“White workers have not only failed to precisely identify their class enemies, they have also held on to the racial baggage of their ancestors.”
It has happened to all of us. There are no good games or movies on, so we default to MSNBC. We have entered Talking Head World which is populated by, among other species, obviously intelligent and earnest Africans of the millennial persuasion who endlessly spout the Democratic Party line with ease and passion. We shake our heads and think to ourselves: “If only these kids were committed to the revolution…”
Young black Democratic Party pawns who honestly believe electoral politics is the only viable route to improvement of their community’s condition just might see the error of their ways if they honestly examine the system’s many contradictions. In fact they need only take a hard, analytical look at one aspect of the Democratic Party’s program -- the effort to win back the support of white working class voters -- to be convinced they are wasting their time and energy.
They should ask why Democrats lost white working class voters in the first place. It has been suggested by some that both Obama and Trump received Heartland America’s support because of a perception that the political establishment is indifferent to the decline of manufacturing and mining and the consequent pain of workers in the Rust Belt and the Allegheny and Appalachian mountain regions. It is believed that workers have looked for an unconventional champion, and both Obama and Trump were wrongly perceived as transformative figures ready to disrupt the conventional politicians’ business-as-usual. Support for both was rooted in desperation and despair.
“Both Obama and Trump were wrongly perceived as transformative figures ready to disrupt the conventional politicians’ business-as-usual.”
Although Obama won white workers’ votes, he was abandoned by them when he failed to deliver. Support for Trump endures in the face of continuing worker pain. Many say this unwavering support for Trump is all about race. The nutshell explanation is that Trump exploited white fears and insecurities, and through the use of lies and stereotypes convinced supporters that he will make America white again, and that he is a bulwark against what they regard as the swarm of colored rabble crossing the borders, and the one who stands tall against the black troublemakers who are already here. There is truth in this explanation, but it does not go far enough. To truly understand what is happening, an analysis of the historical “White Experience” is necessary.
As with any racial demographic, the white population is not monolithic. This has been true from the beginning. Contrary to the beliefs of many, all whites in the antebellum South were not slave owners. In today’s money, the cost of a single healthy African was often $20,000 or more. This meant that staffing an agricultural force for a large plantation required a fortune – money that most white southerners didn’t have. Only the white elite enjoyed the luxury of plantation life, while a significant majority of whites did not. Some toiled on their farms alongside the one or two Africans they could afford to buy. Many others had only their own hands to work the land. An even smaller number of individuals with trades or professions lived lives that might be characterized as middle class. However, a large number of white southerners were dirt poor. If they were not homeless, their subsistence wages received for hard labor permitted a quality of life that was not very different from that of enslaved Africans.
“A large number of white southerners were dirt poor.”
Poor whites experienced abuse from the white elite. The term “white trash” emerged during this period, and later many were called “lint heads” because exhausted white workers staggered out of textile mills at the end of their lengthy shifts covered with cotton fibers. Meanwhile, enslaved Africans were engaged in perpetual rebellion (escapes, insurrections, destruction of crops and equipment, assaults, etc.) Even though poor white workers had every reason to stand with enslaved Africans to oppose an oppressive elite class, it didn’t happen. The reason was explained in a 1906 commentary published by The Broad Axnewspaper:
“In the United States the poor white were encouraged to hate the Negroes because they could then be used to help hold the Negroes in slavery. The Negroes were taught to show contempt for the poor white because this would increase the hatred between them and each side could be used by the master to control the other. The real interest of the poor whites and the Negroes were the same, that of resisting the oppression of the master class. But ignorance stood in the way. This race hatred was at first used to perpetuate white supremacyin politics in the South. The poor whites are almost injured by it as are the Negroes.”
White privilege – such as it was – for poor whites, was minimal, but strategically necessary to prevent a black/white alliance and preserve the dominance of the slave-owning elite. White workers might be paid a few pennies for their labor while Africans received nothing, and “crackers” received wages to crack whips across the backs of enslaved Africans. The privilege poor whites enjoyed was insignificant, but it was all they had. They were comforted with the knowledge that no matter how miserable their existence, there was always someone who occupied a lower status.
“Even though poor white workers had every reason to stand with enslaved Africans to oppose an oppressive elite class, it didn’t happen.”
As Africans made extraordinary political gains during Reconstruction and established prosperous enterprises, white workers’ jealousy and hatred grew and they engaged in racist violence, established the Ku Klux Klan, and in other ways sought white redemption in the face of the upward mobility of “uppity” blacks. Historically, the hostility of white workers toward Africans has intensified during periods when there is a perception of social, political and economic black progress that threatens to place white workers at the bottom of the U.S. caste structure.
This tendency explains white workers’ current xenophobia and racial antagonism -- but only partially. The white reality is a bit more complicated. Journalist Alec MacGillis explains that white workers are also freaked out by the disappearance of a quality of life their parents and grandparents enjoyed. When they look at their own lives: “…[t]he most painful comparison is not with supposedly ascendant minorities – it’s with the fortunes of one’s own parents or, by now, grandparents…And the bitterness – the ‘primal scorn’ – that Donald Trump has tapped into among white Americans in struggling areas is aimed not just at those of foreign extraction. It is directed toward fellow countrymen who have become foreigners of a different sort, looking down on the natives, if they bother to look at all.”
“The privilege poor whites enjoyed was insignificant, but it was all they had.”
In an odd sort of way, the white workers have finally recognized there is an elite group that creates problems for them, and because they believe this group is annoyed to no end by Trump, then supporting Trump becomes a strategic priority -- even when Trump supporters themselves are hurt in the process. However, white workers have not only failed to precisely identify their class enemies, they have also held on to the racial baggage of their ancestors and thereby frustrated any prospects for cross-racial political alliances.
What then becomes the responsibility of those Africans in America who understand the state of confusion that politically disables white working communities? Quite simply, it is to do nothing for them. Concerned, compassionate individuals may counsel white acquaintances and offer prayers to almighty God for the redemption of these confused souls, but Trump supporters’ ignorance, arrogance, bigotry, paranoia and groundless fears are far too complicated for oppressed communities of color fighting wars of their own to address collectively.
Even if Africans had the capacity to politically and socially rehabilitate white workers, the enterprise would take everyone on a journey to nowhere. Even with new white “allies” electoral politics would offer no potential for genuine black liberation because the electoral system has developed a role for Africans to play in a drama scripted to climax with black failure.
Ultimately, liberation will flow from organized revolutionary struggles by oppressed peoples to gain control of territory and valuable natural resources. Neither white workers nor the Democratic/Republican farce are remotely interested in that agenda, so at least for the moment, intelligent Africans will be well advised to work hard to organize African communities, and to simply ignore white political dysfunction.
Mark P. Fancher is an attorney who writes frequently for Black Agenda Report. He can be contacted at mfancher(at)Comcast.net.