WCP: The Multiracial Working Class

Protesters with raised fists march on a street. Signs read

Posted in News Working-Class Perspectives

That the working class includes people of all races seems obvious to those who study class. But too often, and especially in discussions about voting patterns, when people talk about “the working class,” they assume “the white working class.” Where does this confusion come from?  And why does it matter? In Working-Class Perspectives (new window) this week, Allison L. Hurst uses data from the General Social Survey to debunk the assumption, consider its implications, and argue that we need to be more explicit it naming the multiracial working class.

One of the questions that you hear regularly in the Working-Class Studies Association is, “Why is the organization so White?”  There are many possible answers to this question, of course. Some of it must surely be laid at our collective doorstep — failures to do the proper outreach, not enough time spent making our spaces truly welcoming and open to all, insufficient attention paid to how “insiders” reproduce ourselves through recruitment and leadership training.  One thing that the organization cannot be faulted with, however, is relevance.  Our focus, working-class studies, is a topic of crucial importance to both White people and the BIPOC community.

But this relevance may not be so obvious to those who are not already engaged in working-class studies, perhaps because they assume that “working class” means “White working class.” It has become increasingly necessary to explicitly aver that the working class, both in the US and elsewhere, is multiracial, because the assumption is so often the contrary.  An organization calling itself the “Working-Class Studies Association,” in today’s circumstances, has to confront this problem. 

Why is this?  One reason could well be long histories of racial exclusion among the organizations that have operated as spokespersons for the working class, such as some labor unions and political parties.  But a lot of the assumption of a White working class is quite new.  Ethnic workers of the 1930s and 1940s might not have been considered “white” by the WASP establishment of the time, though we now see  workers of IrishPolishJewish, and Italian backgrounds as white.  Nixon’s “silent majority” may have included white workers, but it involved even more people from the middle class.  The link between whiteness and working-class status might be traced to the story of a massive shift of previously Democratic White workers who vote for Reagan, which enabled the Republican Party to dominate  in the 1980s. 

But that narrative rests on a false assumption. White workers didn’t swing significantly to the right. In fact, in that election, and in every subsequent election in which a Republican was elected president, White workers, defined as those who held jobs involving manual labor, including service jobs, were about equally split between candidates, as this graph (based on General Social Survey data) shows.  Although many White workers supported the Republican candidate in 1980 (and were somewhat more likely to do so than the population as a whole), more than half still voted for someone else or didn’t vote at all.  It certainly doesn’t look like the Republican party became the party of White workers.

Republican Vote of WC, by race, compared to total vote, GSS data, 1972-2018, compiled and analyzed by author

Even acknowledging the overwhelming political differences here between White and Black workers (the GSS data does not have sufficient numbers of other BIPOC workers), it still seems strange to attribute a wholesale political shift to a group that was split down the middle.    Similar numbers are available for the Trump election years, despite the many stories we have seen in the media.  There is no “White working class” that can shoulder the blame for Trump – his support came from across the class spectrum. So there is really not much evidence of a unified political bloc of a “White Working Class“ that supports conservative candidates. If anything, the move rightward seems to have stopped.

Perhaps White workers identify as working-class more than others?  If this were true, then it would go some way towards explaining why the term “working class” has taken on a racialized meaning.  But the data points in the other direction. 

 GSS data shows that 62% of Black male respondents and 56% of Black female respondents identified as working class, compared to 56% of White Male and 48% of White female respondents.  Looking only at those in traditional working-class jobs, 60% of both White and Black respondents identified as working class.  There is a significant and interesting split in how workers who do not identify as working class identify themselves, with White workers much more likely to claim middle-class status while Black workers are more likely to claim lower-class status.Subjective Class Identification of Objective WC Respondents, GSS

Subjective Class Identification of Objective WC Respondents, GSS, 1972-2018 data, analyzed by author

If we drill down into the data even further, White people in the same job categories as their BIPOC counterparts are more likely to identify as middle class.  And those who do are also more likely to vote Republican than workers who identify as working class.  So the whole connection between a supposed “White Working Class” and Republican Party support in the US seems wrong on two levels: White workers are not voting en masse for Republicans, and those who do are much less likely to be identifying as working class.

The question  remains, why do we hear “White working class” for working class?  I would argue it is purely discursive, at this point.  The problem comes from lazy middle-class intellectuals (that is a quote from Bad Religion again) who bifurcate the working class into a White component connected to labor issues and politics and a BIPOC component that comes to mind in discussions of poverty, racism, the criminal justice system, and welfare.  In fact, the majority of people receiving welfare benefits are White, but the media continues to run stories that distinguish a “Black Poor” population from “the (White) Working Class.”  This is all the more problematic because poverty, White or Black, is something experienced by working-class people.  Contrary to these distinctions, I would argue, as would most people who grew up poor, that there are no poor people who are not part of the working class, even if they are unemployed or underemployed at the moment. 

There have always been political candidates and movement leaders who understood this.  Bernie Sanders, for one, was clearly speaking to and for the entire multiracial working class, not a privileged White subset.  In midcentury fights between labor unions and within labor unions about what workers were to be included and represented, Walter Reuther took a strong stance in support of inclusion.  Grace Lee Boggs’s activism in support of the working class always included recognition of and struggle against racism and racial division.  We are yet again seeing efforts to discursively split the working class against itself. We need to fight back against the White Working Class trope and be much more explicit, as an organization, that what we mean when we say “working class” is the real multiracial working class and not a racist caricature.  If this means explicitly naming our focus “the multiracial working class,” then we need to do that. 

All descriptions of class are political.  They don’t merely reflect reality but help create it.  As Bourdieu once noted, ‘class’ will never be a neutral word so long as there are classes. The question of the existence or non-existence of classes and where the lines are drawn between them – who is included and who is not included – is itself a stake in struggle between the classes.  This is a political project.  We must forever and everywhere champion the inclusive meaning of working class.   Let’s not let the racists take our name away from us. 

Allison L. Hurst, Oregon State University