But what I never fully knew was the extent to which blacks and working-class whites had been pitted against each other. In writing this book, I was able to uncover the true history. Freed black people were moving up the ladder in the early 1900s, but Irish and Italian immigrants came in and worked for less.
Old attitudes from Europe left the Irish at the bottom of the totem pole and engendered racial anxiety and division among working-class blacks and poor whites. For instance, my grandfather was a union man — a steamfitter — who helped construct the Empire State Building. That same union excluded African Americans for decades. So even though my grandfather likely suffered harsh discrimination from others — as so many Irish Catholics infamously did — it doesn’t compare to the black experience. A lot of white people simply don’t understand that.
TR: What don’t white people understand exactly? And how does that inform our politics?
JW: Far too many white Americans — especially those who do not come from wealth or privilege — don’t understand the extent to which they’ve had help. There are so many fault lines in the GOP theory of individualism, self-reliance and this latest rhetoric of “We built this.” White men, in particular, have enjoyed a de facto affirmative action for centuries, but even [white] women’s suffrage in the 1920s did very little for women of color.
I’m not a sociologist, but I believe that the liberal left often focus too much on the racist white fringe in our society. We must stop that. Instead let’s educate people who aren’t racist, yet remain ignorant and ill-informed. History matters.
There is a terrible tendency to see every black person who gets an Ivy League degree as having gotten help getting there, but whites somehow “deserve” it. Our society, culture and media all participate in that misguided narrative. What we saw at this year’s Republican National Convention was a celebration of this notion that some people work for “success,” while others “get help” from government. The subtext, of course, is a racial one. That golden-age fallacy needs to be debunked.
TR: What is the greatest message you’d like your book to impart?
JW: We have more in common than what divides us. But our divisions have been heightened — not only by Republican politicians but by Democrats as well. Our focus on difference was important for a while, but the conversation needs to change. The divide is created by “You had help” and “We didn’t,” and the white perpetrator-black victim roles continue to leave out Asians and Hispanics, who are also a part of the multiracial liberal coalition.
We now live in an America in which you can have an African-American mayor, Chinese-American school supervisor and Puerto Rican teacher. This idea that whites have all the power is simply wrong. When we talk like that, it is no wonder working-class white voters feel excluded, because that’s not the whole story. We need more empathy. We all need more empathy.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.