Democrats are seeing a steady erosion of their traditional support among low and middle-earning white families. That drift contributed heavily to the outcome of the 2014 mid-terms, but it has been in motion since the Civil Rights Acts of the Sixties.
Voices on the left consistently blame Republicans for duping white voters. They claim that Republicans are using a racially tinted “culture war” to persuade low earning whites to vote against their interests.
People do not generally vote against their interests. When it seems that they are, it generally means we have misunderstood their interests. Under current conditions, lower income and rural white voters are absolutely right to be concerned about the death of white supremacy and oppose it with all their energy.
Replacing white supremacy with a genuine pluralism is not only just, it promises massive cultural and economic benefits. The good news is that white supremacy is dying. Unfortunately, we are threatening to replace it with a long era of racial and ethnic political rivalry. Dismantling white supremacy successfully requires us to recognize its role as a load-bearing wall in the structure of our democracy. Until we take seriously the practical consequences of dismantling white supremacy, an authentically post-racial America will elude us.
White supremacy is not merely an outdated bigotry to be banished by the light of reason. It is a pragmatic ideology that for centuries has protected low income whites from being subjected to the same miserable fate as blacks in this country. If racial justice only delivers an equal opportunity to be looted by a powerful elite, then there is no rational reason for low income whites to get on board.
White Americans have always enjoyed the benefits of a powerful shadow welfare state. Fears stirred by the death of racial preferences have deep roots, but they are also practical and material. Ignoring those practical concerns is just as politically dangerous as stoking them.
In America we have succeeded in delegitimizing racism, but this has had the perverse effect of terminating dialogue. Racism comes from somewhere. Race, after all, is a social construct that has no existence anywhere but in culture. It has a logic and a practical purpose. We have largely lost the ability to discuss it in any constructive way. Now it persists as an undercurrent, unacknowledged and elusive yet deeply influential.
Racism has both an emotional and a practical dimension, like two sides of a coin. Its emotional roots are deep, historic, and practically subliminal, bubbling up from long-forgotten sources. They are entwined with very practical benefits that protect economically vulnerable white communities from being exploited in the same manner as minorities.
We like to imagine that we are all self-created from scratch, a pure result of our individual choices. That idea blinds us to the ways that our social and political assumptions, especially the deepest ones associated with identity, actually form.
What we know about the world, or more to the point, what we think we know, mostly comes to us from places we cannot readily identify. What it means to be a good man or a good woman. What habits, food, even clothes are familiar and acceptable or strange and suspicious. Across most of the country, a man does not simply decide one day that a purple shirt would be better than yesterday’s white one. He doesn’t get out of bed one morning and decide to wear a dress instead of jeans. The “why” of the matter isn’t important. That’s just how it is.
We do not construct these assumptions deliberately on the fly. We don’t generally ask where they come from. When powerful forces from the wider world challenge the legitimacy of these assumptions, few of us take time to reassess them. Instead, we push back as hard as we think we can afford to. We resist with whatever means are reasonably, and sometimes unreasonably, available.
Cultural traditions offer security and stability. Security and stability are particularly vital to communities with few options or opportunities. The more dangerous and exploitative the economic environment, the more stubbornly culturally conservative lower income citizens will be.
White supremacy evolved as an absolutely essential survival strategy for whites with little political power or property. Our history glosses over the fact that slavery did not evolve in North America as an exclusively black institution. As early as the 17th century laws were being enacted that assumed that any dark-skinned person was a slave, but until slavery was outlawed for everyone the only protection against potential enslavement rose from white racial solidarity.
Until the early 18th century one of the main sources of slaves for the American colonies was Ireland. As late as 1800 we have a record of an enslaved white woman in North Carolina appealing to the legislature for freedom. Her request was not granted. At the height of the slave period, the case of Alexina Morrison in Louisiana demonstrated that being obviously white was not an ironclad protection against enslavement.
What made slavery for whites increasingly rare was not legal protection – it did not exist – but rather a generally accepted notion of white racial supremacy. For politically and economically vulnerable white citizens, unquestioned collective acceptance of racist ideology was the only reliable guarantor of their liberty.
No one need even remember slavery to inherit that culture. That tradition refuses to fade away because it continues to be relevant in practical ways.
White drivers are not subjected to “stop and frisk.” White schools get privileged access to the best tax base. Almost every college in the country offers preference to “legacies,” students whose families benefited from an era in which only white men were allowed to compete.
The Civil Rights era has threatened those prerogatives without replacing them with something more just. Efforts at desegregation weakened the ties that gave lower wage white families access to schools supported by the resources of wealthier families. They scrambled to find alternatives to busing while the affluent re-sorted themselves into all white school districts where they could further concentrate their resources.
Affirmative action in government hiring has meant that an entire class of relatively secure middle income jobs which had once been reserved for whites (white males, specifically) were now subject to fierce competition. Affluent whites with ready access to education have been largely unaffected by affirmative action while white families of limited means saw opportunities for their children disappear.
Talk of gun control threatens a loss of security, even if that security is an illusion. With their ties to white elites weakening, suspicion of authority is expressed in a futile race for self-protection.
White supremacy means low income whites don’t worry about their kid being killed by George Zimmerman or Darren Wilson. If their white son foolishly carries his Airsoft gun to the park, they don’t worry that police might kill him. White supremacy grants immunity to many social problems that minority communities are left to endure.
Until a few decades ago nearly every job of any economic or social importance was set aside for white men. Still today, the networks built on that heritage still make it easier for whites to access the best jobs in the economy. Lower income whites have consistently enjoyed better access to economic, social and political opportunities by virtue of their race than they would have had by virtue of their income or education. Race matters less than it used to, but it remains a vital shield, a hidden yet powerful social safety net.
Understanding white supremacy as a sort of shadow safety net helps explain one of the icons of the Obama Era. Tea Party groups angrily protest the President’s supposed “socialism” while just as vehemently threatening anyone who might endanger their Social Security or Medicare benefits. The Tea Party movement makes no sense as a reaction to government spending or social programs. It makes absolute practical sense as a movement to preserve an unofficial white social welfare state with all its stated and unstated benefits.
What remains of that shadow safety net matters enormously because life at lower income levels in this country is becoming increasingly precarious. The Middle Class is largely a dead concept. Access to good paying work is highly dependent on education. Getting an education is more expensive than ever while free public schools are increasingly sorted by household income.
Higher income urban whites might retain some distant recognition of what white supremacy meant at one point in our history, but they have shed most of their overt attachment to it. For them, the end of a monolithic cultural domination has brought new opportunities for profit, new music, great food, interesting movies and cool new places to visit. With their race-based alliance with lower income whites melting, they are more closely aligned culturally and politically with an emerging global professional class than with whites in the exurbs.
For lower and middle income white households that did not make the transition from the old economy to the new over the past generation, the picture is stark and legitimately frightening. For large swaths of rural and suburban America, the decline of white supremacy has meant the arrival of competition they were unprepared for. Big metropolitan centers are growing vastly richer, but they are not growing bigger. They are no longer the kind of places you go to live a middle income existence, but globalized centers of excellence where few people can afford to compete and survive.
The countryside is descending into poverty. Farming and resource extraction, the only economic activities that still make sense there on any meaningful scale, require little or no labor.
As bad as conditions are in rural areas, poverty is expanding most quickly in the suburbs. Cheap to build, expensive to live in and expensive to maintain, sprawling suburbs made sense in an era when successful white professionals were looking to protect their racial dominance by hiding from “urban” problems. Now, suburbs place residents far away from emerging opportunities, making it hard to exploit the best that a new era of globalized prosperity offers.
Just as Republicans are largely blind to the conditions and concerns that affect black communities, Democrats are increasingly baffled by the demands of white voters. In particular, Democrats fail to recognize the ways that their social welfare policies intensify white fears.
The left is blindly tearing down a race-based shadow welfare state that once delivered a reliably middle class existence for whites. They are offering to replace it with a centralized social welfare state that compromises middle earners’ interests while only providing relief to those who are financially ruined.
The Affordable Care Act may be the signal example of this failure. Health care reform could have split low and middle income white workers from their alliance with elite whites. Instead we got a program very much like the rest of the safety net.
Most middle and low income whites have some access to health insurance through their employers. The ACA extended Medicaid coverage to the very poor while middle earners who are disproportionately white were excluded from subsidies. The structure of the Affordable Care Act placed a new mandate on struggling middle-earning households while excluding them from most of the benefits of the Act. No one should be surprised at the political result.
The characterization of the Democratic Party as a force for “dependence” makes perfect sense through this lens. White families struggling to hang on to their economic status correctly understand that Democratic policies will do little for them until they’re destitute. Lower income whites are not voting against their interests. With no political options on the table that could reasonably be expected to level the economic playing field, low income whites are making a rational choice to remain tied in racial solidarity to wealthier white households for as long as possible.
The world will be a better place when the concept of white supremacy becomes a matter for the history books. We could take a large step in that direction by recognizing that white supremacy was never merely a matter of ignorance. Living in an environment that respected white culture above all others created an absolutely real, economically meaningful, and yet largely invisible social safety net that elevated opportunity and dignity for lower earning white citizens at the expense of minorities. Offering to tear down a shadow social safety net based on white supremacy and only replace it with a social safety net for the desperately poor is, and will continue to be, a political non-starter.
To clarify, white supremacy is deeply unjust. Whites benefited in the past and continue to benefit from systematic violence aimed at looting the resources of racial minorities. It is also unjust that lower income whites are being made to suffer largely alone for the end of a white supremacist system while wealthier elites who benefited most from that system escape largely unscathed.
There are no major voices for Civil Rights that respect this valid grievance. That is a problem which is presenting dangerous political opportunities to dangerous people. If either party is going to lead us beyond the politics of racial polarization, they will have to find a way to build a replacement for the white shadow safety net that eases conditions for all. If we could deliver credible access to justice, opportunity, and advancement for everyone with the talent and determination to compete, white fears about the decline of their privileges might ease.
Failing to consider the needs of economically vulnerable whites who are suffering from the decline of racial preferences isn’t just bad policy, it is an injustice. Justice requires us to see the wider picture. Thus far the story of Civil Rights in America has excluded the valid concerns of white Americans who have depended on white supremacy for protection from a fundamentally oppressive system. Genuine pluralism requires more than eliminating bigotry. Pluralism depends on delivering a fundamentally just economic and political system in which those bigotries lose their practical relevance.