I watched President Obama’s inauguration eight years ago with colleagues with whom I had been teaching and organizing around issues of race, class, sexuality, and gender for almost two decades. That America had elected a black man to its highest office felt like confirmation that our work, together with the efforts of so many others, had made a difference. We knew we were a long way from constructing a “post-racial” society, but surely our country was heading in a more just and progressive direction, right?
My sense of hope dissipated long before November 8th, and like many people, I spent much of the past year struggling to figure out how to respond to the very different atmosphere of today. As we enter 2017, with Trump’s inauguration just a few weeks away, I am still thinking about what this election means for Working-Class Studies.
Obviously, we have good reasons to be concerned. You don’t need me to recite the litany, from a rise in hate crimes and harassment to the appointment of a Secretary of Labor who opposes not only unions and the minimum wage but the very idea that human workers have value, and much more. However, both the election itself and what we see so far of the Trump administration also make clear that our work matters more than ever. Those of us who study, teach, write about, and/or work with working-class people have important work to do, now more than ever. While we can pursue many directions, I want to suggest three key tactics that we should pursue.
First, we must continue to analyze the recent history and culture of the working class in order to better understand – and help others understand – the multiple factors that have undermined working-class communities and generated ever more resentment and despair, especially among the white working class. Over the past few years here at Working-Class Perspectives, Jack Metzgar has reviewed an emerging body of research and commentary that denigrates and misrepresents this group, ideas that were reflected in both reporting on and political appeals to white working-class voters. When left-leaning politicos and elite “coasters” comfort themselves by assuming that only the uneducated, foolish working class would support a racist, sexist, xenophobic campaign, those of us who have spent decades talking and working with working-class people must respond.
But we cannot rely solely on historical ideas about class solidarity or even analyses of the costs of deindustrialization, important as these histories are. We must be prepared to talk about current conditions and challenges. Among other things, that means we must take seriously the significant support for Trump among white voters without college degrees (according to exit polls, he won the support of 67% of such voters). We may criticize the use of this single demographic to define “the working class,” but we cannot ignore the fact that many white working-class people voted for Trump, including many who had supported Obama in 2008 and 2012. While they had varied reasons for doing so, including a long-simmering resentment of the political establishment, many did not merely accept his angry and divisive language but actually embraced his overt rejection and even ridicule of “political correctness.” Examining conflicts around race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and religion is not new work for Working-Class Studies, but the events of the past year provide rich if problematic material for further analysis. Now is the time for us to ask more critical questions and to focus more on the recent past and on contemporary conditions.
Second, we must commit ourselves more fully to addressing non-academic audiences. The focus on white working-class voters has generated significant interest in class as a social category as well as in the long-term costs of deindustrialization and changes in work. It has sparked debates about how working-class culture is responding to economic, social, and political change. This provides fodder for our research, but it also creates an audience for our writing. Yes, let’s continue to argue with and encourage each other as we analyze the economic, social, and cultural conditions of contemporary working-class life. Now is the time to create a more activist Working-Class Studies that regularly and creatively reaches out to diverse audiences.
Finally, we must deepen our commitment to teaching, because our students will carry forward the work of resistance and social justice. In our classrooms and offices, we have the opportunity to help (mostly) young people understand how class works and why it matters. Such courses may not change people’s political views, and I’m quite sure that some of the students who have participated in lively and critical discussions in my courses about inequality probably voted for Donald Trump. But some of my former students now work on economic and social justice campaigns, teach the next generation of working-class students, and address inequality through their work in social service organizations. As teachers, we encourage the emerging sense of resistance and agency that inspires some of our students, and our mentoring helps enable them to carry on the work of social justice. Now is the time for us to work even harder to prepare our students for the fights that lie ahead.
On November 9, I wrote on Facebook that I was not yet ready to follow Joe Hill’s famous call to stop mourning and start organizing, but my goal – then and now — was to move from despair to action. We have no shortage of work to do, and, of course, the academic actions I’ve outlined here are just part of that. We should also be marching, organizing, fighting the concrete and specific battles that lie ahead. Now is the time.