This is a continuation of our interview with Prof. David Roediger, a scholar of whiteness in America. Click here to read Part I.
AS: So how do you think institutions and social movements (labor, civic organizations, churches, et cetera) can act to relieve the pressures that are fostering the chauvinism that stems from these ideas?
DR: I think we need to be very bold and we need to be willing to confront fascism where it does raise itself as a direct threat. But we also need to insist that whatever politics emerges from this doesn’t just defeat Trump, who will probably defeat himself and relatively soon.
The question is what comes after Trump? If it’s on the Republican side, Mike Pence, and if it’s on the Democratic side, some retooling of Clintonism. Both listen to white workers at their worst. That’s not a strategy to move forward. I am particularly hopeful about the labor movement these days, hopeful that there might be some mild resurgence in the labor movement.
The one thing Trump’s not wrong about is that in the United States people are aggrieved, and it certainly doesn’t stop with whites. It’s true that a lot of people feel miserable in this society, and so we really need broad and deep demands that address exactly that.
AS: What can or should be done to talk some sense into the middle-of-the-road Trump voter? There’s a lot of sensationalism that pigeonholes Trump voters, that does not admit there are people who are selfish and clearly apathetic to the nature of racism in America but they’re also not the proponents of what you see on Breitbart per se.
DR: Right, I think that’s a useful distinction to make.
But it doesn’t do, then, just to take people where they’re at and not point out how counterproductive and terrible their ideas are. Even the implications of those ideas for their own lives are terrible!
One tendency is to say, “Well, let’s not talk about white supremacy, let’s talk about all of the things that unite people,” so free college education, maybe you can win people to the Fight for $15 as a demand. I think that when you do that, to the extent that you put aside white supremacy, you never get to have the conversations that need to be had with working people.
I used to teach UAW [United Auto Worker] and Steelworkers summer schools a lot, sometimes for the unions, often for caucuses within the union. I’d go in and I’d ask, “Why would anybody want to be a ‘white worker’? What is it that makes people pair those two words and sometimes call themselves ‘white workers’?” And the groups were maybe 25 percent workers of color and 75 percent white. And immediately when I raised that question (I always did it right at the beginning), the white workers would chime in and they’d say, “Well, you can live wherever you want to, and you get a home loan and your kids go to decent schools.” And if it was the UAW, they would say, “You can get a job in the skilled trades” (at that time those were mostly closed to people of color).
What I took from that was that white average people, working people, do know what the material bases of white supremacy are. People have been moved toward positions by forces that, sometimes now on the alt-right, but sometimes in just the right wing talk radio sphere that the bold, courageous thing to say, since you can’t actually say anything to capital meaningfully in this country, is to talk this race-based anti-immigrant soft white supremacist line and I do think that we do need to not understand that and confront it and to say “Where has that led you? Where will this lead you?”
And I think if Trump stays in office for four years we’ll have a pretty good sample size, that industrial jobs aren’t coming back because of his policies, so again I think that the kind of politics that just says “let’s unite on what we can unite and leave these touchy cultural issues to the side” is not going to get us very far.
I live in Kansas. A fair number of Trump supporters are single-issue voters, either around guns or opposition to abortion. And so you can’t leave the culture issues aside, you’ll never win them unless you win them in part by talking through the cultural issues that they have decided are the most important things in their political lives.
AS: It’s very clear that in places like Appalachia and the hinterlands throughout this country, Euro-Americans are seeing their “wages of whiteness” come up short. I wonder if you have further thoughts on that because, since 2008, it’s not equivalent in any sense to what people of color or women are facing, but there is this austerity being taken out on them also.
DR: As much as the election results didn’t show it, the post-election mobilizations, particularly in West Virginia, are showing that there is some realization of that. By no means are those militants in West Virginia entirely white but they are aggrieved people who happen to be white. They’re not aggrieved because they are white (though some people in West Virginia may come to believe that) so I think that it is totally necessary and always has been necessary to have them be part of the conversation.
One of the things that I thought after the election, in terms of journalism, was almost everybody sent a camera crew to Appalachia after Trump was elected. Often they went to Hazard county and the great mine war areas of Kentucky and they’d find a poor person who was at risk of losing their ObamaCare.
The subtext of the story was that these people were stupid and they voted for Trump, now they are going to loose their healthcare. And a little bit of me wanted to say “But also ObamaCare wasn’t single payer, wasn’t socialized medicine, wasn’t anywhere near perfect, wasn’t available to all poor people.”
So there was this story that was wanting to be told about the stupidity of rural poor people. But then there was this story that wasn’t being told about the inadequacy of any kind of response within the Democratic Party to create something of a welfare state that was compelling enough that people would be sure that they needed to defend it and needed to vote for it and wouldn’t be taken in by a Trump.
So I think that those are going to be really interesting areas to look at as we move forward. I think that, in my fondest hopes, that those might be areas where teachers re-invent the strike in the United States, that if we could imagine not only the happenstance, that teachers are leading the biggest strikes, but if we could imagine them as organic intellectuals in small towns that can build the labor movement that talks about strikes and strikes more again.
That would be a wonderful thing in this society, to re-create the strike from below and in areas where it is probably illegal. It would be an incredible opening if teachers not only thought of striking on their own behalf but came to think of themselves as needing allies and wanting to lead a labor movement. I think that would be great!