History Shows Us What Happens When We Pander to the White Working Class (and It’s Not Good)

I wanted to share something really interesting I’ve learned from reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: there’s a distinct history of a) wealthy whites driving a wedge between poor whites and poor blacks to preserve class hierarchies that benefit those on the top and b) liberal/moderate politicians feeling pressured to pander to poor and working-class whites by giving in to right-wing racist policies that exploit their vulnerabilities and racial resentments.

As Alexander states:

“The most ardent proponents of racial hierarchy have consistently succeeded in implementing new racial caste systems by triggering a collapse of resistance across the political spectrum. This feat has been achieved largely by appealing to the racism and vulnerability of lower-class whites, a group of people who are understandably eager to ensure that they never find themselves trapped at the bottom of the American hierarchy.”

Here are some examples. Please note that everything I’m about to state in the numbered list here is paraphrased and summarized from The New Jim Crow and may include direct language that Alexander used in her book. I just want to make it very clear that I’m giving Alexander the full credit that she deserves. I also want to point out that I haven’t finished the book yet…I simply felt compelled to write this all down when it was freshest in my mind after reading these sections in the book. Following the numbered list I’ll include some additional commentary that is my own.

1. In the 1600s, white and black laborers revolted against the “planter elite,” condemning them for their oppression of the poor. In an effort to protect their status and economic position, the planters stopped relying so heavily on indentured servants and instead imported more black slaves—strategically, they had them shipped from Africa, knowing that they were less likely to be familiar with the European language and thus less likely to form alliances with poor whites. The planters then took an additional precautionary step by extending special privileges to poor whites to further drive the wedge between them and the black slaves. The status of poor whites hadn’t improved much, but—from their perspective—at least they weren’t slaves.

2. The late 1800s gave rise to the Populist Party, which sought to unite poor and working-class whites and blacks against the privileged classes conspiring to keep them in a subordinate political and economic position. It was a genuine multiracial, working-class movement against white elites. Threatened by the potential potency of this alliance, conservatives proposed segregation laws in part as a deliberate effort to encourage working-class whites to retain a sense of superiority over blacks. Ultimately, the Populist Party dissolved under this pressure and realigned with conservatives. This culminated in Jim Crow.

3. In the 1960s and 1970s, politicians (most notably, Nixon) worked to erode the belief among poor and working-class whites that the condition of the poor was the result of a faulty economic system that needed to be challenged. Instead, they deliberately pitted disadvantaged whites against disadvantaged blacks, feeding off of white resentment following recent racial reforms during the Civil Rights era.

4. In the 1990s, with the covertly racist War on Drugs in full swing thanks to Nixon and Reagan, liberal politicians felt pressure to show that they were just as tough on crime as their conservative opponents. The War on Drugs, which disproportionately targeted black men, was popular among poor and working-class whites who by that point had been convinced that black progress, civil rights enforcement and affirmative action were the root of their woes. In came Bill Clinton, who picked up right where his conservative predecessors had left off and developed policies that would result in the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history.

We now look back at all of these events in history and see them for what they are. Slavery, Jim Crow Laws, and the War on Drugs are widely regarded as racist and immoral. And now here we find ourselves at another similar point in history: we have a president who has exploited racial resentment and economic distress by scapegoating minorities. And then we have the mainstream liberals with their op-eds about the forgotten white working-class folks and the importance of catering their message to them.

But history shows us that when we pander to poor and working-class whites, it only deepens racial divides and gives rise to new racial caste systems.

That said, if we look even deeper, history also shows us something else—something that I believe is key to moving forward in a truly progressive and effective manner: there’s a distinct intersection between racism and classism in America that dates back to the 1600s. They’re so intertwined that we can’t really talk about one without talking about the other. We must acknowledge the deep history of wealthy and powerful whites driving a wedge between poor and working-class whites and blacks in order to preserve wealth and power. And we must find the strength to unite against that or risk history repeating itself…again and again and again.

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They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.

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I must admit that I’ve been neglecting my blog over the past couple weeks. Like many people in America, this election—and Donald Trump’s victory—has upset me to my very core. I’ve cycled through many different emotions: shock, denial, anger, sadness, fear, disgust, outrage, disappointment and more.

Since last Tuesday, I’ve focused on self-care, along with some simple but meaningful actions. I’ve contacted local representatives, signed petitions, donated money, and engaged in difficult conversations.

I’m not sure what else there is to say right now, but I want to make the following explicitly clear:

  • To my fellow women…I stand with you.
  • To LGBTQ folks…I stand with you.
  • To people of color…I stand with you.
  • To Muslims and Jewish folks…I stand with you.
  • To immigrants…I stand with you.
  • To disabled folks…I stand with you.

To anyone else who has been impacted by the victory of a dangerous, bigoted demagogue…I stand with you, today and always. We have a hell of a fight ahead of us, and I’ll be by your side the whole way.

I’m with her now

I’m supporting Hillary’s campaign. I signed up for her emails. I will vote for her. I will do what I can to convince those around me to vote for her.

I know this is an unpopular opinion, but I don’t hate Hillary. I like Bernie Sanders significantly more, but it didn’t work out. Bernie Sanders’ campaign is the first political campaign to which I’ve ever donated money. I donated frequently. $10 here and there because I truly felt inspired in a way that I never have before. I hope to have that again. I’m confident that Bernie’s progressive movement will continue, perhaps as a subset of the Democratic Party similar to how the Tea Party grew out of the Republican Party. I’m excited to see what’s next for the progressive movement.

In the meantime, I’m supporting Hillary. Not because she’s the lesser of two evils, although that’s a given. But because I agree with her on many of the issues and I truly believe that our country will be in a better place at the end of a Hillary presidency. I truly believe she will keep us steered in the right direction, just like Obama has. Does that mean that I agree with all of her stances or think she’ll improve on everything? No. But I also believe that perfect is the enemy of good, and I’m choosing to look at the big picture. No president – even Obama – has won me over with every single entire decision they’ve made. Hillary certainly won’t be unique in her inability to do so.

I’m more progressive than both Obama and Hillary. That’s the truth. But what I respect about the Democratic Party is that it continues to evolve. Sometimes it takes a long time – too long – for it to get there. But it does, for the most part. And I want to live in a country that keeps evolving and progressing, which is the exact opposite of what the Republican Party (Trump excluded, even) will give us.

I guess that’s just where I’m at.

Make America Safe

Donald Trump and the GOP love talking about “making America safe.” (The level of fear-mongering at the RNC this week has been insane. In Trump’s delusional universe, we are basically living in The Purge.)  But honestly, I’d like to make America safe, too. Let’s make America safe! Here are a few ideas off the top of my head:

  • Ban semi-automatic rifles and enforce common sense gun control.
  • Allow transgender people to use whichever bathroom is consistent with their gender identity.
  • Hold police officers accountable for murdering black people.
  • Provide immigrants with a path to citizenship so that they are no longer living in the shadows and being taken advantage of.
  • Acknowledge that climate change is real (what’s up, science?) and that it is likely the single biggest threat to mankind – and do something about it!
  • Join other first world countries in adopting single-payer healthcare so that people don’t have to set up a GoFundMe account just so they won’t die.
  • Stop trying to defund Planned Parenthood.

Because, you know, “making America safe” should mean making it safe for everyone – not just Christian white men.