One of the striking aspects of American politics during the era of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and administration has been the popular focus on white working-class voters and working-class whites in general. Trump’s strong support from non-college-educated whites, a designation that maps imperfectly onto social class, has prompted a new level of interest in these individuals and communities. In particular, commentators have argued that their experiences have led to a new populist revolt against immigration, neoliberal globalization, and center-left politics. Historians, sociologists, journalists, and others have published tomes on white working-class life and politics, exploring the reasons for their anger, and Trump’s victory has given these studies new prominence.1 In a nation that rarely discusses the politics of social class, this is noteworthy. Moreover, the emphasis on the white working class suggests that Americans are only comfortable talking about this issue when it is racialized and intersects with identity politics. This image of the working class is also frequently gendered, focusing on men working in factories rather than, say, waitresses or day care providers.
Many scholars have written about race, class, and the intersection of these two social realities in America and the world, and it is worth considering some of this scholarship in the light of contemporary politics. The modern historiography of race and class mirrors, to an important extent, contemporary political concerns about the relationship between the two. The contrast between those on the left who champion anti-discrimination and identity politics, and those on the populist right who condemn cultural elites in the name of white working people, has its parallels in historiographical discussions of the relationship between racial identities and class structures, between people of color and workers—too often considered mutually exclusive. Efforts to continue discussion of this crucial relationship and push it beyond academia can offer historians a positive way to contribute to contemporary politics.
Discussions of class in general, and the “working class” in particular, have a long and complex history in American life.2 How does one define class: by types of employment, income levels, levels of net worth, educational levels, or consumer patterns and other cultural frameworks? Often viewing the term “working class” as a suspicious referent for Marxism, many Americans have preferred instead to label themselves, and American society as a whole, middle class. As a result, even unions frequently proclaim their attachment to middle-class values and note their role in the construction of middle-class society after the Second World War. By the 1960s, invocation of the working class seemed to be disappearing, as the major social conflict in American society appeared to be between the middle class (or “silent majority”) and the underclass, both defined in racial terms. When I once taught Carlos Bulosan’s great novel of Filipino working-class life America Is in the Heart (1946) to a senior seminar, the students largely considered it a portrait of an ethnic underclass rather than a memoir of working-class life. The renaissance of the concept of the white working class during the Trump era speaks both to the rising inequality of American society, the fact that working people do not enjoy the same opportunities their parents benefited from during the postwar economic expansion, and to the image of white workers as oppressed, not so much by capital but by cultural elites and coddled minorities. This new focus on class reasserts and reinforces the idea that class conflict is to a significant degree racial conflict.
In the historiography of modern America, it is hardly possible to separate studies of race and of class. Both social and cultural history have frequently given pride of place to social and political distinctions grounded in race, class, and gender, and the interactions between them. Feminist historiography, for example, has devoted a great deal of attention to the ways in which skin color both unites and divides women, and much of the scholarship on racialized groups considers their positions in labor market structures. Many historians have also considered the relationship between class and gender. To take one example, Ruth Milkman has argued that the role of women in unions has largely been overlooked by both labor and women’s historians.3 The rise of whiteness studies since the early 1990s constitutes one of the most important recent historiographical interventions in the interplay of race and class. Historians have also used Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality to explore this relationship.4 As a result, today a serious historian cannot write about working-class life in America without considering its racial and gendered dimensions and fault lines.
At the same time, the discussion of the racialized nature of class in modern historiography has taken place in a context of post-Marxism and a retreat from the study of labor. Over time, historians have moved from a critique of labor history focused only on unions and socialist parties to a rejection of social class as not just the central determinant of social structure but as significant in general. In my own field, the history of modern France, this shift has been especially notable. The great social history studies of the 1970s and 1980s, in which American historians of France made their mark on the field, have largely given way to a new focus on colonial and postcolonial history. Whereas the former often focused on class and working-class formation and consciousness, the latter have tended to emphasize racial identities in both colonies and metropole. While the older model of social history rarely dealt with questions of racial difference, it is also true that much of the new cultural history of colonialism often neglects issues of labor and class. I recently attended an excellent panel discussion on the history of colonial labor in France during the First World War, and was struck by the extent to which the presenters approached the topic as a study in colonialism rather than labor. It is worth noting that the same is not true of French historians of France, who continue to write extensively about the social history of labor.
There are distinct parallels between the historiography of race and class, and the current debates over white working-class politics in America. Those who focus on the latter group as key to the victory of Donald Trump frequently accuse American progressives of neglecting class issues in favor of a focus on race and gender discrimination, of giving greater importance to affirmative action and gender-neutral bathrooms than living wages. At the same time, much of the new commentary on working-class life not only privileges whiteness but also embraces a kind of identity politics. Titles like White Trash and The New Minority strongly suggest a perspective grounded less in socioeconomic class analysis and more in cultural studies of oppressed social groups. To take one hot-button issue, current discussions of immigration often deal more with cultural and political fears of newcomers, and less with the impact of immigration on working-class living standards.
Cultural approaches to questions of race, class, and gender have added immeasurably to historians’ understandings of difference, both past and present. The challenges posed by globalization, rising inequality, and the new populism underscore that these levels of difference interact in a variety of ways, and such intersectionality remains key to understanding contemporary politics. In the era of Donald Trump, the importance of declining working-class standards of living cannot be overstated, but one must also show how they affect not just whites but peoples of color as well. References to the “good old days” or “making America great again” (calls for the intervention of historical reasoning if there ever were ones) should be understood both as reactions to increasing diversity and to the very real decline in middle-class incomes since the late 20th century. Since the 1970s both racial tolerance and income inequality seem to have grown dramatically, and, by considering this issue in historical perspective, historians should play a key role in understanding and explaining why (or why not) this is so. The stakes, social, cultural, and political, could not be higher.
Tyler Stovall is president of the AHA.
1. Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (New York: Viking, 2016); J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (New York: Harper, 2016); Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York: New Press, 2016); Justin Gest, The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
2. See Nelson Lichtenstein, “Class Unconsciousness: Stop Using ‘Middle Class’ to Depict the Labor Movement,” New Labor Forum, May 23, 2012.
3. Ruth Milkman, ed., Women, Work, and Protest: A Century of US Women’s Labor History (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985).
4. Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (July 1991).
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