an open letter to
THE WHITE WORKING CLASS
is Professor Emeritus at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. He is
the author of How the World Works, U.S. Foreign Policy,Third
World Peasant and The Other Europe.
writing this letter as the proud son of the working class. My
father, who never attended college and was our family’s
breadwinner, worked as a Greyhound Bus ticket seller, part-time
mail carrier and grocery store stock boy. When he died of a sudden
heart attack at age 47, he was working the night shift as a hospital
orderly. I was 12 years old and my younger brother was seven.
my dad was a World War Two vet, we had a very modest house purchased
under the G.I. Bill’s Home Loan Guaranty Program. Under
provisions of the Social Security Act’s Aid to Widows with
Children, my mother received some scant relief, but never beyond
the maximum legal amount of $200 per month. As recipients, single
moms were not to work outside the home. It wasn’t easy but
I shudder to imagine our lives without these Federal government
programs. It also taught me that a government responsive to its
citizens can be a positive, make-or-break difference.
growing up a poor kid in Fargo, North Dakota, I managed to achieve
some success through hard work, sacrifice and determination, but
I certainly displayed no more grit than you’ve expended.
Earlier this year, my wife and I retired to a comfortable lifestyle,
with all that implies.
TIMES, CHANGING OUTCOMES
this background only because I think it conveys an important lesson:
Had my “back in the day” working class existence occurred
thirty-five years ago instead of sixty years ago, all my determined
self-improvement wouldn’t have produced the same positive
outcome. Why? Because times changed. A long economic decline occurred
and you’ve been working harder for decreasing wages and
benefits. Just how bad is it? When you total up their debt and
total up their assets, 40% of Americans (4 in 10) have zero dollars.
Zilch. They’ve been cheated out of opportunities that once
were available to me and other members of the white working class.
That America no longer exists. Now, is it possible to determine
with precision just who’s to blame for this state of affairs.
more thing: Had I been the child of a black veteran, my situation
would’ve been truly grim. I’m embarrassed to admit
that for most my adult life I was ignorant of the fact that racial
exclusion provisions of the Social Security Act meant that throughout
the South and elsewhere, black mothers were virtually excluded
from these benefits. Widows who’d been working in the cotton
fields or as house maids were legally ineligible. States were
allowed to refuse mothers based only on race and routinely did
African-American vets were denied many of the G.I. Bill’s
benefits. They were prevented from gaining access to mortgages,
bank loans, and educational opportunities. Formal and informal
segregation excluded blacks from the suburbs where most new housing
was being built. That’s only the tip of the iceberg that
fostered a wealth gap between whites and blacks that continues
to this day.
add that I’m a recovering Democrat, a longstanding member
of Democrats Anonymous. But I haven’t been immune to (very)
temporary seductions by smooth-talking presidential candidates,
the last being Obama in 2008. In 2016, I didn’t vote for
Hillary Clinton in either the primary or general election.
does race play into our political situation?
high school education was similar to mine, you’ll be as
surprised as I was to learn that there was no ‘white race’
in our country until the idea was invented by white plantation
owners in Virginia around 1676. Before their arrival here, the
Europeans had never thought of themselves as white.
percent of the colonial population in Virginia consisted of Africans,
some of them enslaved and others indentured servants, and poor
European tenants and labourers. Not only did they share deep grievances
against the ruling plantation owners; for three generations, blacks
and whites had inter-married, worked, celebrated and mourned together.
It may be hard to imagine today, but questioning any of this simply
wouldn’t have entered their minds. Notions of mutual aid
and common cause was second nature. So what happened?
army of poor (black) Africans and poor (white) English frontiersmen
realized they were getting their asses whupped by the landed aristocracy.
This ragtag militia, led by the Englishman-turned-rebel, Nathanial
Bacon, attacked the royal English government and burned Jamestown
to the ground. Ultimately, the overmatched uprising failed. Bacon
died of illness, but 23 of his followers were hanged as traitors.
This is known as Bacon’s Rebellion.
that another insurrection was possible and might spread, the now-terrified
ruling circle of plantation owners came up with a solution: Their
great trick was to drive a wedge between white and black workers.
On the one hand, draconian laws were passed that punished whites
for associating with blacks. On the other hand, financial rewards
were bestowed on whites who captured runaway slaves. Furthermore,
perks like owning a tiny plot of land and a few minor legal rights
were granted to whites, and their status versus blacks was elevated.
Over time, an artificial bond was created between elites and the
white working class. This was the genesis and evil genius of creating
‘white identity’ where none had existed. Gradually,
poor whites came to believe they were better human beings by virtue
of their skin color. This strategy has been working for 400 years
even though there’s nothing natural, nothing biological
about the white working class today and Donald Trump?
well known that the white working class makes up one-third of
the American adult population and they supported Donald Trump
by a margin of two to one. Their votes in the key electoral states
of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin tipped the election
to Trump. Hillary Clinton had dissed two-thirds of Americans without
college degrees, including those in these states.
Clinton had written off voters like yourselves. Why? Because she
had nothing of substance to offer you. Wall Street’s Mistress
promised “ladders of opportunity,” but you knew from
painful experience that those ladders had been kicked away long
ago by leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties.
Members of the posh, immensely privileged, white upper class were
reaping all the benefits of policies enacted by the Republicrats.
be mistaken but based on my reading, some Trump voters also found
merit in Bernie Sanders’ program. But with Sanders off the
ballot, you reasoned, “Hey what do I have to lose?”
I’m also given to understand that many Trump voters also
didn’t believe he would be a great or even good president,
but voted for him anyway to poke a finger in the Establishment’s
eye. An Ohio voter clarified that it was the middle finger. If
so, good for you!
you to correct me, but my take is that Trump offered hope with
his “I’m not a politician” maverick outsider
status. Policies of both major parties diminished your livelihoods,
leaving you unable to afford child care, housing and education.
Many Trump supporters are one medical emergency from economic
disaster. Whatever your household income, the future seemed precarious,
headed in an inevitable downward spiral, and prospects of a better
future for your kids slipping away. For decades, no one was listening,
but Trump seemed different in his pledge to get matters ‘under
what has Trump actually done since taking office? Here are just
three examples among many: During the campaign he demonized Hillary
Clinton for being in bed with Goldman Sachs (she was), the financial
firm that robs our working class (it does). Yet we’ve recently
learned that Trump’s long awaited tax cut plan was written
by former Goldman investment bankers now on his team. The tax
plan is an obscene giveaway of trillions of dollars that will,
in the words of economist Jack Rasmus, “redistribute income
massively upward from the middle and working classes to the rich.”
Trump wants a spending cut of $1 trillion in Medicaid over the
next decade and continues to shred what’s left of the social
safety net after Bill Clinton’s devastating cuts in 1996.
By any measure, Trump’s economic agenda is largely Goldman’s
agenda. In fact, I agree with those who argue that Goldman Sachs
and the military-industrial complex now administer the presidency.
I don’t believe this is what you were voting for.
in explaining his startling decision to reverse a solemn campaign
pledge to get the U.S. out of Afghanistan, Trump said, “Decisions
look different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”
Indeed. Whatever one’s intentions, one quickly learns to
obey the wishes of the deeply imbedded, unelected power structure
in Washington, or face daunting consequences.
you might recall that Trump proclaimed he would be “the
greatest jobs’ President that God ever created.” Well,
we’re still waiting. And so are the 1.5 million workers
who lost jobs during Obama, another ‘jobs creator.’
Many of them have fallen into poverty and opiate addiction, and
have suffered permanent psychic scarring. More and more jobs are
being outsourced or converted to part-time, seasonal, and low-wage,
while still others are being replaced by robotics.
yesterday, here in my hometown of Bethlehem, PA, 460 workers at
the Wells Fargo call center were told to report to the cafeteria,
where they were abruptly fired. Many left the meeting in tears.
Nancy Jenkins, 53, was one of them, and told the local newspaper,
“We have a lot of single parents who worry they’ll
have to take a minimum wage job and aren’t sure how they’ll
make it.” Jennings herself recently had a kidney transplant
and worries she’ll be unable to pay for anti-rejection meds.
Jennings’s starting salary at Wells Fargo: $13.82 per hour.
Wells Fargo’s profit just this quarter: $4.47 billion.
may have seen Trump’s recent late night response to all
of this when he tweeted, “Stock Market at an ALL-TIME high!”
How much stock do you own?
after having reported this, I must add that Trump is not the central
problem, but only the predictable outcome of a much deeper crisis,
one created by several preceding administrations. I’m suggesting
that, consciously or not, Trump (or, really, his media guru, Steve
Bannon) sold the white working class a bill of goods, and he encouraged
you to scapegoat immigrants and black people for your entirely
justified grievances. After poring over this material, I can say
that no evidence exists to support these charges and reams of
data refute them.
vision succeeds, there will be only one noteworthy change: A different
1% will rule the country. We have no skin in this game. All of
this reinforces the conclusion reached by numerous nonpartisan
political science studies: ordinary citizens have no influence
over what the government in Washington. As things stand, voting
is essentially meaningless.
not the first person to say there is one tiny minority that’s
dangerous to you. It’s the wealthy, privileged, and overwhelmingly
white oligarchy that rules over all of us. Other than worrying
that you might catch on that immigrants, Muslims and people of
colour are not threatening your well-being, they have never given
a rat’s ass about us, our children or our grandchildren.
All they want from us is our labour, and that only if the price
is low enough.
late George Carlin famously quipped, “No matter how hard
you work, no matter how hard you try, you’re screwed because
it’s all fixed. There is a club and you ain’t it.”
Tim Wise, a close student of race matters, notes that by virtue
of their experience, brown and black people have always known
this. The white working class, owing to conditions more recently
thrust upon them, has only begun to entertain this truth and the
troubling questions and doubts surrounding it.
all of the above, I would respectfully ask you to consider the
following: The pain and fears of the white working class are real,
but the diagnosis is wrong, and, if not corrected, terribly dangerous.
This letter was my attempt to offer a second opinion, one which
goes beyond symptoms towards pinpointing the actual cause, those
who own and benefit from our deeply dysfunctional economic system.
I wrote these paragraphs not to cast blame or make judgments about
Trump supporters, but to begin a much needed conversation about
our country’s future.
are people, including some I know, who depict Trump sympathizers
as bigoted, ignorant, gullible rubes, almost congenitally incapable
of empathy. In fact, a few individuals advised me not to bother
with this letter because “Trump supporters are fact-resistant
and won’t give you the time of day.”
buy this, and the sweeping claim that all 62 million Trump voters
are incapable of thinking and acting in their own interest is
not only bullshit, but smugly condescending.
never doubted that white working class folks, if privy to all
the facts, constitute one pillar in constructing the basis for
a social movement that — operating outside the hopeless
two party system — can fundamentally change our country.
For me, that feels like our last and best hope.
Knots from the Underground Satires:
Leprosy Colony Work
Satire on Impermissible Satire
School for Psychopathic Predators
Seeks to Keep Fear Alive
Proposal: Franchising Beheadings
Zika Virus & Big Pharma
by Gary Olson:
the Birth of ISIS
Capitalism Save Itself
War, Remaking Man