A rule of thumb that is pretty useful: Any political figure who says that they want to help the “white working class” is much more interested in helping white people than in helping the working class.
Ever since Donald Trump swept into power with the help of some people from Wisconsin and West Virginia, there has been a grand national obsession with the political implications of the “white working class.” On a strictly rational basis, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. “Working class” in this context is used as a proxy for “lower-income people with jobs.” In fact, lower income Americans voted strongly in favor of Hillary Clinton. The two factors that correlated most strongly with voting for Trump were being white and having low levels of formal education. It would make more sense for the post-election fascination to have been with “ignorant white people.” Or—to more accurately capture the full demographic range of Trump voters—“racists.”
Perhaps the “white working class” focus is the result of a genuine newfound concern with the working class of America? That thesis is suspect as well. Concern for the working class is rooted, first and foremost, in concern about the deprivations suffered by everyone whose labor does not afford them the ability to thrive in our society. Lack of affordable health care, lack of affordable housing, lack of quality education, lack of political power, the impossibility of building wealth due to persistent low wages, vulnerability to all forms of exploitation—these are the problems of the working class. These are the issues that any political leader who wants to help the working class must face. And, if we are going to divide the working class into demographic subgroups, which group is most in need of help with these problems?
The black working class.
In America, black people have higher unemployment, lower incomes, worse health care, and far, far less wealth than any other racial group in this country. White people are actually the most well-off portion of the working class, and of every other class. It is inconceivable that ostentatious concern for the “white working class” could be motivated by a genuine desire to help solve the problems of all working class people. If the motivation was a simple desire to help the working class, everyone would say that we must pay attention to the working class. If the motivation was to help the neediest and most left-behind portion of the working class, everyone would say that we must help the black working class. To make a point of saying that we must help the “white working class” is to actively exclude the neediest segment of the working class from the conversation. In America, it is always safe to assume that this sort of thing is motivated by racism. It may be subconscious racism, but it is racism nonetheless. And racism has always been a reliable vote-getting strategy for the right wing.
It is not shocking that the Republican party would appeal to racism in order to attract voters. The Republican party has been doing that successfully for decades. It is more notable that the supposedly nonpartisan, intellectual, just-the-facts political class—the political analysts and the political press—would happily tout the “white working class” as the key to Republican victory in coming elections with absolutely no self-awareness of what that term really entails. In the months after the election, major news outlets rushed to reveal the mysteries of the White Working Class—a project that is not inherently bad, so long as it is but one part of a much greater project to reveal the mysteries of everyone who has been victimized by four decades of wage stagnation and the decline of economic mobility. Any casual reader of the news can tell you the narrative was not so balanced. The “white working class” has become such an accepted totem of our political landscape that the shaky basis of the term is scarcely questioned. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Geoffrey Kabaservice proposes a “Republican New Deal” strategy of public investment designed to help those in “the ‘left-behind’ rural and nonurban areas that overwhelmingly vote Republican.”
“The Republican Party... has become the party of the white working class,” he writes, “but it has done next to nothing to address the terrible problems that disproportionately affect that class.”
As policy goes, there is nothing especially wrong with this idea. It would certainly be an improvement on existing Republican policy. But it is a mistake not to take note of the profoundly cynical reasoning behind it. The problems that this proposal seeks to address have been around forever. They have always, and still do, disproportionately hurt minority people. But now that the evolution of sociopolitical trends and voting patterns has produced a situation in which it might be politically advantageous for Republicans to campaign on these issues, it is suddenly time for a “New Deal”—predicated, of course, on the problems faced by whites. The fact that this is not explicitly presented as an insight into how racial inequality is perpetuated is the problem.
In any case, the New Deal is not a bad comparison. The first time around, the New Deal was a major boon for the working class—but the price of passing it was selling out black people. It’s been nearly a century now. We should be able to do better this time around.