America incentivizes racism in working class white people, and if we fail to understand this, we will fail to fix it.
My social groups are split on who they want to vote for. While most of them are #FeelingTheBern, many of them are coming around to old Hilda Baggins. Because I’m English and can’t vote in the US, I’ve avoided emotional investment in either one. Consequently, I’ve been listening with impassivity as people explain the superiority of their candidate.
One thing that has been interesting to me is people use a rhetoric on other Democrats that is similar to what they use on Republicans. I just read this comment on facebook:
There is NO logical reason Hillary Clinton should be beating Bernie Sanders by such large margins. I’m left to believe that 1) these voters think they’re getting Bill Clinton, Part 2 or 2) they have fallen prey to the worst of logical fallacies — Hillary is a woman; therefore, she will effect policy and cultural change for both women and minorities.
Here’s the thing, I know plenty of Clinton supporters and they’re not dumb. The Clinton supporters I personally know tend to be male programmers capable of rational thought who have spoken to me at length about the policy differences between Bill and Hillary. The most frequently cited reason I’ve heard for voting for Hillary is that people perceive her to be more electable against a Republican candidate. How electable either candidate will be against Trump is unknowable, but to vote based on a best guess given the information you know is not illogical. It is necessary.
If you’re a Sanders supporter and you want to win over Clinton supporters, you’re going to have to address the reasons they’re voting for Clinton. And, if you assume that Clinton supporters are too dumb to know what’s best for them, if you assume you know what they need better than they do, then you are wrong. Your arguments will be patronizing, and you will remain unconvincing.
Which, brings me to how we talk about Trump supporters. While the majority of Democrats I know do tend to keep it civil with each other, nearly all of them will rail on “ignorant” republicans who “vote against their own best interests.” Thing is, Trump supporters don’t vote against their best interests, Democrats just don’t understand the interest they care about most.
One of my favorite stories is Mike DeStefano interview about going on a motorcycle ride with his dying wife. It’s a beautiful, you should read it or listen to it. Anyway, at some point he says:
[Dying] people, they feel “I’m alive.” They pass away at one moment. Until that moment, they are alive, and they want to be loved, and they want to give and share, you know.
Until that moment, they want to give and share. Giving and sharing is as important to life as being loved.
We are depriving the white working classes of their means to give. As we export manufacturing jobs internationally and as we streamline labor with technology, we start moving people to the sidelines. It’s not just that they have less money, it’s that their identity as providers is being threatened. This is why they are often so against welfare. Even if it would fix their financial situation, it would not fix their identity problems. It would hurt their dignity. While the working class is undoubtedly worried about the economy, we already know many will not vote in their economic best interests. They vote for the candidate who promises a return to dignity, and it’s not because they’re dumb. It’s because they care about their dignity more than they care about their finances.
Which, by the way, directly ties in to how they are racist. Not all Trump supporters are necessarily racist, but a fair number of them explicitly are. Normally, when liberals talk about racism, they use “racist” as an end point. “Trump is racist” is, by itself, a reason not to vote for him, and “being racist” is an indicator of a person who is morally deficient.
But, if you don’t take this as an end point — if you instead ask “what do people get out of being racist?” — you’ll start to unravel the emotional motivations behind it. One of the best unpacking of this I have read is Matt Bruenig’s piece Last Place Avoidance and Poor White Racism. To summarize, no one wants to occupy the “last” place in society. No one wants to be the most despised. As long as racism remains intact, poor white people are guaranteed not to be “the worst.” If racism is ever truly dismantled, then poor white people will occupy the lowest rung of society, and the shame of occupying this position is very painful. This shame is so painful, that the people at risk of feeling it will vote on it above all other issues.
Liberals, especially white liberals, like to believe in the moral superiority of the “not racist” (which presumably includes them.) And, I agree we need to aspire to a “less racist” America, but I disagree that it is useful to think of racism as a personal moral failure. It can be, but thinking of it this way blocks progress.
The main difference between a white racist and a white “race ally” is usually social group. Marc Zuckerberg recently reprimanded some of his employees for crossing out “Black Lives Matter” and replacing it with “All Lives Matter” but of course he did. The internet went wild congratulating him, but this was not a courageous act for him. It may have been a morally correct act, but it was not a brave one. His social group rewards overt “anti-racist” behavior so being overtly “anti-racist” will only enhance his social standing.
On the other hand, for some poor white communities, solidifying racism seems like a quicker path to enhancing their social status than activism. Ironically, many white racists and white allies have the same motivation in their hearts — to look good to their peers. Yet, white allies tend to get blocked around this because it is painful to admit they have similar motivations to white racists. At least, it is painful for me to admit.
Yet, the fact that we are similarly motivated — white racists, white allies, and people of color alike — is the key to fixing this whole mess. We must find ways for the working class to maintain its dignity, we must find a way for them to have jobs that are satisfying to them, we must find a way for them to contribute to culture. We must find a way for them to feel heard. Which, by the way, are the exact same goals we need to have for oppressed races. We all need the same thing, and until we find a way to give it to more people, we will fight each other for it.
And, America is terrible at giving its citizens dignity and meaning. We have, with the internet, the power for more people to be appreciated than ever before, yet we use it primarily to shame each other. Shaming Trump supporters for being “ignorant bigots” is the worst thing you can do, because their entire motivation in voting for Trump is to alleviate the shame they are already carrying. If you add to their shame, they will dig in further.
It is, obviously, difficult to think about ways to reduce shame on a national level but we have to start finding ways to have more appreciation for each other, even those we disagree with. At the most basic level we can start by not explicitly shaming people. We can stop calling them ignorant. We can stop mocking them on the internet. We can stop calling them out on twitter. Unless they happen to be Martin Shkreli, then it’s ok.
Originally published on Medium by Emma Lindsay. Reprinted with permission.