Over the last week the American press has been obsessed with the real and imagined concerns of the “white working class”. Before diving into these excuses for fascism, let’s take a moment to consider the rhetorical features of the phrase. “White working class” overtly excludes people of other races. Since it’s a demographic voting bloc, this isn’t a strange thing to do.
“White working class” also embeds the word “working” to not-so-subtly draw a distinction between the noble and detestable poor. We already have many phrases for praising poor whites that we’d never apply to poor blacks: salt of the earth, good ole boys, God’s own. This new phrase relies on those old stereotypes to evoke a God-fearing humble farmer who needs his guns to shoot varmints attacking his crops.
Poor US whites are not all paid workers. Rural white communities have the highest percentage of recipients on food stamps, Medicaid, and Social Security for Disability benefits. I’m a poor white who uses the first two programs myself. I’m grateful for them and no one should be shamed for using them, but most of that shame actually comes from poor and rural whites. Some of that is self hatred and the rest is hatred of others, and a jealous resentment that the others are better off.
The final word of the phrase “class” lumps in the elderly parents, pregnant wife, and non working children of the racist sexist bigoted uneducated white male factory workers and farmers this phrase is really for. It’s not just the workers, it’s the class they belong to. “White working class” tells us poor whites are hard workers, and suggests other poor people are not.
The real economic complaint of the “white working class” is that they believe only other poor people deserve poverty. They are not socialists who want to eradicate poverty: they are racists who want to transfer it. The phrase says “We are white and working! Those are two reasons we deserve not to be in poverty.” By contrast, “non working” black mothers do deserve it, to them.