In 1991, Dr. David Roediger published The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, a book which “provides an original study of the formative years of working-class racism in the United States” and that is now seen as a cornerstone of academic studies in America. Working-class racism doesn’t just result from economic advantage, but “is underpinned by a complex series of psychological and ideological mechanisms that reinforce racial stereotypes, and thus help to forge the identities of white workers in opposition to Blacks,” says the summary of the book by Verso, its publisher. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
AS: Does the much discussed “white working class” even exist?
DR: Most of my work has been trying get people to take whiteness seriously and trying to get people to take the working class seriously but neither of these things showed up much in national discourse, Then after the Trump election, the term “white working class” — those two terms — got conflated and they seemed to explain everything about Trump’s victory. I’m a little suspicious of the idea that imagines the backward worker, often a rural worker, as the key to everything that’s reactionary in society.
But I’m also suspicious of too easily pairing “white” and “working class” and making it a kind of run-on phrase. Some working people claim “whiteness” as an identity as an alternative to being working class so people need to stop and say “Well, what does it mean if people are being called ‘white working class’? Are they more likely to inflect the ‘white’ or are they likely to inflect the ‘working class’?” In the United States, the temptation has always been to accent the ‘white’.
AS: Katie Grimes wrote a post for Women in Theology titled There Is No Such Thing As ‘The White Working Class. In it, she argued that those who distinguish between the white and non-white working class suggest that ‘racial identity and power trumps class position…One eradicates racism therefore not so much by denouncing racism but by explaining to working class whites why voting Republican or supporting the economic status quo would be bad for their pocketbook.‘ What are your thoughts on that?
DR: I mostly agree. In the past election, Trump strategists targeted Macomb County in Michigan, which is a largely white — people would say working class — area outside of Detroit. And they did it not by appealing on class grounds but on anti-immigrant and race grounds. In doing so they kind of followed a playbook from Bill Clinton’s pollsters in the 1990s and sought to win Macomb County by, as they put it, ‘listening to the concerns’ of white voters. Back then, the Democrats called that group “the white middle class.”
Neither party offers much on class grounds as part of their platforms and so when they begin to cater to “the white working class,” it involves listening to white working people at their worst.
As they think about in the 80s school busing and crime and welfare and code words for racism and, in the recent election, they think about immigration and imports, it really bespeaks a kind of impoverishment of any ability to talk about class in the United States in politics.
AS: With memes like “white genocide”, the so-called alt-right seems to be trying to build public support for a reborn and re-branded form of scientific racism. Its aesthetics are clearly borrowing from the alternative press created by the New Left and its anti-establishment logic. What do you think about this as someone who remembers both the New Left as well as the Goldwater and later Reagan campaigns for the presidency?
DR: The stance of being oppositional, that’s right, it’s not a very new thing except its organizational forms are new and its media is new. But the idea that there was this crisis of white middle class masculinity, go back to the movies of the 80s and you’re already seeing this ‘angry white man’, ‘aggrieved white man’, ‘left out white man’ theme.
You suggest Goldwater, I think you could take it back to that era and [Vice President Spiro] Agnew’s ‘forgotten majority.’ It presents itself in every generation as a kind of new and forbidden thing to say but actually it’s been a part of US political discourse and cultural discourse for probably half a century now and it just gets keeping recycled.
So the alt right is a nascent, rising project but also an old project that’s been part of the the flirtations of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, which is now all of the Republican Party.
Those are longstanding flirtations with a hatred of any criticism of whiteness.