How White Ideals Color US Race Relations

Author Joan Walsh on her book and the notion that minorities get handouts while whites work hard.

Taylor Hill/Getty Images; Wiley
Taylor Hill/Getty Images; Wiley

(The Root) — In her new book, What’s the Matter With White People? Why We Long for a Golden Age That Never Was, Joan Walsh, editor at large for and an MSNBC political analyst, tells the story of the white working class in 20th- and 21st-century America. Using her personal journey growing up in a blue-collar, Irish Catholic family, Walsh offers a window into the hopes, fears, racial anxieties and political leanings of a group who have become in some ways all but invisible in a post-All in the Family era.

Walsh also uses the election of the nation’s first African-American president — and subsequent backlash from the far right — as an opportunity to explore racial politics, given that mainstream American identity is largely defined vis-à-vis whiteness. As the browning of America continues, the Republican Party’s platform is increasingly invested in using race to divide and conquer.

Walsh explores the dog-whistle politics — particularly around the issue of welfare — that have been central to America’s political discourse since the implementation of Nixon’s Southern strategy (pdf) and the rise of the Reagan Democrats: namely, disgruntled white working-class voters who are socially conservative and have been encouraged, often unknowingly, to resent the black, the brown and the poor.

Her book examines the fallacy that minorities have benefited from affirmative action at the expense of whites and explains why many poor and middle-class white Americans vote Republican, even against their own economic interests. By taking a historic overview, she charts the path of European immigrants and their descendants who, for generations, have enjoyed the benefits of the Great Society social welfare programs.

They have also benefited from the postwar GI Bill, expansion of public universities, mortgage-lending guarantees and strong union jobs that offered middle-class incomes for many white Americans. Walsh challenges the idea that the white middle class achieved its moorings through hard work without federal assistance.

She claims that some whites believe in a “golden age that never was” and that the idyllic Norman Rockwell-esque picket fence is something they earned, without help, and that they reject the idea they received something that African Americans and Latinos didn’t get. But that notion ignores the dark, tortured history of racial segregation and legalized discrimination that continues to plague America’s sociopolitical consciousness.

As a result, Walsh explains, the GOP — capitalizing on latent racial animus — fuels the belief that government helps only “slackers, moochers and welfare queens,” and deliberately defines those people as black in order to win white votes. As such, polls show that poor whites, who make up the majority of welfare recipients — and could benefit from programs like Obamacare see government programs as more likely to help minorities.

Walsh says that though Obama’s election was a transcendent moment in American progress, for those who are truly afraid of racial change, it represented their worst fears realized. “Almost immediately you had those giant right-wing megaphones, from Rush Limbaugh to Fox News, depicting everything President Obama tried to do for the economy as ‘reparations’ for black people,” she told The Root. “This sober, centrist, even corporatist president was depicted as a black nationalist maniac.”

In a recent chat with The Root, Walsh talked about her new book and offered her insights on the future of racial politics, race relations and the need for Americans to have greater empathy for one another.

The Root: You wrote about your father and how his story influenced your politics. Please expound.