The Forgotten Americans
When Whiteness Is An Obstacle
The illusionary America which many of Trump’s supporters, the working class and poor whites believe in and defend does not exist. While they hold tenaciously to the illusion of the American dream, a sharp dividing line of class and caste separates the have’s from the have nots. Working class and poor whites fall below the line of social acceptability by stable middle and upper classes of whites.
Since the 1960's, this group has watched those considered to be below them in status move ahead, protected by gains of the Civil Rights movement. Now, facing very difficult economic times, they see immigrants as somehow taking from them what only white skin should promise. This group increasingly losing economic ground and mired in poverty in many sectors, cannot see beyond their white skin to recognize the reality of their situation. For more than 400 years, working class and poor whites have been blinded by this factor. They have drunk the Kool-Aid of racism and have been used as pawns by the elite especially during economic downturns. Why are poor and working class whites so envious of black progress? The answer lies in U.S. history.
In late 17th century Virginia, the elite became alarmed by the social mixing of African slaves and indentured servants. This combined oppressed group being larger in number than their masters presented a threat to the ruling class. A brilliant solution was created; racism. New laws gave the Indentured servants an elevated status over their black peers by virtue of their white skin. Their economic conditions and social standing among upper class whites, did not change, but psychologically their esteem was lifted because they were deemed better than the African slaves.
This group believing in the motto of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and encouraged by the "American Dream", fought courageously to protect the interests of the elite in the Revolutionary War. Many who were discouraged by not receiving the benefits they were promised settled in the Appalachian Mountains. Still believing in the superiority of their white skin, they again went into battle to protect the interests of the planter class, and they fought to "protect their way of life". The conclusion of the Civil War and Reconstruction provided an opportunity for poor white and black sharecroppers to form a union that would have economically benefited both. Poor whites, again drinking the Kool-Aid of racism believed in a false sense of superiority because of their white skin.
Since the beginning of the nation, working class and poor whites have voted and acted against their own economic interests because of what W.E.B. DuBois termed their "psychological wages". The psychological wages__the belief that they were somehow superior to blacks has kept them mired in ignorance and poverty. The white elite have always been able to rely on the racial politics of divide and conquer to retain their influence and power while keeping poor whites in their place.
The Civil Rights Movement secured rights for blacks through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Segments of the black population began to prosper. They attended predominantly white schools, moved into white neighborhoods, and into politics and the corporate world. Dr. King's "Poor Peoples March" may have opened doors for working class and poor whites, but he was assassinated months before. This was the last opportunity for working class and poor whites to join a movement that would help them take hold of the American Dream. Rather than seeing how they as a group were always exploited by the upper classes, they seethed in anger at black success. They hated affirmative action, and voted against any social program that might have lifted them out of poverty, because they believed that blacks might benefit. They were never able to see that they were conveniently used as racist pawns in every economic downturn. They drank the Kool-Aid and blamed blacks and browns for their misfortunes.
President-elect Trump appears to be their savior. He understands their anger and despair. He recognizes the resentment they harbor because whiteness, their white identity and esteem have not opened the way to the American Dream they were promised. His challenge will be to meet their needs but in a way that does not cast blame on blacks, browns, and immigrants but to place it squarely on the economic elite establishment where it belongs. For more than eighty years, despite Black Codes and Jim Crow, poor whites have not prospered, have not acquired generational wealth. Have they ever considered that the same forces that oppressed blacks oppressed them? It appears that some of Mr. Trump's supporters are finally waking up. Mr. Trump can bring revolutionary change to the United States if he can liberate this group from the white mythology that has blinded them for 400 years.
The belief that working class and poor whites enjoy a shared status with middle and upper class whites is an illusion. For them, white skin is an obstacle in the strict American class system. As long as they believe in some shared status bestowed by white skin, they will never become cognizant of their use as racial pawns in the American economic system.