Burying The White Working Class
As long as the working class is framed around whiteness, class solidarity will always have to wait on white solidarity
“It isn’t just the Sanders campaign zombie that liberal pundits are desperately trying to stamp out,” wrote Connor Kilpatrick, a member of the editorial board at the socialist outlet Jacobin, in the thick of the 2016 Democratic primary with his usual overheated vim. “It’s the white working class itself.”
Kilpatrick’s essay, like this one, is titled “Burying the White Working Class.” For Kilpatrick, the destruction of the white working class is a centrist capitalist plot, synonymous with an assault on socialism itself.
But the truth is the exact opposite.
As long as the working class is framed around whiteness, class solidarity will always have to wait on white solidarity. When the working class is first and foremost identified with white laborers the outcome will be racism, not socialism. Socialists ought to fight for all workers, and to do that, the labor movement has to reject whiteness as its face, and commit to an anti-racism that recognizes people of color as workers too. If there’s a capitalist plot, it’s one that Kilpatrick is participating in — the ritual murder of the working class in order to resurrect it as a decaying, murderous white zombie.
Kilpatrick’s essay focuses on West Virginia, a very white state that voted overwhelmingly for Sanders in the 2016 primary, overwhelmingly for Clinton in the 2008 primary against Barack Obama, and overwhelmingly for Trump in the 2016 general election. Of course, different pundits parse these disparate outcomes in various ways. Kilpatrick insists they are a sign that white workers can and should form the backbone of a new socialist consensus.
Kilpatrick argues for the importance of the white working class on two grounds. The first is numbers and power. He cites statistics showing that 77 percent of minimum wage workers are white, and 63 percent of workers without a college degree are white.
It’s true that white people are the majority of the working class, as Kilpatrick defines it. But Kilpatrick’s minimum-wage workers aren’t the most disadvantaged people in the country. Poverty statistics give us a clearer picture here.
White people still make up the largest segment of the poor; there are 17.3 million of them, or 8.8 percent of all white Americans. Black poverty rates are around 22 percent, which means there are 9.2 million poor African-Americans. Hispanic poverty rates are 19.4 percent, which means there are 11.1 million Hispanic poor. Thus, even though white people make up about 63 percent of the population overall, they are less than 50 percent of the economically disadvantaged. People of color are an absolute majority of those who are most crushed by capitalism.
Kilpatrick, though, is not concerned with the poor, but with the working class. In fact, he specifically disavows a solidarity based on suffering.
We’re socialists. We don’t talk about workers all the time because they’re the most exploited or because there’s something uniquely heroic and noble about them. There isn’t.
The working class is central to a meaningful progressive politics because they have the numbers, the economic incentive and the potential power to halt capital in its tracks — to check the power of our ruling class and build a truly democratic society out of this miserable oligarchy we all find ourselves stuck in today.
For Kilpatrick, socialism isn’t about standing with the oppressed. Instead, it’s a kind of power fantasy. We join with workers not because they face injustice, but because they are powerful and can overthrow capitalism. As poverty statistics show, white workers are not the most downtrodden. But they are a majority of those in the working class, as Kilpatrick defines it — people with at least minimum-wage jobs, or people who have jobs without a college degree.
White workers are somewhat better off than their peers — and it’s precisely because they’re better off that Kilpatrick singles them out for solidarity. The working class is majority white in part because people of color can’t get the jobs to get into it. When Kilpatrick celebrates the power of the white working class, therefore, he is in no small part celebrating the power of whiteness, which has lifted up white workers and supposedly given them, uniquely, the ability to challenge capitalism. People of color remain, in this formulation, too debased to organize.
The second reason that Kilpatrick embraces the white working class is that, since they are white, their oppression is entirely about class, and there is no distracting necessity to consider race.
…unlike with the white working class, many of the hardships workers of color face fit neatly within an acceptable liberal narrative about what’s wrong with our society: racism. And when racism can be blamed, capitalism can be exonerated.
Liberals can delude themselves into believing that it is nothing more than the accumulation of individual prejudices stashed away in the minds of powerful white people that has destroyed black and brown communities in Detroit, Ferguson, and Chicago’s South Side.
Class stratification, capital flight, and the war against organized labor are thus sidestepped completely. The liberal elite is spared from having to question the fundamental injustices of capitalism.
Kilpatrick believes that liberals and the wealthy are eager to blame racism for poisoning the water in Flint, Michigan, or for police violence and mass incarceration. Anti-racism, in this account, is a convenient cover for capitalism. For Kilpatrick, the charge of racism covers a multitude of capitalist sins. It is only when white people are oppressed that the elites are forced to deal with the real root of injustice. Therefore, the oppression of white people must be the central focus of socialism.
The obvious problem here is that the elites are in no way anti-racist, and in fact vigorously resist identifying racism, or taking steps to remedy racist injustice. Racism isn’t a distraction from capitalist exploitation; it’s a mechanism via which capitalist exploitation is implemented, just as capitalism is a mechanism for racist exploitation and violence.
Cost-cutting neoliberal policies targeted Flint, Michigan specifically because the people in Flint are black, and people in power know that the suffering of black people is considered normal and acceptable to the white American public, of whatever class. Similarly, the racialization of poverty — the image of the welfare queen, of the black criminal, or of black homelessness — helps sell the idea that the poor deserve their fate, since racism makes it easy for white people to believe the worst about people of color.
Do capitalists embrace reparations in order to avoid structural changes to capitalism? Of course not, because reparations would require a massive redistribution of wealth downwards, which would make Sanders’ free college policy look like an anemic half measure for timid centrists. It’s not an accident that the single largest egalitarian transfer of capital in the United States was the (vacillatingly but still explicitly) anti-racist project of freeing enslaved people. Racism and capitalism in the United States cannot be untangled from one another. Focusing on the oppression of the white working class as a somehow purer socialist fight just means that you’re not willing to tackle the actual difficult work of confronting capitalism in the United States.
And this is ultimately the problem with the white working class. Not with the people who make it up — who, like all people, have various failings, prejudices, and virtues — but rather with the term and the concept. In Kilpatrick’s article, the “white working class” and the “working class” are shuffled in a familiar shell game. “Burying the White Working Class” is implicitly equated with “Burying the Working Class.” After all, as Kilpatrick argues, “The working class…is still really white.”
Liberals and elites are, supposedly, embracing anti-racism and letting select people of color into their ranks. Meanwhile the working class is denigrated by these same elites for its whiteness. In fact, reading Kilpatrick’s essay, it’s not always clear whether the white working class is more oppressed for being working class or for being white.
This is a confusion that is enthusiastically cultivated by the very pundits who Kilpatrick claims to despise. In the United States, the working class is compulsively imagined as white, and whiteness is compulsively imagined as a marker of working class authenticity. This is why Trump voters are seen as the essence of Americana, their opinions to be sought out 24–7. It’s why reporter Salena Zito could present a white suburban surgeon as the voice of the working class. And it’s why Trump himself is presented in the media as classless or as somehow an embodiment of anti-elitism. Trump is a real estate heir with millions to his name — but he spews vile white supremacist rhetoric and hates women, so he is considered a true voice of the working class.
Class in American imagination isn’t a measure of money or social status; instead, it is turned into a marker of your proximity to whiteness.
Whiteness undermines class solidarity and class analysis. In celebrating the white working class, Kilpatrick thinks that he is celebrating the working class in its entirety. But he isn’t. What he’s doing is erasing working class people of color, reaffirming that race is more important than class, and celebrating the power of whiteness — a power that, Kilpatrick’s earnest pleading aside, will never be used for liberation.
The white working class will never be the engine of socialism in the United States. The engine of socialism will be the working class — period. Whiteness, as a conceptual modifier, supports capitalism; if your focus and sympathy is the white working class, then you’re expressing solidarity with capitalist hierarchy and exploitation, whatever your claims to the contrary.
It’s only when we’ve buried the white working class that the working class can rise.
This essay will appear in the forthcoming book, Chattering Class War: Punching Pundits from Chait to Chapo and Brooks to Breitbart.