Whitelash? Not Exactly - Maybe Not Even Really

In 1976, I took about 30 white working guys who’d never been to college to hear James Baldwin speak at Harvard. The experience launched me on an odyssey whose many twists and turns have given me a few insights into how racism has and hasn’t figured in such men’s support for Trump 40 years later.


It all began when, as a Harvard graduate student, I read aloud the following passage from Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time to the young and middle-aged white working men who were taking my sociology class at the Veterans' Division of Newbury Junior College:

One watched the lives [white people] led and the excuses they gave themselves, and if a white man was really in trouble, it was to the Negro's door that he came...The Negro came to the white man for five dollars or a letter to the judge; the white man came to the Negro for love. But he was not often able to give what he came seeking; he had too much to lose. And the Negro knew this. When one knows this about a man, it is impossible for one to hate him, but unless he becomes a man—becomes equal—it is also impossible to love him. Ultimately, one tends to avoid him...

To put it mildly, my listeners didn’t agree. "He's a bitter man!" "A communist!" "A fag!" they cried when I read them the excerpt in our classroom at St. Mary's High School in Central Square, and for a while their venom threatened to dissolve the fragile bonds I’d built with them over six short weeks.

Baldwin had moved me too, but differently, and as the epithets flew I was getting hot under the collar. I was ready to let fly, to call them names, and the strength of my feeling surprised me. Too much was at stake; I held back, took to the board, talked about racism and capitalism, tried to get them to stay with the possibility that black working people raising families have hopes and fears like their own.

When Baldwin came to speak at Harvard’s Quincy House later that month, I challenged them to confront two of their demons—blacks and Harvard—face to face. Most had never been part of a heavily non-white audience listening to anyone like James Baldwin. Most had never set foot on a residential college campus, even in a repairman’s or custodian’s shoes. 

Taking these men across those barriers thrust me into a social no-man's land and taught me something about what it has cost some of us to be raised comfortably "above the battle" in which many working whites and non-whites are fighting one another instead of the forces that not only divide us along race lines but atomize us in ways that divide blacks from blacks, Latinos from Latinos, women from women, and even whites from whites.

Money had brought our class together. I was paid by Newbury, and the Veteran's Administration paid my students' tuition and an additional cash stipend for regular attendance. Most of the men were in school mainly for the extra cash.

"The purpose of this course," I said on opening night, "isn't to teach you academic sociology. Our society is in turmoil—some would say falling apart—and yet most sociologists seem to be trying to keep abreast of the action as if they were referees in a fast sport. History doesn't have any referees; everyone is a player. It doesn't have fixed rules, so Nixon's football analogies don't really hold. You have to learn to call the shots for yourselves.

“Social scientists may help," I continued, "but ultimately they can't do it for you. There's already a lot of knowledge in this room, about working, about raising families, about the armed forces—knowledge I don't have. But it won't do you much good unless you bring it out and begin to explain why things are as they are. I see this class as a good chance to do that; let me pick somebody at random and we'll give it a try."

They shifted uncomfortably as my gaze rested on one of the younger men. "Would you tell me your name, sir, and describe the kind of work you do?"

Larry was scared, but now the heat was off everyone else; a buddy quipped, "He don't do nothin' much at work!" and we all laughed. As Larry offered a self-deprecating sketch of his stock-sorting job at a warehouse in Somerville, I realized most of the men hadn't been in a classroom for years. These were adult lives I was confronting, not data, and their faces told me more than I wanted to know. For me that night, the niceties of clinical description blurred into the broad strokes of what I considered “oppression.”

But their features were thawing, and others joined in. When six had spoken about their jobs, I asked, "Has anyone noticed a difference between the comments of the older men and those of the younger ones?"

"Yeah, us older guys are prouder of our work."

"That's just 'cause you bastards've got seniority!"

"Naw, listen: when a guy learned to work 20 years ago he picked up different values than today, right?"

They were unanimous that times have changed; the men talked about changes in unions and production that had undermined pride in work.

"And that," I said almost triumphantly, "is the start of real sociology. Now we can compare that with what other observers have said, and ask how things might be changed."

I was happy, yet haunted by premonitions of difficulty that took shape the following week as the inevitable testing began. Men 20 years my senior approached me with pointless jokes about decorum, schoolboy excuses about absence, and fears of their ability to give me "what you want." These charades wouldn't help us to face our real differences, and that was precisely their point—to protect us from the embarrassment of assuming equality and then having to confront the sociological truth.

The truth emerged anyway in essays they wrote about their jobs. A man's 50 years would flow by on two sides of a page:

“When I was in the warehouse I'd be in work early just to be with the guys, now I'm always late. Everybody's uptight, the bosses don't even trust one another, they go through the motions, but you can see it, there's less freedom and the atmosphere stinks. In a way I feel sorry for these poor slobs...I'm just bidding my time hoping and praying I can retire in another seven years, I sure hope so."

“Looking back to my high school years I kick myself for not following my baseball career. I was pretty good, at sixteen I was playing semi pro-ball. I loved the game, but I missed the boat between working and running around with the wrong kids. I had no one to confide in, me coming from a poor family, we all had to work, and that was the important thing at the time.”  

“When I retire all I want to do is fish, take in professional sports, and do a little traveling me and my wife enjoying life the way it was meant to be, together.”

In class I spoke about the alienation of work under capitalism, and its perpetuation through excessive consumption and addictions and anti-social escapes. I explained how we export the worst of the exploitation to foreign workers, citing what happens in Puerto Rico and Taiwan (and, in the past, Shanghai, Havana and Saigon).

I described Latin American peasants who get a few cents a day growing coffee, yet have to buy their wheat from us; we keep governments in power there which force them to plant only coffee, so we can get it cheaply and control the wheat market. I spoke of guerrillas who want to overthrow those governments and our corporate influence, and showed how, if they succeed, the corporations will squeeze workers tighter here at home.

"Either they put you in uniform and send you off to prop up dictatorships, or they take it out on your hide back here. Profit's the goal, not your wellbeing; the two don't go together as well as we've been told."

The men got angry, some of them at me. "If you're going to pull down the flag, do it gently, mister," growled one, "'cause some of the men who died for it were my buddies."

I caught my breath. "OK, a lot of things I say in here were painful for me to discover. I never had your experiences, but it's partly the things you've all been telling me that have led me to share what I honestly think, based on my own limited experience and reading. It isn't easy for me to say I think we're in for hard times, and that a lot of those men who died for the flag have been had."

"Jimmy," a guy called from the back, "I want to ask you something. You study these things, right? Okay. Do you think about this stuff 24 hours a day? I mean, why do you do it?"

I wanted to answer but didn't know how. "Sure, I guess I think about society a lot. Our backgrounds were different. It's a bad analogy, but when I was in high school and we went out for phys ed, I saw from the way some of the guys could handle the ball that they did it all the time, on their own. I guess when we went back inside to Social Studies, and I made comments there, some of the guys must've felt the same about me.

I had different things encouraged in me; I had some advantages because though my father started poor, and worked his ass off, when he got out of the army he bought 3000 surplus first-aid kits, went around selling them, and built up a small business that employed people--well, people like you. I'm still learning where that got me, and what the price was."

Some nights I'd sit back, hands behind my head, and just listen. Other nights I'd push the men to keep looking at some contradiction they'd stumbled upon, holding both sides in tension until something changed. Still there were barriers between us, and the strongest to surface that autumn in Boston was racism.

Sleazy arguments, innuendos, inflated anecdotes and legitimate complaints about abuses in preferential hiring and busing. Racial tensions had increased, I argued, because of scarce jobs and deteriorating schools for both black and white working class families.

Our economy has always permitted blacks some exit from chronic unemployment in times of plenty, but it has found them easiest to fire when times are hard. If blacks refuse to bear the brunt of the current depression, they become scapegoats for white workers unwilling to share it. That keeps the heat off employers and the upper class. Take away racism, "heroic" wars and pacification programs like welfare or unemployment compensation, and the corporate profit system would have to admit it can't make room for everyone; then it would have to resort to outright repression, using techniques and technology developed since the '60s to cope with future uprisings.

That made some sense to the men but it hurt, and seemed to them, ironically, to come from "ultra-liberal" Harvard. Baldwin spoke to "Harvard types" too, didn't he? I felt angry and isolated--from the class, because, despite my sympathy with the men, I couldn't stomach the bitter mistrust and racism; and from "liberal" (really "corporate") Harvard where I'd never felt at home. As I left St. Mary's one night, a police siren warbled and the ground beneath me seemed to swim. Is there no peace?

Of course, I reflected bitterly, I could "stabilize" my relationship to students like these simply by trading upon my assets and employing or managing them, learning the habits and subtleties of command; their racism need not concern me. My teaching had been naive; why beat my head against the wall?

The question never really deserved an answer; when I saw that Baldwin was coming to Harvard, I decided to try a field trip instead of retreating.

I considered my worst fears: We might find an effete writer regaling black undergraduates whom my students would think had edged out their own kids to get into Harvard. Worse, the Harvard audience might greet the men with raised eyebrows, wondering if the staff from Buildings and Grounds had turned out for the evening. But it was something new, an opening, a chance that the men would never take outside our class. I suggested a vote, everyone abiding by the outcome.

My fears came down to earth in group discussion. Most of these lifelong Boston area residents had never seen Harvard, and wanted to leave St. Mary's for an evening. Those who were strongly opposed had little to say; I asked for the "yes" votes first to spare them embarrassment, and they frowned at the floor as a large majority of the hands went up. But they earned my respect by showing on the night of the trip.

"What does it cost to go here, Jimmy?" “How smart d’ya have to be?” they asked as we strolled around the Yard. They were my guests now, and I felt a little embarrassed as we walked around the campus a bit, looking through windows at undergraduates sprawled on leather sofas set against "real" oak paneling hung with oil portraits.

Four hundred and fifty people had come to hear Baldwin, perhaps 300 of them black. The feeling was lively and warm, but my own students at first sat quite stiffly. Soon a small, grinning figure was leaning over the podium talking to us. I glanced at the guys again and knew that a lot was now in Baldwin's hands.

He said that the American dream is over. He said we’d all better know our pasts, and learn the truth about American history, because if we can't face that much about ourselves, we'll never know one another for real. He said we have to be honest for the sake of our children--"a-a-all our children," he repeated, smiling warmly around the room. He said black people have lived with suffering before, and so have something to teach us all about that in the years ahead.

Later that night I sat quietly at restaurant in Harvard Square with a few of my students. Most had heard him with respect, some with faces I hadn't seen before. One said it was "nothing new." Another admitted he'd felt "like a mouse set into a box with a cat" but had warmed during the talk; another said his mind had "been blown."

"You know," Dan mused as I walked him to the bus, "I've missed out on a lot. I'm the same age as you, but I never had this college life. I wish had time to sit and talk these things over with people, know what I mean? I learned a lot tonight, but these people at Harvard kinda scare me, y'know?"

We stood on the curb, hands jammed into our pockets, staring at our feet pawing the ground. Then he went home to East Somerville, to his wife and three kids and a quality control job at Polaroid; I turned back into the Yard. Do students at the most elite colleges ever really wonder how and why they’re in these exotic, imposing enclaves, surrounded by clusters of wooden three-decker houses and empty lots where their age-mates, back from the service, pound the pavements, where haggard young women work the night shift at Dunkin Donuts, where men with lunch pails punch in at warehouses, where older women on their way to college dining halls slip off gaseous buses onto the ice before dawn?

What are we doing in these colleges? How will students live after college? Do they understand that they're not these other people’s salvation but part of their degrading burdens?

Questions like that became even more urgent for me in 1977, a year after teaching at Newbury. I moved to Brooklyn, where I lived and worked as a journalist among “white ethnics” much like those I’ve described here but also among African Americans, writing extensively about both in two of my books. I also experienced and described racial conflict, concluding painfully that if we ever truly want to get beyond these conflicts, we should resist making racial identity a central organizing principle of our civic life, pedagogy, and public policy. 

Few really listened back then. And my warnings  were deferred even more on 9/11, when death-embracing fundamentalists attacked the World Trade Center and America’s most telling response came from police officers and firefighters—then still mostly white-ethnic men—who likewise proved willing to face death, but in order to rescue others, not to slaughter them.

Their sacrifice prompted often-unanticipated stirrings of deep respect in many of the rest of us—unanticipated, because to tell the truth, the heroes of September 11 seemed nearly as alien to many of their fellow-citizens as the villains. These cops and firefighters were bound into a brotherhood that had long irritated both the politically correct and the managerially sharp: They belonged to what still seemed  inter-generational, “father-son” unions that bien-pensant liberals deplored as racist and sexist. But they were "economically incorrect," too, governed by work rules and prerogatives that, to free-market apostles of quarterly bottom-lining, betokened a medieval guild. Driven by loyalty and courage, they rushed in to save money managers and their minions, who, although often raised in the same ethnic and religious traditions, worked under dog-eat-dog rules that didn’t reinforce fidelity and teamwork.

Of course, many non-white first-responders and World Trade Center occupants also died that day, and, for awhile, the whole city and indeed the nation united across lines of color as well as class. This isn’t the place to reprise the ups and downs of racial division since then – the hope in Barack Obama’s election of 2008, the cumulative effects of mass incarceration and police-driven rage — but it wasn’t long before divisions such as those I’d encountered in Cambridge in 1976 and in Brooklyn throughout the 1980s and ‘90s to re-surface and, if anything, to intensify.

Here I’ll say only that the forces that pit burdened whites against the others usually keep the "white heat" of conflict off of elites—including elite college students like those my Newbury Junior College students encountered at Harvard. But those same forces also deprive upper middle-class students of a lot of the social trust and warmth that a republic needs.

That absence of comity, however refined and routinized, has diminished us all more than we know. Those at the top, for all their sophistication, become wedding-cake figures, deprived and innocent of the world around them. Those in the middle barter themselves daily, hustling after escapes and deflecting the blame.

Many upscale college kids sense it, know it, and respond to it, not always constructively, but inevitably and necessarily. To point fingers at their excesses -- as critics of “identity liberalism” have done, almost desperately, before and since Trump’s election – is to miss the point, almost deliberately.

I’ve spent 30 years trying to convince Americans, using a broad range of venues and genres, that “anti-racist” liberals as much as “racist” conservatives have obsessed about race to avoid facing what capitalism in its current configurations is doing to our republic and our society. The right uses racism to make opportunity and freedom seem plausible for whites. The left – not only liberals -- too often uses anti-racism, rightly enough, to deprive the right of that excuse, but also to avoid having to face squarely the destructive economic premises, protocols and power arrangements within which many liberals have done quite well – too well, it seems, to be all that serious about reconfiguring those arrangements for real.

Challenging and channeling our casino-like financing, under-regulated lending, and ever-more intrusive, degrading consumer marketing would require risky, daunting confrontations. So most of us grasp instead at falsely compensatory, symbolic and bureaucratic gestures against racism, forgetting that the arrangements within which we’ve prospered have done far more social damage than our conscience-easing philanthropic ventures can repair.

The Harvard I knew as a graduate student hosted frequent revival rallies with visiting black speakers such as Baldwin. Like itinerant and Puritan preachers in our national past, they delivered jeremiads to audiences that submitted readily to these rituals of damnation, atonement and symbolic absolution. Most participants intended fully to strengthen their class-driven prerogatives; they went to these revival rallies and swooned to the jeremiads mainly in order to feel better about themselves. Moral self-justification counted for more than actual sacrifice.

What goes for racism also goes for sexism. At Hillary Clinton’s planned victory party in New York City’s Javits Convention Center there stood an artful, brightly illuminated display of a glass ceiling that was to be shattered the moment her victory was announced. Too many upscale enthusiasts of Sheryl Stanberg’s “lean-in” corporate feminism had become fixated on having the “first woman” president to recognize that shattering a structure’s glass ceiling without reconfiguring its foundations and walls produces too many ceiling-breakers such as Margaret Thatcher, Sarah Palin and Carly Fiorina. That offers little more to working people of any race or sex than Clintonite neoliberalism’s trade deals, policing and welfare reform have offered them.

Donald Trump has broken all mainstream protocols to call out these liberal-capitalist hypocrisies, vowing to shift the structure’s walls and foundations, if not its ceiling. But he’ll leave the white workers who’ve fallen for him gulping in the end. The truth about the casino-like financing, predatory lending and degrading, intrusive marketing that have given us this financier of casinos and predatory self-marketer as president is that they've been no easier for morally self-congratulatory, anti-racist, anti-sexist liberals to oppose than they have for racist, sexist conservatives to oppose.

Barack Obama understood the futility of obsessing about race better than most. But while I esteem him personally, he wasn’t a corrector of the corrupt, corrupting riptides whose brutal force and seductions have left us like flies trapped in spiders’ webs of 800-numbered, sticky-fingered, pick-pocketing and surveillance machines.

Anti-racism and anti-sexism are necessary but insufficient conditions of the change we really need—a sobering truth that was underscored this year by a 74-year-old straight white man who might have done better with—and for—my students in Boston than James Baldwin did.

The story of the Newbury Junior College students that leads off this essay is adapted from one published by the Harvard Crimson on Jan. 28, 1976.    

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