racism in my white working-class roots

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.

14 thoughts on “racism in my white working-class roots”

    1. EZ and I have a history of disagreeing, sometimes vehemently, but I’m sorry my review dismayed him. There are some points of frank disagreement here, mostly about questions of the constancy vs. malleability of WWC culture. But at several points EZ’s response mistakes or exaggerates points I make. I’m looking forward to reading EZ’s forthcoming ASR article, which looks very interesting.

      For example, my review doesn’t advocate “dismiss[ing]” or “simply set[ting] aside” the books. The point of the piece—as is common in review essays that consider several books at once—is to read the books in the context of one another, constructing an argument about a theme in the collection. There are plenty of other single reviews of each book separately; that’s not the point of a review essay. But, for the record: I do think Vance’s book is mostly a waste of time to read, and Williams is pretty reductive so doesn’t add much on top of the others. But the others have value on their own terms and interested readers should read and evaluate them on their own. I hope my piece provides some critical tools for that evaluation.

      I don’t think my main “allegation” (interesting word choice) is that “the books’ portrait of the WWC is misleading and problematic.” Rather, it’s that the books’ portrayal of the WWC is largely ahistorical and static, and that this portrayal therefore lends to a dangerous misunderstanding of the WWC’s political meaning. The mechanism for this misunderstanding is a contemporary jargon of authenticity.

      EZ simply asserts that the jargon is “not in the four books [he] read.” Mostly I’ll let my essay stand on its own for the evidence; the metaphors of “welling up” and “deep story,” as well as the narrative structure of the books themselves, described in the essay, support the claim that the books emphasize or assume that authenticity. Williams writes broadly of what “the working class” wants, what hard work means to “the working class” (p5 and 20, respectively). Vance deploys as evidence about hillbilly culture a tall-tale about “Bob,” an entitled young man in a tile factory. Hochschild and Cramer carefully and faithfully recount the ideas and claims their subjects hold without subjecting them to much historical or analytical scrutiny. All these (and many more) elements serve to reify the WWC in its then-current form. EZ doesn’t like my saying that Hochschild “obscures the tendentious political history of the deep story.” But, in fact, the book (by design) doesn’t examine the alternative stories, ideas, and beliefs that might compete wit the “deep story,” which has the effect of making the story, well… deep.

      So is this merely “aesthetic rather than substantive?” No, not at all—because the perception of the WWC as static and authentic has real-world consequences, in particular for democratic functioning and political strategy. Dan Hirschmann and I wrote about this here; the most recent instance of it is this Vox article.

      To some specifics:
      A. Is there no continuity? No, and I haven’t claimed that. But invoking Nixon is revealing, because WWC communities also, in broad brush, voted for Carter, Clinton, and Obama.
      B. EZ’s account of Hochschild’s book is great, but I don’t see that in the book! The book’s core is the “deep story” her respondents believe.
      C. The point of a review essay, again, is to read the books in relief with one another, not to assess each on its own terms. I’m not asking, here, whether each book succeeds in its own goal, but rather what the combined meaning of the books, taken as a collection, is.
      D. I don’t offer a claim as to just how pliable WWC culture is, nor do I specifically implicate Fox News. Indeed, the comparative leverage I bring in by using the Mueller and Adorno books would specifically undermine such a claim.

      Finally, regarding the importance of the WWC: the Morgan and Lee article is great, but it documents shifting party ID in the WWC, not the importance of that shift to the 2016 election. The 2016 election was decided by very thin margins in very few states, which makes it effectively overdetermined. Many plausible differences can be said to have caused its outcome, including (non-exhaustively):
      – WWC cultural fealty to Trump (the thesis discussed here)
      – Felon disenfranchisement
      – Various voting law changes (e.g., ID, voting places, registration barriers, etc.)
      – Low African-American voter turnout
      – Clinton’s scandals and lack of charisma
      – Relative media attention to the candidates
      – The late-in-term FBI announcement and subsequent “all-clear”

      So yes, had Clinton done better with the WWC (ironically, her “base” as recently as the 2008 primaries), the outcome would likely have been different. But had some combination of the other things listed above been different, so would the outcome have been.

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      1. A few points in response to AP:
        1. AP references “vehement” disagreements that we had several years back. Indeed, there are echoes here because once again two senior sociologists seem to have little ability to have a meeting of the minds. What’s interesting is that the topic seems to be completely unrelated. Though perhaps lurking again is some kind of underlying disagreement about the objective limits to social construction. (FYI, more systematic exposition of my ideas on this topic at that time were published in a 2012 Annual Review of Sociology article [http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-soc-070210-075241] , and in a companion essay on efficient markets theory [http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199590162.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199590162-e-13].)

        2. Among my frustrations back then was my impression that AP was not taking the time to read carefully. That crops up again in this exchange. In particular, please look back at what I wrote about the Morgan and Lee article and what is actually in it. AP contends that Morgan & Lee “documents shifting party ID in the WWC, not the importance of that shift to the 2016 election. “ Um. Please read the paper. It is about *turnout* and how that shifted differentially among the WWC (relative to other groups) in the last several elections, and especially from 2012 to 2016. Also, I was not making a monocausal argument. All I was doing was challenging was AP’s breezy assertion that “more recent analysis suggests that the WWC’s role was less pivotal” than first thought. Obviously, the various factors AP mentions were important in determining the outcome. But Morgan & Lee provides evidence that an important factor was that the WWC were energized by Trump.

        3. I don’t know what to make of AP’s decision to link to the Vox article by Teixeira as support for his take. For one thing, Teixeira’s analysis re WWC turnout is along the same line as Morgan and Lee’s. For another, how is AP’s claim that “WWC communities also, in broad brush, voted for … Obama” supported by Teixeira’s note that “In 2012, Obama lost whites without a college degree nationally by 25 points”??

        (Yes, Clinton did even worse [6 points] with the WWC. But [a] Obama might also have done worse with the WWC in 2016; and [b] in 2012, Obama didn’t have to go up against a populist demagogue like Trump.)

        4. “The genre made me do it” is not a compelling excuse. If a reviewer is going to engage in a critique of a scholar’s (or author’s) work, the reviewer needs to be fair and the reviewer’s claims need to hold up under scrutiny regardless of the type of review. If the genre of the review essay seems to afford the reviewer the opportunity to write a high-level gloss without needing to be fair to the individual pieces covered (including characterizing what those authors were trying to accomplish rather than simply imposing the reviewer’s criteria), the author should choose another genre.

        5. I see nothing in AP’s response that effectively responds to my request that he substantiate his claim that all five of those books (or even one of them) promotes a “jargon of authenticity.” The interested reader can decide for herself.

        6. Andy says that “EZ simply asserts that the jargon [of authenticity] is ‘not in the four books [he] read.’” Sorry, but this is false. Yes I asserted that. But it wasn’t a *simple* assertion: the very next sentence is: “I would love to see AP’s evidence that the authors present the Americans they study as more authentic than others.” I asserted what I thought I read and invited AP to show me as I wrong. As just noted, I don’t believe the invitation was accepted.

        6. AP says he likes my rendition of Hochschild. That should make him worry. Perhaps I didn’t just impose my interpretation on Hochschild.

        7. I worry that Vance is being dismissed because his politics are taboo among sociologists. In short, he advances a “culture of poverty” diagnosis of the social ills that beset Appalachian whites and he argues that the federal government is of limited help in treating those problems: Vance thinks the Appalachian community needs to summon internal resources to deal with its demons. But even if you don’t like his politics (“culture of poverty” risks victim-blaming; focusing on internal resources risks letting the government off the hook), there is a lot of useful insight in the book, IMHO. For example, his observations about the massive disconnect in the consumption patterns of WWC and cultural elites are quite astute, and are useful for those sociologists who are interested in understanding cultural consumption and expression as a major source of stratification in contemporary America [a recent ASR of mine with Hahl and Kim touches on this, as does Rachel Sherman’s excellent book Uneasy Street]. More generally, the book left me with the indelible image of a community of white people who are culturally and economically adrift/embattled in a manner akin to an indigenous people that has been colonized by a (post-)industrial society. In my view, this is a useful image to have in mind when grappling with why WWC communities are struggling. Vance is inviting us to ponder the implications of thinking of Applachian whites much as we do Native Americans. AP argues that this is “mostly a waste of time.” I recommend that sociologists take a look for themselves.

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  1. I am appreciating Andy’s post, Tina’s comment, and Ezra’s lengthy response. I think the core of agreement is that the racism of [many] White working class communities is both real and constructed. My own upbringing was more borderline than Tina’s: my father had a college degree, the first in his family, but most of my extended family was WWC. White racist ideology was a relevant part of many extended family discussions that I recall. And in my mixed middle class and working class Southern California neighborhood in Torrance, a sundown town that was keeping Blacks out (although it included Asians and Latinos as minorities). Negative comments about racial minorities, especially Black people, were certainly readily spoken in my environment. It wasn’t hegemonic, not all my relatives were overtly White racist, but there was not critique of that ideology, either. My parents taught me a more benign “people should be equal” ideology that was different from but did not really attack the positions of other relatives. This would be 1950s and 1960s, pre-Nixon and the Southern strategy, and in the West, not the South. Some branches of the family (all living in the West) have become even more White nationalist in the recent years. Understanding how to theorize this is important, in my view. Even as I agree with Andy that not everybody is the same. I do feel that Hillbilly Elegy deserves criticism of the sort Andy and a lot of others have levied. I have not read the rest of the books so I won’t take a position on Andy’s versus Ezra’s takes on the other books.

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  2. Reifying “white working-class culture” is certainly not a great analytical move, but I fail to see why saying the “culture” is racist “based on my experience” is fundamentally different in logical terms from what J.D. Vance does. The difference is the content and meaning you attribute to the culture. Vance is romantic, you are critical. An important, and usually unasked, question is why we are willing to accept one kind of essentialism uncritically and not the other. Part of the difference is certainly data driven, but if the problem is cultural essentialism itself, this does not seem to me any improvement on the problem Perrin criticizes.

    More generally, I will gently suggest that the “white working class” has no monopoly on racism. This sort of framing seems analogous to the 1960s idea that racism is a “Southern Problem”. Of course, I don’t think you actually think that, but it has that ring.

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  3. I post this, on twitter: Thoughtful+helpful review. But a little strange. Adorno was writing about Heidegger, confirmed Nazi. Few represent out of tough elite intellectual as Teddy, who did not have clue about racism in America. Or America in general. Both workers+intellectuals need to be seen as they r.

    But I will add to it here. There are important issues here, and of course racism in America is deep, and central to the whole Trump disaster. Of course.
    But hardly a working class thing. And yes, as the comments above suggested by Ezra (whom I don’t know – nice response) this critique seems unfair, and overblown. And not sure how much Tina’ personal experiences adds.

    And then back to Adonro. No romantic myths or illusions or smug elitism is the way to go.

    The jargon of authenticity would have to be documented in this books. Over and above the obvious fact that Hochschild gained access through networks, and can hardly write a public book about these people, talking like Tina. And surely she did not get as backstage of Tina did, in her own life. But the smug elitism in Adorno is incontestable. We can debate some details about jazz, and defend him as a philosopher. Whatever. But this move of invoking Adorno, and then not documenting the core charge, undermines the insights in this review, and the big issue we all need to be engaging with as we try to figure out Trumpism. And as political people outside our scholarly roles, defeat this. It is coming to Canada too but far less influential as yet. That is the stakes, from where I stand.

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    1. I’ve tried to respond to the question of documentation of the jargon in my response to Ezra above. I do think it’s pretty well documented in the essay, and clear in the books; no worries if you disagree.

      My use of Adorno doesn’t need to evoke the question of his attitudes toward jazz, nor his philosophy in general. It’s a specific point: the ubiquity of the jargon, its “reflected unreflectedness,” inhibits examining the underlying human emotion. We can disagree about Adorno’s ouvre elsewhere, but the diagnosis of the jargon here doesn’t depend on what you think of his smug elitism.

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      1. Fair enough on disagreeing on the documentation in the review. The truth is, I value these kinds of essays. I distributed it to my political sociology class as reading it a couple of days ago, as a counterweight to some Strangers we are reading. Overall, I think we need more of these kinds of essays, and in the genre we can’t expect a full empirical content analysis. It is provocative, I agree. And same with Tina’s blog genre personal reflections, useful as well and certainly not untrue.

        The jazz thing is only one small, and over discussed, aspect of Adorno’ blindness to race in America, but my major problem with the use of jargon of authenticity theme (what I find strange, not the general argument which I just disagree with) has to do with three things. First, in an essay dealing with the question of whether we romanticize the white class (ignoring their racism) versus just calling them racist without empathy and understanding of their legitimate grievances and the emotional dynamics of even their grievances that are not fair (no-one who reads Strangers can doubt that the author finds the deep story of unfair going ahead in the line unconvincing, and the core of the book is about the environment anyway), does it make sense to call on the work of someone who is very clearly a class snob. Practically the poster child for class snob, who goes way above anything that one would find among the Clinton’s even in Cornel West’s wildest dreams!)? Unless you think class snobbery on the liberal-left is just not a thing. Emphasizing only the deep racism in America feels to me a bit of “whataboutism” – clearly we need to oppose both racism and class elitism. Moreover, I am not convinced that Adorno can be of much use in examining human emotions, especially among Americans who he clearly did not know or understand very well. Maybe with Germans, post war – I will check out your edited book with interest. But yes that is another discussion, for elsewhere. And finally, surely the core issue politically, for me, anyway, is finding sites of potential white working class resistance and anti-racism, something AH highlights with her “Mike” in the book. He was mostly concerned with fighting back against environmental destruction, the key-hole she chose. But the general point is looking for sites where resistance and opposition to Trumpism exists among the white working class and can be built on, at least enough in swing states to bring us back from illiberal democracy territory. This does exist, and Adorno did not have ANY clue about this, or even an idea of where to look. Anyway, I will look for what seems like an excellent book, Andrew, on stuff Adorno did know about, and I will look past what seems to me to be an unnecessary and unhelpful theoretical Adorno gloss on an other wise provocative review essay that could have been written without him.

        Be well.

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