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Who’s Afraid of the White Working Class?: On Joan C. Williams’s White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America

After November 8, 2016, invoking the "white working class" suddenly seemed to explain everything.

David Roediger25 July 2017

Trump addresses West Virginia rally, May 2016.

This essay first appeared in Los Angeles Review of BooksDavid Roediger's Class, Race, and Marxism is out now.

“The White Working Class” — as a phrase describing an alleged social group, not as a title for the book in question — burst on the scene at a particular moment. It descended in the wake of Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the 2016 presidential election. During the campaign itself, as in all other such campaigns, mainstream candidates mentioned the “working class” hardly at all. Even Bernie Sanders directed his avowedly socialist appeals, as trade union officials now also do, primarily to the “middle class” or to “working families.” Indeed Ngram searches through databases of scanned publications tell us that the “white working class” has been absent from US language throughout history — with Tom Edsall’s New York Times columns on the Democrats’ abandonment of the white working class as a noteworthy exception.

But after November 8, 2016, invoking the white working class suddenly seemed to explain everything. Joan C. Williams was there at the beginning. As this professor at Hastings College of Law recalls, she began writing urgently on the night of the election to explain Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Her “What So Many People Don’t Get about the U.S. Working Class” appeared electronically from Harvard Business Review within a week. Not surprisingly, the anecdotal loomed large in her explanations.

The article’s title promised to address all US workers, but the analysis so consistently evoked the white working class that the acronym WWC had to be put into service, to save space. Radio interviews followed, explaining what came to be, for Williams and others, a presumed fact: “Trump’s overwhelming support from the white working class.” Claiming well over three million online readers, Williams and Harvard Business Review saw a popular mandate to inflate “What So Many People Don’t Get” into a slight book under the title White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America. The article and book are not the most egregious examples of how race dulls an understanding of class among a sector US liberals and too much of the left. But article and book command attention as particularly symptomatic and revealing examples of this problem.

The lede in the article, reprised in the book, signals the role of presumed insider knowledge in Williams’s arguments. “My father-in-law grew up eating blood soup,” she wrote. “He hated it, whether because of the taste or the humiliation, I never knew.” This kind of ethnography from afar — a graduate student I once knew called it the “my uncle took me to a VFW picnic and here’s what white workers are like” way of knowing — is happily out of fashion for most groups.

However, the dominant claim to insider knowledge that Williams makes derives from her own class position. She calls herself a member of the “elite,” “professional managerial class,” and even the “professional managerial elite” (or “PME”). She can thus speak with grounded authority about the “class cluelessness” and condescending elitism of professionals. In her teens, Williams admits she once viewed her working-class ethnic boyfriend and his family as if she were a “fucking anthropologist.” That she includes an “up from paternalism” narrative about herself adds plausibility.

Williams’s article found its way onto lots of left-leaning websites and Facebook pages, getting its fair share of likes, in a way that Harvard Business Review articles seldom do. Not too much should be made of this, perhaps. “What So Many People Don’t Get” was vague in spelling out its center-right politics, in a way that the book version is not. The frisson of seeing “working class” front and center in analysis of US politics also has its understandable appeals, and we don’t perhaps always read very closely what we post.

Moreover, at a time when Marxists were anxious to correct the post-election chorus blaming white voters from the working class for giving us Trump, Williams decidedly did not make the mistake of blaming the WWC. Her indictment of the Clinton campaign, and elites generally, for not taking the white working class seriously surely resonated with some Sanders supporters. Radicals, such as Charlie Post, generally pointed out that the evocations of the working class as the center of reaction mis-stated the facts. Post pointed out that trade union households and the working class tilted, however excruciatingly slightly, away from Trump.

Admittedly class is not well studied by anyone via instant analysis of election returns. The available data leads even careful writers such as Post and Mike Davis to settle of necessity for crude definitions of working class hinging on income (e.g., below $50,000) or education (e.g., high school). To get at whether voters are managed and/or manage others, or whether they own productive assets or rely on wages, is difficult. Then too, because the election result seems to many so weighty and dire, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that slight shifts in voting by some workers — the tens of thousands who turned key Rust Belt states to Trump — define the behavior of a class that was actually rather evenly split in how it voted.

Another oft-forgotten fact: Most working-class people do not vote. Still more neglected is the reality that many millions of workers are disenfranchised by their status as undocumented people, felons, and transients. Nor of course is there anything approaching a clear set of pro-working-class policies on offer from either major party, no policies that could ground a voter’s choice as logically working class. One favorite post-election bit of too-easy journalism was to report from coal country or some other devastated working class area by finding a working poor person who voted for Trump and was now losing her Obamacare. We were invited to reflect on the inadequacies of the voter, not on the possibility that the frayed and inadequate US welfare state is itself unable to inspire working-class support. “Keep your retirement,” the late Merle Haggard sang, “and your so-called Social Security.”

But Williams’s problems in defining the working class and its relation to voting are of a fully different order of magnitude. From its title onward, White Working Class suffers under problems with accuracy-in-labeling. The book is not about the working class in any meaningful sense. Its treatment of race is, at best, fleeting. Regarding the former, Williams arrives at a definition of the working class that is neither traditional and coherent nor usefully innovative. She expels the poor, wage earning or not, from the ranks of the working class and shuts the very rich out of the ranks of those holding it back. Income alone, not the more meaningful measure of wealth, defines her answer to the question “Who Is the Working Class?” The bottom third and top 20 percent are excluded, with an exception made for those making more but not having college degrees. The result is a “class” defined by making $41,005 to $131,962 annually (median: $75,144), and by holding values alternately seen as understandable or wonderful.

Calling this group the “white working class,” rather than the middle class, is strange given that its middle-ness is precisely what defines it. The major US scholar whose work most resembles Williams’s is the late-in-life and rightward-moving Christopher Lasch. But Lasch was careful to call the object of his romanticization and defense the “lower middle class.” Williams explains that she too preferred to use “middle class.” But the book’s editor objected that this was unclear, so Williams decided to use working class. Nevertheless, she invites readers to understand that her object of study is really the “true middle class,” shorn of its snobbish, college-educated professional-managerial eliteness. As a marketing ploy, White Working Class is also not a bad eye-catcher.

The level of confusion thus introduced is very high. At one point, casting about for areas of unity between the working class and the poor, Williams expresses her hope that restaurant owners will oppose Trump’s draconian border measures in order to better secure immigrant labor. For those still trying to keep score, the restaurant owners are somehow working class, while their immigrant laboring employees are somehow not. Nevertheless, at certain junctures Williams cannot resist taking up the cause of “white trash” who are maligned by elites but not, by her own definitions, working class. (In actual working-class families, of course, the lines between the deserving and undeserving, the too-honorable-for-welfare and the dissolute, and even the churched and unchurched are nothing like as clear as Williams supposes. Actual working-class lives usually change — hillbilly elegies and Charles Murray notwithstanding — for reasons having precious little to do with a worker’s character.)

A lack of appreciation of social relations at work, and a lack of clarity regarding class, cause many breakdowns in the book’s analysis. The working class’s putatively “clueless” college-educated opponents are mobile, in love with their work, and hold the working middle class in disdain as parochial, intolerant, and godly. Clashes with this “elite” structure the narrative. But in fact the median income of the college-educated — about $1,100 a week — puts them squarely in Williams’s working class. College professors who are tenured or tenure-track average $82,556 annually, not elite but squarely within Williams’s working class. (Increasingly teaching is done by adjunct labor too poor to be so counted.) At a median of $678 dollars per week, high school graduates do not actually on average make enough to be working class, unless two parents work, which Williams flatly insists that working-class women strive not to do. Nor does the vaunted emphasis on college-educated elitism explain much, electorally. Trump won white men with and without college degrees. He won non-college women, but also split the college-educated white women’s vote, with Clinton gaining at best 51 percent of that demographic.

Though there is a professional managerial elite, in Williams’s view, there seems not to be much by way of bosses. Workers are seen as proud of their hard-won separation in values and income from the poor. Workers are evidently fascinated by the very rich, and vexed by experts. They clash with doctors and with their kids’ teachers, but not much with their own supervisors at work. Williams is not wrong that contention between the professional managerial class and workers is real and important. Only in some cases is this class conflict. However, like much recent work by those on the left, Williams’s book allows that tension to sideline struggles against the one percent.

Unions make a desultory appearance late in the book, as something that used to matter but that cannot conceivably compete with, or even supplement, the church and the military as sources of contemporary working-class stability and values. And yet the loss of the good union jobs matters hugely in the story she wants to tell. Those jobs, and the jobs that had to compete with those good union jobs, went a long way toward bridging divides between college-educated and high-school-graduate workers. Not 30 years ago, I taught union summer schools where steel and auto workers completely understood tenure, because their own collective bargaining units sought guaranteed jobs. Some older steel workers had even seen their union fight for sabbaticals.

What though is this “white” in Williams’s “white working class”? Mostly it is an absent presence. Until very late in the book, when Williams defends white workers from the strange charge that they are “merely” racist, we don’t really hear about the race of those whom she defines as working class. Williams’s “true middle class,” like the middle class traditionally, is simply assumed to be white unless otherwise stated. Occasionally she adds that people of color who value honor, family, church, and rectitude also are working class.

But we know that working-class whites voted far more like whites as a whole than like Black and Latino working-class voters. Indeed racial identity (along with regular church attendance and being a veteran) far better predicted a Trump vote than income level did. To say as much is not to urge replacing one set of over-simplifications with another. It is to say that Williams would have been better served by replacing her overwhelming inflection on the unraced “working class” of her title with a real curiosity about “white,” even when accusations of “racism” were not being discussed.

On one level, less is probably better where discussion of the white working class is concerned, though not in a book carrying Williams’s title. There is after all, as Lisa Tilley has eloquently argued, no such thing as the white working class. Whiteness as an identity is what some workers embrace instead of class consciousness.

The locus classicus of any discussion of whiteness and labor remains the second chapter of W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1935 Black Reconstruction. Titled “The White Worker,” it introduces a new subject to history, but a subject incapable of acting its class interests so long as it defines those interests as “white.” That is a major part of the drama and of the tragedy of Black Reconstruction.

The singular “white worker” — Du Bois did not posit a “white working class” — alternates between individualism and a willingness to mobilize collectively around narrow racial fears. The idea, endorsed by Williams, that white workers are onto something when they say that they are victims of others “cutting in line” ahead of them perfectly exemplifies the easy pivot between individualistic metaphors and white nationalist collectivity first identified by Du Bois.

When politicians “pay attention to” ersatz white working-class concerns, they attend to anything but class. Two historical role models introduced by Williams herself clarify what is at stake in carefully conceptualizing whiteness and labor. The first example is that of Dr. Martin Luther King near his life’s end in the Poor People’s Campaign. Twice Williams rather extravagantly supposes that her proposals to court a group that she defines as pro-military, anti-welfare, and anti-poor, nevertheless align with King’s project. But King’s campaign championed poor people across racial lines, supported affirmative measures specifically directed at ameliorating racial oppression, roundly denounced militarism, and sought to build trade union power. He confidently invited white middle-class people in as supporters, but based his appeals on what was most generous in their worldviews, not on what was most crabbed.

Very different from Dr. King, but also far more plausible given the White Working Class’s content, is Williams’s introduction of Bill Clinton as a figure to be emulated. Clinton was, she insists, “the last Democratic president to truly understand the white working class.” When Clinton began his long-shot 1992 primary run for the Democratic nomination by promising to fight for the “hard-working forgotten middle class,” he carefully melded things that had worked in the past — Nixon’s “silent majority” and the New Deal coalition’s appeals to labor with a then-novel naming of the “middle class” — into a centrist national politics and particularly into his effort to win back Republican-voting white working-class Reagan Democrats.

Clinton’s pollster-strategist Stanley Greenberg made overwhelmingly white Macomb County in Michigan, home to many auto workers, the key to recapturing Reagan Democrats. He told its story in his triumphal book Middle Class Dreams: The Politics and Power of the New American Majority. Using United Auto Workers union support to conduct intensive research, he nevertheless gained data from focus groups conducted far away from work. The project invited white workers to identify as middle-class taxpayers in a white community rather than as workers in integrated plants and unions. The “white working-class” voter was attended to, and half-understood, in a way that fully accented the “white” and engaged class negligibly. Such workers were “heard” in a way that ultimately helped to end “welfare as we know it,” urged “mending” affirmative action, and gave us “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” sentencing, the “effective death penalty,” and the idea of young African-American men as “super-predators.” Labor law reform was not central; NAFTA was. In 2016, Trump’s strategists similarly made Macomb County what CNN called their “Michigan Moonshot,” courting its “white working class” voters successfully without concretely empowering workers or their unions.

If a working-class movement regains momentum in the United States, it is unlikely to draw its life from electoral politics, especially at the presidential level. Nor are workers categorized as white likely to be the most dynamic force first driving it, whatever useful roles and values they ultimately bring to an ongoing movement. In the next upsurge, it is more likely that interracial unity among people of color will be critical. But one thing is certain: the white worker will not play an effective role in a class movement as someone who sees her interests as white, or as someone who allows leaders to cater to his concerns around whiteness rather than class. Williams’s imagination of a “white working class” produces a new vocabulary, but plays an old and ultimately cynical game.

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