What We Talk About When We Talk About the 'White Working Class'
Many believe the "white working class" swung the election for President Trump. But who exactly does the term refer to? (Mark Fiore/KQED)
"White working class" is a phrase that has become an inescapable part of the national conversation ever since Donald Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016. In the year since Trump won the presidency, many have come to view those in the white working class as the key to explaining how he came to power.
Still, there is a lot of confusion about who exactly the white working class refers to. Some suggest we should stop using the term altogether because it is racially divisive, demographically imprecise and oversimplifies the factors that led to Trump’s victory.
Two days after the presidential election, UC Hastings law professor Joan Williams wrote this article connecting the white working class to President Trump’s victory. It went viral and she has since written a book, "White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America." Williams argues that Trump won in part because Democrats did not have an economic platform that appealed to the white working class.
“I think we should be talking about the white working class because that's why we have President Trump," Williams said.
If you look back over the last year, there was first a surge of explanatory postmortem articles like Williams.' Then articles, such as this piece in Jacobin, questioned how the phrase is being used to frame the debate about what happened. In the months after the election, articles began appearing that pushed back against the use of the term altogether. But now, a year after the election, the phrase remains a large part of conversations and articles about Trump's supporters, policies and his year-old election success.
A Convenient Narrative?
When Williams talks about the white working class, she is referring to a wide range of people. “It’s X-ray radiology technicians who give me my mammogram,” Williams said. “It's plumbers. It's cab drivers. It's a lot of these people who do fundamentally important jobs that make my day-to-day life possible.”
Williams argues that the elite ignored the "white working class," who have stagnated economically. The workers wanted change, so they voted for Trump.
This narrative is part of the reason Villanova University professor Katie Grimes and others want people to stop using the phrase.
Grimes, who works on race issues at Villanova, said liberal obsession about the white working class is an attempt to link Trump’s victory primarily to economics. She said that is a neat, convenient narrative, but she does not agree with it and she believes it obscures other potential factors in the election -- issues related to things like race, gender or media coverage. She wrote this piece, which takes aim at how the term is being used to frame the election.
Grimes said continually using the phrase "white working class" has another problem. It promotes the idea that there’s a fundamental difference between white workers and those of other races.
“I think there is a working class, and there are racial groups, but I have not seen any evidence that there is something economic about the experience of being a white member of the working class,” Grimes said.
A Term Born Out of Slavery
"White working class" has been a racially divisive term since it first appeared about 200 years ago. Katherine Connor Martin is head of U.S. dictionaries at the Oxford English Dictionary.
“The first use that I know of was actually discussing the emancipation of enslaved people in Jamaica in 1834,” Martin said. The term came into existence because people wanted to differentiate between white workers and newly freed black slaves.
Martin found the term started to become tied to politics in the 1960s, when politicians played up racial divides to get votes. Today, she said, “Overwhelmingly, when people are using the phrase 'white working class,' it seems to be in the context of electoral politics.”
Martin analyzed a collection of books and articles, and she found that the phrase "white working class" is most often followed by the word vote or voter. It’s 10 times more likely to be collocated, or paired, with these words than any other. It is through-and-through an election term.
The phrase has been used to explain the victories and losses of many modern presidents, aside from Trump. Reams of articles and books written this year and in the past have linked the white working class to the victories of Republicans like George Bush, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. There's another whole genre of stories about how Democrats are losing or have lost the white working-class vote.
'An Almost Meaningless Population Segment'
The idea that the white working class drove the results of our last presidential election has become broadly accepted, even beyond media commentators. Nathan Richter is a partner at Wakefield Research, which conducted a survey to see how people understand and view the white working class.
“U.S. adults overwhelmingly believe that the white working class had a bigger impact than other groups on the election of Trump,” Richter said. “Sixty-eight percent of U.S. adults feel this way.”
Although many pundits associated the white working class with Republican candidates like Trump, that is not how the general public views the demographic. Those surveyed believe that the white working class does not belong to one party or the other. It is not thought to be a base for either Republicans or Democrats, but rather up for grabs.
Those surveyed had vastly different connotations for the phrase. Around two-thirds of respondents view "white working class" as a positive term -- one that implies hard work. The third who see the phrase negatively associate it with things like racism, laziness or poverty.
The problem with this term when it comes to demographics, Richter said, is that the “working class” category is so broad it doesn’t tell us that much. If you go back to your Marx, "working class" refers to anyone who sells labor for a wage -- so, most of us. Today, the official definition used by election pollsters is anyone over age 25 without a four-year degree. It does not refer to particular jobs or income levels. You could be a manual laborer who dropped out of high school or college dropout Mark Zuckerberg -- before he got his honorary degree.
If you look at those who self-identify as working class, the term becomes even broader. In Richter’s survey, 73 percent of people said working class describes them perfectly or somewhat. That number was consistent regardless of education or income level. You can see more results of the Wakefield survey at the end of this post.
“These terms, ‘working class’ or ‘white working class,’ are very useful as rhetoric, and they're effective tools for addressing large groups of Americans," Richter said. "But that's where their utility ends. As a population segment, they're almost meaningless.”
Ironically, this is the same argument that UC Hastings law professor Joan Williams makes about "middle class": that too many different kinds of Americans self-identify as part of the category. In this article for Time, Williams fleshes out her arguments for using "working class" instead of "middle class."
While the term “white working class” is broad, it actually evokes a narrow image of today’s workers, says Peter Rachleff, a professor and labor historian at Macalester College in Minnesota.
Rachleff said the term calls to mind someone who is blue collar, works with their hands, masculine, an everyday American. But today many workers are women and minorities, and they do service jobs, not manual labor. Rachleff said the term is nostalgic and imprecise, “but it’s also the tip of an iceberg that might lead us into deeper analysis.”
Deeper analysis is what we need, Rachleff said. For a long time America has avoided talking about class at all; hopefully, he said, this imperfect term opens a conversation that has been shut for far too long.