D'oh! What We Don't Know About the White Working-Class

Remember Archie Bunker, the bigot everyone could relate to? He created and conformed to our expectations.

And while none of us believe we are one-dimensional, understanding we contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman once said, we often accept one-dimensional caricatures of other people, stereotypes reinforced in the American media.

It is unfortunate but true that it is often easier to deal with the predictability of a black-and-white world than to grapple with contradictions and ambiguities. They make our lives complex and sometimes unpredictable. We like security, and some of us don't like surprises.

But if we keep our eyes and minds open, surprises are inevitable, even desirable. In my many years working in the social change sector with people of all backgrounds, I am often surprised as my assumptions about an individual or group of people are proven wrong. The reality is almost always far more complicated and interesting than my stereotypes. 

Given my experience, I’m suspicious of the clichés about the white working-class -- their biases and conservatism; how they don’t vote in their own interests – clichés reinforced in much of the literature popular on the left.

One of the strongest biases is that college-educated whites are very different than workin-class whites. A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Council, funded in part by the Nathan Cummings Foundation, shows that on many issues, it is not true. Take one striking example: there is virtually no difference between whites who are working-class and college-educated in identifying with the Tea Party, 10 and 13 percent, respectively. Equal numbers from these two groups identify Fox as a trusted source of news (27% and 28%). 

And as Joan Walsh, author of What's Wrong with White Peoplewrote on Salon, the survey’s results "confounds those who believe that white working-class people vote against their own interests. For example, those who ‘receive food stamps in the last two years’ preferred Obama to Romney 48%-36%.”

The study found that "only one in 20 of working-class whites say abortion or same-sex marriage is the most important issue for them. A majority 50% to 45% think an abortion should be legal in all or most cases, including a solid majority of 56% working-class Catholics.”

One important caveat in this study reveals that the white working-class in the South is strikingly more conservative than it is in the rest of the country. And white working-class voters do harbor more biases than their college-educated peers. They are more likely to blame illegal immigration for problems and to think that government does too much for minorities.

Perhaps most interesting is the populist bent that working-class whites have. From the study: "70% believe that the economic system unfairly favors the wealthy, and 53% say that  one of the biggest problems in the country is that we don't give people an equal chance."  Sixty-two percent favor raising the taxes on households with income over $1 million.

So what is our takeaway from all of this? For me, it is that often the world around us is not what we think it is. And it is rare that we actually put ourselves in other people’s shoes to see what life is like from their vantage point. The famed black leader W.E.B. DuBois talked about the “double consciousness” that African Americans had, as blacks and as Americans. Today we take DuBois’ observation for granted, and understand that all people have multiple identities that shape who we are and what we believe.

All people, including white people. Those of us who care about working across lines of race and faith to create social change must better understand the complexity of the white working-class. They defy stereotype, they often share our aspirations and they have a greater sense that we are all in this together than we might think.

Read the full survey: Beyond Guns and God: Understanding the Complexities of the White Working Class in America.

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