How White Ideals Color US Race Relations

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.

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.


Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.