In 2016, the American political zodiac fell on the sign of the Rust Belt. Almost overnight, the news cycle filled with stories about laborers left jobless by globalization, opioid addiction ravaging rural communities and a population feeling existentially threatened by immigration and the apathy of the “coastal elite.” The people typically featured in these stories were angry, and they wanted immediate change. Their moniker became the political buzzword of the year: the “white working class.”
This segment of the American underclass, hailing from the hamlets of Appalachia to the crumbling factory towns of the Midwest, took the front seat of American politics in 2016 as the bloc that many would say was primarily responsible for the election of Donald Trump. The day after the election, the New York Times ran a story with the headline “Why Trump Won: Working-Class Whites,” and the Washington Post ran “How Trump won: The revenge of working-class whites.” Hillary Clinton’s loss was blamed, at least in part, on the Democratic Party’s failure to appeal to this seemingly-decisive demographic group, which turned out to vote in unprecedented numbers. The Democrats’ inability to garner enough support from the white working class is often framed as a “failure” because the Democratic Party is supposed to be the party of working people; the party’s official website even declares that Democrats have historically led the fight for “civil rights, health care, Social Security, workers’ rights, and women’s rights.” So if the Democrats truly do fight to help working-class Americans, then why did so many lower-income white voters defect from the party that claims to represent their interests?
Part of the answer to this problem is coded into the very language we use. The Democratic Party can’t be an effective “working-class” party because there is no unified American working class. There never has been. The word “class” implies a kind of collective consciousness, a group identity born out of shared economic interests. No such thing exists among America’s poor. Instead, the most economically disadvantaged Americans are fractured along racial lines, divided so deeply that they cannot form any kind of class consciousness. That’s why we talk about the white working class and the black urban poor as two distinct entities, despite the fact that one might think these people would have similar economic interests by virtue of their shared poverty.
However, while political identification is certainly influenced by one’s concrete economic and social interests, it also rests on a psychological perception of the nature of society and one’s place in it. America looks different to different groups of people, and these often mutually incompatible perspectives bear heavily on their political affiliation.
The magnitude of the divide in the American working class is highlighted by the perspectives of two authors who have emerged on opposite sides of the rift: Ta-Nehisi Coates and J.D. Vance. Coates — an African-American author, educator and journalist who currently works as a national correspondent for The Atlantic — published his most recent book, Between the World and Me, in 2015. The novel, written as a letter to his son, pays homage to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, reflecting on Coates’s experiences as a black man in America. On the other hand, Vance — a self-described “hillbilly” who grew up in a Rust Belt city in Ohio and an Appalachian town in Kentucky, attended Yale Law School and worked as a venture capitalist in San Francisco — published his debut novel, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, in 2016. One reviewer describes Vance’s book as having done “for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square.”
When it comes to their central messages, these two memoirs appear unrelated. Coates’s book is a fiery indictment of racism and an American Dream built upon “the plunder of black bodies.” Vance’s memoir avoids race almost entirely and instead focuses on the weaknesses of family and religious institutions in the “hillbilly” community.
However, the two books are strikingly similar in their descriptions of their authors’ upbringings. Both Coates and Vance were raised in neighborhoods plagued by poverty and addiction. Coates grew up in urban Baltimore in the 1980s. “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth,” he writes, “was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.” Vance spent part of his youth in Middletown, Ohio, a community that, like many other Rust Belt towns, thrived during the manufacturing era but had begun to fall into physical and economic disrepair by the time of Vance’s childhood. “From low social mobility to poverty to divorce and drug addiction,” Vance writes, “my home is a hub of misery.” While he grew up in Middletown, Vance notes that he only later realized one neighborhood “was actually two neighborhoods — one inhabited by Middletown’s working-class black population, the other by its poorest white population.”
Both men were forced to learn the law of the streets at an early age. Coates describes the streets of Baltimore as an “array of lethal puzzles and strange perils” in which a single slip-up could result in “a beat-down, a shooting, or a pregnancy.” The message was clear: One had to learn to be tough to survive. Vance writes of similar lessons learned in his experience: “In the southwest Ohio of my youth, we learned to value loyalty, honor, and toughness. I earned my first bloody nose at five and my first black eye at six.”
Moreover, Vance and Coates both describe feeling unfit for the public school system, and they each struggled with the impact that domestic and neighborhood violence had on their academic lives. Both men suggest they may not have “made it out” of their communities had an external force not exposed them to the possibility of a different life — in Coates’s case, attending Howard University, and in Vance’s case, joining the Army.
But perhaps most tellingly, even as each writer tells of when he “made it out” — once Ta-Nehisi Coates became an acclaimed journalist and J.D. Vance entered Yale Law School — they still portray themselves as vastly unequipped to assimilate into the alien world of the “coastal elite.” Coates recalls moving to New York City and being astounded by the breezy fearlessness of the white urban elite as they strolled along Manhattan streets: “the galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs.” Similarly, J.D. Vance writes of discovering at Yale Law School that “successful people are playing an entirely different game…there is enormous value in what economists call social capital.”
The parallels between Coates’s and Vance’s experiences illustrate a truth that should need no explanation: poverty is indiscriminate. Violence, addiction, and unemployment are not necessarily race-specific problems; they’re symptoms of the larger evil of poverty. As Monica Potts writes in Democracy Journal:
There are two economies, and the country’s least educated and poorest are in the worse one. They’re disproportionately African-American and Latino, but in raw numbers they include plenty of whites, too. These people aren’t just missing out because they have less education and training. They’re also missing out because they live in the wrong places.
Coates’s and Vance’s narratives demonstrate how poor people in America — black and white — face a similar set of core economic and social problems. Theoretically, an American “working class” should exist, because, theoretically, those belonging to America’s “worse economy” would coalesce politically, at least over the basic issue of improving their own economic situation. But theory breaks down when race is introduced into the equation.
In this country, race matters. It fundamentally shapes the lens through which each and every one of us views the world, whether we are conscious of it or not. While wealth and poverty belong to the concrete realm of economics, race influences the psychological side of politics; it underlies our variable perceptions of America and our belief in that elusive and vaguely fictitious promise we call the American Dream.
For Ta-Nehisi Coates, the American Dream is a flat-out lie, a dangerous fantasy spun by people who find solace in the false construction of their “whiteness.” “The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts,” Coates muses. “The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake…I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.” He urges his fellow African-Americans to remain conscious of the false and insidious nature of “the Dream.” In Coates’s eyes and in the eyes of many black people, America is a hostile country. From slavery to Jim Crow to redlining to mass incarceration to police brutality, African-Americans have been actively oppressed by their own country for reasons that have nothing to do with economics. The meritocratic ideal of social mobility inherent in the American Dream does not apply to people of color.
On the other hand, J.D. Vance very much believes in the American Dream, even if “his people” do not. To Vance, this Dream is difficult for poor kids to access, but not unattainable. While race features front and center in Between the World and Me, it is notably missing from Hillbilly Elegy. Rather, Vance seems only to mention race to justify its absence: “I do hope that readers of this book will be able to take from it an appreciation of how class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a racial prism.” He does not appear to consider the role race plays in the social mobility of the poor. Instead, when describing the plight of his white community, Vance adopts a version of the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” rhetoric so integral to America’s traditional glorification of the Protestant work ethic. He laments the white working class’s tendency to “blame problems on society or the government” instead of being “tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children.” Vance argues that the white working class’s economic woes are due to intra-community failures, such as declining church attendance and a cultural stigma against hard work and academic success. But in doing so, he highlights the fundamental paradox of the racial divide in working class politics:
As far back as the 1970s, the white working class began to turn to Richard Nixon because of a perception that, as one man put it, government was “payin’ people who are on welfare today doin’ nothin’! They’re laughin’ at our society! And we’re all hardworkin’ people and we’re gettin’ laughed at for workin’ every day!”
Despite being major beneficiaries of welfare programs, the white working class sees government assistance as a contributor to their own decline. According to Vance, they attempt to “draw bright lines between the working and nonworking poor,” blaming their own lack of motivation on the idea that the government lets undeserving non-workers live just as well as they, poor workers, live. He recalls his Mamaw’s judgement of a woman who moved into the house next door to theirs using government vouchers:
“She’s a lazy whore, but she wouldn’t be if she was forced to get a job…I hate those fuckers for giving these people the money to move into our neighborhood…I can’t understand why people who’ve worked all their lives scrape by while these deadbeats buy liquor and cell phone coverage with our tax money.”
Vance suggests that poor whites resent government assistance and offers that what is actually needed is less policy change and more mentality change. Coates, on the other hand, offers (at least in his landmark June 2014 cover story for The Atlantic titled “The Case for Reparations”) that the government can play a valuable role in alleviating the plight of poor African Americans. Unlike Vance, Coates adamantly refuses to blame the problems of the black poor on intra-community failures. “To yell ‘black-on-black crime,’” he writes, “is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding.” He instead points to societal failures, describing America as a country in which racism “has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting.” Without active government intervention to prevent America from reverting to this “default” of oppression, the black working class will not be able to access anything close to the social mobility promised by the American Dream.
Any kind of political unity in the working class would require ideological cohesion in regard to the role people envision government playing in their own lives and therefore what they look for in a political party. But as the memoirs of Vance and Coates demonstrate, members of the white working class have a certain faith in the attainability of social mobility that members of the black working class do not. The former group simply sees government interventions as unjust prohibitors to the American Dream, whereas the latter sees the lack of government interventions to right the wrongs of the past as an unjust prohibitor to that Dream. Perhaps this is why white residents of the Rust Belt saw a promise in Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rhetoric that rang false for most of black America.
It can be easy to blame the Democratic Party’s electoral losses during the 2016 election on failing to appeal to the white working class. However, when the worldview of the white working class is so often incompatible with that of African Americans and other minority groups that have grown to compose the Democratic base, this task becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible. The inclination to try to draw clean political lines between single identity categories — in this case, class — ignores the ways those identities can be further divided between other identities — in this case, race. The Democratic Party cannot broadly appeal to America’s working class when that demographic is so deeply factionalized.
Erica Scott is an undeclared freshman.
This article appears in the May 2017 issue of Stanford Politics Magazine.