It has become de rigueur among progressives to sneer down our noses at the working-class whites who feel that they are being left behind.
Don’t they … get it? They have all the advantages in the world, and they’re complaining about immigrants and Black Lives Matter?
Here’s what they need to do: acknowledge their white privilege, and, well, you know …
That’s about as deep as you’re going to get out of most of your white liberals, honestly. We read opinion pieces on white privilege on HuffPo and The Root and assume we all just know what it means.
(Generally, something about how white people are bad. Then we feel all guilty and apologetic. Before ordering another latte.)
I have a little exercise for my fellow progressives. I’ll call it liberalsplainin’.
As in, try liberalsplainin’ white privilege to someone in their 40s whose good job got downsized and is now making ends meet with a couple of part-time jobs with no benefits. Or to a kid in their mid-20s who couldn’t afford college and is stuck working in the service industry, still living with mom and dad.
All manner of white folks in rural areas in those so-called flyover states where even part-time crap jobs are scarce, and the best living accommodations are ratty-ass trailer parks and apartments where the laws favor the landlords.
Where the opioid crisis has hit the hardest, because, damn, can’t you see it? Millions of folks have nothing, prospects for nothing in the near-future, so why not try to numb the pain?
Tell them that they’re privileged, and then you won’t wonder anymore why they give you a double-middle-finger salute when you tell them that supporting Donald Trump is voting against their interests.
A different kind of whitewashing
A new poll commissioned by the UVA Center for Politics finds, not surprisingly, to anyone outside the progressive bubble, that way too many white folks think their kind is under attack.
The poll numbers don’t say why, because poll numbers aren’t supposed to say why. They’re just poll numbers. But it doesn’t take much time scrolling through social media to figure out why.
Whites are slowly, but surely, losing their majority status, which is mainly important inasmuch as the demographic trend there is another sign that society is becoming yet more pluralized.
Now, yes, we should all embrace the many sides to our America. But think about the working-class white guy working a night security job at the local plant and cutting grass and painting houses on the weekends to try to account for what he used to make before the factory closed down.
He sees Black Lives Matter getting attention for its cause, and if he posts to Facebook about how he thinks All Lives Matter, automatically he’s an ignorant racist.
You can liberalsplain’ that to the guy all you want, and you’re only going to dig yourself a bigger hole.
The mid-20s kid drifting through life because she couldn’t afford college, still living at home, working crap jobs, sees something online about DREAMers facing deportation for no fault of their own, after growing up here, doing well in school, graduating from college, and she looks at that and says, How did that kid afford college, when I couldn’t?
It’s nothing sinister; life isn’t a zero-sum game. But try liberalsplainin’ that to a white kid who doesn’t have the media telling their stories to the world, about growing up in homes broken by economic decline and drug addiction, getting sub-standard educations in school systems left severely underfunded by Republican governors and state legislatures more focused on school choice and tax breaks for fat cats.
I speak to this from two very different life experiences. Today, I’m very much an ideological progressive, supporting and actively working toward progress on universal healthcare, racial justice and LGBTQ+ equality. But I grew up, charitably, very much ensconced in the working class, on the lower rung of that ladder, actually, in a single-parent household, that household being a $7,000 single-wide trailer in a trailer park.
I hear the term white privilege and laugh at the privilege that I was raised in. When my parents split, my mom took a job at a local grocery store making what was then the minimum wage, $3.35 per hour. That, and child support, when my dad would decide to pay it, paid the bills.
The lights never got cut off, but we’re talking no-frills all the way. May you never know the joy of ketchup sandwiches being what you have for dinner, having one pair of pants to wear to school, not having a winter coat, not having lunch money every day, and the resulting migraine headaches caused by hunger.
I’m not singing my own sad song here. I was nowhere near the only kid in the trailer park getting through school that way.
I made it out, but there’s a grace of God kind of feel to it for me today and probably always.
Several years ago, a former high-school teacher of mine asked me if I had time to take on one of her favorite students in a mentorship program, and when she told me about the young man, I jumped at the chance. He lived in the same trailer park that I had grown up in, and when I met him, damn, I was impressed. As I had back in my high-school years, he immersed himself in books, and was well-read on a wide range of subjects, from political theory to sociology and anthropology.
My formal role in this mentorship program was to create work-related assignments and see them through to completion. This part was a challenge most of the time, because my guy, he saw nothing happening in his future.
Sadly, that’s how things have turned out in his case. Which is a sign that having an understanding the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy doesn’t inoculate you from living it out.
Who speaks for them? Not our Democrats, who have broken down the demographic trends and cast their lots with a coalition including educated upper-middle-class whites, African-Americans and Latinos, to their political detriment at the current time.
The miscalculation in leaving working-class whites behind was based on recent trends that had those folks largely ignoring elections, out of a sense that the elections were ignoring them. For what has seemed like forever, you had Democrats on the one side, aiming their messaging at women and minority groups, and issues important to those groups, and on the other side, Republicans prioritizing tax cuts to attract the wealthy and social issues to attract the church-goers.
And then came along a Donald Trump, a billionaire former Democrat who figured out a few years ago how to translate his minor TV celebrity into attention in the political sphere, with his craven effort to out Barack Obama as a secret Kenyan.
Today, two years past the launch of his presidential campaign, which began with his bombastic pronouncements on Mexican rapists and the like, we progressives take for granted that Trump is an angry old man racist who maneuvered his way into the highest political office in the land by appealing to his base’s basest instincts.
Trump has a checkered past, at best, on racial-justice issues, but in that he is little different than others in his class and status, which is to say, he is no David Duke.
And while he surely has supporters among those who cloak themselves in the ironically PC term alt-right, the white nationalists, Neo-Nazis, the KKK types, there just aren’t a lot of those people to be able to build a political base around, at best from the UVA Center for Politics numbers maybe 8 percent of the adult population.
The more important group to Trump is composed of those who don’t think of themselves as racists, but can’t figure out why Black Lives Matter groups can put a tarp on a statue of Thomas Jefferson and call him a rapist without facing anything in the way of repercussions, or what the big deal is about DREAMers being deported when it doesn’t seem like anybody cares about their kids not having good schools, good jobs or good anything except good access to cheap drugs to forget about everything they don’t have.
They see everybody else whining about their plights, and then they’re told they can’t whine, because they’re white, white privilege, haven’t you heard of it, and how good you have it?
Race and class
The frustrating thing for me, one foot planted in the white working class, the other in the progressive upper middle class, is seeing the potential for a natural alliance between working-class whites, African-Americans and Latinos, and understanding fully that it will likely never come to be.
The popular conception among my fellow progressives is that the fault lies with so many somebody elses: Trump, the perfect 21st century demagogue; various and sundry Republican spin doctors, adept at the game of political divide-and-conquer; working-class whites themselves, for not seeing that they’re being played, and thus are playing themselves.
At least as much of the blame, and maybe more, goes to us, with our sneers, dismissing the legitimacy of the gripes of the white working class, being too casual with the use of the term racist to the point of stripping all meaning from the word.
We like to think of ourselves as the political group that seeks to unite, not divide, and yet we’ve long since given up on trying to find any kind of connection to working-class whites, when it should be obvious.
The desires of working-class whites, by African-Americans and by Latinos are startlingly similar: we all want good schools, good jobs, access to affordable healthcare, safety and security in our homes.
The biggest obstacle is our eternal focus on what divides us, namely, race, which allows those who wish to keep us divided politically easy access to the means for continuing and perpetuating that status quo.
My message to progressives is: we can go on lamenting our fate in that respect, or we can get to work.
And yes, you can finish the latte, then get to work.
Column by Chris Graham
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