Thanks Joan Williams, But I ‘Get The US Working Class’ Just Fine

You know the refrain by now: cease and desist from calling Trump ‘fans’ or ‘voters’ ‘stupid racists.’ We must not think of them as ‘ignorant’ They are, instead, ‘economically disempowered’; they constitute a distinct cultural class, one which must now be listened to and studied with all due care and respect; we must understand and try to ‘get’ this ‘culture.’ For all the care that we are being asked to exercise in our interactions with the Trump demographic, Americans might imagine they are budding anthropologists or sociologists being asked to exercise due diligence by some Institutional Review Board for the Politics of Human Subjects. The latest salvo in this unceasing broadside of paternal instruction now appears in the Harvard Business Review, where we are told by Joan Williams that we don’t understand the ‘American working class’ or the ‘white working class.’ (Incidentally, these two terms seem to have become synonymous with ‘Trump voter,’ which is a bit of a mystery when we remember that many ‘working class’ and ‘white working class’ folks voted for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and would not have dreamed of voting for Donald Trump.)

So, here is the ‘class culture gap’ that liberals, members of the elite, east coast intellectuals of all stripes apparently do not get:

One little-known element of that gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” and that managers are college kids “who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job,” said Alfred Lubrano in Limbo. Barbara Ehrenreich recalled in 1990 that her blue-collar dad “could not say the word doctor without the virtual prefix quack. Lawyers were shysters…and professors were without exception phonies.” Annette Lareau found tremendous resentment against teachers, who were perceived as condescending and unhelpful.

Doctors are quacks, lawyers are shysters, professors are phonies, teachers are condescending and unhelpful. Got that. So, I get the components of this world view but I’m afraid this is not remotely helpful in helping me bridge the culture gap and disabusing me of my prior prejudices about this ‘group.’ These points of view are, how you say, infected by ignorance and resentment. Reading them articulated as Williams would have us do does nothing to change my opinion of Trump voters as ignorant and racist. (I draw apart ‘working class’ and ‘white working class’ in this fashion because interestingly enough, I have met many non-ignorant, non-racist members of the working class; they are resentful, all right, but they are not resentful of the people whom the Trump demographic appears to be resentful of.) So, I might understand why Trump won, but my understanding will not consist of coming to the realization “Aha, Trump voters aren’t actually ignorant and racist; they’re just resentful of elites.” For I will be tempted to ask: Which elites? The public service lawyers who help the weak assert their rights against the state? The public school teachers who work for low salaries and teach their kids? The doctors who went to medical schools and heal their bodies when they are hurt on the job? The professors whose classes they do not attend? Do the esteemed members of the working class that Williams is pointing us to not know of the entities I point to, or do they not care? In either case, they remain ignorant; their prejudiced beliefs appear without foundation; the generalizations that we are informed of remain just as infected by ignorance, resentment and anger as we imagined them before–and let us not forget, racism is merely ignorance, resentment, and anger coupled with racial prejudice and dominant race power. Williams also conveniently leaves out a description of how the WWC perceives others who are the subject of their resentments–like, for instance, immigrants. My guess is that the WWC considers them shifty sonsofbitches who steal their jobs. Sounds like a real culture clash; a clash between a culture sustained by ignorance, resentment, and racism, and one that is not. These intuitions are confirmed when Williams makes note of the tremendous masculine insecurity that underwrites this same class (or culture); we are entirely unsurprised to find that sexism and patriarchy rules the roost here.  (Trump That Bitch!)

So if Williams’ intention in writing this piece was melioristic i.e., she intended to bridge the divide between the two ‘classes’ she identifies, then she has not succeeded. What she has succeeded in doing is telling us that our impressions of the ‘working class’–such as Williams has identified them–are correct: they are racist, and ignorant, and resentful, and unsurprisingly, they voted for someone who encapsulated their Know-Nothing resentment. To be sure it tells us that a different kind of electoral campaign might have been needed to convince this demographic; that too much faith might have been placed in appeals to their supposed common sense; that a different candidate, who was male, and who could stroke their insecurities and assuage their anxieties might have had more success with them. But it does not make me understand the ‘American working class’ or white working class’ in a way that changes my opinion of their moral and political predilections.

I am, in making this judgment, not writing off the ‘white working class’ as Williams is worried I might; but I’m not letting them off the hook for their racism either. Many Trump voters are economically disempowered; they were right to not believe the promises of the elites, of the Democratic Party; their racism emerged when they decided: a) they knew who to blame for their troubles, and it sure wasn’t members of their own racial group; b) they could live with the overt racism of the candidate they were going to vote for.

Note: Williams confirms my intuition that her piece is suffused with apologia and appeasement when she issues the following gem:

National debates about policing are fueling class tensions today in precisely the same way they did in the 1970s, when college kids derided policemen as “pigs.” This is a recipe for class conflict. Being in the police is one of the few good jobs open to Americans without a college education. Police get solid wages, great benefits, and a respected place in their communities. For elites to write them off as racists is a telling example of how, although race- and sex-based insults are no longer acceptable in polite society, class-based insults still are.

Once again, this does precisely nothing to bridge the ‘culture gap’ whose existence Williams is pointing us to. For I find myself tempted to ask: Which communities? Do white cops get a respected place in black communities? Do blacks in white communities? I have news for Williams. It’s not just ‘elites’ who write off cops as racists; middle-class and poor black Americans do too.

3 thoughts on “Thanks Joan Williams, But I ‘Get The US Working Class’ Just Fine

  1. 1/3 of my adult working life was blue collar. I recall lots of smart, decent guys – who were minding their own business (including not voting). I also recall the loudmouth tools who said things like, “Don’t hire him, I cain’t ride around in the truck with one of them people, the way they smell.”
    The tools voted, and they voted for exactly the reasons you might think. Piss of HBR.

  2. Great piece. I too am bothered by the ease with which certain types of liberal intellectuals have been prostrating themselves over their “failure to get out of the bubble” and to “understand the working class”. It seems precious, and even somewhat insulting – I’m reminded of the Noble Savage trope where people aren’t seen as actual people, with good and bad qualities, but rather as curios in one’s political cabinet, defined by one’s liberal perspective.

    I understand William’s desire for class solidarity. I imagine her especially concerned and feeling guilty with her Yale law degree and privileged position. But plenty of us so-called “elites” have never made very good money, and can sympathize just fine with the struggles of those in our income bracket, even if we are not doing blue collar work.

    No, it is far too easy and poorly developed a thesis to say that the elites’ attitudes towards the blue collar are responsible for their anger. For one, they are not monolith. There are also other reasons for them to be angry, aside from being offended by blue collar character portrayals such as Homer Simpson, or that Budweiser is no longer the “king of beers”. There have always been these sort of cultural differences between blue and white collar workers.

    What then does explain the resentment. I’d still like to know. I can, however point to the increasing dominance of partisan conservative media in the last few decades. This movement has steadily built up a sense of paranoia and distrust of “the elites”, and fueled in large part by good old fashioned racism, misogyny and homophobia.

    What if that was most of the explanation right there? That globalism has increased the embrace of multiculturalism and the fluidity of gender identities? The definition of femininity and masculinity, have been called into question. Having to be a Christian is no longer the only option. White men aren’t the default anymore. And as this transition in thinking has occurred, this open-minded, compassionate, reality-based perspective has come to dominate, the retrograde conservative cultural ideology has fought back with an awesome campaign of political propaganda, rewriting the media narrative.

    Bedrock institutions of democracy, such as journalism, science and academia, not to mention simply the arts in general (a pillar of democracy itself, in so far as cultural change is processed and dealt with in that space), have been denounced as untrustworthy and dishonest.

    I wonder how many people felt they needed to try and understand sympathy for Nazism among the German public? Was it the fault of the “elites” too, with their fancy parties, delicate cuisine and book-learning? Actually, we know quite well who the Nazis considered the elites, as well as what they desired to do with them.

    I’m enjoying your blog. I post when I can at Come by and visit. Cheers!

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