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What's the Matter With White People? Longing for a Golden Age That Never Was

In her new book, Joan Walsh discusses the complex story of why many in the white working class turned conservative.

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In the long game, they probably still have a shot at Latinos and Asians. If the people in the Republican Party who are not racists come together and say, OK, we have to write off African-Americans for a while, but we’re really going to make a play for these other groups — I mean, they have to do that. Otherwise, it’s demographic extinction. But for 2012, their only hope is to double down on whiteness and play Paul Ryan’s “makers and takers” card.

So in telling the long and complicated history of how American working-class whites became the Republican base you go pretty far back into history. One of the things you start with is Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676.

Bacon’s Rebellion was basically English, Irish and black indentured servants — the slave codes hadn’t been enacted yet — rebelling against the colonial Virginia elite. You realize really quickly that there are no pure good guys in any of these stories. Bacon’s Rebellion is always hailed as the first multiracial coalition in American history — you know, Howard Zinn loves it! Well, they really came together to fight the Indians. That part maybe isn’t so ideal. But this was what the colonial slave-owning masters really feared. They had imported not just Africans, but indentured servants from Britain and Ireland, creating this army who, if they banded together, could topple the power structure. So they created the slave codes, which made Africans slaves for life. They started enforcing the terms of indentured servitude, which meant whites could be free in seven years, you got a gun, you got some grain. You were given white status, basically — and even if most people didn’t get those things, there was the idea that you would get them. They made intermarriage between whites and blacks illegal. They went to a lot of effort to make sure that people didn’t see what they had in common.

So you would agree with one of the central analytical points about American history as seen from the left, that it’s a long history of elite groups finding ways to pit workers of different races against each other, as a way of holding power.

I think that’s pretty accurate. I think it’s a way that people in power keep power. It’s obviously something in human nature that we’re susceptible to, whether it’s people at the top or at the bottom. It must play to something not so great in our natures, that we’re easy marks for that kind of divisiveness. Now, it’s not a conspiracy — it’s not like the Koch brothers have been handed tablets that have come down over the centuries. It only looks that way!

And then there’s the darkest moment in the whole history between African-Americans and Irish-Americans, which was the New York City draft riots of 1863. You draw an interesting parallel between those terrible events and the inner-city rioting of the 1960s.

Yeah, I really wonder how many people know about that. That began when a lot of Irish Catholics who were drafted during the Civil War rebelled against it.

Many of them were fresh off the boat, and felt they had no dog in the fight.

That’s right. For one day, it was essentially a workers’ riot, with Germans and other immigrants involved. Then it became a religious riot and — sadly, tragically and horrifically — a race riot. [At least 100 African-Americans were murdered by whites.] It was vicious. Now, there were places where Irish people protected black people, and in the black-Irish downtown neighborhood there were no murders, but for the most part it was an act of despicable savagery. You can’t excuse it, but it has to be understood as the desperation of people at the bottom who are being pitted against this other group at the bottom, and being told that this other group is above them: “You’re going to go fight for them.”

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