WCP: Who Speaks for Us?

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Whether it’s Representative Mark Meadows’s decision to have Lynne Patton stand behind him as “evidence” that President Trump is not racist or the media’s embrace of J.D. Vance’s version of Appalachian culture as the key to understanding white working-class voters, political discourse often anoints a single individual to represent a whole social group. In this week’s Working-Class Perspective, Alison L. Hurst asserts that no group is homogeneous. We may be shaped by similar constraints and a shared culture, but we have different experiences and make our own choices.

Mark Meadows got a lot of flak for bringing Lynne Patton, a woman of color, to the Cohen hearings in an attempt to refute Cohen’s charge that Trump is a racist.  After all, said Meadows, Patton worked for Trump – first for the Trump family and now as an administrator with HUD — so she should know.

Representative Rashida Tlaib had dramatically challenged Meadows in public, saying,“The fact that someone would actually use a prop — a black woman — in this chamber, in this committee is alone, racist in itself.”  With tensions flaring, and Meadows doing what appeared to be a tears-in-the-eyes injured party act, Tlaib hastily retreated, claiming she never meant to imply that Meadows was a racist.  In doing so, she missed an opportunity to explain why deploying Patton as a prop is so egregious.  Since this is something that we face in the general working-class community as well, I thought I’d spend this post talking about what is wrong with making one person represent the totality of a group’s experience, particularly when it comes to political alignments and loyalties.

Meadows might have had a couple of reasons to showcase Patton.   One, a form of tokenism, could be a way of saying “look I have a Black friend, or a Black employee.”  I think we all know about the perils of this.  The other, slightly more subtle reason — and what I suspect Meadows was aiming for — was to use Patton to refute the claim that people of color found Trump and his policies racist.  The implication is that what Patton thinks on the matter (or, tells her white employer to his face, which may not be at all what she really thinks, but let’s put that aside for the moment) represents a sort of black referendum.  We know this is absurd.  But we do it all the time, not only with race, but with gender (“Sally’s OK with my touching her so therefore this cannot be sexual harassment”), and class (more on this below).  The Right is particularly good at picking people out of collectivities and using their individual responses to counter claims of malice, harm, and overall bad behavior.

For a good example of the class version, look at what happened with J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis.  In this emotionally-laded biography, Vance describes what it was like to grow up in poverty, both the good (Appalachian values) and bad (mother’s history of drug addictions, for example).  A New York Times reviewcalled it “a tough love analysis of the poor who back Trump.”  The idea that the book could explain the rise of Trump probably helped make it a bestseller.  It was even required reading at many colleges and universities.  Conservatives embraced the book for locating social problems in individual foibles, rather than, structural causes, like say capitalism.

There was a backlash, too.  A lengthy analysis in The American Prospect took Vance to task for the “classless and benign history” he presented.   Others, who had been born and raised in poverty, contested Vance’s interpretations and claims as well.  An op-ed writer in the Washington Post bemoaned the fact that “pundits continue to cite it as though the author speaks for all of us who grew up in poverty. But Vance doesn’t speak for me, nor do I believe that he speaks for the vast majority of the working poor.”

And that is the point.  He doesn’t. No one of us raised in poverty or the working class can speak for all of us, just as Lynne Patton and Michael Cohen’s choice of employer does not validate that employer for all blacks and Jews (another exchange between Meadows and Cohen brought this one out).  We each make our own political choices and allegiances.  This is, after all, the insight Marx had when he distinguished between class-in-itself (our collective experiences) and class-for-itself (our political organization).  The latter does not happen spontaneously.  We can raise our consciousness, or not.

That’s why we have to understand that Vance is not only someone raised in working-class Appalachia, the person he writes about in his memoir. He is also someone who has worked for a Republican state senator and to promote capitalism as part of a venture capital firm owned by Peter Thiel.  He is connected with Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts, for whom his wife clerked.

There has been talk that Vance is considering running for the Senate, as a Republican, of course.  In other words, he is an individual who has made political choices and allegiances in the past and will continue to do so, as do we all.  None of this is to impugn the story he told so well in Hillbilly Elegy, but it does remind us that the stories we tell are always partial.  He stressed some things and left out others, because this reflects his understanding of the world.

I’ve spent a lot of my academic career exploring how working-class people come to articulate their stories and with what political consequences.  Just recently, for example, I wrote here about how the “foreman problem” shows that working-class people do not all share the same politics.  People’s particular work situations can affect how they envision possibilities in the world.  In The Burden of Academic Success, I demonstrated how college students from the working class were forced to make choices about whether they remained identified with their class-of-origin or switched allegiance to the middle-class to which they were moving.  The former I called “Loyalists” and the latter I called “Renegades.”

When Loyalists used we they meant, “people like those with whom I grew up,” while Renegades’ we encompassed the educated middle class.  Loyalists tended to stress structural barriers to entry, the presence of racism and other forms of discrimination, and then necessity of sticking together to make good things happen.  In contrast, Renegades often recounted valiant stories of striving alone, against the odds, in an attempt to better themselves.

I’ve since seen this contrast play out in many different venues.  Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas do not share the same politics at all, despite their similar places of origin.  Not all women are equally outraged at stories of sexual harassment.   J.D. Vance’s presentation is very different from that of many others who struggled out of poverty.  Some of the most far-right conservatives came from humble beginnings.

This did not make them humble, but it may have helped them embrace a story (“anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps”) that resonated with their own feelings of success and escape.  Many others whose lives began in the working class and who were then educated into the middle class have forcefully rejected this narrative, choosing instead to focus on removing obstacles and inequities that still prevent their friends and family from having the lives they deserve.

We usually don’t get to choose who will be used as the representative figure for whatever groups we belong to. Just as African-Americans might not choose Lynne Patton to stand for them, white working-class people might not have chosen J.D. Vance. And no individual story can capture the range of experiences and views of any group. We may be constrained by circumstances, and our cultural identities may push us in one direction of another. But ultimately, we hold the power to make choices about the stories we tell, where we stand politically, and how we envision the future.  Working-class politics are not determined by our bodies or our pasts or even by the cultures from which we come. Politics are about what we do with who we are.

Photo from Washington Post
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The Working-Class Perspectives blog (new window) is brought to you by our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-19 academic years, John Russo, and English Professor and Director of the American Studies Program at Georgetown University, Sherry Linkon. It features several regular and guest contributors. Last year, the blog published 41 posts that were read over 111,000 times by readers in 178 countries. The blog is cited by journalists from around the world, and discussed in courses in high schools and colleges worldwide.