The new year/post-election moment has brought us, with renewed fervor, a fascination with the white working class. This fascination isn’t new: it merely emerges when it serves as a useful cudgel against the concerns of those who aren’t white, male, straight, and able-bodied. Back in 2008, Hillary Clinton sought to wield the white working class as a bulwark to Obama’s rising popularity. The distinction of “white” in the phrase “white working class” seems almost superfluous. In much of public discourse, working class is often conflated with struggling white people, and struggling white men in particular. Predictably, many liberals and leftists have fallen directly into this trap. As a result, they have sought to elevate the concerns of white men, casting women, queers and people of color as mean, guilting overreachers.
If you listen to many white liberals and leftists, they will tell you that the white working class is besieged. Their jobs are gone. Their wages are stagnant. Their healthcare costs are too high. If you listen to certain white leftists and liberals, they will also tell you how deeply triggered these poor white people are by Mean Tweets and MTV videos. They will tell you “This Is Why Trump Won” and “You’ll Never Convince People That Way.” In this way, these academics, podcast makers and journalists position themselves as Working Class Soothsayers.
Suffice it to say, these folks have no special insight into the concerns of the working class. They ultimately stand in the way of a full reckoning with what whiteness has done to America. In their world, people of color would “reach out” and “try to understand” where these struggling white people are coming from. But we get it. Black people certainly do. The median wealth of single black women is $5. According to William Darity in The Atlantic, the average black household would have to save 100 percent of its income for three consecutive years to close the wealth gap. We know white folks are struggling because we are out here struggling with them. Their response to this shared struggle isn’t solidarity, though: It’s the wholesale punishment of everyone who is unlike them. Black people have been trying to convince America of our humanity for centuries. Realistically, how long can we be expected to do this soft shoe routine?
But the worst part about coming into the new year is the consensus that (white) folks on the left think they have with others that oppose the impending Trump presidency. Among these types are the guys in Brooklyn who gentrified Flatbush and Bushwick that sit around and listen to NPR podcasts and talk about how fucked up it is that Flatbush and Bushwick are gentrifying. Fuck these guys. These guys exoticize the working-class struggle, inserting themselves problematically into spaces for an “authentic experience” that typically revolves around POC voyeurism. Otherwise, they are white guys who work to subsume race politics under class politics, who blame identity for where we find ourselves now. You know these guys. Or, you are these guys. But we want to digress for a moment so that you don’t read too far into this piece without an analysis of the structural conditions that stall populist consensus among those that find themselves left of the Democratic Party.
Both now and historically, U.S. politicians have made deals in backrooms bending over backward to appease the white working class, providing important social protections while intentionally and systematically working to withhold the same economic securities from black folks in particular. “Progressive” labor laws and pro-union policies throughout the first half of the 20th century failed to protect black workers, many of whom were murdered by unemployed and underemployed white men for daring to have jobs in a strained economy.
The original New Deal unemployment insurance waived coverage for domestics and farm workers (i.e. Blacks and Mexicans) even though they were taxed. Returning World War II G.I.s were greeted by a bill that subsidized higher education and housing through low-interest rate federally backed loans, less than 2% of which went to black G.I.s. A locally controlled social welfare system with minimal oversight during the third wave of immigration ensured that white controlled social service agencies almost exclusively offered relief to other third wave Europeans. Keeping with the past, The Affordable Care Act subsidizes medical treatment for coal miners in rural Appalachia dealing with Black Lung disease; however, we see no such provision for families in urban black and Latinx communities across the northeast whose drinking water among other local environmental hazards exposes them to lead levels so high that it’s producing metallic colored rashes on their children’s bodies.
Herein lies the essential problem: the banner of “the working class” cannot in this new year continue to be code for disenfranchised white men. We need to be specific. We can’t stand for colorblind policies that will be undoubtedly be enforced unfairly. Many white leftists position themselves as spokespersons for working Americans, but it’s all a ruse. Their rhetoric tells us where their hearts are. The history of social policy in the U.S. reveals the extent to which class oppression is racially bifurcated. This reality requires specificity. A populism that ignores race as a mechanism of inequality is not a populism worth our time.