How Did We Get Here?
The scenes coming out of Charlottesville, Va., this past weekend were both sickening and saddening. As a black woman in her 60s, I felt a sense of dread and panic all weekend as I watched white supremacists, American Nazis and members of other hate groups terrorize a town that had taken the courageous stand to take down public symbols of racism and divisiveness – reminders of people who sought to tear apart the United States.
I watched people who proudly displayed views that are racist, anti-LGBTQ, anti-feminist, anti-immigrant – anti anything that they think encroaches on their distorted understanding of a straight, white (angry) male-dominated world. These views and the violence they spur resulted in the death of one counter protester, Heather Heyer, who was there to stand for justice, inclusion and freedom. These views caused bodily injury to 19 others and the psychic injury to countless other Americans and people around the world who have viewed America, even with its flaws, as a bright light.
Then, yesterday I watched the president of the United States call these people “nice” and defend their actions. I saw the president place at least equal blame on people who marched in Charlottesville against hatred.
So how did we get to this place in the summer of 2017? And what role does social class play in this mess?
What’s Class Got to Do with It?
Many Americans assume that white supremacists and other hate group members are all part of the “lower” classes. They/we dismissively look down on these people and consider them fringe elements of society. “White trash” is how I heard friends and colleagues refer to the people they assumed were behind the chaos in Charlottesville. But as my mother says, “This says more about those looking down their noses than the ones looked down upon.”
Why do we believe that it is OK to assume people with less class advantage are inherently racist, misogynistic, homophobic and violent? And, like our classist president (see Trump’s War on the Poor …), why do we assume clean cut, prosperous-looking men are “nice” and well-intentioned?
Well, you knowwhat they saw about assuming.
In fact, classism helped to birth white supremacy and remains one of the main sources of its succor. According to the Washington Post:
Many founders of the Klan were property owners and most had assets exceeding $10,000. Two were attorneys and one was a real estate broker. One member, John Kennedy, had recently inherited $20,000 from his father, a figure equivalent to at least $500,000 today. Many were widely read and at least half had taken college classes.
CNN’s W. Kamau Bell, who has interviewed white racists across the United States, has talked about the accountants, teachers (help us!), businessmen (yes, mostly men) and other middle-class people who proudly share their racist views with him, a black man.
The roots of white supremacy are deeply rooted in the soil of the slave plantations owned by the monied classes. They reached into the northern manufacturing plants and political corridors that made a deal with their southern brethren to maintain owning class privilege. They recruited disaffected whites who knew they would never enjoy class privilege no matter how hard they worked.
The owning class convinced those with less class advantage that Christian white men deserved to live better lives than those considered “other.” They convinced them that these “others” were taking resources from them and their families. And when the federal government forced the Klan underground at the turn of the 20th century, upper middle-class and wealthy men resurrected it time and time again throughout its long history.
George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party that has morphed into various white supremacy groups, was the child of vaudeville comedians and actors and attended private school and Brown Univerisity. He never recovered from being rejected by Harvard, however, but obviously enjoyed class privilege. Like other founders of hate groups, he saw social change happening around him that might lead to economic change – his own – and rallied those on the margins of society to fight against those changes.
While I am not suggesting that people working to end classism should hold out a flower and try to work with white supremacists, we do need to double down on our efforts to eradicate classism. If we can help people with limited class privilege see the the strengths their class background has given them and not internalize classism, if we can help people see the value in working across race, and sexual orientation and other differences to end classism, we will have made an impact on the number of people who are susceptible to demagoguery.
And if we begin with ourselves and refuse to assume that middle-class men in khakis and polo shirts are automatically “nice,” “good people” because of their class status, we will take the first step toward ending the ascendance of the white supremacists now.
Time for a Class Action workshop in the Rose Garden?
Lydia Howell says
THANK YOU. Working-class white people have been being BLAMED ENTIRELY for election of Trump (averaged income of Trump supporters is $73,000 a year!) I suspect this is to some extent true of many of the Nazis, KKK & white supremacists we sw uin Chrololttes ville. As a working-poor, disabled white woman who has been doing anti-racism activism for almost 40 years, I REALLY appreciate your essay–& wuill be sharing it widely!