One of the things my grandmother, a working class German-American woman from Jordan Minnesota (and one of the most progressive elderly white women you’ll ever meet), has always complained about is the ways in which working class white folks have, for as long as she can remember, voted against their best interests in staggering numbers. We do, it’s true, yet it is only half of the truth.
A vote for Trump, like a vote for Bush before him, Clinton before him,and Bush before him, and Reagan and Nixon, and any other number of Republicans or conservative Democrats are of course votes against the economical security of the working class. Yet poor, working class white folks have ensured these victories time and time again. What I have come to realize, is that isn’t so much that these voters are voting against their economic interests so much as they are voting for their racial interests; they are forsaking class solidarity for a racial one.
Let’s trace this back a little ways-Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 nearly 1,000 indentured white servants and African indentured servants and slaves rose up against the planter elites. The rebellion was violently put down but raised enough fear in the elites for them to see a racial caste system needed to supersede the class hierarchy. The class differential at the time was so great that not only did poor whites hate elite whites enough to try and kill them, they found it to be more plausible for them to align with free or enslaved black folks and attempt to violently overthrow the elites than they did to attempt to work their way out of economic exploitation.
After Bacon’s Rebellion, between the Virginia Slave Codes-which stated that slaves could be whipped, branded or maimed for simply associating with whites-and new alluring benefits provided to white working poor and indentured servants, the poor whites began to distance themselves from African slaves and gravitate towards the elite with whom they still had nothing in common save skin tone.
In cementing the racial caste system, the slave trade exploded and the construction of whiteness became more defined by ownership, both of stolen land and the stolen bodies forced to work this land; the domination to acquire such ownership and the subsequent fear of losing it also became inherent to white people, and the evolving white imagination and pathology.
Derrick Bell, founder of Critical Race Theory, writes that
“slave masters then appealed to working class whites by urging that their shared whiteness compelled the two groups to unite against the threat of slave revolts or escapes. The strategy worked. In their poverty, whites vented their frustrations by hating the slaves rather than their masters, who held both black slave and free white in economic bondage . . .in a nation where property is viewed as a measure of worth, many whites, possessing relatively little property of the traditional kind - money, securities, and land - view their whiteness as a property right” (Bell, U.C. Davis Law Review, Wanted: A White Leader Able to Free Whites of Racism, Spring 2000. Pg 536).
The white elites continue to exploit working class whites while convincing them that the reason their lives are not the lives they want, or have imagined for themselves, are because of people of color. As the US grew, and more people from around the globe immigrated to its shores, the list of scapegoats grew larger-and once on that list one never seems to get off-black folks,indigenous folks, the Chinese, then the Japanese, Mexicans, Southeast Asians, Muslims, particularly, as of late, Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans, and Syrians-the list is by no means comprehensive, it grows and grows and evolves as whiteness requires.
Additionally, whiteness absorbs who it must in order to maintain its majority and dominance (i.e. Irish, Italians). The task of European immigrants wasn’t simply to distance themselves from their own cultures, but to enter the roles of dominators over people of color so that that could prove their whiteness, now solidly defined in opposition to and dominance over people of color, and yet it remained that poor, working class whites seldom made it much further above the bottom of the societal barrel than working class folks of color.
Nearing the 21st century, Derrick Bell bell writes too of North Carolina’s Jesse Helms’ 1996 re-election bid for Senate in that “Fear and resentment of blacks led many whites in North Carolina to vote to reelect Jesse Helms . . . his support for economic measures advantage the rich while burdening the lives of poorer whites - the very constituents that provide Helms with his electoral victories . . . The leadership of both the House of Representatives and the Senate hold their powerful positions in substantial part because, like Helms, they convinced whites that if elected, they would preserve the racial status quo. Having done so, congressional leaders can ignore the nation’s need for health care, environmental reform, effective schools, and a decent minimum wage. They need not acknowledge the tremendous, and growing, gap in wealth and income” (Bell, U.C. Davis Law Review, Wanted: A White Leader Able to Free Whites of Racism, Spring 2000, pg. 534).
Now, again and always, we are watching one of the most quintessential American dynamics play out during these primary elections. Working class whites are choosing between class solidarity and whiteness. While some are undecided between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders (both candidates offering polar opposite economic change), the vast majority have been simply duped into believing the economy is being destroyed by "illegals" and "terrorists". Trump's rhetoric is vague enough he doesn't have to provide any details and consequently the lack of detail acts as rallying cry and anthem. His rhetoric feeds off the fears that conservatives have been supplying to white working class people since after Bacon's Rebellion.
Recently, just before the Minnesota Primary, a white nationalist group made robocalls to Minnesota’s Iron Range on behalf of Donald Trump. The Iron Range, which has fallen on intensely tough economic times with mines shutting down and unemployment skyrocketing, particularly among working class whites. Now, regardless of how the range will or has voted, the fact that white nationalist groups are making calls to this area ahead of Super Tuesday, and not to-lets say, the Twin Cities-is very telling and shows just what game they are playing, one which has been in elite’s deck of cards since America’s inception. The message, called in by The American Nationalist Super PAC, reportedly said,
"I am William Johnson, a farmer and white nationalist. The white race is dying out in America and Europe . . . our government destroys our children's future, but don't call me racist. I'm afraid to be called racist. It's OK to give away our country for immigration, but don't call me racist. It's OK that few schools anymore have beautiful white children in the majority, but don't call me racist. Gradual genocide against the white race is OK, but don't call me racist. I'm afraid to be called racist. Donald Trump is not a racist, but Donald Trump is not afraid. Don't vote for a Cuban; vote for Donald Trump. This call is not authorized by Donald Trump." Yes, this was literally something that rang out into people’s phones across the Iron Range. And still, Trump refuses to speak out against the KKK or other white supremacist organizations who support him.
Trump, who has promised a wall to keep out Mexicans, Trump who has promised to ban all Muslims from the country, Trump who has promised he will bring back jobs and make America great has struck the chord of fear of the economically exploited working class. Whites who, often, own little but their whiteness are now having to decide, once again, which is worth more?
Working class whites know deep down that Donald Trump and those like him throughout history are the ones which have kept us down. Despite what we were told and what we came to believe it wasn’t Chinese factory or rail workers, it wasn’t Japanese miners, it’s never been Mexican ranchers or apple pickers, it certainly was never slaves or the indigenous peoples we displaced as we terrorized the plains and burned the fields down to ash as we pushed further West. However, oppressed communities of color have always been more within reach of the economically exploited white working class than the white elites have been, easier to blame, easier to stop, to steal from, to kill. Despite a deep seeded hatred and fear of the bourgeoisie, a deep love of and admiration for the capitalist also exists, and as we yank our bootstraps harder and harder, though we do not move, we dream of him and his table.
While many working class whites have chosen and are firmly invested in either their whiteness or class solidarity, there is, at this very moment, a working class white family sitting around their table trying to decide who to vote for. They are struggling to decide what to invest in, whiteness or class solidarity. And in Trump's promise of white supremacy there is a belief, rooted only in the white imagination and in hope-the poison that is the American Dream-that, despite his capitalist, dominator rhetoric that perhaps he will pull the working class whites up, reaching down like some filthy hand of god and bring us from the bottom of the well. It is this dream which has prevented significant racial solidarity among working class communities.
This idea of true class solidarity is, of course, not as simple as a Sanders/Trump binary (Sanders' Marxist understanding of race is problematic in its own right, and reifies whiteness in a different way, one which is vaguely reminiscent of the New Deal which offered widespread economic reform, but failed to address racial inequities and thus essentially erased people of color from the subsequent economic boom), but it is this moment in American Politics-in which there is significant unrest among working class people,particularly whites-where we can almost touch the foundation of a true class solidarity and a workers rebellion. The modern American worker's rebellion does not come as the result of a presidential candidate, it comes as a result of a collective orientation towards the rejection of capitalism and racism, and in this presidential election the lens is widening showing us the unrest of the working class, the power of that unrest. The topography of power is always visible if you know which dynamics to look for, but during this moment it is staring us back in the face and, again, a significant portion of the white working class does not see it. Or refuses to look. Trump is a cartoonish, yet frighteningly real, embodiment of a factory boss who convinces his workers he is not the source of the workers' economic exploitation, it is the fault of "those people" the scapegoated "other", and so many believe him.
There is a belief, it seems, if we choose Trump, he will choose us and the tables and the ballrooms we have imagined for four hundred years, and have come to believe we deserve because of our race, will finally be ours that, finally, this time, we need but work a little longer, and give one more good yank of our bootstraps and we will be rich too. We have largely always sided with the rich elites before siding with working class communities of color from whom we attempt to distance ourselves as a means of more sharply defining our whiteness. We swear, we are all the next Trump, the next Rockefeller, and none of us are poor or have been. We are White, after all, we are only briefly stunted millionaires.
Michael Lee is a Norwegian-American writer, performer and educator. He has received grants and scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the LOFT Literary Center, & the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council. He as worked as a dish washer, a farm hand, a traveling performer, and a youth counselor for teens experiencing homelessness. Currently, he is an Ed.M candidate at Harvard University. You can help support his writing HERE.
Writer. Performer. Youth worker. Educator. What I know is eclipsed by what I don't. Working and writing for justice in all the ways I know how. Radical imagination. Deconstructing Whiteness.