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ANALYZING WHITE WORKING-CLASS RESENTMENTS
by Myriam Miedzian
AT SOME POINT in 2016, when it became apparent that a Trump presidency was not a joke but a serious threat to democracy, I was one of many on the left who were deeply perplexed. How could so many working-class and middle-class people be so stupid as to support this ignorant megalomaniac con artist billionaire demagogue whose deepest commitment was to huge tax cuts for the very rich, including himself? After the initial shock, I started to look for some real insight into what motivated these people. This led me to UC Berkeley Professor Emerita Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book, Strangers in Their Own Land. Over a period of five years, Hochschild, a long-time liberal, spent several months a year traveling to Louisiana and hanging out for months at a time with Tea Partiers who went on to become Trump supporters. By doing so, she hoped to develop a deep understanding of the underlying emotions that led them to think as they did. The book did not disappoint, and became even more important when these people succeeded in getting Trump elected.
Hochschild points to the “deep story” she heard time and again, as revealing the emotional foundation that led the people she got to know to vote for Trump. She writes: “In that story, strangers step ahead of you [in a long line leading to the realization of the American Dream] making you anxious, resentful, and afraid.” When you complain about being pushed aside, liberals who claim, unlike you, to be idealistic, accuse you of being “an ignorant redneck, a racist,” who lacks empathy for black people and immigrants.
“Economically, culturally, demographically, politically, you are suddenly a stranger in your own land,” and “under the watchful eye of the PC police . . .” So it is with great relief that you listen to Donald Trump who is “wildly, omnipotently, magically free of all PC constraints.”
The book made it clear that the majority of Trump supporters are not stupid and not part of antisemitic and racist Nazi groups. Racism, opposition to abortion, and clinging to traditional gender roles play a part for some, but primarily these people are enraged about what they experience as being pushed to the end of the line in terms of jobs and educational opportunities; being attacked by self-righteous leftwingers for being selfish, stupid, and racist; and being taxed by state and federal governments that did nothing to help them when their area became so polluted by industry that some had to move out of their homes. “I’ve been betrayed by the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources,” one man tells Hochschild -- a feeling shared by many. If we on the left are to do our part to ensure that never again will this country be placed on the verge of a fascist takeover, we need to take a close look at some of the policies that played a role in making so many working-class people so angry that they have moved away from the New Deal Democratic Party of FDR, which represented them for so many years.
On a personal level, reading Hochschild’s book brought back memories of leftist policies that troubled me starting in the 1960s, and no doubt impacted many who are now Trump supporters. Here are a few examples.
BUSING My concern with busing started when I was a graduate student at Columbia University, which is adjacent to Harlem. At the time, school busing was not yet mandatory -- that happened in 1971 -- but was strongly supported by leftists. When I found out that there was an elementary school a few blocks north of the campus, my first thought was that this was a perfect situation for providing quality integrated education. I assumed that Columbia parents -- I did not have children for another ten years -- would welcome the opportunity to help the integration process go smoothly, including making sure that neighborhood children got whatever help they might need to catch up with privileged children of academics. I was surprised and disappointed to find out that no efforts had been made in that direction. In my own department -- Philosophy -- liberal faculty members who lived in the neighborhood sent their children to private schools, including the Lycée Francais and the Dalton School.
Years later, when busing became mandatory, many highly-placed liberal proponents of busing -- including Senators Edward Kennedy and Birch Bayh, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and New York Times columnist Tom Wicker -- also sent their children to private schools. As did many of the judges who ordered busing.
How could working-class and middle-class Americans not feel that the well-being of their children was being ignored when they were asked to make enormous sacrifices for the benefit of African-American children, and were called racist if they disobeyed, when even the most high-profile liberals were not willing to make those sacrifices themselves? Their outrage had to play a role in many moving away from liberal positions and politicians.
AFFIRMATIVE ACTION At first, I applauded it -- it seemed like a small token of reparations to African Americans. But as white working-class young people started filing lawsuits (by 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that public universities and institutions could not save a set number of admissions or employment positions for blacks or other minorities, but they could set goals for diversity), I began to have some doubts, which increased when it became apparent that upper-middle-class blacks were often among the benefactors of affirmative action. There was nothing new about upper-class kids getting a jump-start. Children of alumni who are often donors to their alma mater have long enjoyed “affirmative action” -- George W. Bush got into Yale with a 1206 SAT score. Applicants whose very wealthy parents make donations to a university enjoy affirmative action -- Jared Kushner’s parents smoothed his way into Harvard with a $2.5 million pledge. An administrator at the private high school Jared attended commented that “his GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it.” And then there’s affirmative action for talented athletes.
So why don’t white working-class parents and applicants complain about these forms of affirmative action which clearly push them back in the line? In the case of legacies, they may be unaware of them. When it comes to talented athletes, since competitive sports are considered all-important by much of the population, they may not mind.
But whether or not they are aware of any other beneficiaries of affirmative action, their focus on blacks is best understood in the context of the common working-class white belief that special treatment of black Americans in all areas -- education, workplace, aid to women and children, etc. -- is a leftwing priority, while working-class white Americans are ignored. Whatever the motivation -- racism in some cases -- this belief plays a large part in leading people to support Trump.
Martin Luther King, Jr. foresaw this animosity. In 1964, he wrote: “It is my opinion that many white workers whose economic condition is not too far removed from the economic condition of his black brother will find it difficult to accept a ‘Negro Bill of Rights,’ which seeks special consideration to the Negro in the context of unemployment, joblessness, etc., and does not take into sufficient account their plight (that of the white worker).”
Andrew Young, former Georgia congressman and mayor of Atlanta and a leading civil rights activist who was with Dr. King when he was assassinated, recently made a similar point with respect to removing racist statues and monuments. In an August NPR interview, he pointed out that the civil rights movement, in order to succeed, needed and got a 60 percent majority of the country to support it. This could not have happened if the black minority, instead of seeking to integrate lunch counters and open job possibilities, had made demands and taken actions that directly provoked the white majority. As Young sees it, present-day demands that racist statues and monuments be destroyed do just that. If the political turn to the right continues, taking down statues of Martin Luther King could be next. Columbia professor Mark Lilla, in his 2017 book, The Once and Future Liberal, also points to the need to win over -- not alienate -- a majority of voters in order to bring about societal change. He argues that “identity liberalism does just the opposite.”
One need not agree with all the gripes and accusations of the “Trumpists” to conclude that from a purely practical, but also ethical, perspective, it is time to switch to affirmative action for the children of all Americans whose earnings fall below a certain minimum.
Instead of low-cost band-aid solutions such as busing or affirmative action -- which even large percentages of African Americans oppose -- isn’t it time to provide early childhood support for working-class parents and their children, to encourage them to focus on the importance of education, which is essential to children doing well later on in school?
Some on the left will respond that this will not work for black children because racism is the problem. But there are far too many counterexamples to this assumption. Many underprivileged black children have succeeded in school in spite of racism.
The example that invariably comes to mind when I focus on this issue is that of an African-American woman I interviewed for Generations, a 1997 book I co-authored with my daughter, Alisa Malinovich. Josie Gilchrist Anderson was born in 1946 and raised in Mississippi. She and ten of her siblings went to college, and the brother who didn’t, finished high school. Their mother -- her father abandoned the family -- was a cook with an 8th-grade education who sometimes had to go on welfare. She put numbers and letters on a torn pasteboard box nailed to a wall, and made sure that the children learned them. By the time they started school, they all knew their alphabet and numbers. Once they were in school, the same thing happened with reading and math.
Is it an accident that the two groups whose children -- including working-class children -- do extremely well in school are Asian and Jewish? Both come from cultures that place enormous importance on education.
BILINGUAL EDUCATION Back in the early 1970s, I lived in New York and was friendly with a person who worked for the New York City-based Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, renamed LatinoJustice PRLDEF. The work the fund did combating prejudice against Puerto Ricans sounded great, but when he told me that one of their major goals was bilingual education, my reaction was anything but supportive. “It’s a terrible idea,” I remember responding. I haven’t changed my mind. The dropout rates for Hispanic students has not declined since bilingual education was instituted. Three years was supposed to be the maximum time spent in bilingual programs, but some children are being kept in for six years, including the children whose parents -- 150 of them -- filed a lawsuit to get their children out of this program. They lost. Teachers and principals opposed them. It’s inevitable -- once a program is established, it is very difficult to get rid of it; large numbers of people have an interest in keeping it going.
My negative reaction to bilingual education was undoubtedly influenced by the fact that I grew up in Belgium, where French-speaking and Flemish-speaking citizens have been at each other’s throats for years. There is even a secession movement in Flanders, and some stirrings in a small German-speaking area. Several Belgian governments have collapsed over language issues.
As I see it, what has kept the U.S. coalition of immigrants -- and those brought here as slaves and indentured servants -- from around the world functioning as well as it has is sharing one language, the melting pot goal, and respect for our civic and legal traditions. Multiculturalism is fine when it is limited to respecting customs and traditions of one’s native or ancestral country, as long as they are in accordance with American civic values and our legal system. But many immigrants’ countries of origin do not share these traditions. For example, in many countries women do not have equal rights, or the right to self-determination. In some cases, young American teenage girls are forced into marriages with men they do not know and who sometimes live in foreign countries. Female genital mutilation is a federal crime but is still being practiced here in the U.S. -- two Michigan physicians and an assistant were charged recently, in 2017, for performing this surgery on 6- to 9-year-old girls. Some parents take their girls to Africa for the procedure.
What do immigrants speaking English and multiculturalism have to do with voters’ attraction to Trump? “You are suddenly a stranger in your own land,” is one of the comments Hochschild heard frequently. When these people’s ancestors came to this country, they were eager to have their children speak English and “melt in.” Doesn’t the celebration of multiculturalism and the use of their native language by immigrants and their children play a role in turning them against immigration?
In an Associated Press article about Miami becoming a Spanish city, with many English-only speakers moving out, a Miami librarian in her sixties states that she fears that the area “will be like a branch of Latin America.” “I do resent the fact that people seem to expect that the people who live here adjust to their ways, rather than learning English and making adjustments,” she said. “Obviously I don’t expect an older person to learn to speak English, but younger people come in and they don’t seem to make much of an effort to learn to adapt to this country and they expect us to adapt to them.”
TRUMP’S ELECTION raises considerable doubt about the wisdom of enacting measures aimed at correcting past injustices if they are likely to bring about an intense sense of injustice among a significant part of the population. The ensuing envy and rage can lead people to abandon any semblance of critical thinking and follow the worst demagogues.
A Trump presidency focused on undoing most of the Democratic Party achievements starting with the New Deal, empowering antisemitic and racist fascists, and leading us away from our most basic democratic traditions, will bring about negative consequences that far outweigh the gains made by many of the policies that led to so much envy and anger.
If, as research indicates, political decisions are driven far more by emotion than reasoning, surely the political left should be taking into consideration the emotional effect of policies -- and language -- on others, and ensuing consequences. When Dr. King warned about the probable reaction of white workers to a Negro Bill of Rights, he was indulging in what I would call Psychological Realpolitik. We on the political left need to make it a major part of our thinking.
Dr. Myriam Miedzian (myriammiedzian.com), a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a former philosophy professor who writes frequently on social, cultural, and political issues. She is the author of Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking The Link Between Masculinity and Violence, among other books. This article was published at Huffington Post and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.