“These people who are voting for Trump are just racist idiots. How do they vote against their own economic interests!”
Yes. Some poor whites are racist. In my experience, it depends on the region of their origin and their own experience with poverty and race. By way of example, North Highlands, where I come from, is so racially diverse that there was no racial majority, it was a near even split between white, Latino, Black and Asian (I hate summing up the groups in this manner because there are specificities that matter but I don’t have time to deal with that in this post). The fact that I grew up in a racially diverse neighborhood that was culturally urban and had a very radical upbringing has drastically shaped my views. The vast majority of white people I interacted with as a child were not racist and a large number of them had been part of anti-racist movements in their youth. Which means, folks, that the best way to solve racism is probably racially integrated schools and good education.
Now, let’s consider the other possible setting for poor whites, Rio Linda. Rio Linda is 15 minutes from my house and it is changing, but it is mostly rural and white. The people there aren’t as poor, but they have limited context for understanding their poverty in the context of a racist system (remember that when I had questions and was learning about race, I had my mom and friends, they don’t). They get made fun of in culture, when we acknowledge they exist, they don’t have access to things like decent schools and healthcare. They live in a food desert. The Democratic Party spends most of their time either ignoring their existence or mocking them publicly without ever explaining how their programs benefit these people.
So we’ve got a group of angry, disenfranchised people who are hungry and uneducated.
Then the Republicans come along and say, “hey, listen, we are on your side and those other people are out to get you and the reason you are in your situation is because of these people that you compete for jobs with over here.”
If you are in that position you might really start to hate the people you are competing with and you are going to be more inclined to vote for the people who claim to be on your side.
I’m not justifying this. It’s terrible, but racism is taught and its systemic. So is classism. These people still need to have their racism challenged, but challenging this group of people on racism is VERY different from challenging your white friends in class at an Ivy League institution. They have a completely different set of motivations, needs, and cultural experiences. They even speak a completely different dialect. If you try to interact with poor whites the same way you do with wealthy white people, you aren’t going to get anywhere because they have experienced the world in fundamentally different ways. When a poor white person is racist, shouting “privilege” from your Ivy League campus won’t get you anywhere. But fortunately, I know what will get you places with this group of people. If you approach the race conversation with these people from an ethos of love, that acknowledges that they struggle in the system too (no, not in the same way, but significant ways, being hungry is a kind of brutal suffering you can’t imagine unless you’ve had to do it) they will actually listen to arguments about why race is a social construct they should be fighting.
Inviting poor whites in the conversation doesn’t have to take anything from race. Poor whites are victims of a system that pits them against their neighbors and they don’t have to be, but we, on the left, would have to change the way we talk about these people and interact with them. How do I know this? Because I know the conversations and readings that happened with me to help me understand my context, even in the situations where I was under threat of physical violence because of my race (it is true that poor white kids growing up in nonwhite neighborhoods are frequently the victims of violence? Why? The same forces that make poor white people racist, competition over resources pits the poor against each other…. its how racism works).
And at minimum, if you have a college degree and especially if you have a degree from an elite institution, you need to be aware that you have more privilege than these people have. That privilege doesn’t negate white privilege in the slightest, but it matters quite a lot for how you see and experience the world. It’s not ok to walk into a poor area of any group of people with your Stanford degree and start lecturing them on race and poverty. You’d actually be amazed at how much those people already know if you’d listen, and you’d also be amazed by how easy it is to convince the group of poor whites that does channel their anger into racism that its not their neighbors who are the problem with the right information and some empathy.
In no way am I suggesting that it is black people’s responsibility to do this work. Obviously, it helps the conversation a lot if black people are willing to have these conversations but it’s not their job. But I do want to take the elite left to task here. We can do better. We have all the arguments to do better and doing better does not mean taking anything else away from other marginalized groups, it’s a simple language and cultural shift that would allow us to make a better case for why racial and economic justice is beneficial for all.