The white working class, identified as key to Donald Trump’s support, has become a subject of media fascination in the presidential campaign. The stories often paint a one-dimensional picture, whereas the reality is more complex, says Monica McDermott, a professor of sociology at Illinois and the author of “Working-Class White.” McDermott studies how class and race interact, often by living and working in a community. She spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
What do you find so problematic about the portrayal of the white working class we’ve seen in the context of this campaign?
Across working-class whites, there is tremendous variation in lifestyles, attitudes and behaviors, but they are often portrayed as a monolithic entity. The portrayals often emphasize stereotypes such as anger, violence or ignorance. In fact, working-class whites understand their places in the world in a number of different ways. Some are angry and violent, most are not. I think it is fair to say that all working-class whites – and all whites in general – have self-conceptions that are strongly shaped by their understanding of what it means to be white in the contemporary U.S.
How would you categorize the mix of attitudes and perceptions among working-class whites, as well as whites in general, on issues of race and identity?
I’ve identified five different ways in which whites experience their racial identities. Each form of experience corresponds to a particular set of beliefs about race and implies different strategies for reducing the negative racial attitudes that might come with them.
One group of whites, primarily working class, can be described as “defensive.” They tend to live in predominantly white neighborhoods in racially diverse areas and feel a certain sense of entitlement to keeping their neighborhoods, schools and workplaces majority white. They might reference immigrant ancestors who worked hard without “handouts” to get where they are today. They often feel under economic threat and try to defend what they have from others unlike them.
Another group of predominantly poor and working-class whites feels somewhat stigmatized by being white. In the overarching racial narrative in the U.S., white equals affluent and nonwhite equals poor. In this narrative, a poor white person can be thought to be damaged or defective in some way. This group often lives in majority nonwhite parts of cities or in white rural areas – places where the overarching narrative says they should have moved up and out of by now. Their racial attitudes are more complex; they tend not to be aggressively defensive but instead have a more fatalistic orientation to the state of race relations, sometimes coupled with resentment.
A third group of working class and upwardly mobile whites have a more “transcendent” notion of race. They have often experienced class-based discrimination but, lacking a language for such experiences, instead feel solidarity with those who have experienced racial discrimination. This can take on the cartoonish proportions of Rachel Dolezal, the white NAACP leader in Spokane, Washington, who claimed to be black. More often, though, it shows itself as a kinship with those who have experienced any form of discrimination. While there is the potential for cross-race alliances with this group, there is also the danger of too closely equating experiences of race with those of class.
A large category of whites, primarily middle class, could be classified as “colorblind.” These individuals believe that race simply does not matter, that acting as if there is no such thing as a racial identity is the key to realizing equality. While this may sound attractive in theory, in practice it results in a lack of appreciation for the persistent social and economic disadvantages of being black or Latino.
Finally, there is a group of whites who are simply hard-core racists – white supremacists in the mold of David Duke or Dylan Roof (the shooter who killed nine black parishioners last year in a Charleston, South Carolina, church). Contrary to some perceptions, there is not a direct connection to social class. People are often recruited into these groups through personal relationships.
Among these various groups, where is Trump’s appeal? Where is Clinton’s?
Trump has enormous appeal to working-class whites who have a defensive orientation. Many of them are already concerned about losing out to others outside their community. When Trump directly invokes a host of external threats, such as Mexicans and Muslims, this plays squarely into the sense of siege that many already feel. These whites aren’t racist in the sense that white supremacists are, but race might very much be motivating their strong alliance to a politician who “tells it like it is.”
Clinton and the Democrats have a real opportunity to connect with working-class whites who feel stigmatized, and especially with those who have a more transcendent understanding of race, equating racial and class discrimination. However, the Clinton campaign has been unable to shake charges that it is elitist, alienating those who already feel marginalized and flawed.
News stories suggest we’re in a new age of racial tension, given both the issues raised by the campaign and the ongoing attention on police shootings. What might be keys to understanding and even resolving these issues?
I’m not sure the racial tension itself is renewed so much as the attention whites pay to racial conflict has increased. Police mistreatment has been an issue in the African-American community for hundreds of years, but many whites did not recognize the seriousness of the issue until they saw videos of police brutality and inaction.
As difficult as the present period might be, I am hopeful that a general awareness of the realities of race relations in this country will provide a basis for change. However, different appeals will be required for different groups. Our tendency to rely upon data and moral appeals might work with colorblind whites but will be less successful in reaching those who perceive themselves as stigmatized or threatened.
For stigmatized whites, one way to connect on racial issues is by shifting the focus away from individuals and toward institutions. For those who feel on the defensive, appeals to change from members of their own communities would be important. And whites who have a more transcendent experience of their racial identity should be encouraged to note the differences between their experiences and those of nonwhites, while at the same time emphasizing shared goals.