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Survey Of White Working-Class Reveals Opportunities, but Fresh Challenges

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Sean T

For those of us concerned with racial and economic justice, the white working class is often cast as the big opponents to our agenda. So a recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute about White Working Class Americans was an important reminder that this other-ing of the White working-class is both un-strategic and unfair.

Many other people – especially those who are themselves white and working-class – are better suited to explain why progressives shouldn’t write off the White working-class voting bloc, but I’ll quickly review the arguments. First of all, it reinforces generalities about a group with a lot of internal diversity – as shown by the wide regional differences in the poll. Second, it lets off the hook the one-percenters who are actually behind attacks on voting rights, affirmative action, etc. Third, it plays into the Southern Strategy by conceding that racial resentments will always trump mutual economic interest.

On the bright side, the survey pointed towards some common ground between White working-class Americans and people of color on how the three groups view the economy. For instance, strong majorities of all three groups were united in the belief that the economic system unfairly favors the wealthy (70% of white working-class, 78% of Blacks and 69% of Latinos). And we’re all pretty skeptical about whether the American Dream still holds true; a slight majority (55%) of Latinos still believed, while only 47% of White working-class and 46% of Blacks think the American Dream is alive and well.

But common skepticism about the rich and the American Dream isn’t quite a basis for economic solidarity, particularly since that skepticism turns into downright pessimism by the White working-class; with only 46% of them saying America’s best days are ahead of us, while 58% of Latinos and 66% of Blacks hold out this hope for the future. In an election year where much of the anti-Obama rhetoric has been downright apocalyptic, it’s hard not to imagine that the right-wing media takes some credit for this bleak outlook on the future.

The report revealed some other racial differences that are hard to ignore, particularly when it comes to issues related to race, ethnicity and immigration.
It’s not surprising that Latinos show overwhelming support (75%) for the tenets of the DREAM Act. But while two-thirds of Blacks and college-educated whites agree (61% and 67%) with the DREAM Act (meaning there’s still room for improvement), the fact that only a slim majority (51%) of White working-class Americans supports this policy shows how the GOP was playing to its base with the immigrant-bashing during the presidential primary. Similarly, majorities of both the White working-class and African Americans (57% and 53%, respectively) blame “illegal” immigrants for taking jobs, while 37% of Hispanics agree (the same percentage of white college-educated Americans). The alliance reverses on the question of whether the government has paid too much attention to “the problems of Blacks and other minorities” (I suspect that the wording of this question mattered); with nearly half of White working-class Americans and Hispanics agreeing (49% and 43%, respectively). That’s obviously a lot higher than Blacks (20%) but it also distinguishes Hispanics and the White working-class from White college educated Americans (only 32% agreed that the government has paid too much attention to minorities).

Comparing the survey responses of the white working class, African Americans and Latinos reveals that we are sometimes united, sometimes in three different places, and sometimes aligned two against one. I certainly recognize that we already paper over some differences between Blacks and Hispanics with calls for solidarity in the face of a mutual enemy of race-baiting fat cats (made especially easy to do in this election season of equal opportunity attacks on “illegals” and “welfare”); so, one could argue that we try the same thing with the White working class and paper over those pesky racial animosities to go after the mutual enemy of race-neutral fat cats. But when 60% of White working-class Americans are off on their own believing that “discrimination against Whites” has become as big a problem as discrimination against Blacks and other minorities (while 61% of college-educated Whites, 65% of Hispanics and 73% of Blacks all disagree) it’s hard to be optimistic about economics trumping racial tensions between the White working-class, African Americans and Latinos.

In fact, there’s real cause for concern about the stability of the Black-Brown coalition we have now when one imagines the opportunities for the right-wing to update its Southern Strategy for a Latino audience. When 43% of Latinos think “the problems of Blacks and other minorities” have gotten too much attention, it certainly seems like the GOP could use anti-Black hostilities to split the Latino vote. Political operatives have already cautioned against the GOP’s anti-immigrant rhetoric for fear of losing America’s fastest-growing voting bloc for a generation because they recognize the bad demographic bet they’ve made on the white working class – which will only continue to decrease as the population gets browner and more educated.
Perhaps the biggest problem we face is in thinking we can segment a diverse nation into distinct demographic categories. It is always true that the averages reported by polls obscure a lot of diversity of views within each group. And that appears to be particularly true for the White working-class, given big differences between those in the South compared to other regions. So while this latest poll on the White working-class may not offer a clear path for bringing more people from that vaguely defined demographic group into the progressive fold, the probably answer is  – as always – the long, slow process of organizing, consciousness raising, and coalition building.