The “white working class” does not exist: Thinking through liberal postracialism

20th Sep, 2017

Terry McAuliffe 12 August 2017 Charlottesville

Michael Bray

 

Michael Bray is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Southwestern University. His article, “Rearticulating Contemporary Populism: Class, State, and Neoliberal Society” appeared in Historical Materialism 23:3 (2015). His monograph, Powers of the Mind: Mental and Manual Labor in the Political Crisis, is forthcoming from transcript in Fall 2018. He is also working on a manuscript for a second book, The People in Crisis: A Historical-Materialist Theory of Contemporary Populisms.

On August 12th, in the wake of the racist, murderous violence in Charlottesville, VA, the white, liberal Governor of the state, Terry McAuliffe, steps before the cameras to denounce “white supremacists and Nazis.” “Go home,” McAuliffe tells them, “You are not wanted in this great commonwealth. Shame on you. You pretend you are patriots, but you are anything but a patriot.” Behind him, on the right edge of the screen, the African-American Vice-Mayor of Charlottesville, Wes Bellamy (wearing a “Menace II Supremacy” t-shirt), nods repeatedly and emphatically. But then McAuliffe continues: “You want to talk about patriots, talk about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, who brought our country together.” Bellamy stops nodding immediately, his face resolving itself into blankness. Afterwards, liberals celebrate McAuliffe presenting his speech as a counter-model to Trump’s ambivalent response, which barely masks his sympathy to the “Unite the Right” ralliers (Later, of course, that sympathy will be made plain). No one mentions Bellamy, who, unlike everyone else standing behind McAuliffe, is not invited to speak. The tortured logic of McAuliffe’s assertion that the slave-owning plantocracy of the early Republic is a model for the “patriots” we need to ward off white supremacy today appears invisible to everyone but Bellamy, who is himself more or less invisible.

This tableau is emblematic of the character of racial liberalism today and of the impotence of its response to the resurgence of white nationalism. Like all such political logics (or ideologies), this one holds together not through its internal coherence but, at least in part, through its projection onto an imagined figure to whom the speech is addressed, a “subject supposed to believe,” who provides the needed coherence precisely by believing that it is there (or, rather, by the speaker believing that that subject, which does not exist, believes). McAuliffe’s claim signals as much in its final phrase: Washington and Jefferson “brought our country together.” Who is this us that they bring together today by having brought us together in the past? Who is the subject McAuliffe (described in The New York Times in 1999 as “Mr. Clinton's closest and most loyal Washington friend as well as his tireless money man”) is enjoining? Not one that includes Bellamy, it would seem.

Read in the general context of the liberal response to Trump’s surprise election, the addressee in question is clear enough: it is “the white working class.” One can imagine the implicit thought process that went on in the mind of McAuliffe or of whoever wrote his speech: “we want to invoke some “patriots” here, native Virginians, but nothing too controversial, nothing that might alienate white working people.” In the wake of last November, much has been made of that group’s anger and proclivity for racism. “The mainstream narrative…is that Trump rode a wave of white working-class resentment, mobilizing traditional nonvoters as well as alienated blue-collar Republicans and Democrats.”[1] Breaking the “postracial” spell of Obama’s electoral victories, that resentment, if generally understood to be catalyzed in some manner by political-economic shifts, has also been taken to express intrinsically atavistic, pathological forms of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Jefferson and Washington the white working class can unite around; even the sanitized version of King, on the other hand, might be too much.

If the “white working class” is held responsible for the fracturing of “postracial” peace, however, I want to argue that this same imaginary figure was central to the imposition of that “peace,” which claimed to settle racial inequalities while leaving unchallenged their structural reproduction. The white working class is not only the imagined addressee of McAuliffe’s speech but of liberal (post)racial discourse in general. Why, after all, has this fixation on the white working class endured, insofar as the working class itself has become increasingly racialized? Why not a concern with the large proportion of African Americans and latino/as (and, for that matter, poor whites) who simply do not vote? Or a concern with the large percentages of wealthy and professional whites who voted for Trump? Or a reckoning with why the professional, postracial left increasingly seems to alienate people of all races, especially youth? Why is the specter of the white working class continually invoked? Why are liberal still addressing it? Sketching out the history of racial liberalism that led us to this moment will provide at least part of an answer. As a "subject-supposed-to-inexplicably-and-pathologically-believe" in racist theory, it allows liberals to simultaneously believe themselves to be antiracist, deny their denial of racial history, and do nothing much about the racial structures they help to reproduce. Seeing this connection clarifies both the weakness of liberal responses to the resurgence of white supremacy and why a genuinely anti-racist response to this resurgence must include having done with the trope of the “white working class.”  

Racial liberalism and racial pathologies

Today’s liberal postracialism descends in key respects from "racial liberalism," the consolidated form of “official antiracism”[2] in the post-war United States, which responded to the dual pressures of black freedom and anti-colonial struggles in the context of the Cold War. Bearing the marks of its statist allegiances, racial liberalism aspired to nothing less than “a new master theorem of race relations that was interpretively progressive but not socially destabilizing.”[3] A collaborative project of the US state, capital, and university-credentialed knowledge workers, that theorem received its ur-form in An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, a large-scale research study funded by the Carnegie Foundation, coordinated and authored by the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, and published in 1944.[4] 

In the terms of this theorem, evolving racial justice represented “the gradual realization of the American Creed,” a teleological process in which the U.S. moved ever closer to fully actualizing the values of liberty and equality. It was this intrinsic national trajectory and its dawning realization of racial justice that qualified the United States for the task of “international leadership” in a decolonizing world. “America saving itself becomes savior of the world.”[5]

The means for this salvation were to be a program of “social engineering,” overseen by the professional-managerial administrators of the state, educational apparatuses, and philanthropic institutions.[6] Given the naturalness of the American Creed, departures from it had to involve pathological beliefs, attitudes, and prejudices, which, for Myrdal, were primarily identified with “poor and uneducated” whites in “backward” parts of the South. The struggle against it was to be waged by and within individual white souls and the heroes of that pedagogical struggle were to be white liberals. In this way, racial liberalism renewed white privilege by constituting the white liberal American as the most felicitous member of the U.S. nation-state on the grounds of his or her liberal antiracist disposition. Myrdal set the stage for a new, heroic form of liberal whiteness…To be American is to occupy the place of the universal subject – for which whiteness was once the synecdoche—with the authority to intervene into, order, and rationalize whatever such universality entailed.[7]

To be American is to be a (white) liberal knowledge worker, whose interests are identified with a nationalized “universal” interest: the global hegemony of the U.S. state. Official anti-racism was achieved only by identifying it with that hegemony, “explicitly requir[ing] the victory and extension of the U.S. empire, the motor force of capitalism’s next unequal development.”[8]

This naturalizing identification of white liberals, capitalist accumulation, the U.S. state, and racial justice identified racist practices as unnatural, productive of pathology. For Myrdal, this meant that the source of white pathology was, in fact, racist treatment of blacks. If the American Creed was intrinsic to all (white) Americans, as he claimed it was, then racist acts produced a form of psychic dissonance that could only be assuaged by “the race dogma”: “The need for race prejudice is, from this point of view, a need for defense on the part of Americans against their own national Creed, against their own most cherished ideals.”[9]  Blacks, as the objects of that treatment were also pathologized but in an even more striking (and stigmatizing) way. Since the “very definition of the ‘Negro race’…is a social and conventional, not a biological concept,”[10] the only politico-cultural existence of that race as a group is identical with its pathological reaction to white racism. “In practically all its divergences, American Negro culture is not something independent of the general American culture. It is a distorted development, or a pathological condition, of the general American culture.”[11]

These dual pathologies became the central figures of racial liberalism, undercutting its projected Creedal and cultural unity: the becoming-“middle-class” of poor and uneducated whites and the becoming-white of black people. However, these figures were not equivalent, as Naomi Murakawa notes: “For white people, racism was an irrationality, a pollution to the real self. For black people, racism was an injury, a disfigurement of psychological development and therefore constitutive of the real self.” The white working class, thus, was the addressee of liberal racial discourse, meant to be educated by it, summoned back to its “true self”; black people were only its objects. This non-equivalence not only left racial liberalism ambivalent about what, ultimately, was to be done with or to black people to bring them into the American Creed, it also underpinned a “political strategy of compelling reform by making black people seem damaged or potentially violent.”[12] For liberals, this portrayal was initially intended to be a strategy that would compel whites’ self-interest towards deracializing state policy: defending civil rights, addressing poverty, dispensing neutral procedures of criminal justice, would ultimately produce law and order as well. Under pressure from conservatives, it would become the justification for a “race neutral” politics of law and order, surveillance and discipline, that would occlude its ongoing reproduction of racial inequalities and racialized state violence.

The threat of postracialism

In this light, we might say, the origins of postracialism lie in the simultaneous defense of “law and order” and assault on the welfare state that defined the beginnings of the conservative break with Keynesianism and racial liberalism. The translation of racial liberalism into postracialism would, in a sense, require only the denial of racial history altogether: reframing social relations on the schema of rational choices made in competitive markets, removing them from the weight of history and its structures. Divorced from the history of racial injustice, the neoliberal reaction could, by insisting on the nonracial legal and political forms of equality which racial liberalism had legislated, make them work towards racializing effects of a deniable form. Racial liberalism could be stripped of its ambivalence – the guilty sense of history that motivated welfare benefits and affirmative action – by freeing it from history. Racism was not a set of historical structures but, as liberalism had already suggested, an individual pathology. Only where such pathologies had come from was no longer of interest.

Thus, postraciality “committed to erasing any racial categorization or naming by public institutions, while protecting private racial arrangements and expression.”[13] Private expressions are protected by the erasure of the categories by which they could be judged as racist. “Absent racial terms, intentionality no longer has to be denied. It simply can be said never to have crossed my mind.”[14] If you think the politics of law and order are really about race, then that’s on you. Perhaps you are the racist you accuse me of being? “Those who keep talking about race are the racists.” Meanwhile, elect us and we will go about cleaning up the streets which we all know are crime-infested, the people who we all know are suspicious, irresponsible, lazy, etc., etc. Losing its historical legacy, racism goes viral yet never comes wholly into focus. Loosed from their historical origins in racial injustice, the unequal, structured outcomes of racialization become so much evidence for privatized racisms to present themselves as forms of realism. “I’m not racist, but…”

Those who fall under such suspicion bear the responsibility and pay the cost. If Keynesianism was haunted by the social revolution,[15] postracialism (or racial neoliberalism) is haunted by the post-colonial revolution, “the threat of race.”[16] Only, where Keynesianism sought to temper its fear through the economic functions of the state, the provision of a material substratum for consent, racial neoliberalism seeks to make the concrete object of its fear disappear, writing “race” out of public conceivability, extending segregation in neighborhoods and schools without legal codifying it, consigning racialized men to prisons, turning discretely away as racialized women drop off welfare rolls to who knows where, rendering their lives unprotected, expendable. Shorn of publicly relevant history, that fear itself is privatized, naturalized, made to appear “rational” as a “choice” in the self-maximizing split second in which one glimpses a woman on the ground reaching for her cell phone or a twelve-year old boy holding a toy gun.

Liberal postracialism and “the white working class”

For liberals, this trajectory into a postracial world has presented enormous intellectual difficulties. Having provided so many of its foundational terms, institutional and legal structures, it becomes unclear how (or even if) they can resist it. All the more so, since they have gone so far in embracing the very political economy of neoliberalism, with its heightened emphasis on and rewards for individualism and “merit” displayed in competition. Still, t \hey have become vaguely anxious about the carceral and workfare state they helped to produce and legitimate.[17] They remain discomfited by the increasing private-public expressions of (deniable) racism, especially as they come to be spoken from the office of the Presidency.

As much as the 1970s represented the start of a conservative backlash against Keynesian hegemony, it also represented the crystallization of a trajectory in liberal politics away from the working class. Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s a discourse of the working class as undermined by its own supposed affluence, as “essentially integrated, inside the system, and outside social dynamics of change” coalesced and became the legitimating narrative for the increasing control of liberal professionals over the Democratic party and its policy priorities. The McGovern campaign of 1972 – the first Democratic campaign to do better with white-collar than blue-collar workers – “offered a precursor to the Democratic Party’s growing commitment to knowledge workers and economic policies that touted the government’s stimulation of private high-tech industry.”[18] Ironically, this shift occurred at the same time as a large influx of African Americans and women into unions and unionization struggles, as the result of civil rights and feminist struggles.[19] But it would come to be remembered as a kind of inevitability – not only because of the necessary trajectory of global capital, but also as an outcome of union bureaucratization, white workers’ enduring racism and support for the Vietnam war, etc.

Something of the perversity of the liberal position is captured in the identification of support for the Vietnam war with the white working class.[20] Here, liberal knowledge workers assign blame for a neo-imperialist project of the state (the incarnation of mental labor as separated from manual, as Poulantzas put it[21]) to the supposed conservatism and racism of manual laborers. The same logic has become operative regarding postracial “racism without race.” Unwilling to simply accept privatized racism, yet also unwilling to move towards either any full-scale reckoning with the structural character of racism or an embrace of racial resistance in the streets, liberals have held fast to the vision of the state and of knowledge workers as de-racialized mediators. Yet, racial history (the history of the racial state) has institutionalized whiteness in every aspect of our political economy, in every apparatus of the state, be it mortgage assistance, social services, the neo-imperial projects of the military (which, in its way, remains most committed to the integrationist vision that project requires for legitimation), criminal justice and the legal system, education, the geography of our cities and country, the heroic figures of our imagination, etc.

Liberals tend to imagine they stand outside all of this,[22] that their commitment to procedural neutrality is at least enough to ameliorate its worst effects until the moral arc of pedagogy makes us all partisans of that neutrality. But they can hold to this faith, in the meantime, only by projecting the inevitably racist outcomes of state and pedagogical procedures onto the pathological desires of some other subject, once again, the “white working class.” In this way, liberals can present themselves not so much as initiating or condoning racial logics as either moderating them, under immense pressure to which they must occasionally bend if they are to remain “electable,” or transcending them, standing apart as moral witnesses in academia and other cultural apparatuses.

For liberals, atavistic racism in the post-civil rights era is a pathology of “the white working class” – a discourse conservatives were happy to bend, refigured in a positive valence, in their own “postracial” directions (paired with a critique of liberal knowledge workers). Only now, given that we live in a post-civil rights era and a “knowledge society” of mass education and free information, that pathology seems less and less explicable as a mere “pollution to the real self.” It seems increasingly that, for poor and ignorant whites, as originally (and still) for blacks, that pathology is understood to be intrinsic, definitive of their “real selves.” Its class consciousness fragmented, along with its unions, the white working class comes to be defined by its pathologies. There’s little sense of social pedagogy in liberal discussions of the “stupidity” and “ignorance” of those who voted for Trump.

Never mind that most of the story about the “white working class” is untrue or, at best ambiguous. The evidence available suggests that Trump’s support did not come overwhelmingly from white manual laborers, that the average income and wealth levels of Trump’s supporters were higher than those for most recent Republican candidates and for all but one of his primary rivals.[23] Likewise, it appears that Clinton lost many more white working class voters (while also losing the votes of people of color) in the Rust Belt than Trump gained,[24] while “not more than half of the working class even voted.”[25] Today, as in the 1970s-1980s, “the typical working-class response in the United State is to abstain.”[26] Moreover, there continues to be little evidence that the white working class is more racist, on average, than white professionals or the wealthy (especially when one takes into account regional effects related to the South).[27] Whatever else we can say, it does not appear that racism (or party voting) maps onto class position in the way that the mainstream account suggests.[28] At best, the historical consensus will likely come down somewhere in the range of Mike Davis’s recent analysis: the phenomenon of “Trump Democrats” was only real in “a score or so of troubled Rust Belt counties from Iowa to New York where a new wave of plant closure or relocation…coincided with growing immigrant and refugee populations.”[29]

In part, the contemporary uses of this discourse may be related to the development of a certain, nascent form of class consciousness around the division between mental and manual labor. Already in the 1980s, “the mental-manual class division [was] the single most important determinant of class perception” in the US, precisely because this was the site where power was apparently most visible and active.[30] More recently, Andre Levinson has proposed that resentment towards “a powerful political class (cut off from ordinary people)”[31] may represent a nascent form of class consciousness. Accounts of such resentments, which sometimes parallel and often exceed racialized resentments, abound. By tying this resentment to the white working class, though it clearly extends beyond it, and conceiving it as the “anti-intellectualism” portion of their pathology, such class perceptions can be implicitly dismissed as part of the “ignorance” that fosters racism. The actual (multi-racial, feminized, fragmented) working class tends to disappear in favor of this imaginary, unified, and pathological white one and its racialized potential victims. Postracialism becomes, for liberals, a discourse addressed to the image of the white working class they have invented, an imaginary addressee that resents anything that smacks of racial history. Better to let that history go or to invoke it only in the form of something we have overcome through the national unity of racial liberalism, now “including everyone” as the individuals they are, and are responsible for being. The naturally pathological white worker becomes the figure that validates the ever tighter embrace by liberals of neoliberal nostrums. The racist beliefs of the “white working-class” validate white liberals’ failure to undertake anti-racist projects, as well as their success in defending the social powers of supposedly non-pathological, educated, credentialed professionals – whose ranks have been lightly diversified. For the black “underclass” and many others, on the other hand, the prescription is still disciplinary submission to low wage markets and incarceration.

The denial of history today

Let us close with the same tableau with which we began, with Bellamy going still as McAuliffe invokes slave owners (and Presidents) as the patriots we need today. In that invocation is exemplified what Goldberg has parsed as postracialism’s “denial of its own denial”: “it erases the very histories producing the formations of racial power and privilege, burying them alive but out of recognizable reach. They wipe away the very conditions out of which guilt could arise. That denial of denial: there is no guilt because there is nothing recognizable to be guilty about, least of all the guilt itself."[32]

But history will not stay (wholly) erased. Trump’s private-made-public racism intrudes: some people at the rally, he argues two days later, are not racist. They were protesting the removal of a statue. “This week it’s Robert E. Lee. I notice that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder: is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?” Trump then goes on to declare forthrightly the very thing McAuliffe denies that he denies: “George Washington was a slave owner!”

The perverse irony registered here is that the racist, Trump, tells a (slightly) more coherent story about history than the postracial liberal, who relates to that history in the form of the denial of denial, who cannot upset “the white working class” by directly recognizing its racial character (which, on the other hand, is precisely what Trump is trying to do). If McAuliffe and Trump embrace the same history but only one of them is telling a semi-coherent story about it, then how effective is such "antiracist" discourse likely to be? The ostensible addressee of this message – the actual working classes, white and non-white – can tell that liberals who blather this nonsense don't really mean it, don't really care that much. In seeking to appease an imaginary working class, liberals move ever farther away from the existing one.

We need to tell more, not less, coherent stories about racial history than the right, which means we need to openly confront its racist character and imagine not what keeps us from confronting it but what might allow us to work through it. Rendering that history unthinkable renders white supremacy unthinkable as anything but an individualized pathology, leaving its privatized forms to run free in the streets. Shaping our political rhetoric to address the mythical “white working class” only condones that trajectory.

Bibliography

Davis, Mike 2017, “The Great God Trump & The White Working Class,” Catalyst, vol. 1, no. 1.

Geismer, Lily 2014, Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Goldberg, David Theo 2009, The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Goldberg, David Theo 2015, Are We All Postracial Yet?, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hamilton, Richard E. 1972. Class and Politics in the United States, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Hurst, Allison L. 2017, “Have We Been Had? Why Talking About the Working-Class Vote for Trump Hurts Us,” Working-Class Perspectives, June 12.

Levison, Andrew 1974, The Working-Class Majority, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Levison, Andrew 2013, The White Working Class Today: Who They are, How They Think, and How Progressives Can Regain Their Support, Democratic Strategist Press.

Lewis, David Levering 2000, W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century 1919-1963, New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

Lewis, Penny 2013, Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Lowndes, Joseph E. 2008. From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Poulantzas, Nicos 1980, State, Power, Socialism, London: Verso Books.

Mann, Geoff, 2017, In the Long Run We Are All Dead: Keynesianism, Political Economy, and Revolution, London: Verso Books.

Melamed, Jodi 2011, Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Metzgar, Jack 2015, “Stereotyping White Working-Class Voters,” Working-Class Perspectives, January 15.

Metzgar, Jack 2016, “Misrepresenting the White Working Class: What the Narrating Class Gets Wrong,” Working-Class Perspectives, March 14.

Metzgar, Jack 2017, “Every part of Us Has Parts,” Working-Class Perspectives, January 16.

Murakawa, Naomi 2014, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Myrdal, Gunnar 1944, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, New York: Harper and Brothers.

Singh, Nikhil 2004, Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Smith, Barbara Ellen and Jamie Winders 2017, “The Trump Effect? Whiteness, Masculinity, and Working-Class Lives,” AntipodeFoundation.org, August 8.

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[1] Davis 2017. For additional critical reflections on this mainstream narrative (and its previous uses in recent years), see Hurst 2017; Metzgar 2015, 2016, 2017.

[2] Melamed 2011.

[3] Lewis 2000, p. 451

[4] For useful contextualizations of this study and its theorem, see Melamed 2011, pp. 56-63; Singh 2004, pp. 38-41; Lowndes 2008, pp. 18-21, and Murakawa 2014, pp. 40-54.

[5] Myrdal 1944, p. 1022.

[6] “The solution Myrdal proposed was wider dissemination of social-scientific knowledge about African American existence in the United States…to dispel white America’s psychic isolation and opportunistic belief system. Education was key to reform…” (Melamed 2011, p. 62)

[7] Melamed 2011, p. 59.

[8] Melamed 2011, p. 58.

[9] Myrdal 1944, p. 89.

[10] Myrdal 1944, p. 115.

[11] Myrdal 1944, p. 928.

[12] Murakawa 2014, p. 13.

[13] Goldberg 2015, p. 69.

[14] Goldberg 2015, p. 78.

[15] Mann 2017.

[16] Goldberg 2009.

[17] For that genealogy, see Murakawa 2014.

[18] Geismer 2015, p. 150.

[19] Windham 2017.

[20] This despite the fact that, by 1971, those with only a grade-school education were actually more likely to support the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam than the college-educated (80% to 60%, with those with a high school education at 75%). College students today, on the other hand, overwhelmingly presuppose the exact opposite to be the case, suggesting how deeply the notion of authoritarian white workers shapes our understanding (Lewis 2013, pp. 19-21).

[21] Poulantzas 1980, p. 56.

[22] “A kind of middle-class exceptionalism was often present among these radical thinkers, who held for themselves, as radical individualists, the possibilities of escaping mass society but saw for workers no incentive or capacity to do so” (Lewis 2013, p. 156).

[23] Smith and Winders 2017.

[24] Goldberg 2017.

[25] Hurst 2017.

[26] Vanneman and Cannon 1987.

[27] See, for example, the detailed analyses of Hamilton 1972; Levison 1974, 2013.

[28] As Jack Metzgar (2015) observes. “Cultural and economic conservatism, often accompanied by ‘racial resentfulness,’ are present (and absent) in all white demographics, and the variation by class is likely less than by gender, region, income, and religion.”

[29] Davis 2017.

[30] Vanneman and Cannon 1987, p. 81.

[31] Levinson 2013, p. 165.

[32] Goldberg 2015, p. 101.