White Middle-Class Racism

What do you picture when someone refers to the “Trump’s base”? If you’ve watched television coverage of his rallies or read any of the dozens of articles in which reporters and commentators try to explain Trump’s appeal, then you probably imagine white people wearing “MAGA” hats and t-shirts chanting “Lock her up” or “send her back” in an arena in a mid-size Midwestern or Southern city. You might assume they include laid-off industrial workers, residents of declining cities or rural areas who view immigrants as a threat, people who spend their weekends at gun shows, and uninsured people who resent the “government intrusion” of the Affordable Care Act.

This image might come to mind when you read that polls show support for Trump increasing when he tweets racist jibes at women of color in the U.S. Congress or calls a black Representative’s district a “rat and rodent infested mess.” While some shake their heads in frustration at these poor foolish dupes, some also feel some empathy. It isn’t their fault they were “left behind” by the global economy or laid low by the exploitations of the opioid scandal. They just aren’t smart enough to see that they’re being manipulated.

As several recent articles have pointed out, this story is wrong – though it’s probably reassuring to educated urban middle class and elites. It suggests that the problem with this country lies somewhere out there, among people who can easily be labelled as racist, xenophobic, homophobic, old-fashioned, and most important, working-class.

If you detect some exasperation here, you’re right. We’ve been talking regularly with reporters about working-class voters – by which they almost always mean whites – since 2007. Then, reporters called to ask whether white industrial workers would vote for an African American or a woman. Now they’re asking why white working-class people would be drawn to Trump’s anti-immigrant, racist, and sexist bravado.

We could say plenty about the complicated relationship between racism and the white working class, but there’s more to the story of white racism. While Trump does attract significant support from the white working class, middle-and upper-class whites are also an important part of Trump’s base. After all, if Trump’s support among Republicans rises after his racist outbursts, that includes the core of the party, and they tend to be whiter, more rural, older, and more religiously conservative than Democrats. They are also at least slightly better off. Democrats win more votes from people with college degrees, the most commonly-used basis for pollsters to talk about class, but they also win more lower-income voters. Republicans take the lead – as Trump did in the 2016 vote – among those with incomes of $50K or more.

So while some of his white working-class fans might respond with open approval to Trump’s racist appeals, it’s also probably true that many of his more educated, better-off supporters embrace it as well. Some might tolerate the President’s nasty remarks because they appreciate his tax cut or his anti-abortion, pro-business Supreme Court nominees. But many of his policies, like his tweets, reflect racial resentments that appeal to a wider range of voters than class stereotypes suggest.

Some appreciate Trump’s racism because it violates social rules they find limiting. As Kevin M. Kruse suggested in a New York Times op-ed, Trump voices the resentment  many white voters – of all classes — feel  about not being able to say what they think about women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. They genuinely don’t get why some of what Trump says is racist. Instead, they rankle at the idea that it’s never acceptable for white people to criticize people of color. For many, Trump’s statements reassure them that they are not racist, they’re just not “PC.”

This points to a core problem in discussions of racism: the focus on individual attitudes rather than on structural inequities. To call someone racist is to judge their character. To hate people of color because of their skin would be racist, and only bad people are racist.

Amid discussions about whether or not Trump is racist, we forget that racism is structural. Hating people of color isn’t a prerequisite for investing in a system that provides most white people with better health care, better educations, more power in the workplace, higher incomes, and more opportunities to get ahead and secure a comfortable life. As Richard Reeves argues in Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It, many well-educated, well-off people seek out opportunities to pass their privileges on to their children. We don’t think that’s racist. We think it’s good parenting. After Nikole Hannah-Jones’s New York Times commentary arguing that white people’s rejection of school busing in the 1970s and 80s reflected resistance to having their children go to school with black people, several white parents wrote in to insist that they weren’t racist. They just wanted their children to attend a better school. Yet the school in the white neighborhood was likely better because of higher incomes of white families and the higher property values in white neighborhoods, and the children who attend that school deal with less day-to-day anxiety and disruption than those in more challenged neighborhoods.

Those economic conditions reflect racial disparities reinforced by government and business practices. Did white parents create those economic conditions? Not directly, though they probably helped elect the politicians who implemented the policies, and they might not recognize how those policies reinforce racial inequalities and divisions.

They believe in meritocracy.  If the system is fair, as they believe it is, then whatever getting ahead they eked out reflects their intelligence, abilities, and hard work, not a system that is rigged or unequal. They may well see Barack Obama’s two terms as President as proof: if America elected a black man, doesn’t that show that the deserving can rise despite racism? So why should we believe that racism keeps others down?

Yet as a 2018 report from the Economic Policy Institute shows, African Americans continue to lag far behind whites in every economic category, from education to income to home ownership, unemployment, and incarceration despite their rising education rates and incomes. Perhaps Trump’s white supporters base their vision of the black experience in America on what they see on TV, which today offers more and more positive images of people of color, especially African Americans, than a few decades ago. In recent years, in part because of Black Lives Matter, the rise of white supremacist activism, and anti-immigration efforts, racism and racial inequality have become center stage issues in American politics. Yet during the same period, the white middle-class have seen their wages stagnate, their jobs become less secure, and their children struggle to achieve the trappings of middle-class life. That breeds resentment.

A faith in meritocracy may also explain why instead of blaming corporations or Wall Street for not raising wages or for cutting jobs, many white middle-class voters hold on to the belief that good business principles require companies to make those choices. They worry about how to pay for their children’s or grandchildren’s college tuition but don’t question Republican cuts to state funding for education. They wonder if their children will ever find good jobs or afford to buy homes of their own. Yet they hold on to the hope that they or their children will someday be in a position to reap the benefits of conservative tax policies.

To be fair, Democratic voters also make choices that shore up their economic and racial privilege, though they might be somewhat more likely to wrestle with their decisions or to acknowledge the inequities. Republicans seem more likely to support pro-business policies and tax cuts, while Democrats believe that everyone will do better if we ensure more opportunities for those without their advantages.

Of course, it’s easier for candidates to criticize Trump as a racist than it is to critique structural racism. And dismantling discriminatory policies, from school funding to zoning ordinances, will require hard work that will challenge middle-class and elite voters across the political spectrum. If Democrats want to do more than talk about racist attitudes, they need to take on the injustices built into the system.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo, Georgetown University

A longer version of this piece appeared on Newgeography.


Posted in Class and the Media, Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, John Russo, Sherry Linkon, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Equality and Electability

In 2015, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg advised Hillary Clinton to run on a promise to “level the playing field” and “rewrite the rules of the economy.”  She didn’t take his advice. Instead, she told voters she would “build on the progress” of the Obama administration and “create ladders of opportunity.”

Professors like me, who get to speak in full paragraphs all the time, can easily dismiss campaign slogans as superficial and manipulative.  But they are organizing principles that can align basic vision with both policy proposals and organizing strategies.  These two slogans still reflect two possible organizing principles for the Democratic Party in 2019-20.  Biden wants to build on Obama’s progress, and Sanders and Warren aim to rewrite the rules of the economy, boldly addressing our runaway inequality of income and wealth.  Like Greenberg four years ago, I believe that candidates who articulate a broad left-populist approach will be more electable in 2020.   And as we face a future filled with peril, they are the only leaders who can govern in a way that could repair our toxic race and class dynamics.

Greenberg skewers the “build on the progress” trope by showing how many people didn’t see any progress during Obama’s eight years, both in the economic data and in what people told him in surveys and focus groups.  He thinks this slogan actually moved some people to vote for Trump, who in 2016 seemed to many to be the one offering some hope and change.  Greenberg predicts that Trump will hang himself on the same trope next year, if he isn’t impeached and removed from office before then.

But I think it’s the second part of Clinton’s 2016 message that reflects the real problem: there’s an important difference between aspiring to “ladders of opportunity” versus “leveling the playing field.”  The first emphasizes equality of opportunity, while the second is about equality of condition.  Equality of opportunity aims to give everybody an equal chance to climb a ladder to get one of the limited number of spots on a playing field that is severely titled by race, gender, and class.  Equality of condition is about getting everybody on a level playing field, not necessarily in equally desirable spots but with some substantial narrowing of the best and worst spots and with the worst spots being adequate for a decent and meaningful life.

To get anything close to equality of opportunity, we would have to vote to take away the huge opportunity advantages currently enjoyed by most of the professional middle class.  This is a large group of people and they vote a lot, so no politician will either promise to or do what’s necessary, no matter how much they talk about equality of opportunity in the abstract.

To get close to equality of condition, on the other hand, requires rewriting the rules of the economy by fairly taxing the rich and then greatly expanding social wages – i.e., reducing everybody’s monthly expenses by using tax revenue to subsidize health care, housing, child care, mass transportation, and education.  To finance the expansion of social wages to scale, it’s helpful that a relatively small group of people now have most of our money.  They vote with dollars as well as ballots, but there aren’t very many of them, and as both Sanders and Warren have shown, we can get an enormous amount of money from the outrageously rich while leaving them still very rich.

While equal opportunity is the primary solution and goal for historically marginalized and discriminated-against groups like African-Americans and women, it’s no solution at all for class inequality – and especially not for the top-heavy kind we now have in the U.S.  Having an equal chance to get one of the limited number of spots at the top would still leave most people struggling with poor to mediocre incomes and working conditions.  What’s more, there is no way to achieve equal opportunity unless everybody starts out with some level of equality of condition.

Let’s take jobs, for example.  The equal-opportunity solution is for individuals to get a good education (even if they have to go into $100,000 of debt to get it) so they can then get one of those good professional or managerial jobs in the “knowledge economy.”  Problem is there are not enough of those good jobs for this to work for many people.  Professional and managerial positions, not all of which would count as “good jobs,” represent about two-fifths of all jobs, and the incomes and conditions of the other three-fifths are mostly insufficient and declining in real terms.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest projection, that is not going to change in the future.  In fact, if anything, it’s going to get worse. Of the top 20 occupations estimated to have the largest job growth in the next ten years, the six lowest-paid jobs – five of them with median wages below the poverty level for a family of four – account for the majority of the new jobs.  Fourteen of the top 20 occupations make less than the national median wage of $47,000, and those 14 will account for more than three-fourths of job growth.  Nine of those occupations have medians of less than $30,000 and would thus benefit from a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour.  Those nine occupations account for nearly 60% of all the jobs produced by the top 20.  They include food preparation and serving; personal care aides; home health aides; waiters and waitresses; janitors and cleaners; restaurant cooks; laborers and material movers; nursing assistants; and landscaping workers.  These are the primary jobs of the future.  They do not require college educations.  They are not part of the knowledge economy, except that they are the people who feed, clean, beautify, and care for knowledge workers when we’re not working.

No matter how much equal opportunity we achieve, somebody has to do these jobs.  These people are doing work that needs to be done.  It would be great if we could equalize educational opportunity for their children, but they need higher incomes now, unions to represent them now, and social wages that can dramatically reduce their household expenses now.

Most of the rest of the workforce also needs those things, if not as urgently and dramatically as low-wage workers, and what’s more, they know it.  As a Vox headline reported earlier this year, “taxing the rich is very popular; it’s Republicans who have the radical position.”  And while the concept of social wages is not yet part of our public discourse, individual elements of it are also popular.  Majorities may not be for totally eliminating private health insurance in four years, as Sanders and Warren propose,  but very large majorities support various forms of expanded public health insurance like “Optional Medicare-for-all” and “Medicaid buy-in.” Likewise, “two-thirds of Americans favor raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.”  Even larger majorities support paid family leave, greatly expanded government spending on child care and early learning, and large increases in infrastructure spending, though a somewhat smaller majority support the Green New Deal.

On these and some related issues, public opinion is what the mainstream media calls “far left,” and the public is unified on these issues across race and class.  Even the white working class, the mainstay of the current Republican Party, basically agrees with the black working class and the Hispanic working class on these social-wage issues, as do majorities of college-educated folks of all races.  Democrats who run on these issues will beat Trump or any other Republican, and they will be positioned to govern us out of our current morass.  Democrats need to make a big promise and then organize like hell to achieve it.  Building on “progress” that most people haven’t seen for 30 or 40 years won’t do it. It’s time to level the playing field and rewrite the rules of the economy.

Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar is a professor emeritus of Humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago.  A former president of the Working-Class Studies Association, he is the author of Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered (Temple 2000).


Posted in Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Religious Freedom: Freedom to Discriminate?

On September 28, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson issued Executive Order 11246 directing the government “to provide equal opportunity in Federal employment for all qualified persons.” Not only would federal contractors not  “discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, creed, color, or national origin,” they would also “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.”

Freedom from workplace discrimination is essential for everyone. But for working-class employees, and particularly those who face discrimination on the basis of gender, race, and/or sexual orientation, the effects of discrimination are keenly felt. The Center for American Progress (CAP) estimates that it costs business more than $64 billion a year to lose and replace the more than 2 million workers who leave their jobs because of discrimination .

On August 15, the Labor Department released for public review an unprecedented new rule that expands the scope and application of religious exemptions that federal contractors can claim regarding their workforce. This proposed new rule undermines President Obama’s Executive Order 13672 (2014) protecting workers on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, which the CAP calls “the largest LGBTQ-inclusive expansion of workplace protections in American history.” In contrast, the new rule builds on President Bush’s Executive Order 13279 (2002) allowing faith-based and community organizations to prefer individuals of a particular religion when making employment decisions relevant to the work connected with its activities. In general, a religious exemption is an accommodation that allows those who claim one to avoid adhering to a regulation that applies to those who are not religious or do not participate in a particular religious tradition. Many religious exemptions are relatively non-controversial such as the one exempting religious institutions from property taxes. But this proposed exemption is very aggressive as it “covers not just churches but employers that are organized for a religious purpose, hold themselves out to the public as carrying out a religious purpose, and engage in exercise of religion consistent with, and in furtherance of, a religious purpose.”

Given that federal contractors employ approximately one-fifth of the entire U.S. labor force, the proposed expansion of contractors qualifying for a religious exemption could significantly alter workplace conditions that workers face on a daily basis. During a recent public comment period, organizations ranging from the ACLU, Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, and the National Center for Transgender Equality to the American Bar Association have raised objections and have urged withdrawal of the new rule. Many fear it will tear down the legal barriers that prevent workplace discrimination — and do so using taxpayer dollars. For instance, an employer that claims to have a religious purpose could require that employees adhere to the same religion even if the work involved does not appear to have a religious aspect.  A construction company owned by an evangelical could require its bulldozer operators to be born again. Pregnant and unmarried workers could find themselves without a job if an employer’s religious beliefs prohibited sex outside of marriage. The public comment period for this proposed rule ended on September 16 and it could go into effect unless it is challenged in court.

Many raised concerns about religious exemptions in 2014, when the Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby could deny employees health coverage for contraception because of the religious objections of the company’s owners. Exemptions that once only applied to non-profit religious organizations could now be claimed by corporations without overt religious purpose. This ruling was deeply problematic for workers who were either non-religious or had a different viewpoint on the relationship of religion and contraception. Some observers mistakenly assumed, despite their disagreement with the decision, that only closely-held family corporations such as Hobby Lobby would gain this freedom to discriminate against workers in this way. But, now, through this back door of a Department of Labor rule, a publicly held corporation acting as a federal contractor could engage in discrimination if it can “hold itself out to the public as carrying out a religious purpose” A corporation could simply affirm that it has a religious purpose in a response to an inquiry from the public or a government entity. For example, a  contractor could claim to have a religious purpose for something as secular as building roads and making a profit.

The new rule could also apply beyond federal contracts, as Ian Thompson, senior legislative counsel for the ACLU, notes was true for Executive Order 11246. Workers within a corporation were still protected by its provisions even if they were not specifically working on a federal contract. This new rule will be similarly expansive. That means the new rule could affect up to 25% of the private sector workforce.

Rather than addressing the concerns of religious organizations over federal contract regulations in narrow or specific terms, the Trump-led Department of Labor has adopted the most expansive approach possible to religious freedom protections and exemptions. The rule adds five new bases for religious exemption: “exercise of religion; particular religion; religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society; and sincere.” For instance, the exemption for “particular religion” allows contractors to prefer individuals who share their religion. They could also make acceptance of or adherence to specific religious tenets a condition of employment without sanction by the federal government. In sum, the “proposed rule should be construed to provide the broadest protection of religious exercise permitted by the Constitution and other laws.”

The proposed rule is an extraordinary concession to federal contractors that could use religion, however sincerely or insincerely, to discriminate against vulnerable workers in a precarious and uncertain economy. Working-class LGBTQ laborers are particularly vulnerable to this form of discrimination because of the lack of power that most working-class employees experience at the workplace anyway. Agnostic or atheist laborers could find themselves in the crosshairs of an aggressive manager or employer.

In addition, the proposed rule applies only to employers and not to workers. Freedom of speech has never been a priority for employers. If this new rule passes, will workers within corporations with federal contracts cease to have First Amendment protection for the free exercise of their own religion?

The proposed expansion of religious exemptions shows that the ongoing political fight over the meaning and application of religious freedom is not merely a religious matter. It has become clear that the 1st Amendment clause guaranteeing free exercise of religion can be twisted beyond recognition and then used as a bludgeon against the most vulnerable workers. A characteristic feature of working-class life is the constant struggle for power on the job and access to resources. The mere suggestion that an employer could also exert control over workers along religious lines as well is a chilling one indeed. The new rule might even allow religious justifications for an aggressive anti-union stance. If religion can be used to supersede the rights of workers as individuals, it can also be used to upend the struggle for collective rights and the quest for dignity and power on the job.

Ken Estey, Brooklyn College

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A New Era in Deindustrialization Studies?

Brexit, the election of Donald Trump as US President, and the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, have refocused attention on the connections between political events and deindustrialized working-class communities.

Deindustrialization first emerged as an explanatory framework for the wrenching changes underway in the 1970s and 1980s. Out of this economic and political crucible, an interdisciplinary field of research – which we loosely call “deindustrialization studies” – has taken root. Fundamentally, deindustrialization is a process of physical and social ruination as well as part of a wider political project that leaves working-class communities impoverished and demoralized. Forced forgetting is an integral part of this process as mills and factories are demolished, working-class institutions crushed, and areas are recontextualized as something new.

So where is the field of deindustrialization studies today?

The recent conference of the Working-Class Studies Association in the United Kingdom provides us with a unique opportunity to consider where the field is at, as there were no fewer than twelve sessions dedicated to the topic and a healthy scattering of other papers across the program. It might be too early to speak of a “golden age” of deindustrialization studies in the United Kingdom, but the conference suggests as much. So great was its presence, it felt something like being in a deindustrial boot-camp after four days.

Several things stand out to me.

Though there is still plenty of great work on deindustrialization coming out of the United States, the centre of gravity has clearly shifted to Europe. This is remarkable given the centrality of the US to deindustrialization studies until recently. Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison’s The Deindustrialization of America, Jefferson Cowie’s Capital Moves, Kathryn Marie Dudley’s The End of the Line, Christine Walley’s Exit Zero, Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo’s Steeltown USA, among many others, are foundational to the field. But now, an impressive number of British graduate students and recent graduates are working within the deindustrialization framework. I learned of “lost futures” in Teeside, deindustrializing bodies in Clydeside, “environmental classism” in the Anthracite region of Pennsylvania, post-redundancy employment for Scottish steelworkers, and post-industrial life in the Kent coalfield. , Interest is also surging in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, and Canada.

Most of these researchers come from deindustrialized communities. Many seem to be the children and grandchildren of displaced workers, yet another manifestation of deindustrialization’s half-life. For this reason, perhaps, the field relies primarily on oral history to recover the lived interior of job loss and how this structural violence ripples outward through individual lives, families, and communities. These personal connections help explain researchers’ need to bear witness to the structural violence of deindustrialization and to make it visible to others.

And yet, by conference’s end, four key challenges for the field came into focus for me.

1/ Deindustrialization is not just local: There is a proliferation of local case studies, but very little that is translocal, national, or transnational in scope. Many of these local studies, which have been the “stock in trade” of the new labor history for a generation, according to Jefferson Cowie, are also place-bounded, rather than place-based. For example, one senior researcher new to deindustrialization studies argued near conference’s end that nowhere else than in his study area has the unfolding crisis been as severe. This kind of exceptionalism ignores the scale and scope of the structural violence underway. No place is merely local.

On the flip-side, another stream of conference sessions focused instead on the contemporary politics of class. From what I saw, these papers presented a birds-eye perspective, present-focused and without much empirical grounding to back up the sweeping statements. Many of these presentations were thus disconnected from the lived realities and histories of working people.

Surely, there is some middle ground between the two. Now more than ever, we need to go beyond stand-alone local or regional case studies and make inter-regional or cross-national comparisons. We need to connect local and regional analyses and follow the transnational flow, what Cowie calls the “migratory history” of ideas, people, and capital.

Cowie’s 1999 book Capital Moves, which followed RCA TV production from one locality to the next, represents one way to scale-up our analysis without losing sight of working-class lives. There are others. Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Prize winning book, Chernobyl Prayer, offers a sweeping history of that disaster from the perspectives of those who lived it. It is both heart-breaking and poignant. Almost like a collage, but more purposeful, Alexievich engages with the “big history” of Chernobyl through and with the “little histories” of ordinary people. I can’t imagine a more humanistic approach to the writing of contemporary history.

2/ Focusing on loss only takes us so far politically: Many presentations at the Working-Class Studies conference focused on the profound loss experienced by industrial workers, who used Linkon’s notion of “deindustrialization’s half-life” as a clarion call to study the experience of working-class loss. After four days, I left the conference convinced that as a field of research we need to go beyond loss. To understand the half-life, we need to understand its causes and accompanying politics as well as its effects. How far does the study of loss take us politically?

We’ve seen evidence of this in effects-based collective bargaining in the United States, where unions can negotiate the “effects” of plant closings (with no leverage to speak of) but not the plant closing decision itself. As a field, we need to engage with the wider structures of socio-economic and political power so we understand better the underlying historical forces at work and how we might begin to counter them.

Locally-based research can do this, but we need to engage with deindustrialized communities as something more than objects of research. Christine Walley’s current work with a South Chicago museum, for example, is creatively co-curating public memory projects where family members are reunited with material objects held by the museum – a photograph is taken with them at the relevant site (such as at a former steel mill). It is a beautiful project that can, over time, contribute to what South African oral historian Sean Field calls social regeneration – which becomes urgent in the aftermath of social rupture, when the ties that bind are violently torn asunder.

3/ Beyond the Heartlands: The field of deindustrialization studies is very much focused on single-industry towns of steel, mining, and auto-manufacture where nothing has filled the economic vacuum — places where deindustrialization is still visibly present. Not coincidentally, former “industrial heartland” areas are almost always associated with male proletarian workers who were perceived to be central to the nation during the industrial age. As a field, we need to go “beyond the heartland” (the conference theme this year) and consider deindustrialization in other areas. For example, David Nettleingham invited conference-goers to consider rural areas where this industrial past is largely forgotten. Similarly, a panel of Canadians invited us to look again at metropolitan cities where the effects of deindustrialization are submerged by gentrification rendering the plight of displaced industrial workers largely invisible. Several conference-goers such as Stefan Berger, Jackie Clarke, and Alice Mah spoke eloquently to how deindustrialization unfolded differently across national borders. Such research raises all kinds of questions about the differential politics of deindustrialization.

4/ Race Matters: At the conference, with a couple notable exceptions, deindustrialization focused on white workers, and the scholars and audiences were almost entirely white. This reflects a danger that we are contributing to the coding of the working-class as white. This is an urgent matter given the political struggles sweeping North America and Europe, and the increasing political polarization amongst progressives between those who blame “race” or “class” for Trump, Brexit, and right-wing populism. This sets up a false choice between race and class.

For deindustrialization studies, the challenge is not only to recognize that the industrial working class was diverse, but also to consider how industrialism and its spatial restructuring are part of wider structures of racial and class power. The conference keynote by Satnam Virdee on “Race, Class and the Politics of Solidarity” provides us with an inspiring example of how deindustrialization scholars, working across geographic and temporal scales, can proceed.

Much more work needs to be done if deindustrialization studies is going to have a wider impact. I am hopeful as there are signs that a growing number of researchers in the field have recognized the need to engage with the historical roots of our populist moment and the need to undertake transnational or comparative research.  Deindustrialization studies is needed now more than ever.

Steven High, Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, Concordia University

Steven High is Professor of History and the author of a number of books including Industrial Sunset: The Making of North America’s Rust Belt; One Job Town: Work, Belonging and Betrayal in Northern Ontario; and, (with Lachlan MacKinnon and Andrew Perchard) The Deindustrialized World: Confronting Ruination in Postindustrial Places.


Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The News Media’s Blind Spots Covering the Working Class

At midnight on Sept. 15, 49,000 UAW-GM workers walked out on strike at locations across the country, a day after their 2015 collective bargaining contract with General Motors expired and the union declined to extend the provisions of the agreement.

In a statement, UAW Vice President Terry Dittes said “While we are fighting for better wages, affordable quality health care, and job security, GM refuses to put hard-working Americans ahead of their record profits of $35 billion in North America over the last three years. We are united in our efforts to get an agreement our members and their families deserve.”

The President promised then punted on saving the GM jobs, and never seemed to imagine that the UAW would later be leading the fight. Given their news coverage from earlier this year, neither did the New York Times imagine the UAW would take on GM.

While the auto industry is increasingly profitable, autoworkers have been suffering. Ground zero of that story is the iconic GM Lordstown plant in northeastern Ohio, which lost the discontinued Chevy Cruze and was shuttered when GM moved production of the revived Chevy Blazer to a Mexican assembly plant.

Beyond its regular reporting, the New York Times committed an amazing level of resources to the story of the Lordstown closing, producing an episode of The Daily podcast on July 5, an episode of The Weekly (on FX and Hulu) on July 7, and an earlier New York Times Magazine interactive piece with photos and text (May 1, 2019).

I have watched The Weekly episode on Lordstown several times, listened to The Daily podcast many more times, and re-read the multimedia piece. I’ve also gone back to review the Times’ 1992-1993 editorials and opinions on NAFTA, the trade deal that eventually caught up with Lordstown and many other manufacturing plants.

The Times’s impressive investment and multiple stories across multiple formats cover the human injury of GM’s boardroom decisions and note that the unwritten rules of the “social contract” have changed. These workers are victims of changing times, and the story is told with drama and great empathy.

Still, this is both a story we have heard before, and, as I discuss I my recent book, the kind of narrative that emerges with the built-in blind spots of a news organization focused on stories for upscale readers, listeners, and viewers.

The Times’ stories are mostly framed as national political stories, even as they acknowledge that the workers they interview are weary of that angle. The Daily makes this clear, stating “There’s got to be some political fallout from [the Lordstown closing]. What is the consequence for Trump in this scenario?” In framing the issue this way, The Daily and The Weekly focus on white, male workers who voted for Trump.

To understand the politics of this and so many other “working class” stories since Trump’s election 2016, imagine that The Daily interviewed a black woman worker from Lordstown who didn’t vote for Trump. The political angle would vanish in such a story. But the national media is more interested in politics than in people. They would rather feature a white male worker who voted for Trump and who now (presumably) struggles with the cognitive dissonance of his beloved president not saving his job. This means ignoring the wide range of people who are working class – including those at this plant.

Conversely, the multimedia piece, featuring interviews and photos by an African-American freelancer, takes a different perspective. Not framed as a political story, it is also the only part of New York Times coverage of Lordstown that includes multiple representations of African American workers and women workers.

“The system” that the Times says is broken extends beyond their limited political framing of the story. It includes a blind spot about the paper’s complicity with that system. The nation’s newspaper of record ran  many editorials in favor of NAFTA in 1992-93, labeling workers and their unions as “protectionist,” and stating that there would be only “a few visible losers,” with “many in low-paid occupations.” The Times’ economics columnist wrote pieces with headlines such as “Job Loss in Pact Is Seen as Small” and “Trade-Pact Fears Seem Overstated,” which supported its editorial position.

In its recent reports on Lordstown, the New York Times fails to acknowledge how its editorial support of NAFTA contributed to what has happened to America’s “losers.” In fact, a number of negative outcomes for Lordstown and the Mahoning Valley extend from NAFTA: the pressure for concessions and givebacks to save jobs, the export of jobs to Mexico (where GM assembly plants grew from one to four after NAFTA), the granting of millions in tax breaks and incentives to keep jobs (but draining needed public funds for schools and municipal infrastructure).

The New York Times failed to be a countervailing power (to use John Kenneth Galbraith’s term) for working people in 1992-93, precisely at the time when it was most needed, as government (with majorities in both parties lined up in favor of NAFTA) had failed to be a countervailing power for working people. Government and the mainstream news media were in the corner of GM and other corporations. No one was in labor’s corner.

Because of this, the Times also failed to recognize the UAW as a solution in their coverage. In the early 1990s, the union was a protectionist loser, and in 2019 it was an institution down for the count, whose members’ only remaining power was their individual ballots for Democratic or Republican presidential candidates with whom they could place their faltering hope.

So, in 2019 there is a poetic justice for the UAW-GM workers themselves, all 49,000 of them, who decided to take a stand and be a countervailing power to the auto industry, despite the lack of support from the government or the news media.

Their audacity elicited a rarity from the pages of the Times a few days later: an opinion piece that avoided framing the UAW’s actions in the politics of Trump. David Leonhardt’s column “Why I’m Rooting for the G.M. Strikers,” in a story long overdue for the working class.

Yes, Lordstown and the working class are political stories, but they are stories so much larger than that, too. They are even stories about journalism itself, and the role it has in “the system” that it often fails to see.

Christopher R. Martin

Christopher R. Martin is author of No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class (Cornell University Press). He is professor of Digital Journalism at the University of Northern Iowa.

Posted in Christopher R. Martin, Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Memoir as Medium: Bridging the Class Divide

More than three years after its publication in 2016, Hillbilly Elegy and its author J.D. Vance continue to be lightning rods. A recent Washington Post opinion piece caused an uproar by insinuating that Vance lamented the declining white birth rate in a recent speech. Meanwhile, Ron Howard signed a $45 million deal with Netflix to create a film version of the book starring Glenn Close and Amy Adams.

While the book has received its share of positive reviews, critiques of Vance and his memoir abound, taking different forms and tones. Many of those critiques are reacting to claims about the book’s explanatory power, especially the idea that it provides insight into Donald Trump’s election. Indeed, the New York Times named it to a list “of six books to help understand Trump’s win.”  Critics have not only rebutted the arguments Vance makes about white, working-class people and his claims of authority derived from having grown up as a member of its ranks. They have also pushed back on how the book gets taken up, as in John Russo and Sherry Linkon’s charge that “critics who think it explains Trump are misreading both the white working class and Trump’s support.”

As thoughtful and insightful as many of these rebuttals are, they lack the punch of memoir that helps make Hillbilly Elegy so powerful. I am convinced that part of what has driven the popularity of Hillbilly Elegy is that it offers middle-class readers a window into the experiences of a white Appalachian working-class family and community, in the form of first-person stories.  It also doesn’t hurt that these stories of working-class life are packaged within a bootstraps narrative about upward class mobility that follows the outlines of a Horatio Alger story.  I don’t agree with Vance’s politics, but I can see why people are drawn to reading about his growing-up years.  As Jack Metzgar noted, Vance deserves praise for “telling nuanced stories about the complicated people who inhabit his life and memory,” and presenting “unsparing but affectionate portraits of his family members.”

Narrative is a great vehicle through which to engage readers, and it can raise awareness about class inequality and the lives and experiences of working-class and poverty-class people. That’s why I’ve been recommending Sarah Smarsh’s memoir, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country in the World, to everyone I know.  While Heartland has sold fewer copies than Hillbilly Elegy, it has received significant critical acclaim. It was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize. Originally published in September 2018 and just out in paperback, Heartland tells the story of Smarsh’s growing-up and young adult years.  Like Vance, Smarsh roots her memoir in place and family; the particulars of her life story are inextricable from the fact that she is a fifth-generation Kansas wheat farmer on her paternal side.

Smarsh is, to use Al Lubrano’s term, a class straddler, and she uses that liminal position to try to bridge the vast geographical and class divides in the U.S. Writing in Heartland of her college years at the University of Kansas, Smarsh notes that “The distance between my world and my country’s understanding of it had been growing because so few people from my place ever ended up on a college campus and beyond to tell its stories.  It was a distance I wanted to make smaller” (263).  Making that distance smaller has arguably been the central focus of Smarsh’s career as a journalist; she has been writing about class inequality and working-class politics, people, and culture for over decade, and just this month launched a new podcast, The Homecomers with Sarah Smarsh. The podcast features “intimate conversations on class, race, policy, labor, wellness and the earth” with six people who came back home to their rural communities and are now “fighting for areas where the common narrative of American success would have them ‘get out.’”

While Smarsh, like Vance, tells a story of upward class mobility, her memoir differs because she focuses on questioning the common narrative of American success. Rather than embracing bootstraps ideology and lauding the American Dream, she forcefully rejects both, writing “How can you talk about the poor child without addressing the country that let her be so?” Smarsh acknowledges that she came to this view later in her life. She was “raised to put all responsibility on the individual, on the bootstraps with which she ought to pull herself up.  But it’s the way of things that environment changes outcome.”  She also calls the question, “How did you get out?” “deeply flawed.” As she explains, “You don’t really climb up or down, get in or out.  Mine isn’t a story about a destination that was reached but rather about sacrifices I don’t believe anyone, certainly no child, should ever have to make.”

She also shows that while achieving middle-class status brings gains, there was also a “loss in success.” In moving out of the working class and into the middle class, she writes, “I’d left where I was from and who I once was in irreversible ways, no matter where I chose to live or how I did it.”  Alongside that sadness, however, she retains a fierce pride and determination to claim her place in the lineage of strong, working-class women in her family, even as she is grateful to have the expanded life chances and choices that are a result of moving into the middle class via education.

And finally, Smarsh’s aim of bridging geographical and class divides leads her to poke gently at liberal Democrats, particularly those who pin blame for Trump’s win on rural, white working-class people, fueled by classist stereotypes.  She writes,

People on welfare were presumed ‘lazy,’ and for us there was no more hurtful word.  Within that framework, financially comfortable liberals may rest assured that their fortunes result from personal merit while generously insisting they be taxed to help the ‘needy.’ Impoverished people, then, must do one of two things: concede personal failure and vote for the party more inclined to assist them, or vote for the other party, whose rhetoric conveys hope that the labor of their lives is what will compensate them.  It’s a hell of a choice. . . .

I have deliberately chosen quotes from Heartland that foreground Smarsh’s political commentary, but what moved me to tears were her fiercely loving renderings of the people and places of her rural, working-class childhood.  So you can take your pick: come for the political commentary and stay for the beautiful storytelling, or vice versa.  At the end of the day, the two are of a piece and come together in a coherent whole.  So run, don’t walk, to your local bookstore to get your hands on a copy of Heartland, and when you’re done with it, pass it along to your neighbors, family, friends, and co-workers.  And while you’re at it, subscribe to The Homecomers podcast and follow Smarsh on Twitter, where she regularly offers pithy commentary. We need more Sarah Smarshes in the world — thinkers, writers, and doers who are dedicated to bridging the class and geographical divides that are tearing our country apart.

Christie Launius, Kansas State University

Christie Launius is Associate Professor and Head of the Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies Department at Kansas State University.  She is the book review editor of the Journal of Working-Class Studies, and co-editor of the forthcoming Routledge International Handbook of Working-Class Studies.  She has written extensively about narratives of upward class mobility.

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Understanding Class, Working-Class Culture | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Censoring the Working Class

Does the first amendment work the same for all Americans? What kind of freedoms do working people have to read, look at, and say what they want? The subject is on my mind this month as I gear up to host a series of Banned Books Week events in Pittsburgh.

Banned Books Week started in 1982 when First Amendment crusader and super librarian Judith Krug was asked by the American Booksellers Association to organize some events highlighting controversial books. The ABA had noticed a sharp increase in the number of challenges made to books in the early years of the Reagan presidency. Krug’s initiative was so successful that Banned Books Week is still going strong at 37 years.

While it is extremely rare in modern American history for a book to be banned or censored by any branch of the US government, organizations like the American Library Association (ALA) track the hundreds of challenges that individual citizens—frequently in their role as parents—make to public libraries, school libraries, and books included in a particular K-12 curriculum. A typical case is the most recent challenge to the Harry Potter series at a Catholic school in Tennessee. The popular books were removed from Nashville’s St. Edward Catholic School library because the school’s priest claimed that they encouraged children to cast evil spells. You can see the most frequently challenged books of 2018 here.

A quick perusal of the ALA Banned Books site shows that books featuring working-class characters and/or politically left/radical messages frequently find their way onto the banned and challenged list. This is because, as banned book scholar Emily Knox has argued, “banned books are diverse books.” Popular books by and/or about women, people of color, LGBTQ and working-class people are more at risk of being challenged and banned.

Possibly the most famous case of book banning in American history involves involved John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath—the pitiful story about a family of “Okies” displaced by the 1930s Dustbowl who migrated to Kern County, CA to work in the orchards. In 1939, despite the fact that Grapes of Wrath was a best seller, the Kern County Board of Supervisors voted 4 to 1 to ban the novel from the county’s libraries and schools. An intrepid librarian, Gretchen Knief, tried to fight the ban. Though she failed, her efforts resulted in the creation of a Library Bill of Rights which has protected many other books from a similar fate.

Since the start of Banned Books Week in 1982 the ALA had logged thousands of challenges to dozens of classic novels that feature working-class characters and settings, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Chocolate War, Of Mice and Men, The Bluest Eye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Native Son, and The Color Purple.

Students at an Arkansas high school protest the ban on Howard Zinn’s books

In the 21st century one of the most frequently challenged books has been Barbara Ehrenreich’s exposé of low wage work, Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America. Almost as soon as the book was published in 2002, high schools began adopting it. But as Nickel and Dimed grew in popularity, parents began challenging its inclusion in curricula and school libraries in North Carolina, Kansas, and Easton, PA. Howard Zinn’s radical, pro-working class books have also been a frequent 21st century target. In 2017, a state representative in Arkansas proposed a statewide ban of all works by Zinn. His books have also been challenged in Indiana and Arizona.

As with books, visual art that features working-class themes has—and continues to be—banned and censored. One of the most famous cases involved the destruction of a mural Diego Rivera painted at Rockefeller Center at the behest of the Rockefeller family in the 1930s. The aspects of Man at the Crossroads that offended Rivera’s benefactor included its depiction of Vladimir Lenin on one side of the mural and a member of the Rockefeller family drinking alcohol on the other. Because the mural was painted into wet plaster, censoring it required it to be chiseled out of the space.

The controversy over Rivera’s work seems long ago and far away. However, as recently as 2011 a mural depicting scenes from Maine’s labor history was removed from the state labor department by Maine governor Paul LePage. LePage also ordered the renaming of several conference rooms named for famous labor leaders, including Cesar Chavez and Rose Schneiderman.

Our relative freedom to see and read artistic and educational works by and about working-class people is one way to understand the relationship between class and the First Amendment. Another way to think about this relationship is to examine the status of free speech protections on the job.

In the era of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, we might cheer when someone loses their job for a racist Facebook post or because they were accused of sexual misconduct. But Political Science professor Corey Robin reminds us that corporations are not free speech zones, and that “the American workplace is one of the most coercive institutions around.”

In a rare case with a happy ending, in 2010, social services provider Mariana Cole-Rivera asked her co-workers in a Facebook post how they felt about being told they weren’t working hard enough. When she was fired for posting this question she sued her employer for wrongful termination and won her case.

Free speech rights on the job are especially important to any kind of worker collective action. If you don’t have the right to speak freely at work, how can you possibly organize a union? Classic union busting techniques such as captive audience meetings, veiled or open threats to close workplaces if they become unionized, and other kinds of workplace coercion threaten the rights of workers to speak freely—as well as to organize. And in the Trump era, attacks on workers have been designed to curtail their collective ability to organize as well as to strike. As a result, earlier this year a group of Democratic House and Senate leaders introduced legislation called the PRO act that would strengthen the ability of workers to form unions—thus boosting workers’ voices on the job.

Workers have long been on the front lines of First Amendment protections. Legal historian Laura Weinrib has argued in her recent book, The Taming of Free Speech: America’s Civil Liberties Compromise, that labor organizers were amongst the earliest free speech crusaders and that the founders of the ACLU were especially focused on the rights of workers to strike, picket and boycott.

At the end of this month, when the ALA kicks off Banned Books Week, pick up one of these great novels about labor, and when you do, remember to thank the great heroine librarians like Judith Krug and Gretchen Knief who fought for your right to read controversial books. While you’re at it pick up the phone and tell your Congressional representatives to pass the PRO act and to fight for your right to organize!

Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University

Posted in Class and Education, Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Kathy M. Newman, Labor and Community Activism | Tagged , , | 2 Comments