Misrepresenting the White Working Class: What the Narrating Class Gets Wrong

Most of the time the white working class is invisible in the U.S.  But during elections there is a flurry of attention to this “demographic” among political reporters and operatives, and as a result, also among the millions of us who read, listen, and watch their reporting, analyses, and endless speculation about who is ahead and behind and why.

I’ve been watching this phenomenon since 2000 when Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers first revealed that  a large chunk of the American electorate is white and working class.  As it has migrated from social scientists, with their “operational definitions” and facility with math, to pundit world, however, loose stereotypes and class-prejudiced assumptions have been growing exponentially.   It’s becoming a low-level one-sided cultural class war where what Nadine Hubbs calls “the narrating class” blithely assumes that working-class whites are “America’s perpetual bigot class.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Connie Schultz noted how many reporters and columnists associate Donald Trump and his pal Sarah Palin with white working-class ignorance and bigotry.  A Cleveland Plain Dealer writer, for example, complained: “Thanks to Trump, the entire Palin clan is now back in the spotlight they so crave.  Come July, Republican National Convention organizers should house the whole dysfunctional family in a trailer park in Ashtabula [Ohio].”  As it happens, both of Schultz’s grandmothers lived portions of their lives in trailer homes in Ashtabula, and she commented that “since Donald Trump’s charade of a candidacy caught fire, I have heard many fellow liberals freely toss around the terms ‘white trash’ and ‘trailer trash.’  These are people who would never dream of telling a racist joke, but they think nothing of ridiculing those of lesser economic means.  Every group has its ‘other.’  For too many white intellectuals, it’s the working class.”

Unlike Schultz, most of the narrating class are from solidly middle-class backgrounds with little or no experience of working-class people of any color, but in my reading it is relatively rare to see outright classist remarks like the one Schultz quotes.  Rather, for the most part class-prejudiced assumptions are based on professional middle-class ignorance and misunderstanding.

Take the assumed popularity of Trump among the white working class, for example.  There appears to be supporting evidence for that. According to Brookings, for example, in a national survey 55% of “Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who support Trump are white working-class Americans.”  But this does not mean what Brookings thinks it means.  Among all adult whites, nearly 70% do not have bachelor’s degrees (the definition of “working class” used here).  This means that at 55%, the white working-class is under-represented among Trump supporters.    Conversely, unless Trump is getting much more minority support than reported, his supporters are disproportionally college-educated whites.  They make up 30% of the white population, but they are at least 40% of Trump voters in the Brookings survey.

There are two reasons for this kind of error, this one by a highly respected D.C. think tank.  One is simple ignorance of class demographics.  The bachelor’s/no bachelor’s binary is widely used to separate whites into two broad classes, but many analysts and reporters have no idea of the relative sizes of these two groups in the overall population.  They routinely assume that most white people must be college-educated professionals like themselves and the people among whom they live and work.

The other reason for this kind of error is based solely on the assumption that white people who have graduated from college are less racist, less anti-immigrant, less anti-feminist, less homophobic, and generally more tolerant of diversity than people who have not.  As a college professor, I very much hope this assumption is valid, but I could find no solid evidence that it is.   At least in political commentary, the question is never asked, and you have to wonder why not.

Here’s where Nadine Hubbs’s Rednecks, Queers, & Country Music is so helpful.  She shows how an educated white “narrating class” tends to see working-class whites are “ground zero for America’s most virulent social ills: racism, sexism, and homophobia.” Hubbs traces this to a Southern tradition of “white elites placing the blame for racial violence on poor whites as early as the turn of the twentieth century.” Hubbs quotes Patricia Turner, who has dubbed it “the fallacy of To Kill a Mockingbird”, which is the “notion that well-educated Christian whites were somehow victimized by white trash and forced to live within a social system that exploited and denigrated its black citizens.”

This class-based blame-shifting (“It’s not us, it’s them!”) actually supports racist and other systems of oppression.  As Hubbs points out, the well-documented institutional racism that involves banks denying mortgages, employers not hiring blacks, and landlords refusing and/or exploiting black renters is not generally carried out by poor and working-class whites, but by white middle-class professionals.   By casting intolerance and bigotry as the unfortunate/misguided attitudes of “poorly educated,” “low-information” white voters, we white middle-class professionals deflect attention from those well-entrenched institutions within which we work, institutions that systematically deny opportunities to a wide range of people based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, immigrant status, and class.

This usually plays out in political reporting and analysis more subtly than in To Kill a Mockingbird, but it is no less class-prejudiced.  Articles like “The truth about the white working class: Why it’s really allergic to voting for Democrats” use extensive polling data to explain why working-class whites are so strongly Republican, but they fail to mention that “the” white middle class is also “allergic to voting for Democrats,” if a little less so.   Even when writers explain how working-class whites’ “racial fears and anxieties” are based in their deteriorating living standards and working conditions, they inadvertently deploy the bigot-class framework.  By not asking whether and to what extent there might be some “racial fears and anxieties” among the white middle-class as well, these analysts assume, and expect their readers to assume, that there’s not any!

Based on my own observation and experience of both working-class and middle-class whites, my guess is that there is more bigotry and intolerance in the working class, and as I have said, I have an occupational bias in hoping that’s true.   But it’s not a slam dunk.  When I actually try to count heads from my direct experience, the only thing I’m sure of is that bigotry and intolerance are present and absent in both classes.  And as part of the narrating middle class, I recognize how comforting a blame-shifting bigot-class narrative can be as we witness the Republican front-runners advocate torture and carpet bombing while fulminating against Mexicans, Muslims, and New York values.   But we should be aware that this one-sided narrative protects our class from scrutiny and thereby supports institutional forms of exclusion that bite harder and more systematically than inappropriate sentiments and bad attitudes.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

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36 Responses to Misrepresenting the White Working Class: What the Narrating Class Gets Wrong

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  18. Nothing about the battles in the workplaces here or the battles against bosses for wages, living conditions and food on the table. Workers of color and white workers are forced in to struggle and unite all the time around these issues. I recall being attacked by a scab on a picket line who told me to “go back where I came from” as she recognized my English accent. The workers, Filipinos, black folks, Latino’s all came to my defense recognizing that such an attack weakened unity at a time when it was crucial. It is through struggle that we learn, that class consciousness becomes more solid. White workers have been savaged over the past 40 years, things are not the same. But class doesn’t exist in the US so every discussion is dominated by race, or more accurately color. It is amazing there is any unity at all given the propaganda of the white capitalist ruling class backed by their media and beefed up state security. The role of the white and black petty bourgeois in competition with the former is a barrier to class unity also. Of course there are racist ideas held by people as there are sexist ones, we live in a racist and sexist society. But class consciousness does exist and it is stronger among the working class than the white petty bourgeois, black counterparts and the progressives, academics and others would have us think. The white middle class is contemptuous of all workers and blame the white worker for racism as means of exonerating themselves for their role, “see, we’re not like them.” The white working class, like most workers has not risen to its feet, like electricity they take the line of least resistance, put their heads down and hope things get better. But things aren’t going to get better, and as conditions deteriorate and workers are forced to act, we tend to seek class allies and overcome these social constructs that are consciously designed to weaken and divide us. Racism is seen as a negative. It is this struggle my opinion that overcomes it, that changes consciousness, not lectures from academia. Naturally, if a united way forward is blocked that unity can be broken and the “every man for himself” replaces it but lessons are learned and we move on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Will Shetterly says:

      Richard Mellor, one quibble: You say “Of course there are racist ideas held by people as there are sexist ones, we live in a racist and sexist society.” I used to believe we were all to some degree racist, but then I began to research what had been to test that theory. The test with the most extreme results that I found is Project Implicit, which concludes the majority of white people (about 70% if I remember correctly) have an implicit preference for white people; a small minority (about 10% I think) have no measurable preference at all, and a larger minority, which I was surprised and pleased to find included me, have a preference for dark-skinned folks. On reflection, that made sense: there has never been a large society that did not include non-conformists.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Will, again, there’s no mention of class in this study. Most white workers live among other white workers and most black workers live in communities of color I assume. The black middle and upper middle class where I live tend to live in the hills as do their white counterparts, they too tend to live in communities of the same color though not exclusively. The people I have associated with in my social life for most of it have been working class people of all stripes. I do not accept that there is some innate preference for colors.

        The savage history in this country against people of African descent and people of color in general has been very successful in dividing the working classes and also instilling the ideology of the supremacy of the white skinned people in the consciousness of white workers to one extent or another. This ideology originates in the white ruling class and is strong among the white middle classes though they hide it or express it differently. More insidiously I reckon.

        Along with this comes certain privileges of course. But this division expressed by this study you quote, is not simply about skin color if you ask me. In my town, a predominantly working class town, some whites have moved as the population of poor and working class people of color have come in seeking a better life for their families. Many children of color from inside and outside the town attend the public schools. Everyone knows we have escaped poorly performing local schools by getting false addresses in less economically depressed communities. I know because I did it.

        So the schools become overwhelmed with students from different cultures languages, backgrounds etc. teachers have to deal with all the problems of urban life being brought in to the classroom and have to teach under worse conditions with a defunded and abandoned public education system. With the history of racism and the historical advantage that has meant for European Americans some of them have had more options including housing and move to escape what they see as the degeneration and ghettoization of their communities. But white workers have been savaged over the past 40 years and options for them have been curtailed. I also know black and Latino workers who have done the same thing seeking a better school system. Are they fleeing people with black skin or it is an economic issue? I am not saying whites after a few hundred years of ideological warfare lauding the supremacy of white skin over black don’t have racist ideas and might feel more secure among other whites based on those ideas. But it’s not simply that. The system is set up to divide in all aspects of life and people try to escape it in any way they can if there is not the structure to unite and confront it together.


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  21. Nick Danger says:

    Pieces of whiney hand-wringing like this are why people vote for Trump!


  22. Rob P. says:

    You’re wrong about the definition Brookings used for working class. It’s not just bachelors degree, it’s “without a four-year college degree who hold non-salaried jobs.” I don’t know how that changes your statement that “Among all adult whites, nearly 70% do not have bachelor’s degrees (the definition of “working class” used here). This means that at 55%, the white working-class is under-represented among Trump supporters,” but it probably does change it significantly. By their definition, they state that about 53% of whites are part of the white working class (as of their 2012 survey).


    • Jack Metzgar says:

      Rob, The Brookings piece I cite in the blog is based on the Dec. 2015 American Values Survey (not 2012) by the Public Religion Research Institute at http://publicreligion.org/2015/11/this-is-what-a-trump-supporter-looks-like/#.Vui-cPkrLcs Neither Brookings nor PPRI gives a definition of the “white working class,” but that’s likely because the bachelor’s/no bachelor’s binary is now the convention in writing about political demographics.


      • Rob P. says:

        Actually they do give a definition, which is the only reason I thought to offer a correction. The full report includes a footnote 2 that refers to the 2012 report which provides the full definition.
        See, p. 11 of http://publicreligion.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/PRRI-AVS-2015.pdf
        referring to http://publicreligion.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/WWC-Report-For-Web-Final.pdf
        which has the full definition that they use at p. 8.
        “In light of these challenges, this report defines the white working class using a
        combination of race (white), ethnicity (non-Hispanic), education (less than a 4-year
        college degree), and occupation pay type (an occupation that pays hourly or by the
        job and is not salaried).
        We include whites with some college education, rather than high school education only, because educational attainment levels across all sectors of society have risen sharply over the last several decades (Teixeira and Rodgers 2001). We also include occupation pay type as an additional criterion to ensure that people with salaried positions, which are more often associated with white-collar positions, would be excluded.”
        And notes that “more than one-third (36%) of all Americans and more than half (53%) of all whites are part of the white working class” at p. 9.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Jack Metzgar says:

      I’m still not seeing the link, Rob, between the 2012 and 2015 PPRI studies. The 2012 study was very thoroughly focused on the white working class and used a complex and precise definition. But it isn’t clear from the reference in the 2015 study that their American Values Survey is using the same definition — first, because their footnote could easily have said that and it doesn’t, and second, the very different nature of the two studies, where the Trump/white working class question is but a small piece. Still you could be right, and it would likely reduce the discrepancy I point to, but not the larger point.
      Thanks for bird-dogging this, and that 2012 study you cite is really very good.


  23. tinabraxton says:

    If white middle class and wealth class professionals are ignorant about the white working class, I suspect it is because it serves them to be ignorant. Poor white people provide them a scapegoat and a target for ridicule and exploitation that does not violate certain standards of delicacy they have created for themselves. Working class academics know this well, from daily experience.

    Liked by 2 people

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  25. Reblogged this on jonesyokstate and commented:
    Very thoughtful analysis of the white working class and it’s depictions made be the narrating class. It contains an account of what is know as the To Kill A Mockingbird fallacy which it claims helps support others types of systemic oppression.


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  27. Will Shetterly says:

    When talking about the working class and racism, it’s helpful to distinguish between the richer and poorer working class. The poorer white working class has always had more contact with black and brown folks, living near them and working with them. My very strong suspicion is they’re less racist than the richer members of their class–and less racist than the white upper-class members who would never utter a racist word and have no friends of color.

    Liked by 2 people

  28. Reblogged this on John Oliver Mason and commented:
    We must NEVER write off the white working class, they are starting to learn that their nonwhite brethren are not their enemy bot their ally.


  29. knewman4 says:

    Great piece Jack! A helpful corrective to so much of what’s out there right now!


  30. Toni Gilpin says:

    Excellent piece, Jack — thanks. Today’s NYT finally has some reporting that involves talking to actual Trump supporters, and speaks to many of the points you’ve made here. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/14/us/donald-trumps-tampa-office-is-an-unlikely-melting-pot.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0

    Liked by 1 person

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