Part of the White, Working Class, and Worried about Trump (#WhiteWorkingClassVsTrump) Campaign*:
I grew up in South St. Louis City in a multi-racial, working-class neighborhood. My dad was a union carpenter, and my mom worked part-time at various jobs while maintaining the home. I’m the oldest of seven children. I remember the constant anxiety in our house about money, the shame and frustration I could hear in my parents’ voice as they said the oft repeated phrase “we can’t afford it.” I’m familiar with the embarrassment that comes with being the kid at school in thrift store clothing and the parent that comes to pick them up in a truck that looks like it’s about to die.
Having said that, I still had relative class privilege. My parents sacrificed so we could go to Catholic school. I never worried about whether there would be enough food to eat or whether the electricity would be shut off. My parents had been able to accumulate some wealth in the form of property ownership. However, in the 2008 financial crisis, my parents lost most of it, and the bank foreclosed on the house my family had lived in for 25 years. In many respects, the economic system of our society failed my family, like so many other families throughout this country.
Psychological Wage of Whiteness
It goes without saying that people of color in the United States experience classism, poverty and economic exploitation at astronomically higher levels than white people. White privilege is real, and that privilege cuts across class, even while wealthy and middle-class whites experience and benefit from it in very different ways than working-class and poor whites. I oftentimes think about the concept of the “psychological wage” described by W.E.B. Debois. Essentially, white working-class people, while denied the class privilege of wealthy whites, can justify their allegiance to white supremacy because of the “psychological wage” they receive under that system. The way the logic follows is that while I may be poor, at least I’m white (at least I’m not a person of color).
We [must] wrestle with finding the balance between acknowledging the pain so many white working-class people feel while also finding ways to challenge them on their racism.”
In many respects, this concept helps explain why working-class white people will take their class resentments and turn them towards other working-class people of color instead of ruling-class whites. This helps explain why so many working-class whites have found an outlet for their anger in Donald Trump’s campaign for president. He has stirred the underlying anger of working-class whites who justifiably feel abandoned by our country’s economic order but who still want to hold onto the “psychological wage” that comes with whiteness in a white supremacist system. Donald Trump is very much a product of this phenomenon, but that’s not it entirely.
Failing White, Working-Class People
I feel like the white anti-racist left of this country has failed in its duty to seriously take on organizing the white working-class to effectively challenge white supremacy. For too long, we’ve been content to smugly point fingers and call people out as racist without taking the time to genuinely build relationships that can help change hearts and minds. We’ve cordoned ourselves off into hyper-academic, jargon-infused, anti-racist movement spaces without recognizing how alienating it can feel to working-class white people. I truly believe that a significant number of Trump supporters are not filled with irredeemable hate. They just haven’t been given a better option.
Building a Class-Inclusive Movement
If we are to truly build a multi-racial, feminist, working-class movement for collective liberation in this country, which is what I want, then those of us who identify as white anti-racist organizers have some serious work to do. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to require that we build relationships with people who use language we find offensive. It’s going to require we back off from the “call out” culture in so many of our spaces and begin to truly practice “calling-in.” It’s going to require that we wrestle with finding the balance between acknowledging the pain so many white working-class people feel while also finding ways to challenge them on their racism. It’s going to require we all deal with our racism as well as our deeply-rooted, classist beliefs. It’s going to require we go to places that scare us.
Let’s do this.
* White, Working Class, and Worried about Trump, is a collaboration between a group of concerned working-class anti-racists, Class Action and Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) Action. Sick of the media and pundits all blaming working-class whites for Trump’s popularity, #WhiteWorkingClassVsTrump was created to show that not all white working class people embrace Trump’s racism, fear and hate.