White People Do Not Own the Working Class Struggle

The left has an obligation to the material needs of all poor people, not the racial resentment of a few.

Poor People’s Campaign March To The Capitol 57 (2018) by Stephen Melkisethian on Flickr

As the dust settled around Donald Trump’s presidential victory at the tail end of 2016, the question of how and why it all happened hung in the air for months on end while blame was doled out left, right, and center. And now with 2020 fast approaching, the left’s effort to reorient itself and secure a winning candidate to prevent a second Trump victory has reopened many of these same old wounds. The debate has cut a veritable chasm into the priorities of the progressive movement, identity reductionism on one side of the divide, class reductionism on the other.

The respective arguments tend to break down as follows: at one extreme you have the belief that all social injustices can be distilled down to class relations, and that any effort to incorporate analysis of race, gender, sexuality, or any other axis of identity is merely “identity politics”— a distraction at best, and a malicious effort to diversify the face of the oppressor class and shield it from criticism at worst. This emphatic rejection of intersectional analysis flourishes in online spaces like r/stupidpol where slur-laden chauvinism mingles freely with leftist economic theory, any contradiction of values lost entirely on its participants. Offline, it tends to look more like those who say that the left needs the vote of the white male working class to win and therefore can’t alienate them with discussion of white privilege or toxic masculinity.

On the other end of this binary you have the equally reductive assumption that marginalized groups in positions of power are an inherent progressive victory, with little regard for the individual’s policy record or even whether the institution they are leading is ethical at its core. To see this perspective in action, look no further than corporate-owned media and pop feminism, the Lean In approach that holds up the CEO as the paragon of achievement and the benchmark for correcting social injustices.

True equality is women ALSO getting to criminally underpay employees and bribe politicians for tax cuts and regulation rollbacks.

If the fact that this debate is still taking place and getting nowhere wasn’t enough of an indicator, neither class reductionism nor a myopic focus on identity representation in politics have proven to be a satisfactory lens of analysis. And yet it continues, oversimplifying and derailing the debates that set the good progressive leaders apart from the grifters.

Much of the ongoing conflict pertains specifically to the question of who belongs in our tent. Who’s on the fence and can be convinced to come over to our side with enough promises and favors? Do we court the bourgeois liberal who promotes green initiatives and dons rainbows in June but will revolt at any effort to limit corporate power? Or do we instead aim to please the embittered white worker from the Rust Belt who was drawn in by Trump’s lies about jobs and immigrants? Both are terrible options that would deeply compromise leftist values of social and economic equity if either were granted influence over the progressive platform, but conventional wisdom seems to dictate that we must pick one or the other.

It’s not impossible to understand the argument for the blue-collar bigot as the lesser of the two evils and the one that the left should opt to win over, at least if you happen to buy into the “economic anxiety” theory for the outcome of the 2016 election. Most of us remember the wide array of takes and perspectives that surfaced in the aftermath, the desperate search for a rational explanation to the phenomenon of the Trump voter. Even though the data made clear that their primary motivator was racism and Trump pulled in white voters regardless of age group, gender, or income bracket, there was nonetheless a widespread fascination with the possibility of the left winning back that elusive white working class vote to carry a 2020 victory.

If only we were just a little nicer to them. If only we focused a little less on abortion access and making public restrooms safe for trans people. If only we just conceded that they have it just as hard as poor people of color do, maybe even harder because hey, what could you possibly have to complain about with affirmative action on your side? Let them feel heard and address their economic concerns, they say, and the racism will disappear. But the real picture is not nearly so simple, especially when their views on race and class are so closely intertwined as to be inextricable from one another.

In 2011, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild made her way to Louisiana in order to research and get to know the conservative whites who comprised the Tea Party. At the start of her research, the Tea Party was something of a novelty, a curiously disproportionate response to the election of Barack Obama that she sought to investigate. So began her mission to find out what made these people tick. As it turns out, these Tea Party members were nearly a 1:1 blueprint for the Trump voter to follow five years later. More often than not they were the same people, as she would discover before the conclusion of her research in 2016. Many came to Trump directly via his hatred of Obama, years before “Make America Great Again” became their collective rallying cry.

Hochschild lived among these southern conservatives and collected hours upon hours of interviews over the span of her research. She compiled case studies on the lives of people from retired industrial workers to more affluent church families. She listened to what they had to say at length and from her findings synthesized what she calls the “deep story” of the American right, the story of what they feel is true regardless of all facts and context. When they sing the praises of conservative talk radio hosts, crass pundits on Fox News, or Donald Trump himself, claiming that “he tells it like it is; he says exactly what I’m thinking,” that deep story is what is being broadcast between the lines.

It goes something like this:

“You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black — beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.” — Arlie Russell Hochschild

It’s a revealing explanation to say the least, and upon pitching her deep story to the very conservatives she interviewed, Hochschild found that they heartily agreed with the narrative she wove from their gut feelings. “You read my mind,” one of them told her after she relayed the story to him. Their internal deep story weaves for them a tragic tale of hard-working Americans being plundered by the undeserving poor, those who just couldn’t make it on their own and therefore require government aid, the biggest shame of all. No matter how much is taken from the white working class by the rich and by corporate interests, those are always the benevolent job creators, never the bad guys. No, the real problem is when those who are always supposed to sit below them on the economic ladder dare to demand better, let alone get it. Although Hochschild’s findings and analysis provide much-needed insight into the logic behind the right’s racial resentment, I would stop short of her conclusion that this revelation warrants the left be more empathetic and just try a little harder to work with them.

Why must we make so much room in our hearts and our political priorities for people who find themselves so easily seduced by virulent bigotry to explain their struggles and justify their successes? Especially when they can’t seem to muster up the same compassion for the communities that have experienced genocides, slavery, segregation, criminalization, and generations worth of compounding economic deprivation? Why must the economic grievances of those whose ancestors benefited from the oppression of others be granted so much more weight? What would they even expect as a show of solidarity were the left to fully commit to chasing their vote at the expense of intersectionality?

We stand a lot more to lose by coddling the egos of racists than by putting our foot down. Doing so would be forsaking the people who comprise the true contemporary face of the working class. As much as Trump and similar opportunists like to appeal to the nostalgia of the white male conservative by casting the coal miner and the auto manufacturer as the forgotten men of America poised to take their country back, the working class of today is increasingly made up of women and people of color in the service industry. Hotel maids, fast food workers, hair and nail care technicians, servers and bartenders, retail workers, domestic labor — all jobs that the right is eager to mock and dismiss as “not real work” and that would fall by the wayside were we to concede to the narrow white and male-centric definition of the working class. Even places like Youngstown, Ohio, centerpieces of the conversation about Trump’s appeal to the working vote, see their black workers deliberately left out of this conversation by the mainstream media and the class-reductionist left.

And this unacknowledged diversity goes beyond simply filling the ranks of the modern working class. Some of the best work ever done on the economic left has been by people of color, immigrants, faith communities, women, LGBT folks, disability and neurodiversity self-advocates — those with the firsthand perspective to understand where their own identities fit into the larger puzzle alongside class analysis: interdependent, but not interchangeable.

For leadership we could look to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps the biggest name in historical racial justice work, and also a self-described democratic socialist who had begun work on a comprehensive Poor People’s Campaign prior to his death. We could look to Reverend William Barber III, who has taken up the mantle of King’s unfinished Poor People’s Campaign and reignited it for the present day. We could look to democratic socialist Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who has dedicated her work in office to substantive policies with integrated social, economic, and environmental justice principles at their core. We could look to the Combahee River Collective, the short-lived but highly influential organization of black lesbian feminist socialists who operated out of Boston in the 1970s, and through their now-famous statement lay the framework for more intersectional applications of Marxist theory.

“Although we are in essential agreement with Marx’s theory as it applied to the very specific economic relationships he analyzed, we know that his analysis must be extended further in order for us to understand our specific economic situation as Black women.” — Combahee River Collective Statement, 1977

What does a healthy set of priorities on the left look like, exactly? It looks like amplifying the voices working on the frontiers of social and economic justice in tandem, and upholding the standard that neither can be compromised or left behind. It is welcoming all of those who demonstrate a willingness to do the work and concentrate it where it’s needed most, while setting clear boundaries dictating that bigots can not be made to feel comfortable in our coalitions. It’s about making the safety of our country’s most vulnerable people a top priority and rejecting those that would harm them.

Make no mistake, effective economic leftism that incorporates a comprehensive priority list of unions, wages, and basic rights and dignities for workers will invariably benefit the white working class along with everyone else. But all too many in that camp have demonstrated their actual needs as workers to be a secondary concern at best, second of course to ensuring that their tax dollars aren’t going to those people they’re convinced are so far beneath them. As long as that is the case, their priorities and perspectives will be of little use to the rest of the movement. A class consciousness that is steeped in racism and chauvinism is as bad as none at all.

The left will keep doing our work, with or without them. We’ll be here if and when they’re ready to stand with our principles.

Balanced in one hand: this world, and what I hope are some good ideas. In the other: a litany of imaginary worlds for trying those ideas out.

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