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I’m Done Trying to Empathize With Poor White Trump Voters

Posted on Nov 24, 2016

  Donald Trump-themed buttons for sale in Nevada in January. The president-elect’s voting base has been closely scrutinized since his Nov. 8 victory. (Darron Birgenheier / Flickr (CC-BY-SA)

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Since the election of Donald Trump, many news analysts have exhorted the left to understand the plight of rural white working-class voters who went for the Republican candidate because their communities were struggling with poverty and unemployment. A thoughtful and nuanced book by Berkeley-based academic Arlie Russell Hochschild called “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” has been widely touted as a good starting point for liberals to break out of their ideological bubbles. I read Hochschild’s book before the election and interviewed her on my show to explore the reasons why so many poor whites would back a billionaire demagogue.

A Nov. 10 publication in the Harvard Business Review by University of California, Hastings law professor Joan C. Williams went further than Hochschild, taking great pains to lay out the many ways in which working-class whites take offense politically and explaining that liberal misunderstanding of those offenses were part of the problem. According to Williams, concepts like feminism and welfare rub up against the “manly dignity” of these folks, and we ought to understand that such perspectives exist.

On Nov. 15, Vox published a lengthy piece by German Lopez about how to talk to white folks about racism. Lopez valiantly attempted to offer research about what has worked—a crucial starting point for activists who want to use evidence-based strategies to make real change. But we are told the word “racism” is not a good opener for conversations because “for white Americans [it’s] often seen as coded slurs” and “a justification for lawmakers and other elites to ignore their problems.”

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I have tried very hard to push down my revulsion against Trump voters after the election. I read all I could, including the aforementioned publications, to educate myself on a missing piece of my analysis in order to make sense of the election. But a pattern has emerged within this thread of analysis: Nonwhite Americans—the ones with the foreign-sounding names, the ones with the darker hair and eyes, the ones that have struggled harder than whites to be recognized for our work and our worth—are being told to be more understanding of the suffering of poor whites (never mind that “middle-class and wealthy suburban whites,” who enjoy even more privilege, voted for him in huge numbers as well).

But study after study shows that no matter how wealthy or educated you are, whites fare better than nonwhites, even the poor ones. A longitudinal study that began in 1979 found that wealthy black kids are disproportionately likelier to be imprisoned than poor whites. “About 10 percent of affluent black youths in 1985 would eventually go to prison,” while only “2.7 percent of the poorest white young people” would be incarcerated, it noted. Another study based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that “African-American students need to complete two more levels of education to have the same probability of getting a job as their white peers.” In other words, a white high-school dropout had the same chance of being employed as a black college graduate.

Another study on discrimination in employment discovered that “Job applicants with white names needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback; those with African-American names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback.” Yet another study concluded that “African-Americans with college degrees are twice as likely to be unemployed as other graduates,” and that “White men with recent criminal histories are far more likely to receive calls back than black men with no criminal record at all.”

Even among those blacks who are employed, a study released just weeks before the election found that, “relative to the average hourly wages of white men with the same education, experience, metro status, and region of residence, black men make 22.0 percent less, and black women make 34.2 percent less.” Simply being white even helps you live in better neighborhoods, with one report finding that “Affluent blacks and Hispanics live in poorer neighborhoods than whites with working class incomes.” One’s neighborhood impacts the quality of life, of schools and education, and more. I could go on and on.

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