‘White Working Class’ Narrative Is Nothing but a Racist Dog Whistle

Supporters cheer for then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during a campaign rally at the Freedom Hill Amphitheater in Sterling Heights, Mich., on Nov. 6, 2016.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Supporters cheer for then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during a campaign rally at the Freedom Hill Amphitheater in Sterling Heights, Mich., on Nov. 6, 2016.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Here we are, eight days removed from President-elect, and corrupt businessman, Donald Trump grabbing the Electoral College “by the p—sy” and violating his way into the White House.


And predictably, instead of focusing on the wealthy white supremacist, xenophobic and misogynist elements of society that rose from their dirty corners and corner offices to vote for the man, much of the political punditry and chatter continues to focus on the innocent and frightened “white working class.”

El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X) once said, “There are many whites who are trying to solve the problem, but you never see them going under the label of liberals. That white person that you see calling himself a liberal is the most dangerous thing in the Western Hemisphere.”

But we’re not talking about so-called white liberals today. We’re not talking about the white liberals who are in the streets protesting against Trump but who have not stepped foot in the street to protest injustice and inequity against marginalized and targeted people of color disproportionately scarred by this nation’s violence—institutional, psychological and physical.

We’re talking about the “white working class” that blankets its working-class status in whiteness to intensify the perception of its victimhood. Those dangerous white people who would even call themselves such a thing.

There are certainly white people who are in need of economic stability and security, but they are still beneficiaries of whiteness. According to a recent study by the Corporation for Enterprise Development and Institute for Policy Studies (pdf), it would take the average black family in the U.S. 228 years to build the wealth of a white family. To put forth a flat economic analysis that does not acknowledge white supremacy and the intersections of oppression is racist to its core.

By all means, let’s discuss this “white working class” that’s full of “rural resentment,” but if we’re going to tell it, we need to make it plain.


Because where I’m from, these degenerates were called overseers and slave patrols. What they are really saying, what they’ve always been saying, is, “Don’t group us with the Negroes just because we’re working class; we’re still white and we are owed all the rights, privileges and power therein.”

Let’s take a closer look at the bellwether state of Pennsylvania.

Despite many “white working class” residents in Pennsylvania expressing their distaste for a black president, President Barack Obama managed to claw his way to victory there twice. In January, however, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews—who spent much of the 2016 election cycle lamenting the country’s failure of the “white working class”—predicted that there were “Reagan Democrats” just waiting to vote for Trump.


He was right. Trump turned three counties in the state—Luzerne, Erie and Northhampton—red.

But the industrial decline of the state, which some observers credit for the party shift, has been relatively consistent. So what could possibly have caused the political pendulum to swing?


A loud-mouthed bigot screaming about “Mexican rapists” and calling for “law and order.”

According to the 2010 census (pdf), the Latinx population in the U.S. grew by 43 percent between 2000 and 2010. In Hazleton, Pa., which is located in Luzerne County, between 2000 and 2010 the demographics shifted from being 90 percent white to nearly 50 percent Latinx. An estimated 10 percent of the Latinx population consists of undocumented immigrants, Philly.com reports.


Matthews, who is from Pennsylvania, touched on immigration in an interview with MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, saying, “[The white working class] just feels that elite leaders, they don’t regulate any immigration, it seems.” Then later: “It’s a deep sense of the country being taken away and betrayed.”

So many white tears.

And it’s not just xenophobic, anti-Latinx immigration sentiment. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, in 2015, Pennsylvania had the fifth-highest number of hate groups in the United States. These groups are mostly white supremacist organizations, ranging from the Ku Klux Klan (nine) to neo-Nazis (three) to racist skinheads (six).


The state has two more KKK chapters than Mississippi; three of them are in Luzerne County. Still, the disingenuous narrative that racism is quarantined in the Deep South, and so-called white patriots in the Rust Belt just need a fair shake, persists.

Every single hardship that people of color face in this country is either caused or exacerbated by the brute force of white supremacy. But the “white working class” that cries about being abandoned doesn’t pretend to care about racial equity. Its members want the right to be as oppressive as their wealthier white masters—they just want to do it with more money in their pockets. And this nation is more comfortable with this impotent white rage than with the justifiable rage of black, Latinx and indigenous people that has burst to the fore once again.


In February of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. talked about the “drum major instinct.” He talked about how some “white working class” people moved against their own economic best interests, instead choosing to bet on the discriminatory value of their whiteness.

The other day I was saying, I always try to do a little converting when I’m in jail. And when we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem. And they were showing us where we were so wrong demonstrating. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. And they were showing us where intermarriage was so wrong. So I would get to preaching, and we would get to talking—calmly, because they wanted to talk about it. And then we got down one day to the point—that was the second or third day—to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, “Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. You’re just as poor as Negroes.” And I said, “You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you’re so poor you can’t send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march. Now that’s a fact.


This is what we are seeing with “white working class” Trump voters. They hope that by voting against justice—by denying the urgency of racial equity in education and health care and housing and employment needed to shatter the framework of a country built on the subjugation and murders of black, Latinx and indigenous people—that they will be more closely aligned with the wealthy white people they yearn to be. They hope that by deporting immigrants from this country—something that Democrats know a thing or two about as well—they won’t have to face job competition and their own mediocrity.

They don’t care that more white people, in need of health care, are dying from “despair”—suicides, alcohol diseases and drug overdoses—because they are being crushed in the rubble of the burning house they wanted to remain whites-only.


Yes, they are angry. But they aren’t angry because they’re poor; they’re angry because they are white and poor—and that’s not the American dream. And they will starve and they will waste away and they will die before acknowledging that the world owes them nothing simply because they were born into a world where whiteness is supposed to equal power.

We can’t negotiate with that level of white self-destructiveness.

We can’t bargain with it.

We can’t appease it.

We can’t seek common ground with it.

We fight it and hope to come out on the other side.

Mob violence against black people, like what Trump incited among his “white working class” supporters, has always been a by-product of white anxiety over the freedom and economic advancement of black people. Ida B. Wells-Barnett taught us that. The Wilmington, N.C., riots of 1898 taught us that. The destruction of Black Wall Street taught us that.


This isn’t new.

Any strategy that is empathetic toward racism—no matter how tattered and jobless and broke it may be—is one that is dangerous for black people in this country. And any politician or party that encourages black people to “seek common ground” with a poor man’s white supremacy while we’re swinging from the economic nooses around our necks is dangerous, too.


Yes, we must build coalitions of working-class people across the racial and gender spectrum. But if their whiteness comes first, it would behoove us to give less than a damn about coddling their “resentment” and keep moving toward freedom for ourselves.

Also on The Root:

Prediction: The Democratic Party Will Shift Further Right to Regain Power

Maybe if the Black Left Were Trump Supporters, Democrats Would Put Some Respect on Their Names


Oh, Now Mainstream Media Should Draw Lines in the Sand? That’s Interesting

Dear Centrists: The Left Has Something to Say Whether You Like It or Not