Racial division is the most successful political tactic in history. The very notion of race was created by the European elite in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution to fuse white mill workers with their Caucasian employers, thus preventing a union of exploited workers and brutalized colonial subjects in other parts of Europe’s many empires. In the United States, racial wedge tactics have had more success than in any other Western nation–not that the U.S. necessarily has an uglier history than countries that subdued most of the world’s people of color. Race, as a divider, has staying power.
Perhaps that explains the appeal of the current social-justice movement’s demographic structure. Following (perhaps unwittingly) the ideas formulated by New Left intellectuals of the 1960s, today’s left-activists have striven to unite racial minorities of all classes with a young, hypereducated vanguard. Implicit in this strategy is a belief that the vast majority of working-class whites are intoxicated with the foul vapors of racism, and largely irredeemable. An hour-glass movement can dispense with any concessions to the cultural views of white workers and pursue its prized objectives without the baggage of a conservative demographic.
The problem with this vision is that upper-middle class people simply do not share enough of the interests with working-class minorities for this coalition to reach critical mass. The increasingly affluent, educated Democratic Party is attempting to redistribute income from the rich to the poor despite their changing coalition. But a movement requires investment in the cause that goes well beyond the logrolling of congressional process. Movements need deep, lasting passion, and that is unlikely to be found in enough highly educated professionals for the goal of structural change to come to fruition.
Instead, social-justice activists should ask themselves what white workers have in common with nonwhite workers. And there turns out to be a lot. Although Black people almost always get hit harder by adverse social trends, the scourges of wage stagnation, family breakdown, drug addiction, and mass imprisonment fall heavily on both sides of the color. To be sure, white-skin privilege is real; while America locked up hundreds of thousands of cocaine dealers, it is treating the opioid epidemic as a matter of health. But to look at the almost 2 million mobile homes dotting the South is to see a plague that does discriminate by race, but hardly spares the white poor.
A justice movement will not succeed unless it attracts support from most people whose interests are aligned with the cause. That means that focusing heavily on “turnout” among friendly voters in election season and holding huge marches in chic urban neighborhoods will not suffice. If today’s social-justice activists are to succeed where their 1960s predecessors came up short, they will have to win back the white-working class. All too many working-class whites have drunk from the cup of Trumpism, but some others, millions of others, voted for Joe Biden. It is those people activists will have to recruit if they want to begin the world anew.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.