly for this reason personal morality and dedication to family is what commands respect, not careerism and “merit.” But after forty years of declining wages and disappearing benefits, working class people worry that opportunities for a settled lifestyle may soon vanish altogether.
University education also might increase working class incomes, but ordinary workers tend to distrust higher education. For elites, extensive formal education is valued, but for the working class “being churched” is more important. Formal learning may be tolerated, but only as long as it’s not put on display, in which case it’s evidence of a “swelled head.” More money is not worth it at the price of moral decline.
So for the working class college is decidedly optional, and may not even be desirable in many cases. What’s indispensable is not a college degree, but a skill that will make people pay you for your work. So if go you go to college and end up without such a skill, you have wasted time and money both. [An increasing number of male college graduates end up in low or medium-skilled jobs.] But if you don’t go to college but nevertheless do acquire such a skill, you can still make out. Working class kids worry that they might end up with a prestigious degree but be unable to secure work with it because they lack knowledge of the unwritten social codes of professional life, which are learned by osmosis in professional families. Is it really surprising that a child from the professional elite is three times more likely to be admitted to a selective private institution than a lower class white with similar qualifications?
Employers overwhelmingly favor people who mirror professional habits and values, people whose hobbies might be sailing and classical music, but not pick-up soccer and country and western concerts. Research shows that putting the latter set of interests on your resume will get you far fewer professional job interviews than the former.
Then there’s the matter of ending up tens of thousands of dollars in debt in return for attending college, an increasingly common phenomenon throughout the USA. Average college debt among graduating seniors who had taken out student loans more than doubled between 1986 and 2008, and increased 56% in the decade before 2014. Accumulating a mountain of debt is extremely risky for anyone, but especially so for a working class kid. In 2009 student loans were draining off 35% of college dropouts’ annual income.
And aside from all this, the working class often just sees more value in its traditional jobs than in professional work. Many workers want to work with their hands and think that being a fire-fighter, for example, adds more value to a community than learning how to boost superfluous consumption with manipulative ads. So there are lots of good reasons to be skeptical of the college track, which is always going to be a minority option no matter how much we praise it.
But this leaves working class families trapped in an insoluble dilemma: (1) higher education is either unattainable or undesirable; (2) middle-class jobs are increasingly unavailable; (3) accepting government help is outright shameful. And gaming the welfare system in order to receive extra benefits (like buying sodas with food stamps and then selling them for cash) is doubly shameful. So working class people are often unwilling to use government benefits even when they are available to them. In fact, they tend to resent poor people who eagerly snap up any government benefit they can get. (Working class blacks are an exception to this. They tend to have a non-judgmental attitude towards those in need, recognizing from bitter experience that being in need has nothing to do with lacking personal merit.)
Interestingly, working class people resent professionals but not the rich. Becoming rich is assumed to be the result of hard work, whereas professional wealth is regarded as the product of dubious entitlement, and professionals themselves are seen as phony and snobbish. So working class people tend to dream of self-employment as the only route to wealth that doesn’t involve forfeiting one’s character. For them, self-employment, not collective action, represents class consciousness. The dream is not to migrate out of their class milieu, but to stay with the people they like and resemble – while making more money. Trump epitomizes this: he made his original fortune in grand casinos flouting his “garish bad taste.” Life on one’s own terms!
While professionals move in an increasingly secular world, working class whites are proud of their Christian morality and deeply resent being depicted as ignorant homophobes. If liberal elites don’t want them to embrace Rush Limbaugh, maybe they should stop insulting them with such caricatures. Not that liberals are the only guilty party here. On what passes for a political left in the U.S. many dismiss working class demands for jobs on the basis that it’s just “white privilege”!
Working class accusations of “political correctness” are often a taking umbrage at such class cluelessness and its attendant snobbery. For example, in working class communities being a stay-at-home wife is a sign of elevated status and a much sought after luxury, not evidence of a backward attitude towards sex roles. (Trump won working class white women by 28%.) For many working class families, having mothers in the workplace represents not “liberation” but additional stress and disruption. By the Trump years a new generation of workers had lost any hope of fulfilling this aspiration, though their parents and grandparents had managed to do so. On the other hand, for professional and managerial women, being a stay-at-home mother represents a decline in status, i.e., “just a housewife.”
While professional class husbands more often espouse egalitarian gender ideals, working class husbands do more child care. Who’s more sexist?
As for racism, many working class whites do harbor fears of blacks sporting “flashy cars, booze, and broads,” and who “don’t even want to get ahead for their families!” But many professional class whites are also racist, stereotyping blacks as lazy, violent, recklessly sexual, and less competent than whites. All forms of racism should be abandoned, of course, but in the meantime professional class whites have no call to indulge their class prejudices against working class whites on the grounds that only the latter are racist. It’s just not so.
As anthropology professor David Harvey reminds us, it is “all too easy to blame the victims for what happens when capital leaves town.” But whatever workers’ flaws are taken to be, “it is preposterous to claim that these can account for the total devastation of industrial regions that had for generations been the backbone of capital accumulation.” For destruction on this scale we can only thank “the neo-liberal counter-revolution of the 1970s.”
There is a showdown with capital coming, says Harvey, that will make the upheavals of the 1960s “look like child’s play.” When that day dawns those of us who want to see corporate and national security elites displaced by popular democratic forces will need the bulk of the white working class on our side. If we continue to define it as inherently reactionary, it won’t be.
Joan C. Williams, White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America (Harvard, 2017)
Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities, (Harper, 1991)
David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions And The End of Capitalism, (Oxford, 2014)
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