Democracy Dies in Darkness

Post Partisan | Opinion

There’s a ‘poisonous dynamic among white people’ over who’s to blame for racism

October 24, 2017 at 6:02 AM

Joan Williams speaks with The Post’s Jonathan Capehart during an interview for the “Cape Up” podcast on Oct. 11. (Carol Alderman/The Washington Post/)

“This is a really poisonous dynamic in this country between white people.”

To further my education in the political motivations of the white working-class and their support of President Trump, I read “White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America” by Joan C. Williams. I’m so used to discussing the role race played in his election, the uncorked enmity of whites towards black and brown Americans and others, that I didn’t anticipate Williams’s twist in the conventional wisdom.


For more conversations like this, subscribe to “Cape UP” on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher.

“White people who are not privileged feel belittled. They feel stereotyped. They feel openly ridiculed and they are really, really angry because of what elite white people are doing to them,” Williams told me in the latest episode of “Cape Up.” “Now, because of this poisonous dynamic among white people, guess who’s paying the price?”

Williams devotes an entire chapter in her book to teasing out the difference between white working-class racism and the racism practiced by the “professional managerial elite,” or PME. “There’s an element here of privileged whites distancing themselves from racism by displacing the blame for racism onto less-privileged whites,” she writes. But Williams exposes a modern-day version of the wedge intentionally driven between “a cross-race coalition of the disenfranchised” that developed in the years after the Civil War.

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Savanna Hartman's video reciting a poem that she wrote about her own “white privilege" has gone viral after she recited it on Facebook Live on July 6. Hartman posted the video after watching a news conference held by the family of Alton Sterling, an African American man shot dead by police in Baton Rouge, La. on July 5. (Facebook/SavannaHartman)

Related: [The real reason working-class whites continue to support Trump]

“The idea of the way to control working-class whites is to deflect their anger onto immigrants or onto blacks or other people of color. This has been going on . . . This is a glorious American tradition,” Williams told me on the podcast. She further clarifies in her book. “Working-class whites, whose claims to privilege rest on morality and hard work, stereotype black people by conflating hard living and race,” she notes. “Professional-class whites, whose claims to privilege rest on merit, stereotype black people as less competent than whites.”

“There’s enough blame for racism to go around,” Williams told me on the podcast.

​Photo of book by Joan Williams. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post​/)

But there’s more going on with the white working-class than racial animosity. Class plays a major role in the present toxic dynamic. The worldview of the working class and the PME reflects a night-and-day existence and forms the basis of questions Williams asks in her book and that we discussed on the podcast. “Why doesn’t the working class just move to where the jobs are?” and “Don’t they understand that manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back?” are just two of them.

Related: [Dignity: The improbable word Arthur Brooks says explains why Trump won]

Listen to the podcast to hear Williams explain why the working-class admire the super rich they see on television but can’t stand the professionals they interact with everyday. Part of it has to do with the glib condescension of the elite. “We call them rednecks with plumber’s butt in flyover states. And then they get offended,” Williams said. “Gee, why would that be? Because we’re insulting them.”

“Cape Up” is Jonathan’s weekly podcast talking to key figures behind the news and our culture. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever else you listen to podcasts.

Jonathan Capehart is a member of The Post editorial board, writes about politics and social issues, and is host of the "Cape Up" podcast.

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