Caring About Small Minded White Working Class

White Working ClassMatt 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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

17 thoughts on “Caring About Small Minded White Working Class

  1. It is curious isn’t it that the working class is always asked to do the sacrificing or changing while the rich class gets a pass on everything.

    Not really.

    As for the Black lack of support for marriage equality, religion still plays a big part in the Black community so maybe that is why? They may not support marriage equality though but they certainly don’t seem to want to hurt anyone in the gay community physically. Or at least, I have not seen it.

    • Well, this definitely needs a Key & Peele:

      Churches could be part of it. I suspect it’s partially that trodded-on demographics tend to look for others to turd on (turds roll downhill) and, much more importantly, that more powerless demographics tend to be conservative. For quite a good reason. Take every important advance (like marriage equality) proposed by people in influential positions who “know better” and stack it against every ruinous policy pimped by the same people (like the Commodity Futures Modernization Act) and powerless people get screwed nine times out of ten.

      Of course, that’s a terrible reason to vote for politicians who echo your “cultural values” and continue screwing you over as workers (Thomas Frank’s main point.)

      But it makes clear why right-wingers are so gung-ho to kill the last effective unions today. It’s not just how unions can bargain for wages and benefits (many companies can and have relocated to undermine this, and now right-wingers are targeting state workers.) It’s really that unions are an important educational service.

      You may recall I whined about getting boned for medical bills incurred at my job. It’s only gotten worse, it never ceases to end. It’s strangely personal. In the two months I was assigned to “light duty” at the corporate office, I picked up a lot very quickly, I was always polite to everyone, I helped some people avoid obvious mistakes. The only individuals who didn’t act like I was a cancer were the two receptionists; all the executives treated me worse the more I learned and harder I worked. Corporate America, I guess.

      The point being, I ended up not only getting fired, but my former employer salted the battlefield. I can’t collect unemployment. I can’t use my job of 15+ years as a positive reference on my resume.

      And that’s strictly because I was a dipshit, believed promises I was told, etc.

      I was dining with friends yesterday and they went ape about this. Why? Because they are public schoolteachers.

      And here’s the meat of my rant — no member of a good union will EVER let a company run them into the ground like this.

      Naturally, I have no union. Workers in my former field either are devious enough to protect themselves or assume that “having a work ethic & great record” will protect them; raw skulduggery by the employer happens to other people.

      Every time a co-worker complains about how they’re getting screwed, well — you know that co-worker. Maybe they drink. Maybe they take more prescription drugs than the bottle suggests; maybe they gamble, or have a kid they haven’t seen in forever. It won’t happen to you. You’ve got flaws, no question; it’s just that their flaws are worse. Their flaws make them . . . well, not deserving of ill-treatment, exactly. But you are smarter for not having those flaws. You can empathize and condescend at the same time.

      TO GET BACK TO YOUR ORIGINAL POST — In my limited experience, I’d agree, that whatever homophobia exists in mainstream Black culture, it’s not manifested in “let’s get wasted and beat up some queers.” It’s more a social isolation. It’s a problem, but certainly better than adulating violence; something mainstream American “white” culture” does more than “black” culture, IMO.

      • I’m sorry about your job. You should be able to use the job on your resume, however. If there is one thing I learned from my time in corporate America, it is that executives are total wimps. So they won’t badmouth you to future employees because they are afraid of getting sued. Because that’s what they’d do. Because they are horrible people. That’s why they are executives. That’s why psychopaths do so well in business.

        • Apologies for being whiny. Although I do think HR stands for “heartless rapscallions.”

          Colin put what I was getting at much better. Everyone thinks if they have a little privilege, it will save them, and the other members of that privileged group will come to their aid. This is only true of the 1% (or, really, the .01%.)

          Our only recourse is to sympathize and unite with anyone who’s getting mistreated, anytime, anywhere. “They brought it on themselves” is a perfect recipe for dooming yourself. Assuming you’ll be fine while others around you are boned is like assuming you’ll win the lottery.

          But humans, as you note, are both fearful/selfish and principled/compassionate creatures. Even the gorgons in HR want to come off as nice while they destroy you; we’re social animals. So I see it as perfectly natural for oppressed people to go tribal — to unite around a common sense of belonging and reject others on arbitrary reasons. Something Israel has been doing for years is rainbow-washing; they try to win support among LGBT-friendly Euro countries by pointing out how intolerant many people in Gaza are of haram sexuality. (“Haram” means forbidden, it’s the opposite of “halal.”) Well, of course Palestinians are going to be more circle-the-wagons than Tel Aviv yuppies. There are hierarchies in prison.

          I want to write more about upper-class liberal snobbery; I have a few interesting stories. But Thomas Frank does it so passionately and elegantly it’s hard to add to his oeuvre. And I’m vastly depressed, the perk-you-up-to-love-your-Wal-Mart-job drugs aren’t working! (Not that I thought they would.) I can’t see how Frank keeps getting fired from his columnist posts. Oh, wait, I can.

          • I think there is something wrong with the species. But I think our culture makes it worse. The idea of meritocracy (a word that was coined with derision) really makes it bad. This idea that best float to the top is ridiculous, but even if it were true, it would be a vile philosophy. I am a late bloomer. If I had been born poor and black, there would be no hope for me. It’s something that all the meritocrats should think about.

            I thought Frank’s newest book was by far his most depressing. I want to write about it, but I don’t know that I have much to add. My favorite chapters were the ones about meritocracy and what a poisonous idea it is. The book doesn’t go after the Democratic Party so much as the upper class. It’s so great to see. There has been class warfare going on for thousands of years. But for the last 50, the lower classes have stopped fighting. That needs to change, or we are doomed.

            • Jared Cocker’s song “Running The World”: “Well did you hear there’s a natural order / That the deserving will end up with the most / That the cream will always rise up to the top / Well I say, shit floats.”

    • Oh, I think you will find that isn’t the case. There’s been a fair amount of writing on the subject from African American LGBT people — who get discriminated against from both sides. And isn’t the lack of support for marriage equality from whites mostly religiously based? I don’t think having “reasons” for bigotry helps because people always have “reasons” for their bigotry.

      • I find looking for common ground makes it slightly easier to persuade people to your side if you start with “I understand your position is based on this, am I right?”

        • I’m not suggesting that we should hate blacks for not supporting same sex marriage. I’m saying the opposite. We are all bigots in our ways, and we all deserve sympathy. Except for the rich.

          • I didn’t think you were. I was saying that if I know where someone comes from for their dislike of something it makes it easier to convince them towards my position.

  2. Rich white guys lord their wealth over poor white guys. Poor white guys lord their whiteness over black guys. Black guys lord their masculinity over black women. Black women lord their heterosexuality over LGBTQ folks. LGBTQ folks enlist the police to crush homeless people in the neighborhoods that they have gentrified.

    In theory, every one who is not rich, male, white, straight and cis gendered should be unified. In practice, everyone seems to cling to whatever privilege they have at hand.

    • After you come down a level, it isn’t a hierarchy, but a web. It seems that human dignity is graded on a curve and if you can just find someone to look down on, you are okay. Like I say: I don’t have a lot of hope for the species.

      • I’m fine with losing the species. It’s vastly overrated. But I would want the nicer mammals to take over, like dolphins and bonobos. If we make the planet uninhabitable for intelligent life, then the insects win! And I hate insects! Arachnids are OK, though.

        • “Arachnids are OK, though.”

          Oh sure, when they aren’t eating their mates… pretty sure that male arachnids get a gold medal in the oppression olympics.

          • That reminds me of a Futurama where the team is sent to an Amazon planet and the men are turned into sex slaves. Unfortunately, sex with the large Amazons kills men by crushing them to death. We see the skeletons of previous sex slaves — and they’re all grinning! At least they died happy . . .

        • If you look at total biomass, the insects have won. There’s way more biomass just in termites than there is in humans. But the truth is that the further you go up the food chain, the more likely you are to go extinct. Bacteria is the way to go. It will survive here, and even when the sun goes, it will probably survive — if only on other planets.

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