Those Other White People
For some white liberals, anti-racism is a smoke screen for class prejudice.
One of the most pathetic spectacles of contemporary liberal culture is white people trashing other white people for being white. I understand the motivation, which is transparent: to show your #allyship by disowning your own “people” and renouncing the supposed status attached to your racial identity — a small, heroic act of race treason in the struggle against white supremacy.
But as everyone knows, in reality it entails none of those things. In the elite, overeducated liberal circles in which this dynamic is ubiquitous, there is, if anything, a negative status attached to being white, so you sacrifice nothing by disassociating yourself from whiteness. Moreover, the people you castigate are not your own; they’re exactly the opposite. They’re the people you want everyone around you to know have nothing to do with you, your values, and your social standing. They’re those other white people.
I once read a somewhat cynical account (I wish I could remember where) of the Progressive movement in New York at the turn of the twentieth century. At the time, the United States’ power elite was dominated by WASPs. But many Jews had also found prosperity in New York. Residing primarily on the Upper East Side, these Jews were part of a wave of migration from Germany to the U.S. that had begun in the 1840s, spurred by anti-Semitic persecution in the Old World.
These prosperous German Jews watched the next wave of Jewish immigrants — poor, largely orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe — with concern and alarm. The Yiddish-speaking Jews who clustered in the tenements of the Lower East Side were dirty, crude, and visibly foreign, and, as such, threatened to further enflame the anti-Semitism the German Jews had been subjected to by the WASP elite for decades. A combination of compassion, embarrassment and anxiety motivated an army of affluent German Jewish wives to make the trek downtown to work to assimilate these Eastern Europeans as quickly as possible — in part to erase the blight they had brought upon the precarious image of the American Jew.
I suspect something similar is happening now with educated, urbane white people and their uneducated, exurban and rural white counterparts. The analogy, of course, only goes so far: unlike with the Jewish Progressives, there’s no compassion whatsoever at work in the way affluent and middle class white people regard poor and working class whites, there’s no will to shape them into “respectable” versions of themselves, and the motivation to shun them doesn’t come from some deep anxiety about mounting anti-whiteness. The embarrassment and condescension, however, is there in droves.
When college-educated, city-dwelling white people express their deep disdain for white America on Twitter, they don’t have their educated white spouses or their white kids or their white co-workers or their white roommates from college in mind. They’re talking about the white underclass — the new unworthy poor. Like the affluent American Jews at the turn-of-the-century, white elites on both the left and the right are eager to wipe the stain of their vulgar ethnic cousins off of themselves. But unlike the Progressives, they’re not interested in assimilating them, but instead, in relegating them further into the margins as an alien class of potentially treasonous compatriots.
“White privilege” and “white supremacy,” when intoned by white liberals in reference to low-income whites, operates much the way that “welfare queen” did when intoned by white conservatives in reference to poor blacks in the 1980s. The latter was a trope with which to dismiss the non-white poor as undeserving of our compassion and generosity. “White privilege” serves the same function for low-income, uneducated white people, as does the sneering dismissal of “economic anxiety” as a factor in white working class people’s embrace of Republican (faux) populism. It implies that if you’re white and poor, you have only yourself to blame for your misfortune. Who else is responsible if, with all the chips stacked up in favor of white advantage, some white people continue to fail to ascend into the middle class?
But poor white people have been losing ground for decades, and for reasons not dissimilar to those that have kept many non-white people mired in poverty: deindustrialization and drug addiction. Middle-aged, uneducated whites are the only demographic in the country in which mortality is on the rise, in large part due to an epidemic of suicides and overdoses. In 2019, the last year for which non-provisional CDC data is available, the state with the highest drug overdose rate in America was West Virginia. That same year, white people had the second highest drug overdose rate in the country, surpassed only by Native Americans. As the journalist Alec MacGillis pointed out in a 2016 essay, “social breakdown among low-income whites” has begun “to mimic trends that had begun decades earlier among African Americans: Rates of out-of-wedlock births and male joblessness were rising sharply.”
MacGillis quotes Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo making what’s become a typical liberal diagnosis of the problem: “Let’s put this clearly. The stressor at work here is the perceived and real loss of the social and economic advantages of being white.”
Josh Marshall is the son of a marine biologist. He attended a private college prep school in Southern California which currently has a $37 million endowment and charges $32,000 in yearly tuition for its day school students and $45,000 for its boarding school students. He went to Princeton for college and Brown for grad school before founding a company that brings in millions of dollars in annual revenue. And yet Josh Marshall’s analysis of what’s killing poor white people at a rate more than 20 points higher than the national average is distress over the loss of their “white privilege.”
Inadvertently, Marshall’s take on the anomie of poor white America reveals something about the realignment of the Democrats from the working class to the college-educated professional managerial class. Marshall, a paragon of the latter, is a thought leader in the Pod Save America wing of the Democratic Party. What does his Ivy League liberal ideology have to offer these people? Little but thinly veiled class contempt and victim-blaming. At one time, when trade unions were strong and globalization had not yet destroyed America’s industrial base, liberals’ political values and policy goals were well-aligned with the working class. Today, it should be no more surprising that low-income white voters have abandoned a Democratic Party shaped by elites like Marshall than it is that black voters have historically had so little interest in voting Republican.
To the left of Marshall it’s even worse. Among progressives, policies are routinely crafted specifically to exclude poor and working class white people (and, increasingly, Asians), who are perceived as less deserving of assistance thanks to their inherited racial privilege. The wholesale abandonment of the concept of social class on the left has reached the level of absurdity at which poverty is perceived as purely an outcome of identity-based discrimination. If you’re poor but not a member of a protected class, you’re not really a victim. It’s the old Anglo-American tradition of ranking the poor by their level of moral entitlement, but dressed up as social justice.
This is the left’s version of the racial grievance politics the right has been practicing for generations. Liberals are rightly disgusted by these racist tactics when they’re deployed by their political adversaries, but are blind to them when they come from their own side. That’s because, unlike the Lee Atwater “dog whistles” the right routinely sounds, the left’s classist version is not cynical; it’s expressed entirely in earnest. It’s what you’re left with when your ideology has been utterly deprived of a materialist foundation, and has been transformed by the elitists who have hijacked your movement into a tool to legitimate the existing social and economic hierarchy, rather than to subvert it.