In the aftermath of last week’s presidential election, many have attributed the Democrats’ defeat to their inability and/or refusal to respect, speak to, care about, or prioritize the so-called “white working class.” According to this view, the “white working class,” like innocent children, have been “abandoned” by party elites. See, for example, this tweet from Senator Bernie Sanders:
But even if we forget that Sanders lost to Clinton primarily because he got blown out among black voters, especially those in the country’s poorest region, the Deep South; even if we forget that, in last week’s general, Clinton won the under 50k vote; even if we forget that black people, Native Americans, and Latino/as suffer substantially higher rates of poverty than whites and would therefore seemingly be more antagonistic to working class-abandoning elites, such as Clinton, than white people (when the reverse is true); and even if we forget that whiteness served as far and away the best predictor of whether one voted red or blue, a question remains:
What makes the “white” working class different from the black, or Native American, or Latino/a, or Asian-American working class?
Here we encounter something quite strange: figures such as Sanders, who tend both to prioritize the fight against economic injustice above that against racial injustice and to believe the latter to be largely a consequence of the former than a separate species of its own, end up defending that view by speaking in a way that contradicts it. Indeed, if we believe that economic systems oppress people by sorting them into social classes, then how can an entity such as the white working class even exist? By distinguishing the white working class from their non-white counterparts, one admits that racial identity and power trumps class position, even though one intends the exact opposite.
The class reductionist approach undermines itself in another way. Typically, those sympathetic to this view would respond to my critique by describing the purportedly high rates of racism among “working class whites” as a scheme concocted by upper class capitalists to prevent poor whites from realizing that their economic interest lies in solidarity with non-white people. One eradicates racism therefore not so much by denouncing racism but by explaining to working class whites why voting Republican or supporting the economic status quo would be bad for their pocketbook. For this reason, class reductionists believe that Democrats lose the working class white vote because they do not know how to talk to them; they are patronizing, removed, and smug.
However, while this approach positions itself as the ally of the neglected and race-shamed white working class, it ironically perceives poor whites as too stupid to know what’s good for them. It differs on this score only in relying upon a different set of “elite” saviors to come to their rescue.
Importantly, I am not saying that Sanders, his supporters, or any other “leftist” who may feel critiqued in this post does not care about racism. Nor ought this post be read as an encomium for Clinton. This post instead intends to critique only a popular account of the relation between race and class.
We need to stop repeating this lie that white supremacy is not in the self-interest of any class of white people. We further need to ask ourselves why we cling to it so dearly and why it provides us such comfort. In truth, white people have not been duped; our support for white supremacy reflects not just a flaw in our thinking, but a perversion of our wills. We do not endorse white supremacy because we do not know any better; we believe that white supremacy is good because we want to believe it so. Misinformation and poor logic qualify more as consequences of our attachment to white supremacy than its underlying causes.
If one speaks of “the white working class” but never refers to the black, Latino/a, Asian-American, or Native-American working classes, one is making excuses for white supremacy. Period. In fact, one can reasonably separate the white poor from the non-white poor in theory only because they have separated themselves in reality: like their wealthier counterparts, working class whites have excluded black people, and to a lesser extent, non-black Latino/as, from their neighborhoods, schools, and families. When we give voice to the phrase, “white working class,” we affirm and authenticate that segregation.
In truth, the white working class differs from the working class due only to its whiteness. Let us abandon not the working class, but our faulty ways of speaking about it. In order to better attend to the intersections of economic and racial injustice, let us speak not of “the white working class,” but of “working class whiteness.” Until we do, the violent power of whiteness will continue to hide behind the innocence of economic oppression.
UPDATE (5:49 pm): I want to head a common misreading of the above post off at the pass. This post does not deny that white people live in poverty or are victims of economic injustice. (Its second to last paragraph in fact affirms my belief in the existence of whites who are poor.) The fact that many white people will misread it as such proves my point. Being poor does not make one less white; we only think this way because we think of racism as essentially a class relation.