Last Place Avoidance and Poor White Racism

In a review on The New Jim Crow, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes:

Perhaps more importantly, I am less than convinced by Alexander’s rendition of white supremacy as a means of cleaving poor whites away from blacks. My view on this is that white supremacy is an interest in and of itself. It’s not clear to me where the politics ends and the bribe begins. I generally think that the left tells itself this story in order to evade the political complications of dealing with white supremacy as a sensible, if deeply immoral, choice, as opposed to a con played on gullible white people.

Coates disagrees with the common line that poor whites who act politically upon racist impulses do so against their own interests. His point is that they have an interest in maintaining a white supremacist order, presumably because it privileges them in certain ways that a different order would not.

This is a tired debate to say the least, but it’s also not really a debate in the sense of people clashing over the same topic. Because each side of the debate is using a different definition of the word “interest,” they mostly talk by each other.

If you define the “interests” of poor whites purely in economic terms such that they align with poor blacks, then you are going to determine that anti-black attitudes and political activities go against the interests of poor whites. If you define the “interests” of poor whites more broadly so as to include reasonable concerns regarding social rank and regard, then you are going to determine that anti-black attitudes and political activities don’t go against the interests of the poor whites.

So the claim that “many poor whites act against their own interests” is true or false depending on what is meant by the word “interests.” Since words have many meanings, none more legitimate than the other, there is no deep down way of saying the phrase is true or false. You just need to be clear on what sense of the word “interests” a given speaker intends.

With regards to the broader sense of “interests,” it’s hard to disagree with Coates’ point here. Of course poor whites have an interest in maintaining structures that keep down blacks. Presently, poor whites are in the lowest economic class alongside poor blacks, but they aren’t in the lowest social caste. In a society with white supremacist structures, poor whites avoid being in last place. They aren’t up with the rich whites, many of whom regard poor whites as inferior trash. But they aren’t all the way down with the poor blacks. They occupy a social rank that is near the bottom, but not at it.

If you blow up the racial caste component of social ranking such that only economic class remains, poor blacks would rise to the level of poor whites, creating a new last place where both poor blacks and poor whites reside. But people are last place averse, meaning they really don’t like to be at the bottom of anything. Those who are near the bottom, but not at it, are especially prone to oppose things which might help those at the very bottom rise to their level:

In our surveys, we asked Americans whether they supported an increase to the minimum wage, currently $7.25 per hour. Those making $7.25 or below were very likely to support the increase – after all, they would be immediate beneficiaries. In addition, people making substantially more than $7.25 were also fairly positive towards the increase. Which group was the most opposed? Those making just above the minimum wage, between $7.26 and $8.25. We might expect people who make just below and just above $7.25 to have similar lifestyles and policy attitudes – but in this case, while those making below $7.25 would benefit if the minimum wage were raised to, say, $8.25, those making just above $7.25 would run the risk of falling into a tie for last place.

We’ve also found evidence of last place aversion in laboratory experiments. In one, we created an artificial income distribution by endowing individuals with different sums of money and showing them their “rank”– with each rank separated by $1. We then gave them an additional $2, which they had to give to either the person directly below or directly above them in the distribution. In this income distribution, of course, giving $2 to the person below you means he will jump ahead of you in rank. In our experiments, most people still give to the person below them – after all, the alternative is to give $2 to a person who already has more money than you. People in second-to-last place, however, who would fall to last place when giving the money to the person below them, are the least likely to do so: so strong is their desire to avoid last place that they choose to give the money to a wealthier person (the person above them) nearly half the time.

People care about (i.e. have an “interest” in) where they shake out in the hierarchy of society. Poor whites don’t want to be in last place, and pro-white social structures ensure that they aren’t.