New York Times (Op-Ed)
By Joan C. Williams
May 27, 2017
I have worked virtually my entire adult life on gender bias, so when I hear that President Trump’s election means that we should abandon identity politics, I’m not persuaded. Politics is always about identity, no less for Mr. Trump than for the African-American feminist bell hooks.
To win in 2018 and especially 2020, Democrats need more identity politics — not less. They must address the widespread working-class revolt against global elites. Doing so is a pressing issue because in four years the Electoral College will again give outsize power to the working-class whites in Rust Belt states who delivered the last election to Mr. Trump.
Democrats have taken to the streets to reaffirm our existing alliances and raise our morale. That’s important, and of course it is not only the white working class that is in revolt. But we also need to listen to the concerns of working-class whites specifically, for reasons that are both strategic and ethical.
Strategic first. If Mr. Trump wins the next election, that will guarantee Republicans long-term control of the Supreme Court — not to mention the continuing negative impact on immigrants, minorities, L.G.B.T.Q. people, women and the poor, all of whom are taking a hiding under Mr. Trump.
But ethical considerations are even more important. As a progressive, I am committed to social equality — not just for some groups, but for all groups. That’s why we must attend to what the sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb call the “hidden injuries of class.” These are dramatized by a recent employment study, in which the sociologists Lauren A. Rivera and Andras Tilcsik sent 316 law firms résumés with identical and impressive work and academic credentials, but different cues about social class. The study found that men who listed hobbies like sailing and listening to classical music had a callback rate 12 times higher than those of men who signaled working-class origins, by mentioning country music, for example.
Politically, the biggest “hidden injury” is the hollowing out of the middle class in advanced industrialized countries. For two generations after World War II, working-class whites in the United States enjoyed a middle-class standard of living, only to lose it in recent decades. Does their sense of entitlement reflect white privilege? Sure it does. Even in the glory days, when blue-collar whites’ wages were spiraling up and the Federal Housing Administration was helping them buy homes, those jobs and houses were not equally available to African-Americans. Far from it.
But something is seriously off when privileged whites dismiss the economic pain of less privileged whites on grounds that those other whites have white privilege. Everyone should have access to good housing and good jobs. That’s the point.
Two changes are required for Democrats to diminish the 39-point margin by which whites without college degrees voted for Mr. Trump over Hillary Clinton.
This first concerns social honor. Too often in otherwise polite society, elites (progressives emphatically included) unselfconsciously belittle working-class whites. We hear talk of “trailer trash” in “flyover states” afflicted by “plumber’s butt” — open class insults that pass for wit. This condescension affects political campaigns, as in Hillary Clinton’s comment about “deplorables” and Barack Obama’s about people who “cling to guns or religion.”
“My biggest boneheaded move,” Mr. Obama mused.
He was right. Democrats should stop insulting people. The high cost of doing so is dramatized by “I’m deplorable” T-shirts and Inaugural DeploraBalls. There’s no need to accept racism, sexism or homophobia from working-class whites or anyone else. Just live up to our progressive ideals by acknowledging social disadvantage more consistently. If class-based insults were as politically incorrect as racial or homophobic slurs, Rush Limbaugh’s rants against P.C. elites might hold less appeal. Mr. Limbaugh, like Mr. Trump, feeds off class resentment. Let’s stop making their jobs easier.
That’s the first step. The second is for Democrats to advocate an agenda attractive to low-income and working-class Americans of all races: creating good jobs for high school graduates. The college-for-all experiment did not work. Two-thirds of Americans are not college graduates. We need to continue to make college more accessible, but we also need to improve the economic prospects of Americans without college degrees.
Accepted wisdom that decent nonprofessional jobs are gone for good lets elites off the hook. In fact, the United States has a well-documented dearth of workers qualified for middle-skill jobs that pay $40,000 or more a year and require some postsecondary education but not a college degree. A 2014 report by Accenture, Burning Glass Technologies and Harvard Business School found that a lack of adequate middle-skills talent affects the productivity of “47 percent of manufacturing companies, 35 percent of health care and social assistance companies, and 21 percent of retail companies.” Middle-skill jobs are important jobs: radiology technician, electrician, modern robot-heavy factory worker, emergency medical technician, wind turbine technician. In some cities, a construction boom is hobbled by a lack of plumbers. We might ameliorate this problem if we stopped talking about plumber’s butt.
Democrats should champion a new education-to-employment system in which high schools, community colleges and universities work with businesses and unions to develop certificate programs that deliver job-ready Americans who have the specific skills needed by local industries. These programs should be shorter than college, with flexible scheduling suitable for adult students with families who may very well need to retrain again and again as jobs mutate in a fast-changing world. Skillful, a partnership among the Markle Foundation, LinkedIn and Colorado, is one initiative pointing the way. Skillful helps provide marketable skills for job seekers without college degrees and connects them with employers in need of middle-skilled workers in information technology, advanced manufacturing and health care.
Democrats have given Republicans the priceless gift of letting them be the party that talks more about good jobs for working-class Americans. What’s the Republican jobs program? Supply-side economics, which is bad science but savvy politics, because it communicates to working-class whites that Republicans understand what they want: jobs. I don’t believe tax cuts for the rich are the answer. But the Democrats’ failure to communicate a meaningful alternative means that all Mr. Trump has to do to own the jobs issue is jawbone a few companies, propose tax cuts and sing the praises of coal.
When economic resentments are not addressed, they morph in ugly ways. Immigration provides an example. In 2014, the Republican leadership in Congress was moving toward immigration reform, driven by concern about alienating Latino voters. This momentum halted when Eric Cantor, then the House majority leader, was “primaried” by an unknown libertarian candidate, David Brat. Opposition to Mr. Cantor originally focused on crony capitalism and the Wall Street bailout. Mr. Brat didn’t stop there. Instead, he attacked the “amnesty” immigration reform he accused Mr. Cantor of supporting. In a speech, he hit the nail on the head: “Virginia is ground zero in the fight to protect American workers. If we want to stop amnesty, then we must stop Eric Cantor on this Election Day, June 10.”
In other words, he turned immigration into a wedge issue by turning it into a jobs issue. Democrats need to reverse this process. Expressing a commitment to good jobs for Americans of all races can help keep economic anxieties from exacerbating racism.
We need to return to the agenda articulated more than 50 years ago by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Equality means dignity,” he said. “And dignity demands a job and a paycheck that lasts through the week.” Dr. King died trying to create an interracial coalition to meet this basic human right. Democrats need to take up that mantle and stop sleepwalking our way to the next electoral defeat.
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