In recent months, I have been meticulously poring over labor historian David Roediger’s classic book Wages of Whiteness (WOW) and taking away some appreciable insight on the material imperative behind the voting patterns of the white worker. As we move into the thick of this election year, and continue to contemplate the how and the why of Donald Trump winning the souls of so many working class voters, we can do no better than to defer to Roediger’s thesis on the agency immanent in working class white culture.
Leaning on Du Bois’s famous observation of white workers accruing a “public and psychological wage,” Roediger presented a portrait of white workers as historical actors of social change. He summarizes his main argument as follows: “Whiteness was a way in which white workers responded to a fear of dependency on wage labor and to the necessities of capitalist work discipline.”
Last week, I remarked that it’s “good business” for “any elite white to mine for gold in the irrational fantasies” of white voters. But there’s another side to this coin.
If Roediger is right, then whiteness is not only good business for corporations and elements of the elite, but for members of the white working class as well.
But it’s good business for different reasons. Believe it or not, these reasons favor the material interests of whites.
It’s clear from the commentary on Trump’s support among white workers that there’s a direct link between his appeal and bombastic language, and the failures and stale rhetoric of establishment Republicans, who “betrayed” them by instigating the rise of deindustrialization and the decline of wages. However, for white workers, the flip side to this betrayal is not merely to dismantle NAFTA and other legislative insurances of free trade. It’s not just returning the country to an era of protectionism.
Flipping the betrayal of the conservative establishment is nothing short of creating a truly white monopoly — an investment in white protectionism.
White working class voters had this investment in mind when they abandoned the Democratic party in the late 60s, 70s, and 80s. Far-right conservatives, having opened their doors to these dejected whites, had this in mind when they shelved all plans to doctor their party’s narrative to reach voters of color.
Each move was done in the name of subsidizing the white wage.
For 37 percent of white workers, evangelical and non-evangelical, the white wage is a trade-off, a social reward doled out unevenly in exchange for group fealty to capitalism. The trade-off allows low-order whites to view themselves as equal with white “picket fencers” (15 percent), and more genuine than white cosmopolitans (20 percent). The only religion that matters here is the faith in whiteness and with it the blessings of superior cultural institutions and amenities. The only wealth that matters is what Cheryl Harris calls “white property” (PDF), which grants the owner social advantages — not excluding, in some cases, better income, better housing, and better schooling — and privilege: the privilege of driving, walking, shopping and being while White.
However much they may seem inconsequential, the social perks of Whiteness incentivize workers to advertise their identity and dwell in lies to protect their niche in what they presume is an eternally unfair, unequal world.
I’ll use one case to make my point: immigration. Someone, some “other,” has to be blamed for the poor state of American economy and “moral deficit” gnawing on the entrails of our country. Who better than the non-white immigrant?
Here is run-through of how right-leaning white workers rationalize adopting draconian measures against immigrants:
Not only do illegal immigrants steal jobs. They also hire themselves or give themselves the stolen jobs. They act on both ends of the capitalist spectrum. This is another way of saying that the role of American firms in this “criminal act” is never factored into the equation.
On the other hand, employers are viewed as abiding by basic business practice and rules of the market — where possible, buy cheap and sell dear. In this sense, employers are cheered on and encouraged employ the cheapest source of labor, and this ability to round in as much cheap labor as possible is translated as smart, shrewd business, as doing what is necessary to reduce your firm’s wage and salary bill and therefore increase the profit available to capitalize or set aside as personal revenue.
And what about that other element to the story — the presence of major American firms in foreign countries? Simple. The matter of corporations negatively impacting countries like, say, Mexico, from which immigrants emerge is of no consequence, because of globalization and the belief that, in the borderless battle for profit, the whole world is fair game — a planetary preserve, if you will — for limitless entrepreneurial gain.
Non-white thinking citizens might conclude that America, through its corporations, plays a crucial part in the very “immigrant problem” it loathes by creating the dire local circumstances that compel immigrants to leave their homes in the first place. Non-white thinking citizens might suggest that in an age as interconnected as ours, free trade and protectionism are destined to cancel one another out and shuffle people from nation to nation, like chewed pieces on a board game. Even if the fantasy held by immigrants about America turned out to be wrong and they find no improvement in their lives, the fact remains that they were moved to risk the journey because of America’s propaganda machine selling the American dream and corporate collusion with foreign governments and markets. The absurdity and hypocrisy of America walling out immigrants would be all too apparent.
Explaining away corporate America’s role in third world conditions at the core of “the immigrant problem” is a clear example of white working-class agency. In this way, the bottom majority of white voters become historical actors, even if their action trigger their own social and economic undoing.
White workers are not merely pawns in this two-party game. We can admit how elite white politicians and businesspersons such as Trump wind white workers up like a jack-in-the-box until the frustration and anxiety lurking inside their psyches explode. We can argue that white career politicians deliberately dangle empty promises and half-baked policy proposals in their face and, by doing so, exploit their insecurities about the direction of the country and their prospects for transitioning into a middle class that dwindles ever more with each election cycle.
We can emphasize, to our detriment, trickle-down racism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, etc. We would, however, be doing a disservice to the white working class by stripping them of their agency:
[…] workers, even during period of firm ruling class hegemony, are historical actors who make (constrained) choices and create their own cultural forms.
Donald Trump may be fooling white workers who are lifting him on their shoulders to political victory. However, whatever your position is on the ethics of such a strategy, keep in mind that the fooling is welcomed.