Class has come increasingly to the fore in explanations of outcomes of the UK referendum on leaving the EU and the US Presidential election. Much of this commentary has been prefaced with a criticism of the privileging of identity politics over socio-economic inequality. As a consequence, the white working class, the argument goes, has been forgotten – their histories silenced and their claims for a redress of the injustices they face ignored. This is the basic narrative underpinning media discourses as well as many social scientific explanations of recent events and it is an impoverished one.
The problem, for the most part, rests in an association of class with structural inequality embedded in the economic system and race as merely pointing to social divisions. As such, class is presumed to be more significant than race and to provide a universal category for inclusive action, in contrast to a supposedly divisive focus on race. However, this analysis fails to acknowledge the ways in which race has been fundamental to the configuration of the modern world and is integral to socio-economic inequalities in the present. The problem is exacerbated with the turn to ethnographic accounts of white working class experience that fail to address the broader histories within which those experiences are located. This ethnographic approach is typical of journalistic reporting based on the collection of testimonies of Trump or Brexit voters, but it is also a feature of academic analysis.
For example, Arlie Hochschild’s recent book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, is an ethnographic account representing the concerns of the white working-class in Louisiana in the United States. She decided on Louisiana, what she terms as the ‘super South’, as she felt that it was the furthest away from the liberal enclave she otherwise inhabits in Berkeley, California. The basis of the comparison was the fact that in California one half of white people voted for Obama in 2012 whereas, in Louisiana, only 16% did. She states that she wanted to understand this other ‘Tea-Party’ America to discover how they came to hold their views, and whether there would be any possibility of making common cause on some issues.
The substance of the book is presented as a ‘deep story’, that is, of rich ethnographic accounts of people’s lives, beliefs, and experiences presented without judgement and without recourse to facts. ‘It’s a story that feels true to you’ she says. To explain this further she uses a truncated narrative that goes like this:
‘You’re on a—waiting in line for something you really want at the end: the American dream. You feel a sense of great deserving. You’ve worked very hard. A lot of these guys were plant workers, pipefitters in the petrochemical—you know, it’s tough work. So you’ve worked really hard. And the line isn’t moving. … Then you see some people cut in line. Well, who were they? They are affirmative action women who would go for formerly all-men’s jobs, or affirmative action blacks who have been sponsored and now have access to formerly all-white jobs. It’s immigrants. It’s refugees. And from—as felt, the line’s moving back. Then they see Barack Hussein Obama, who should impartially be monitoring the line, wave to the line cutters. And then you think, “Oh, he’s their president and not mine. And, in fact, he’s a line cutter. How did he get to Harvard? How did he get to Columbia? Where did he get the money? His mom was a single mom. Wait a minute.” And then they begin to feel like strangers in their own land.’
This is the ‘deep story’ of the ‘legitimate’ grievances of those who, Hochschild argues, have been ‘left behind’ by deindustrialization and decades of affirmative action and diversity politics. While there are many problematic aspects of this story, Hochschild has already insulated herself, and those she represents, from critique by stating upfront that a deep story is one that feels true despite the facts.
I do not dispute the grievances that are felt by those that Hochschild represents, what I contest is the claim that these are ‘legitimate’. What is being described is a relative loss of privilege rather than any real account of serious and systemic economic decline that is uniquely affecting white citizens in the United States. Hochschild herself implicitly acknowledges the segregated history of the US by pointing to the fact that previously there had been all-white jobs – jobs that were not available to African Americans and others because they were not white.
This, however, is not presented as the basis for any legitimate grievances held by African Americans. Rather, the fact that civil rights undermined the caste privilege previously enjoyed by white workers by enabling African Americans to compete on an ostensible level playing field is presented simply in terms of loss for white workers. In this way, ‘minorities’ are scapegoated for inequalities of material conditions that are increasingly shared by both sets of workers, but one set believes to be not appropriate to their place. Indeed, the data show that support for Trump (and Brexit) is not primarily grounded in those who are most economically disadvantaged. Nor is it evident that the supporters of each would wish to do something about the disadvantages of others, especially where they are perceived as ‘other’.
Class, here, is not the operation of a race-neutral economic system, but an economic system which is deeply racialized. At the same time, the assertion that what matters is class is necessarily given the form of a pernicious identity politics. The identity politics that are associated with the claims of minorities are claims for equal rights. A class analysis focusing on white workers (rather than all workers) effectively argues for the resumption of racialized privileges. There can be no legitimacy in the latter claim. The test of good faith that class analysis would need to pass is precisely that it begins from the racialized histories that configure our present and is willing to include workers who have been left out as well as those who perceive themselves as left behind.
Gurminder K. Bhambra is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. Her new book Connected Sociologies takes up the classical concerns of sociology and social theory and shows how they can be rethought through an engagement with postcolonial studies and decoloniality, two of the most distinctive critical approaches of the past decades.