Poor whites and the Left

Peter Frase wrote this piece about class and the Left. I put out a short response to it when it came out. There are lots of parts to it, and I hesitate to summarize it for that reason. But, basically, he objects to those who say class is different than race and gender, those who say class is more important than race and gender, and those who say class is a universal axis of struggle that can supplant race and gender struggles.

Since its quiet release on his personal website, Frase’s piece got posted at Jacobin and received renewed attention, most notably from Freddie deBoer. Freddie argues that the tendency to reject race and gender in favor of an exclusive class struggle is a distinctly minoritarian phenomenon of today’s Left. In fact, Freddie claims, today’s Left seems to get more fired up about issues of race and gender than class, in significant part because today’s Left primarily consists of a cultural group that comes out of non-poor families and goes to elite colleges. The Left, he says, has very little experience with white or POC (people of color) poverty, which leads to a whole host of predictable defects in its practice.

Is the Left a cultural group?
It is hard to assess these kinds of claims because all anyone can go on are personal impressions. There are not generally surveys for this kind of thing. But, my impression is that Freddie is largely correct on this.

I know scarcely few elite Leftists (defined as those in prominent media or organizational positions) who come from low-income backgrounds. The typical story seems to be someone from a high socioeconomic status (high-SES) family that went to a pretty good university. Further, if you interrogate them, you find that many of them found a cultural foothold in the Left before they came around to understanding and adopting its various political tenants (e.g. people who got sucked in by punk music or the activist aesthetic). I could give examples, but that’d just upset people. So I’ll hold off for now.

In saying this though, it’s important to distinguish the elite Left from Leftists more generally. The elite Left have agenda-setting power because of their relatively influential perches, but I don’t think that their backgrounds are a representative sample of the Left as a whole. The coastal Left looks a lot like the elite Left, but there is more than just the coasts.

The Left groups I knew and associated with in Texas and Oklahoma looked and behaved nothing like the Left groups I knew in Boston. All of the groups were disproportionately comprised of those in college or possessing college degrees, but the former groups were not loaded down with the obnoxious trustafarian set that so poisons the coasts and the elite Left more generally. They were more diverse economically and racially, and they also were much better at organizing local people towards local campaigns, probably for this reason. With the possibility of a career in leftism extremely remote (how many Oklahoman kids find their way into non-profits, media, or academia?) and an inadequate number of leftists to create a status-focused in-group, a totally different group dynamic emerges.

If we reformulate Freddie’s cultural group point to only refer to the elite and coastal Left, it seems exactly correct.

Does the elite Left have a poor white problem?
Freddie writes:

In such environments [as the ones they come from], [Leftists] had little or no opportunity to experience white poverty as a lived phenomenon. In contrast, their experiences of black and Hispanic people stem largely from media portrayals of such people as poor, criminal, and generally dysfunctional. White poverty plays outside of the narrative that they have developed from this limited perspective. Another major reason is implicit racism.

Once again, it’s important to distinguish between elite/coastal Left and the Left elsewhere. Southern Leftists I knew did not have much of a problem conceptualizing white poverty as a thing that really does exist. There are more poor whites in this country than any other racial group, and, as a relatively poor region, the South is host to a good many of them.

But the elite/coastal Left I ran into in Boston really did seem to behave as Freddie says. They seemed to think that almost all poor people were black and Latino and that most blacks and Latinos were poor. Neither, of course, are true. One of the consequences of this deep confusion is that poverty issues tend to get grouped in under the racial justice heading.

This racial justice grouping has become so ingrained that, when a poor white actually tries to make out some identity claim in the prefigurative political realm, they are looked at sideways as if they are trying to pull one over on everyone or trying to make a mockery of identitarian practice. Needless to say, the treatment of economic deprivation as a primarily racial justice issue does neglect the plight of poor whites, all 19 million of them, for better or worse.

Other reasons
Although Freddie pegs the reason for this Left sidelining of poor whites (and thus class) to this cultural explanation, I don’t think it is the only reason. I will explore two others here.

First, race and gender are more visible identities. One of the primary interests of the identitarian Left is subjective authenticity. They want speakers on a subject to have the relevant experiences. So, for instance, a panel on racism should almost entirely consist of POC speakers and panels on other issues should always at least have racial and gender balance. This is all well and good, but obviously it’s going to be a lot harder to do this kind of thing for identities that you can’t see, like class. This is why VIDA tracks race and gender representation of guests on television news, but not class backgrounds. It’s easy enough to visually figure out the race and gender of such guests (there are edge cases of course), but you’d have to excavate personal histories to figure out class background.

All else equal, the more apparent identities are going to rise to the top of consideration, just for practical purposes. That’s not to excuse it on the merits, just an attempt to explain it. On the merits, an outsized focus on visual identities can generate rather absurd results at times. For instance, efforts to achieve balanced racial and gender representation on a panel about poverty could see you booting a man from a poor white background in favor of a rich white woman or rich black man. This is silly, even within the identitarian framework, but I’ve seen it happen (not to me). It’s very rational to do it: the audience to a panel will notice the racial and gender diversity of the panel with their eyes and be upset if it is inadequate; they’ll have no idea what the class diversity of the panel is.

Second, race and gender are just legitimately stronger identities. Class identity in this country, as experienced and performed by actual people, is so mediated by race that it’s really difficult to think of class as an identity with real-life salience like race and gender. Moreover, one’s economic class changes considerably over the life course. Around half of all adults will spend one year in poverty, for instance. So the economic peg that cultural class identity is meant to be connected to fluctuates a lot. People from poor backgrounds can retain their poor cultural characteristics (think cultural capital) even when they make good incomes in the future, and I think it may be fair to say they are still low class in that situation, but it’s still a different and much weaker identity than race and gender.

Should we care?
So the elite Left is a cultural group of high-SES kids who went to elite colleges and made it big in media, academia, and non-profits. Their treatment of class is lacking and especially neglectful of poor whites. But should we care?

As someone who has some residual claim to Poor White of the South status, I am skeptical. The Left should have a big contingent of people working on economic leveling, but I don’t know if that requires some special attention to the cultural class identity of poor whites. It’d be nice if Left people didn’t feel comfortable making fun of poor white stuff, but it’s the better income and jobs and such that really matter. Helping those in the bottom economic class is far more important than attending to the feelings of those in the bottom cultural class. The extent to which feelings are hurt when rich dumbasses try to make fun of or neglect poor whites is way overstated anyways because, in my experience, very few poor whites care about what rich dumbasses think about them.