I’ve kept my mouth shut on this issue for a while, but it keeps popping up on my Twitter timeline.
The comment above was directed at a piece in The Washington Post, White, and in the minority: She speaks English. Her co-workers don’t. Inside a rural chicken plant, whites struggle to fit in. You can imagine the typical reaction to this sort of story. Journalistic organizations don’t arbitrarily select a particular topic. A story about non-college educated whites being demographically and socially marginalized is appealing for various reasons that have nothing to do with how representative the story is. The cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer would say that this is a story that we’d be interested in because it’s a “minimally counter-intuitive” concept: the dominant demographic experiencing what it’s like to be a minority. It’s interesting…but it’s not far-fetched.
I grew up in the 1980s in an area where the majority population was white, and the non-whites were black. I know what it’s like to be a minority. To be complimented on my English every week by strangers, and asked what “Indian tribe” I belonged to if I told people my family was from India (they wouldn’t know where Bangladesh was). In my adolescence, I lived in areas which were even whiter. Over 95% white. When many non-whites in the United States have to read about white people expressing worry and consternation because they’re not the majority and in a position of demographic dominance as if we are supposed to have sympathy, people with my experiences can get frustrated because being a minority is constitutive to many of our lives. Welcome to our world!
I don’t know Rani Molla’s class background, and I won’t presuppose, but she managed to get degrees from Oberlin and Columbia. She’s now a data journalist for Recode, but she’s done work at Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal. If she came from a position of less privilege, she’s been a sterling meritocrat, getting degrees from elite institutions, and transitioning to a career as a journalist in New York City.
The fact is that the piece above makes clear that the people profiled did not have “every advantage.” Yes, they are white. But in the economy of 2018 in the United States, and the developed world in general, they did not have every advantage. Though the story highlights their alienation from the Spanish-speaking majority at their plant, their class interests were interchangeable with the immigrant demographic majority.
In contrast, even South Asians who grow up poor in the United States, usually have an ancestral class background which is somewhat elite. While black Americans and South Asians may share common physical features as dark-skinned people of color, most black Americans descend from slaves, while most South Asian Americans are more likely to either be the scions of a genuinely elite family or a prosperous lineage from a rural backwater. If you buy Greg Clark’s argument in The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility, then you know that he makes the case that social status is highly heritable when you look across many generations, as opposed to focusing on single generation correlations.
To me, when I read a piece from a young Indian American about how impacted she was by racism growing up in the United States because she was different, and then I see the byline “Iyer” (substitute Mukherjee or some other surname that’s appropriate if you want), my eyes narrow. I don’t deny that South Asians experience and experienced racism. I have myself, especially in the 1980s and to a lesser extent the 1990s. And I’m not talking microaggressions, but racial slurs, intimations of racially motivated violence, and in some cases violence. In those specific instances and moments, my identity was flattened, and I was racially defined. The world became black and white.
But eventually, color returns, and that more complex palette is actually the vast majority of my life. There were literally two South Asian families (as opposed to international students, or an adoptee here and there) in the whole county where I grew up as an adolescent. So yes, I was part of a very distinct minority. But my father also had a doctorate in a physical science. I was known to be a highly sociable person, albeit on the nerdy side. I knew I would go to college. Almost everyone in my extended family went to college, even though many of them lived in a country where very few people went to college. I came from a family background where certain things were taken for granted, and tacit. Those things happen to put me in a good position for the 21st-century economy. Coincidentally, or not, I know that my family had skills which put them in a good position in the 20th-century economy, and also the 19th-century economy (though high rates of reproduction and partible inheritance results in the diminishment of land wealth very rapidly). Frankly, we’ve been on top for a long time it seems.
There were other kids I grew up with and knew casually. They were all white because almost everyone else was white. They came from families where the father had been a logger, or worked on a ranch, but eventually that work disappeared. They in their own turn assumed they’d find some job in the valley, perhaps go work at a plant in Pendleton or John Day. Even twenty years ago we knew that something was going sideways. The logging jobs were disappearing. But there were families who had lived in the area for generations, and these were kids who didn’t want to move away. These were kids who were never academically oriented. But they were family oriented.
To be honest I felt sorry for them. I never thought they had “every advantage.” Yes, no one ever yelled racial slurs at them. But they didn’t come from stable homes, and they didn’t seem to have a stable future. These were kids who were lost in a world that was passing them by. If the aristocracy of white skin arose with Andrew Jackson’s America, by the 1990s that dream was fading rapidly.
Poor people. The less intelligent. The less educated. If you dismiss them because of who they are, and you are a highly educated part of the chattering class, you are doing something that is very contemptible in my eyes. This is true even if the people are white, and you are not white.
In the early 20th century the ideas of Madison Grant were in the air. To Grant, only the white race, and to some extent Nordics, mattered. They were the creative genius, the spark, that was responsible for all of civilization. The creators and maintainers.
Those ideas declined in the 1930s. But their overall structure has reemerged in the past few decades among some progressives influenced by critical race theory. Just like Grant, these moderns believe that race is overwhelmingly important. In fact, that it is determinative in a deep way. Just as Grant did. Obviously, the ethical framing differs, but in some of the descriptive superstructure, there are strong resemblances. White people are as gods, who through the very act of operating upon the world create it as it is.
Just as I am an atheist when it comes to the supernatural god, I am an infidel in relation to this new social-political cult. Here I am thinking of a friend who is conventionally progressive and white, who wishes to order and foster a world where everyone has the same privileges that he did. As a point of fact though I have mentored him and provided some important professional connections and experiences. His own background is not deprived, but neither is it particularly privileged. I simply think he is wrong when he collapses the distance between himself and the captains of American industry because he has access to the same elixir of privilege by dint of his race. The gods exist on their mountains of capital. And most of those gods are white. But very few whites are gods.
We need to move beyond these reductive frameworks, at last in the higher realms of American public discourse. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in this stale philosophy.
Working-class white Americans may not be saints. But that is because they are mortals, and in fact on the way to be truly a marginalized folk, along with the world’s working-class, of all colors. When I read and see non-white professionals being contemptuous of the white working-class, I don’t see anti-white racism newly learned. I see classism anciently cultivated, but donning new garb.
Note: As a non-white person I have experienced racism. Because of my social and political views, I don’t think this is debilitating. But, for guilty progressives, I have been giving my Paypal link to donate money as reparations for white sins. So far no one has donated money even though I have a substantial Twitter following. From this, I conclude that anti-racism is highly performative, not substantive. Racial self-flagellator in the streets, but wearing creepy white sheets even under the sheets!