Matt Bruenig wrote a great article over the weekend, Does It Matter That Blacks Oppose Marriage Equality? It counters what is a very common argument on the left: that we shouldn’t sympathize with the white working class because they are just a bunch of bigots anyway. There are many problems with this thought.
One issue is that the white working class may over all be bigoted toward black and brown skinned people, a large percentage of them are not bigoted in the obvious way that, say, Donald Trump supporters often seem to be. This is where Bruenig got the title for his article. It turns out that as a group, African Americans are really bigoted toward the LGBT community. While blacks and whites were pretty much together on the issue of same-sex marriage back in 2001, support has almost doubled among whites, but has barely changed among blacks.
Given this, should we say that the African American community does not deserve our sympathy because it does not have the same beliefs that we do? It sounds absurd when put that way. And it is especially true when it was the “liberal” president Bill Clinton who signed the Defense of Marriage Act. And given that in 2001, only about 30% of Americans were in favor of marriage equality, does it mean that no Americans deserved sympathy in 2001?
But to me, the bigger issue is just how class-based this idea is. The issue isn’t about the bigotry of the white working class; it is about the form of that bigotry. Because here is the unfortunate truth: we are all bigots. And if we are going to slice and dice the acceptable from the unacceptable bigotry, then we are lost.
I can find plenty of reasons to excuse the LGBT bigotry of the African American community. But I can do the same thing about the racial bigotry of the white working class. And doesn’t it say something of the educated liberal class that it finds one group more acceptable than the other? After all, among the educated liberal class, marriage inequality was the default position quite recently.
It’s interesting that this issue is at the core of Thomas Frank’s new book, Listen, Liberal. The rise of the New Democrats (and related groups) was based in large part on the idea that the white working class was made up of a bunch of pro-war bigots. And that’s how we get to our current Democratic Party that is liberal on social issues but most definitely not on economic issues. (Good God: Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist when he’s just a traditional, New Deal liberal.)
But there is something that Eric Alterman has written about in this regard that I think is really important. In the 1960s, when we decided that we needed to reverse segregation, it wasn’t upper class whites who were asked to sacrifice. It was working class whites. And although northern whites might not have been as offensively and outwardly bigoted as southern whites, anti-segregation programs worried them.
So it is a little much for the same class of people who were were willing to do nothing themselves to fight against our country’s long racist tradition to stand up now and say that white working class people don’t deserve our sympathy. The educated class has been making this argument for decades. You might even say that they are bigoted toward the white working class.