I really enjoyed Andy Perrin’s recent review of six books that hope to explain the white working class (WWC). His key insight is that the white working class is a product of social and political forces, rather than something fixed and authentic, to be “discovered” by liberal city dwellers who make anthropological visits to their culture:
[The WWC was] weaponized by economic desperation and media manipulation, and deployed by an opportunistic Trump campaign happy to trumpet their authenticity for its own electoral ends. The WWC was made, not found; deployed, not discovered.
I am a class migrant from the white working class, and I have been rolling my eyes so hard as book after book “discovering” the true sentiments of WWC voters and their worries that whites have been left behind. Andy’s thoughtful analysis of these works takes them seriously and exposes the flaws of this post-hoc search for cultural authenticity, in a review that is important and smart. Read the whole thing, as we like to say. I don’t have any arguments with Andy’s analysis here, but I do have one thing that I’d like to add to it, based on my own roots in the WWC.
The key feature of my experience of growing up in the white working class was the very central role that racist ideology played in developing not only the cultural identities of my family, friends and neighbors, but also (and more importantly, from my view) in developing their false belief system that non-white people are being handed unfair advantages by a system that prefers racialized groups to whites. Every observable fact can be viewed through this lens: Black History Month showcasing important figures from history? Through a white racist lens, their success is seen as proof that they must have been given advantages to overcome their natural inferiority. Filipina co-worker given a promotion? Through a racist lens, this is seen as her natural capacity for diligent work in poor conditions, which gives Filipinos an advantage over whites who are smarter but have less grit.*
In my childhood, racism was not some shameful notion that people were embarrassed to express; it was an explicit, proud stance that everyone in my all-white neighborhood seemed to share (everyone but the teachers, that is. Thank you, teachers. And thank you, Sesame Street). I have witnessed my family and friends interpret every social change, from immigration patterns through economic downturns, through a racist lens that builds up the worldview that Hochschild, Vance, and others describe in detail, but without talking much about racism at all. They simply note that this worldview exists, and puzzle over how detached it is from empirical reality. This detachment is simply a mystery, not much to worry about, though, because they really, really believe it, and that is what matters to elections.
I don’t claim that I can generalize from my own experiences to explain the culture of the entire so-called white working class; this is what genuine sociological research is for. However, I offer my own experiences as a counterpoint to the books that Andy discusses here, and suggest that racist ideology–explicit and measurable in some cases, coded and hidden in other cases–should be one of the social processes on the table that sociological analyses of white, working-class Americans consider. From my perspective as a WWC kid who used cheap education and racial advantage to climb the class ladder, the role of racist ideology in shaping the WWC worldview seems like an important starting point to me.
*Explicitly racist claims like this feel hard to read? Let’s reflect on how important it is for white liberals to take in racist ideology, acknowledge it, and commit to undermining it, rather than just sweeping it under the rug. Our discomfort is not nearly as important as the consequences of this ideology for those who are targeted by it.