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The Mythology of Trump’s White Working Class

Trump’s 2016 election shocked the U.S. political class. The conservative orthodoxy of the time held that the Republicans had “taken white guys about as far as that group can go. We are in need of diversity, women, Latino, African-American, Asian” (NPR). The victory of Trumpian racial politics was a shock for almost every pollster, political commentator, and political scientist in the country (Mashable). The commentariat soon settled on a culprit for the November surprise: the “white working class,” who political pundits claimed supported Trump because of “economic anxiety.” According to this reasoning, people who cheered the “Muslim ban” or denounced immigrants as rapists and criminals didn’t really think those things: they were actually demanding economic equality, though they were too uninformed to realize that that was what they wanted. 

The idea that racism is a byproduct of white economic distress suggests that we don’t need to address racism itself. It pits the working class against people of color, “as though working-class Americans who are not white cannot have a class identity or economic interests related to class” (Princeton), though Black and Indigenous people are in poverty at more than twice the rate of white people (Poverty USA). This narrative implies that less-educated white people are so stupid that they don’t know their true political desires, though more-educated, predominantly white political commentators have figured it out for them — a deeply elitist and undemocratic notion. An NBC reporter was criticized for this in May, suggesting that the Buffalo shooter’s racist massacre was due to difficulty getting dental treatment (Twitter/@oneunderscore_). 

TAKE ACTION

• Recenter conversations that exclusively blame working-class whites for racism by identifying owning- and ruling-class support for racist policies and politicians.

• Reject the narrative that “economic anxieties” make people support racist policies.

• Support liberatory organizing in predominantly-white working class communities to combat racism and economic exploitation. 

White intellectuals and professionals blame the white working class for Trumpism to let themselves off the hook. White people at all income levels preferred Trump. The average 2016 Trump voter was a member of a household earning $72,000 a year, more than both the national average and the average household income for people that voted for Clinton and Sanders(SalonFiveThirtyEight). The affluent were the most likely to approve of Trump once he was in office (The Enquirer). 40% of those arrested at the Capitol on January 6th were white-collar workers or business owners: executives, accountants, doctors, and entrepreneurs (Alternet). 

White journalists and academics just prefer casting blame at the unemployed coal miners of America over scrutinizing the attitudes of their colleagues, family members, and neighbors. 

 It allows well-off liberals “the perfect placeholder for the anxiety and prejudice of the middle class towards people at the bottom” (Al Jazeera). Psychologists found that when liberal white people were prompted to think about white privilege, they didn’t become more sympathetic towards poor Black people. Instead, they became less sympathetic towards poor white people. “These lessons decreased liberals’ sympathy for poor white people, which led them to blame white people more for their own poverty,” explained one of the study’s authors. “They seemed to think that if a person is poor despite all the privileges of being white, there must really be something wrong with them” (Vice). 

There’s no excuse for bigotry at any income level, especially when the white working class has a history of supporting movement work. Working-class people have built alliances across differences to address racism and injustice. Multiracial class solidarity has helped to abolish anti-worker policies that often have the greatest negative impact on poor people of color. 

One of the key allies of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party was the Young Patriots Organization. Its members, marginalized working-class white transplants from the disinvested communities of Appalachia, used the Confederate flag as a symbol before rejecting it as a “symbol of counterrevolution.” The Young Patriots nevertheless decided that, as “hillbilly” transplants facing police brutality and substandard housing, they were on the same side as their Latine and Black neighbors fighting the same. 

“Nobody saw us until we met the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party. ‘Let’s put that theory into practice about riddin’ ourselves of that racism,'” declared a Young Patriot at the Black Panther Party’s United Front Against Fascism Conference. “All we got to say is, ‘All Power Belongs To The People'” (Viewpoint Magazine). 


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• White supremacy isn’t a byproduct of economic anxiety. 

• The average Trump voter was upper middle class. 

• Exclusively blaming working-class white people for racism is a way of disguising class prejudice.

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