I’m Done Trying to Empathize With Poor White Trump Voters
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.”
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.Upon examining this research, are people of color, liberals, city dwellers and Democrats supposed to empathize with the average Trump voter and their struggles? Where is the outrage from conservative whites about the systemic bias facing African-Americans in particular, and people of color at large? (Are they perhaps busy reading, believing and sharing fake news articles that claim the opposite of these studies? Do they perhaps lack the savvy to vet such fake news?)
It is precisely these discriminatory factors affecting so many crucial sectors of society such as education, employment and incarceration that have fueled so many people to organize for a better nation that works for all Americans, not just white Americans, poor or rich. From the very beginning of the nation’s formation, white Americans have been statistically likelier to enjoy success than the rest of us, because American society was designed to bolster them.
When I hear about all the whining over the plight of poor whites, I’m reminded of Abigail Fisher, the white student who sued the University of Texas at Austin because she didn’t have good enough grades to be admitted. To Fisher the fact that she was denied while some nonwhites managed to get admitted was not a mark of her own failure but of a system that was rigged against her. Never mind that in the year when Fisher applied, 47 students who also did not meet the school’s academic standards were given discretionary admission, and of those students, a whopping 42 were white. Never mind that “whites are over-represented in the nation’s 468 most selective and well-funded colleges,” according to a Georgetown University study. Fisher’s sense of entitlement suffered a massive blow when she saw people of color succeed where she failed, even though she wasn’t good enough to begin with. Like white Trump voters, Fisher believed she was the victim in a society that actually privileges people like her above others.
Now the purported victims of affirmative action are fighting back, and Trump is their valiant leader. Richard Spencer, a neo-Nazi leader and president of the innocuous-sounding National Policy Institute laid out this sentiment in plain language at a prominent event in Washington this week. According to Spencer, “America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.” Afterward Spencer proclaimed, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” while the crowd offered Nazi-style salutes.
Undoubtedly, most Americans would distance themselves from white nationalist neo-Nazis like Spencer. But didn’t Trump voters express the same opinion as Spencer through the ballot box? In ignoring the overwhelming evidence, and the lived experiences of systemic and institutional racism felt by people of color in the U.S., and putting their own pain above everyone else’s, Trump’s supporters are telling us this is their country, their creation, their inheritance, and that it belongs to them. They are telling us they don’t care if Trump enacts policies that devastate our already precarious well-being, maybe because that was the idea all along. Trump is leading these voters to “take their country back” and helping them “make America great again.”
America was created with the idea of whiteness as dominant over indigenous communities, enslaved black folks, poor and indigent Mexicans, Chinese and so many other nonwhites. The perceived loss of that dominance is what so many white Trump supporters fear, rather than recognizing that their skin color still affords them privileges the rest of us lack. Indeed Spencer, in an interview, revealed another strain that appears prevalent among the triumphant millions that voted for Trump when he said, “Fairness has never been really a great value in my mind. I like greatness and winning and dominance and beauty. Those are values. Not really fairness.” (Excuse me, Mr. Spencer, but valuing dominance over fairness simply means you’re an asshole.)
If America is about racial domination rather than fairness, then let us come out and say it openly. Rather than obscuring the reasons for Trump’s win behind the facade of poor white victimization, the billionaire’s fans ought to say to us (just as Spencer is saying in calling for “ethnic cleansing”), “We don’t want the rest of you here.” And then the rest of us — progressive whites included — can retort, “We are going nowhere. Let the fight begin.”
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