With the seemingly inexplicable rise of Donald Trump — especially inexplicable, in retrospect, to those far removed from the spacious red center of America — a lot of energy and ink has been expended trying to better understand the white working class in our country.
Whether it’s “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance making the cable news rounds or columnist Nicolas Kristof writing in The New York Times attempting to comprehend white working-class disenchantment, the task has become become tiresome, and at times predictable, in its attempts to arrive at an answer beyond racism, xenophobia and misguided resentment.
That’s why I initially was skeptical when an email from University of Illinois researcher Stacy Harwood hit my inbox this week.
Harwood is one of three academic researchers, along with Harris Beider, a professor of color at Coventry University and a visiting professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, behind the recently released report, “The Other White America: White Working-Class Views on Belonging, Change, Identity, and Immigration.”
The fact that researchers talked to people in Tacoma as part of their work prompted me to give it a look.
What I discovered were notable and challenging conclusions worth considering and grappling with, for the City of Destiny and beyond.
Among other things, the study argues that as a group the white working class is far more diverse in its views than the stereotype that so often defines it. At the same time, the report is blunt in assessing the challenges of building coalitions across racial lines.
The report, which was funded by the Open Society Foundations’ U.S. Programs, included 415 conversations in five cities across the country between August 2016 and March 2017. Along with Tacoma, researchers spent time in New York City; Dayton, Ohio; Phoenix; and Birmingham, Alabama.
Researchers organized workshops and held discussions with people who identified themselves as white working class. Scholars then analyzed and detailed what they said. The hope was to use the data to help pave a productive path forward.
According to its authors, one of the report’s key objectives was to go “beyond the negative portrayal of (the white working class) as disaffected, forgotten and racist, and to find ways to bridge the divide between racial groups.”
Harwood summed it up this way in a news release: “I saw how problematic that overly simplistic narrative is for building coalitions.”
The most important conclusion the study reaches, according to Beider, is that the generally understood definition of what it means to be a member of white working-class communities — based on identifiers like low incomes, a lack of college education, and blue-collar occupations — misses the mark.
It creates many, many more opportunities to engage with a group that has been demonized as being very problematic. It creates the possibility for a new type of politics, where it is about alliance building and working across race and gender and class. And I think that’s really exciting.
Coventry University Professor Harris Beider on the possibility of redefining the white working class
According to the researchers, what they refer to as “the classic definition” of the white working class fails to truly encapsulate the wide-ranging experiences lived by members of the group.
In reality, the researchers found a much more fragmented, nuanced and diverse section of society. While a general sense of economic insecurity — living paycheck to paycheck — along with a shared set of values based on work ethic, family, and self-sufficiency were all prevalent, educational attainment, political views, occupations and income levels varied widely.
While it might feel a bit like semantics, Beider says redefining white working class could have lasting implications.
“It creates many, many more opportunities to engage with a group that has been demonized as being very problematic,” Beider says. “It creates the possibility for a new type of politics, where it is about alliance building and working across race and gender and class. And I think that’s really exciting.”
Exciting, yes, but challenging, too, as evidenced by the responses of some individuals who seem to cling to the past and harbor conscious and unconscious racial biases.
As the researchers note, reverse racism was sometimes cited as something preventing upward mobility. Political correctness often was seen as a negative, preventing people from saying what they really felt. The existence of institutional racism and white privilege were sometimes flatly denied.
“The study is peppered with racialized language, regardless of who the participants voted for,” the study observed. “This was particularly true when participants discussed neighborhood change, economic decline, and blame for societal problems.”
All of this brought me to the aspect of this study that I’m still admittedly wrestling with.
Even if we acknowledge the white working class as more complicated and diverse in its views than its typically given credit for — creating “a messier definition,” as Beider puts it — who does the impetus for building the coalitions for change that the study calls for fall upon?
Put another way, given the unavoidable prevalence of some very backwards views on race, our changing country, and what it means to be working class — even from a group that’s now been shown to be more than a simple stereotype — who takes the lead in moving us forward toward a world of more understanding and equality?
Certainly, in my opinion, such a responsibility cannot fall on people of color.
According to Beider, the work starts with respected individual community organizers and organizations building bridges between communities of color and the white working class, centered on common interests. These efforts need to be supported, he says, and the real change is very likely to start on a local level rather than a national one.
“It is going to be challenging,” Beider says in what is probably an understatement.
“But unless we do it, the alternative is very, very challenging.”