Fresh Eyes: White working class? We need to talk.

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by Daniel Bayer

When I worked at the Carolina Peacemaker, Greensboro’s newspaper covering the African-American community, one of my tasks was to put together the op-ed page. For a white person uninitiated to the internal conversations of the black community, the subject matter was illuminating.

There were calls for more black entrepreneurship and a greater emphasis on pursuing higher education, stronger families and help for troubled youth, and yes, “What’s wrong with kids today?” diatribes about saggy pants and rap lyrics (the distaste of elders for young people’s musical and sartorial choices cuts across ethnic and racial lines). The op-ed page was an often-frank public square where the community itself came to discuss the issues facing it, without the interference of outside actors pursuing their own agendas.

Today, more than a month after Donald Trump’s election victory, it’s obvious that it’s time for the white working class to find a similar space and begin having the same discussions. Trump’s shattering of the Democrats’ supposed “blue wall” of Rust Belt states shows that white working class voters are both angry over their economic circumstances and fearful of losing their social dominance in a multicultural society. Without frank discussions among the white working class about its values and the contradictions that those values create, there’s no hope of addressing the circumstances that have created this anger and fear.

There is no shortage of people claiming to speak for the white working class, or to speak to them. On the right, Fox News and talk-radio hosts present listeners and viewers with a constant stream of conspiracy theories and scapegoats for their problems, while plying them with patriotic bromides and assuring them that they’re the “real Americans.”

On the left, the white working class is either derided as backward bigot, or provided with solutions in the form of leftist ideologies that few of them are interested in. The only place that a real conversation can take place is within the white working class itself.

And there are plenty of contradictions to be discussed. How does the white working class’ distrust of college-educated “elites” serve to discourage the pursuit of the higher education that’s increasingly necessary in today’s workplace? How does the white working class’ prized “self-sufficiency” prevent them from supporting and taking advantage of government programs that could benefit them, such as universal healthcare?

How is the white working class’ complicated attitudes towards race and ethnicity manipulated or misunderstood, and how do these attitudes influence how they view themselves? How does the white working class’ belief that their values and identity are central to defining what is “American” prevent the kind of introspection and self-examination necessary to discuss these issues?

These are more than mere academic questions to me. I was a member of the white working class as recently as 2015, when I was delivering prescriptions to Medicaid and Medicare patients. I heard my Fox News-watching clients complain about “big government” and “socialism” as they signed for their deliveries, seemingly unaware of or indifferent to the fact that “big government” was paying for both their medication and its delivery.

I listened to my white coworkers gripe about the Affordable Care Act, apparently not realizing that without it I wouldn’t have health insurance. I have relatives who criticize public assistance “freeloaders” while their own grown children, unable to make ends meet with part-time service industry jobs, receive food stamps. And I wonder if I’m even still a member of the white working class myself, having overcome my dislike of “elites” and enrolled in a four-year college.

Ultimately, these are all issues that the white working class needs to discuss within itself. No amount of patriotic bamboozlement from the right or condescending lecturing from the left is going to change that.