Earlier this year, I was invited to speak at Princeton’s center on equality and cultural understanding in the wake of campus protests over racism. My driver from the Newark airport was a white guy with a gray ponytail. Mickey announced himself as a Trump supporter and seemed surprised that I wasn’t. He filled the hour-long ride with his life story.
He’d worked in an automobile factory for 30 years, assembling seat-belt parts, until it closed up and moved away. Now, he cobbles together a living driving a limo, doing some carpentry and preaching at conservative churches. He insisted that the system was rigged and Donald Trump was the “wrecking ball” (his words) that the nation needed.
He didn’t come across as particularly angry or overtly racist. When I told him I was from India and a Muslim, he paused for a moment, then asked polite, if basic, questions. Why do Muslims call God “Allah”? What do we think of Jesus?
There was sadness, too. A family member had recently died of a drug overdose. It had started with painkillers after a work accident and then quickly moved on to harder stuff.
I had a strange sensation: In all the multicultural theory I’d read, the straight, white Christian guy is the privileged one, even the oppressor. But it sure didn’t feel that way in this case. After all, I was the one in the back of the limo, and he was the person driving me to a high-paying speaking engagement.
The people I met with the most edge on that trip turned out to be the students at Princeton. During lunch, they spoke with deep frustration about their marginalization on campus, exemplified by how their protests against the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs had not resulted in a name change.
I looked around at this multicultural gathering of students eating portobello mushroom wraps and discussing diversity issues and realized that this was my comfort zone and had been for 20 years, since my own student activist days.
By contrast, I couldn’t recall the last time I’d spoken with a working-class white person about job loss or family life before that drive with Mickey. It embarrasses me to admit this, but the only people I know in that world are from Updike novels and Springsteen songs.
I sympathized with the very real frustrations of the Princeton students and then suggested we all widen our horizons a bit. I spoke about my drive with Mickey and connected it to a recent study that found that the mortality rate among working-class whites had jumped so significantly that scholars were comparing it to AIDS in the 1980s. Barely a flicker of recognition crossed the room. This surprised me. The principal investigators had been Princeton economists, and the study had been published on the front pages of major newspapers. My guess is that the students had heard the news somewhere, but it hadn’t moved them to open up a file in their heads on the subject.
One student offered that by sympathizing with Mickey, I was revealing my own internalized racism. As a person of color, the logic went, I was so accustomed to being oppressed that I viewed being served by a white man as unnatural.
I couldn’t help but recall my dad’s response when I announced to him during my own college years that I was oppressed: “What percentage of people would trade their conditions for yours? If you call yourself oppressed, what word do you have for them?”
I’m pretty sure Mickey would trade places with either me or those Princeton students in a flash. When he dropped me off, he looked around wistfully and observed how different his life would be if he’d gone to college. In the time and place he grew up, it hadn’t felt necessary.
I suppressed my instinct to encourage him to return to school for retraining, and instead conducted a little thought experiment in my head. Mickey was a working-class white guy born into a manufacturing economy who had it made until it all went poof. I am a geeky Indian guy born into a multicultural knowledge economy. What if one day somebody informed me that the digital age is now gone — all my skills in gathering data, identifying trends and shaping narratives were useless. But, hey, good news: The manufacturing economy was coming back. I could get retrained for the factory line at an automobile plant.
I thought about what Mickey had said about feeling like the system was rigged. I remembered how, when my mom had a health scare and the receptionist at the University of Chicago hospital said it was full, I called a doctor I knew and she opened up a bed.
Was I rigging the system?
Could those students at Princeton make that call? Could Mickey?