How the Left Can Gain Footing in White America
Near the end of his life, the great civil rights and anti-war leader and democratic socialist Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that the “real issue to be faced” in the United States was “the radical reconstruction of society itself.” These words have never been truer than they are today, when the profits system threatens to end livable ecology in the historical near term.
It will be difficult, if not impossible, to carry out King’s reconstruction without backing from millions of white people in what is still very much the world’s most powerful state. While the U.S. population becomes less Caucasian with each decennial census, the nation is still supermajority—69 percent—non-Hispanic white. The nation’s physical and related political geography is whiter still, thanks to a political system that overrepresents America’s disproportionately white rural and exurban regions and states.
How might a U.S. left that mattered—currently nonexistent, thanks in part to its hyper identity-politicized alienation from everyday white people (not a new problem)—find a place in white America? How could it do that without dropping its principled and undebatable opposition to racism, ethnocentrism and nativism?
I am an anti-racist, leftist historian and journalist who grew up in an unusually integrated and liberal big-city neighborhood and has spent many years living in predominantly white and rural counties. Thanks to a retrospectively welcome failure to achieve lasting professional-class success, I have spent a good share of time employed alongside (and talking politics with) “white working-class” people in the “heartland.”
Here, for what it’s worth, are 12 recommendations for how my fellow leftist progressives might understand and communicate with “flyover zone” whites in ways that further our goals without sacrificing our commitment to racial, ethnic and gender equality and environmental sanity and without pushing middle-American and noncollege-educated white folks further to the right:
1. Drop the notion that you/we don’t need a lot of white allies to advance leftist goals. King knew better than that. So did the Black Panthers, who worked to help working-class whites, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans build organizations that would merge their specific ethnocultural identities with a “proletarian” people’s struggle against capitalism and imperialism. King placed a big emphasis in his last years on fighting with and for poor and working-class people of all colors against the economic injustices of capitalism. (He had no romantic illusions about people of color and a few white allies being able to transform America alone. He would have been horrified by the position of the blustering white “radical,” violence-fetishizing and infantile-leftist Weathermen, who decided in 1969 to write off pretty much the entire white U.S. population as reactionaries. The Panthers rightly rejected the “anti-white chauvinist” Weatherman standpoint as idiotic.)
2. Avoid blanket statements about “white people” and “white America.” People on the left rightly bristle at broad racialist and sexist generalizations about blacks, Latinos, Asians, Muslims, Arabs, females, immigrants, gays, lesbians and transgendered people. We should also avoid sweeping statements about all U.S. whites, who are torn by their own sharp socioeconomic, ethnic, partisan, political and ideological differences.
3. Avoid saying insulting and condescending things about nonmetropolitan and working-class whites—stuff like presidential candidate Barack Obama riffing on how rural whites “get bitter, cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton telling rich New York City campaign donors that Donald Trump’s white, rural and noncollege-educated backers were “a basket” of racist, nativist, homophobic and sexist “deplorables.” Clinton’s sneering comment was vote-getting gold for the white nationalist Trump campaign, which printed up “Adorable Deplorable” T-shirts and bumper stickers to use in key battleground states. (Clinton recently doubled down on her progressive neoliberal contempt for stupid middle America by saying this to an elite, globalist gathering in Mumbai, India: “If you look at the map of the United States, there’s all that red in the middle where Trump won. I win the coasts. But what the map doesn’t show you is that I won the places that represent two-thirds of America’s gross domestic product. So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward” … and lost to people who, “You know, didn’t like black people getting rights, don’t like women, you know, getting jobs, don’t want to, you know, see Indian-Americans succeeding more than you are.” That was a raised middle finger from a superwealthy, arch global corporatist to all the supposedly pessimistic, slow-witted, racist, sexist and generally retrograde white-hick losers stuck between those glorious enclaves—led by Wall Street, Yale and Harvard on the East Coast and Silicon Valley and Hollywood on the West Coast—of human progress and variety [and GDP!] on the imperial shorelines. Think right-wing media picked up on that elitist, multicultural, globalist insult to the white heartland? You betcha!)
4. Academic and other elite professional-class “progressives:” Please don’t brag about your advanced degrees, your next book publication, your next sabbatical, your latest European vacation, your small teaching load, your latest fine dining experience, your favorite French wines or the fancy and expensive college or university to which you are sending your children. Working-class people don’t like hearing about you enjoying your class privileges and related educational attainments. It’s the overeducated and know-it-all professional and managerial classes, not the capitalist 1 percent, whom working-class people most commonly and regularly confront and see as the agents of class privilege and humiliation.
5. Take a low-paid and low-status job during this current tight-job market expansion. This will help you get a sense of the difficult and underappreciated work that tens of millions of supposedly privileged white Americans do every day: sweeping out parking garages, emptying bedpans, cleaning offices and bathrooms, driving trucks and buses, operating forklifts, waiting tables, making telemarketing calls, mowing parkways, laying foundations, extracting obstructions from production lines, filing medical documents and the like. (To make up for how you are adding to the wage-cheapening reserve army of labor, do your best to organize a union if one does not exist where you work, and make sure to pay union dues if you are in a union-protected job in a “right to work” state.)
6. Stop thinking or saying that all white America voted for the Trump. There were 156 million non-Hispanic whites eligible to vote in the 2016 elections. Trump got 63 million votes. Pretend that every single one of Trump’s voters was a non-Hispanic white. We know that’s not the case (Trump got 28 percent of the Latino vote, 27 percent of the Asian-American vote and 8 percent of the black vote, along with 57 percent of the white vote). But even if we imagine that every single one of Trump’s voters was a non-Hispanic white, it would mean that Trump was backed by just 40 percent of the white electorate. That’s hardly the whole “white tribe united” (to quote the noted black and neoliberal “Afro-pessimist” Ta-Nehisi Coates on Trump’s white supporters).
7. Don’t deny that candidate Trump’s economic populism (however disingenuous) was part of his attraction to rural and working-class and other whites who voted for him. Yes, as numerous leftist analysts (myself included) have noted, Trump’s appeal to those voters rested significantly on white nationalist racial identity. But it also relied on his economic-nationalist promise to honor the “forgotten” American heartland working-class by restoring the lost Golden Age of American manufacturing and economic “greatness.” Trump showed himself far more adept—to say the least—than the establishment neoliberal Clinton when it came to tapping the economically populist sentiments of the majority white and majority working-class electorate, most of which has less than $1,000 in its bank accounts while the top 10th of the upper U.S. 1 percent has as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Trump was no normal Republican 1 percent candidate. As Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen recently explained:
In 2016 the Republicans nominated yet another super-rich candidate—indeed, someone on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans. But pigeonholing him as a Romney-like Richie Rich was not easy. Like legions of conservative Republicans before him, he trash-talked Hispanics, immigrants, and women virtually non-stop, though with a verve uniquely his own. He laced his campaign with barely coded racial appeals and in the final days, ran an ad widely denounced as subtly anti-Semitic. But he supplemented these with other messages that qualified as true blockbusters: In striking contrast to every other Republican presidential nominee since 1936, he attacked globalization, free trade, international financiers, Wall Street, and even Goldman Sachs. “Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy. But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache. When subsidized foreign steel is dumped into our markets, threatening our factories, the politicians do nothing. For years, they watched on the sidelines as our jobs vanished and our communities were plunged into depression-level unemployment.” … In a frontal assault on the American establishment, the Republican standard bearer proclaimed “America First.” Mocking the Bush administration’s appeal to “weapons of mass destruction” as a pretext … He even criticized the “carried interest” tax break beloved by high finance.”
Such populist-sounding rhetoric was part of how and why Trump defeated Clinton, who, the authors note, “emphasized candidate and personal issues and avoided policy discussions to a degree without precedent in any previous election for which measurements exist.” At the same time, Trump would have lost many of his white working-, lower- and middle-class votes to his Democratic opponent had the Democratic primaries and caucuses not been rigged against Bernie Sanders, who ran passionately against “the billionaire class” without the noxious racism, nativism and sexism that colored Trump’s campaign. Sanders might well have defeated Trump by mobilizing working-class voters of all colors, including white ones. (Whether a President Sanders could have done anything is another matter.)
8. Stop accusing U.S. white working-class people of “lacking class consciousness” just because the multibillionaire Trump did better than multimillionaire Clinton with noncollege-educated white voters. Many affluent and white, nonworking-class Trump voters lacked the allegedly class-defining college degree. Millions of working- and lower-class U.S. white citizens didn’t vote at all, as is common among lower-income Americans. The democratic socialist Sanders (currently and quietly the most popular politician in the country) would have done far better than both Clinton and Trump did with working-class white people in the general election. At the same, Trump tapped white working-class anger at the globalist financial and corporate elite (Goldman Sachs, et al.,) but also at the more liberally inclined and professional and managerial classes, whose position and meritocratic ideology is, according to historian Thomas Frank, the real face of class privilege and authority that working-class people grate under on a regular basis.
9. Don’t exaggerate the white privilege payoff in capitalist America. The income and especially the wealth gaps between non-Hispanic U.S. whites on one hand and U.S. blacks (whose median household net worth is 13 times lower than that of whites), Latinos and Native Americans are horrific. But those disparities do not change the fact that a vast swath of the U.S. white population lives below the threshold of a minimally adequate standard of living. The median white U.S. household income—$71,300 a year—is below the Economic Policy Institute’s (EPI) rigorously calculated no-frills basic family budget—$ 74,004—for a family that comprises two parents and two children in the relatively cheap, 89 percent white Iowa jurisdiction of Muscatine County.
Things look much worse for white privilege when you drill down further in the census data. In the nearby university enclave of Iowa City, the EPI’s basic family budget for the same-sized household is $87,836. In the 93 percent white Muscatine County seat city of Muscatine, median white household income is $51,801, equivalent to just 70 percent of the EPI’s basic family budget for a family of four. Or take the 93 percent white upstate Michigan town of Sheboygan (5,000 people). Median household income there is $27,206, just 37 percent of the EPI’s basic family budget ($72,875) for Sheboygan County. The same basic story is evident across countless predominantly white towns and counties in the U.S heartland.
Three years ago, Harvard sociologist Robert D. Putnam’s rigorously researched book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” showed that social breakdown among low-income whites in the age of neoliberal capitalism was mimicking tendencies long said to characterize the black “underclass”: high rates of out-of-wedlock births, widespread male joblessness, endemic addiction, violence, elevated high school dropout rates, and more. Then came news of surging opiate addiction among working-class white Americans and of rising mortality rates fed by suicide and substance abuse among middle-aged white “surplus Americans.” The leading cause for these rising white “deaths of despair” cited by those who discovered them in the data is the collapse of the labor market for working-class people. Clearly the “wages of whiteness” are no ticket to the middle-class American dream for much of white America, a considerable portion of which has been rendered poor and replaceable by automation, de-unionization, globalization, the shredding of pensions and the poverty of the U.S. welfare state.
10. Appeal less (or not at all) to guilt over white privilege and more (or entirely) to white working-class people’s self-interest in interracial solidarity with black, Latino, Asian and Native American working-class people on behalf of the many against the nation’s wealthy few—the American oligarchy—in making the case for racial, ethnic and gender equality and civil, immigrant and gay rights. People with small savings accounts struggling to meet basic costs in a virulently unequal nation with a weak social safety net and a shortage of decent-paying jobs are not likely to respond warmly overall to outsiders who tell them how “privileged” they are by the color of their skin. Their bank accounts and more say different. They are getting shafted, and they know it. It’s better to talk about:
● How the real agents of their despair are not immigrants or urban people of color but the parasitic, exploitative and obscenely rich, class-privileged, capitalist 1 percent, the nation’s unelected dictatorship of money.
● How that capitalist employer and ruling class has long cultivated the racial and ethnic (and other) divisions within the working-class majority to maintain its immoral and now environmentally lethal profits and power.
● How white working-class people and working-class people of all colors and ethnicities have always done the best for themselves when they reach out across those divisions to form powerful unions and other grass-roots organization to fight the rich and powerful.
● How the “psychological wage” of whiteness—the sense that you are someone special and entitled just because you are white—is lame, self-defeating pseudo-compensation for economic exploitation by rich people.
● The many and remarkable moments when black and white North American workers joined in common struggle against capitalist exploiters, compelling the white ruling class to respond with strategies of racial divide-and-rule. “Since the 17th century,” Viewpoint Magazine editor Asad Haider has reminded us, “resistance to racial oppression and [resistance to] capitalist exploitation [in North America] have gone hand in hand,” led by militants and workers of all races who have understood that a racially divided working class cannot prevail over the wealthy few.
11. Drop any assumption that any but a small number of heartland whites have been given reasonable opportunities to know much if anything about the reality of racial oppression in 21st-century America. Beyond the appalling hyperconcentration of many millions of black Americans in communities that are shockingly devoid of resources and opportunities for advancement, contemporary racial segregation renders real black experience frightfully invisible to the nation’s white majority. Thanks to the quietly but deeply persistent problem of U.S. racial apartheid, much of white America’s image of black America is fed by wildly distorted and dichotomous media images of spectacular black success (the Obamas, Oprah and numerous superstar black athletes and entertainers) and black “underclass” criminality. To make matters worse, racist mass incarceration brings hundreds of thousands of young black urban felons into hundreds of rurally situated prisons, putting white prison personnel in highly unpleasant and conflictual contact with contemporary capitalist racial oppression’s most hardened victims—not a good mix for racial healing and understanding, to say the least.
12. Last but not least, the left should approach climate change—the biggest issue of our or any time—with empathetic sensitivity to “flyover zone” America’s desire for the creation of good-paying jobs. The right’s influential propaganda claiming that action against global warming destroys employment chances for working-class people should not simply be met with sneering invocations of the green maxims that “there are no jobs on a dead planet” and “no economy on a dead planet.” The adages are true enough, but the more politically strategic and astute point to make is that, as economist Robert Pollin showed in his 2014 book, “Greening the Global Economy,” “clean energy investment projects consistently generate more jobs for a given amount of spending than maintaining or expanding a country’s existing fossil fuel infrastructure. … The massive investments in energy efficiency and clean renewable energy necessary to stabilize the climate will also drive job expansion,” contrary to the “widely held view that protecting the environment and expanding job opportunities are necessarily in conflict.” Besides saving prospects for livable ecology and a decent future, the green conversion required for human survival is a job creator. Imagine that.
Here again, as with my recommendations on how to advance racial justice and gender equality in the name of working-class people’s solidarity, leftist progressives would be wise to elevate reasonable self-interest over guilt and shame in advancing the common good. If you grew up and lived in a mining or oil town, you’d probably be concerned about how the—yes, existentially necessary—transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will affect job prospects for yourself and others in your community. Whether tenured liberal-leftish Obama fans like James Livingston, author of “No More Work: Why Full Employment is a Bad Idea,” like it or not, working-class people still need and want to work, and not just for economic reasons. What could be more meaningful than working to save the world from its greatest scourge in this century: ecocide?