White people aren't the enemy: Why social justice demands a rainbow coalition of minorities & poor whites

Black Lives Matter rightly spotlights racial injustices. But let's not pretend whites are living on Easy Street

Published August 25, 2015 11:58AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)
(Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

On average, whites are far better off than blacks. But the problem with averages is that they often conceal radically uneven distribution of the phenomena in question. This is certainly true of wealth among white Americans.

It is well-established that white people are overrepresented in the upper classes. And even within the middle class, whites are far more likely to own their own home, to own their own business, to send their kids to better primary schools and have them go on to college. By contrast, the children of most black middle-class families earn less than their parents when they reach adulthood, often sliding into poverty—and for blacks, college does little to ameliorate this trend. Among the lower classes, blacks are far more likely than whites to live in areas of “concentrated poverty,” which has a severe debilitating effect on social mobility.

However, the fact that blacks are so much worse off relatively speaking does not entail that white people are generally enjoying prosperity. Overall, 15% of Americans live in poverty—40% of these in “deep poverty.” An additional 30% of the total population lives just at the cusp of poverty. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Americans struggle with economic insecurity, and most will sink below the poverty line for some period of their lives. And these dynamics persist across generations, regardless for instance, of how hard people work: the rich stay rich, the poor stay poor.

A majority of America’s poor are white, as are a plurality of those receiving federal assistance. Why does this matter? Because poor white people seem to be a natural ally for the social justice movement. In fact, there is widespread support among this constituency for policies addressing inequality, enhancing social mobility, protecting social safety nets, and reforming drug and sentencing laws.

However, when crime and poverty are discussed in racialized terms, this dynamic changes completely: whites become far more likely to support stricter enforcement of the law and harsher sentencing. They also grow far more receptive to policies which erode safety nets for the poor and redistribute money to social elites. And this is not just a problem for old white men, these trends are just as prevalent among millennials.

Is this racist? Of course. But it’s easy to misunderstand what this means. At its core, racism is not about xenophobic reactions to difference, stereotyping people from other groups, or a sense of intrinsic superiority. Racism is about preserving a socio-economic order which privileges the majority group (in this case, whites) at the expense of minorities. And while hate can (and typically does) play an important role in justifying this cause, strictly speaking, it is not necessary: there are plenty of racists who do not hate black people, per se. Many may even have black friends and colleagues whom they hold in great esteem. But this does little to alleviate the gnawing, pervasive and persistent fear that the empowerment of minorities will ultimately come at the expense of whites. For those many white Americans already struggling (or failing) to keep their head above water or support their families, this prospect doesn’t just induce dread—it motivates resistance.

More than Hate

For contemporary racist movements, keeping down minorities is a means towards the end of preserving white dominance over society; it is rarely an end unto itself. Groups typically recruit people, not with hate, but by evoking love for one’s family, community and way of life, or else appealing to pride in one’s history, heritage and culture. The call is for white people to band together against the forces which threaten these—a mandate through which many find comradery and purpose. It’s counterintuitive perhaps, but the sales pitch for racism relies heavily on positive messaging. This is why so many who participate in ethnic nationalist and separatist groups are so sincerely convinced that they are not racist.

To the extent that negative emotions play a role in racist organizations, they appeal primarily to the generalized desperation, helplessness, and sense of foreboding that many whites feel--along with the desire to expropriate blame and direct (out)rage for one’s plight towards some perceived hostile “other.”  

Because the literature from these groups is rife with revisionist history, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, and problematic (or outright false and falsified) empirical claims, it is tempting to dismiss members as whackos or fools—but this would be a mistake. These elements cohere into a mythology which substantiates and reinforces the white identity that so many Americans believe is under siege—and in turn produces a community to protect it. Outsiders sniping at parts of this belief system merely reinforces this siege mentality and further polarizes adherents. The only way to really undermine these groups is to eliminate their raison d’etre.

And so the task of social justice advocates should be obvious: to convincingly argue and demonstrate to poor white Americans that it is possible to preserve or even improve their condition and at the same time raise up marginalized groups. Not only have activists miserably failed at this task, their message and tactics regularly alienate impoverished whites while confirming racist narratives. It should be no surprise then that ethnic nationalist and separatist movements have been rapidly expanding in America (and across Western democracies), while their ideology and methods are growing increasingly extreme, and increasingly effective. If the current dynamics continue unchecked, we should expect the problem to grow worse.

Fruitless Engagement

America’s demographics, economy and culture are evolving rapidly—and as the primary stakeholders in the current socio-economic order, white Americans believe they have the most to lose from these changes. As white privilege is increasingly critiqued and challenged, many have come to fear that minorities have become racist against them, that they are increasingly the victims of reverse-discrimination, and that whites will be increasingly marginalized and persecuted in the future as minorities continue to rise (often resting on the premise that these groups will act as a monolith).   

When they express these fears, adherents are immediately denounced as ignorant, bigoted or intolerant.  Meanwhile, their own culture is mocked and derided with total impunity: It is perfectly acceptable to denigrate impoverished whites as rednecks, hillbillies, trailer trash, white trash, and so on—to mock their religion, traditions, and even their suffering.

This is not to draw an equivocation—but to help illustrate the frame of reference that many white Americans are working from:

While often blamed for their own misery, blacks and other minority groups can ultimately point towards institutionalized racism, historical disadvantages, and contemporary prejudice to gain some sympathy. However, when impoverished whites are blamed for their own poverty (and for the poverty of minorities on top of it), there is little recourse. Millions of white Americans are struggling with unemployment, food insecurity, homelessness, substance abuse, lack of access to education, healthcare, mental health and social services, etc. But no one really cares.

In fact, whites often feel as though they don’t even have a right to express any hardships they face without being immediately reminded that others are worse off. When a white person has the audacity to include their own struggles in conversations about injustice or inequality, they often instructed that their proper role in these discussions is to listen contritely and then validate the grievances of minorities. While the moral imperative for this is certainly understandable, it is also easy to see why many grow frustrated:  if you are already struggling to get by, history lessons and statistics on white privilege do nothing to help put food on the table or keep the lights on.

The Politics of Spite

The antipathy impoverished whites often get from minority groups and their liberal white advocates is perhaps the single greatest cause for their resentment of “other” poor people. Because progressives typically look down on this constituency as ignorant, stupid or crazy, they tend to believe that right-wing politicians are duping poor white people into voting against their best interests—and accordingly, that they can “help” these lost souls “see the light” by presenting them with the relevant “facts” about racial inequality—oblivious that this kind of condescension is precisely the problem:

White voters know that GOP candidates will target the poor and bolster the wealthy; this is precisely what they are electing them to do. It is clear that some already-disadvantaged whites may become worse off in some respects (although the policies are often tailored to minimize this), but white voters are confident that “others” will be harmed far more. As a result, the position of white people, even poor white people, may be enhanced relative to the minorities who bear the brunt of these actions. In other words, this voting pattern is not illogical--it is a war of attrition to preserve the status quo.

While many impoverished white people may be tired of being the collateral damage of this struggle, there seems to be few alternatives. They have no faith that their views, priorities or interests would be respected in Democratic Party--and this is as much a result of the hostile posture and messaging from the left as it is of race-baiting propaganda from the right. Progressives need to get better at speaking to the interests of poor whites, acknowledging the challenges they face, and connecting white populism to other social movements.

Poor People's Crusade 2.0

Many of the problems being highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement have powerful salience for poor whites as well. For instance, a majority of those killed by police, including a plurality of those who are unarmed, have been white. While there are radical disparities between blacks and whites overall relative to their respective populations, this may be in large part because blacks tend to be disproportionately represented in the lower classes and whites in the upper. Were there sufficient data to control for income, I suspect that the rates would be much closer. It has already been well-established that within the black context, these problems are far more pronounced for poor African Americans than for their middle and upper-class contemporaries.

Similarly, one reason blacks are far more likely to end up in “the system” is because police operate most heavily in areas of concentrated poverty—which, again, tend to be overwhelmingly populated by minorities (this is why fair housing should be much bigger part of the conversation than it has been).  As a result, minorities are far more likely to be arrested, and to be arrested more than once—and penalties tend to grow stronger with each repeat offense, in large part due to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. This is explains much of the disparity between blacks and whites in terms of the prison population. In the courtroom, the conviction rate is roughly 95%, and the only variable which seems to make a large difference is money.

Poor whites have a huge stake in all of these problems. Their strong participation can help create a majority-coalition to override resistance from those most invested in the prevailing order; it can render the entire racist system less solvent. However, social justice becomes much more compelling for these constituents if framed as a populist uprising rather than a civil rights crusade.

It would be easy to view this as a deflection, but in fact, class tends to track along racial lines due to historical disadvantages, institutionalized racism, and cultural prejudices—and the already significant social disadvantages of class can be exacerbated for blacks by these same factors. As a result, addressing these class-related issues could have a huge impact on African Americans and other minorities without alienating white voters in the process.

Put another way: black people don’t need to forgive or ignore racism—we can achieve many (perhaps most) of our pragmatic goals in spite of racism by prioritizing class disparities instead. Of course, this is far less satisfying than having the horrific injustices through which the prevailing order was established not only validated by its primary beneficiaries, but rectified by them as well—with nothing to gain except the knowledge that we’d all be living in a more just and moral society. But this is not going to happen in any foreseeable future. Frankly, it’s a luxury that many white people feel they cannot afford given their own desperate situations. Attempting to guilt, shame or otherwise cajole these voters into supporting social justice initiatives will always be far less effective than appealing to their own interests, values, and frames of reference.

To be sure, there will be some issues which are more specific to racial (and/or sexual) minority groups and will gain less traction with these constituents. However, even many minority-specific problems will be at least partially alleviated by addressing economic imbalances. And ultimately, it will be easier to get white voters to care about the problems of “others” when they are not so fearful of their own fate: the central premise underlying the racist system is that minorities can only be empowered at the expense of the majority group (whites). If impoverished white Americans see their fortunes rise in tandem with minorities, they will be less susceptible to this racist messaging down the line--particularly to the extent that cooperation in pursuit of these reforms helps build trust and goodwill across communities.

In the near term activists should worry a lot less about changing hearts and minds, dedicating their energies almost exclusively to restructuring laws, systems, institutions and practices. Social justice advocates should be focused, first and foremost, on identifying convergent interests and forming coalitions around them--exchanging ideas, formulating concrete policies, and mobilizing a political consensus to address common problems. If engaged in good faith, and as part of a broad populist platform, poor white voters can be essential (perhaps decisive) for the success of the reform enterprise. Otherwise, they will likely continue to act as a spoiler—and all of us will be much worse off for it.

By Musa al-Gharbi

Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University. Readers can connect to his research and social media via his website: musaalgharbi.com

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