The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) has a new survey on the attitudes of "white working class" voters. That label has become an imprecise catch-all that makes for great headlines and conversation among the pundit classes; but it is much more slippery when actually examined empirically.
For example, a good amount of research has demonstrated that poor people tend to vote for the Democrats. Yet, white men who do not possess college degrees, and have "blue collar" jobs, tend to vote overwhelmingly for Republicans. And in the aggregate, "white working class voters" men without college degrees, and who are not working in salaried jobs, overwhelming support Mitt Romney.
The idea that working class white people are possessed of false consciousness, and are voting against their material interests when they support the Tea Party GOP has become a type of truism. Nevertheless, I believe it is largely an accurate description of their behavior. However, I have also come to realize that perhaps these voters are simply using a different voting calculus, one where white skin and the psychic wages of whiteness matter more than other variables. Their politics are not "abnormal" per se; rather, these voters are simply working towards a different set of goals.
As a complement to this observation, the PRRI has some rich findings that include:
3. White working-class Americans are more likely than white college-educated Americans to believe that blacks and other minorities have received too many advantages and government attention.[A question: if the elite classes and the federal government are dominated and ruled by white people, and whites have a majority of the country's wealth, income, and resources, just who is discriminating against "working class whites?" The logic never made sense to me. Is the argument that white elites are giving an unfair leg up to people of color in some great chess game where the goal is to hold down other white people? How does such nonsense logic get validated and circulated?]
Six-in-ten (60%) white working-class Americans agree that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities, compared to only 39% of white college-educated Americans.
Nearly half (49%) of white working-class Americans agree that over the past few decades the government has paid too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities, compared to 32% of white college-educated Americans.
White working-class Americans in the West (40%), Midwest (48%), and Northeast (48%) are less likely than white working-class Americans in the South (58%) to believe that over the past few decades, the government has paid too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities.
White people have long lived in a different life world than people of color. Segregation, narrow social networks, and a society where citizenship is racialized, has nurtured many white fictions in the service of white power and the white racial frame. Colorblind racism is an intoxicant. In the Age of Obama and the post Civil Rights era many Americans have drunk deeply from said bottle.
Moreover, the specious belief that America is either 1) free of discrimination and/or 2) that white people are somehow oppressed can be found among white folks in the aftermath of the Civil War, those living during Jim and Jane Crow, as well as in the present. It is an old script that is not going away any time soon. Education helps some, although still not enough, to have their eyes opened to the realities of systemic white privilege and racism in this society. There is hope that ignorance can be overcome. However, education is no cure all, as 39 percent of white college grads still hold onto similar fictions.
One of the ugliest phrases in the English language is "qualified" minority or female job candidate. Why? Because it presupposes white male competence and ability.
As I (and others) have long argued, the mediocrity of white people has been subsidized, encouraged, and nurtured by the State. "Affirmative Action" for white people (and white men in particular) was the stated policy of the United States government for most of the country's existence. The upward mobility of white people, and the federal government's subsidizing of the white middle class, came at the expense of people of color, and was facilitated by discrimination against black and brown Americans in both the public and private sphere.
With a contracting economy, demographic shifts, and more competition from non-whites, those protected, coddled, and entitled white folks--semi-skilled white laborers especially--are afraid because the fiction of their omnipotent competence has been exposed. Such a moment of realization must be terrifying, as it upsets one's cognitive map, and a worldview where whiteness and white people are naturally at the center of all things. People of color have long understood that the myth of meritocracy is just that, a lie, a chimera, and a fiction. Many white folks are finally waking up to that fact and are not taking it too well.
The PRRI survey also has one additional finding that I would like to highlight:
5. Despite being economically disillusioned, white working-class Americans strongly believe in American exceptionalism. Although white working-class Americans are less likely than white college-educated Americans to believe the American Dream still holds true (47% vs. 63%), they are more likely than white college-educated Americans to believe that God has granted America a special place in human history (70% vs. 42%).How will they manage their cognitive dissonance when confronted by how other countries are rising in power, have much higher rates of inter-generational mobility, happier and healthier populations, and that the United States is in decline? What will these white working class people do when forced to deal with those facts?
Every culture and society has a set of beliefs that it must reproduce in order to remain whole and coherent. But are white working class people who still believe in American Exceptionalism, and that God has granted the United States a "divine" destiny, not setting themselves up for a horrible fall?