Class oppression is as pervasive and deep a cultural phenomenon as racism in American society. The 2016 election of Donald Trump as President widened the class chasm and brought bubbling to the surface like a raging volcano the anger and ills of “the other” Americans. In this case, “the other” does not refer to blacks, browns, or yellows but rather working class and poor whites.
The Democratic Party – the Party of the People – because of a creeping establishment disdain for working class and poor whites did not fully understand or address their needs to feel worthy, upwardly mobile recipients of the American Dream. They were promised that if they worked hard, obeyed the law, and followed societal mores they too could become wealthy one day. They wanted not only to be white but to feel white; because this kept being denied them, they were isolated, alienated, and very angry. Donald Trump’s election has given voice and value to a group of white Americans who have felt and, in actuality, been separated from the American creed and dream for more than three hundred years.
This unique brand of class exclusion and inclusion was cemented by a devious but practical act to protect the financial interests of the planter class of colonial Virginia. In 1691, the social designation of “whiteness” was created. This little-known facet of American history keeps hidden the structures of both classism and racism in the nation.
During the early period of the Virginia colony, more than half of Virginia’s enslaved were of European descent; Africans and Europeans mingled freely. But in 1676, Virginia planters experienced their worst nightmare. Bacon’s Rebellion became a massive slave uprising involving African, European, and biracial slaves. Because a greater number of the enslaved were of European descent, the elite had to find a plan of divide-and-rule.
Ingeniously, the ruling elite created a caste system based upon skin color, making the European indentured servants the new upper caste who would eventually become free yeomen; and the Africans the lower caste who would remain perpetual slaves. To secure the loyalty of the European yeomen, they were propagandized in the ideology of white supremacy. They were given privileges withheld from the Africans, hired as overseers and patty rollers to keep the Africans under control. What the ruling elite created in the yeoman whites who after their indenture became free working class and poor whites was the illusion that they had the same interests as the ruling class, and that they were superior to Africans. They could equate their “whiteness” with that of the ruling class despite the very obvious social and economic conditions. The ruling elite built into the consciousness of this class a loyalty to them and a need to belong, to feel accepted.
“Why do they vote against their own interests?” is a frequently asked question by middle- and upper-class whites, liberals, and progressives. What they fail to understand is that through their more than 300-year process of indoctrination in white supremacy, this group believes they share the same benefits in America as the power elite. This convoluted sense of belonging and self-delusion based on whiteness forces working class and poor whites to protect their “whiteness” by any means necessary. They vote against their own self-interest because concrete economic uplift, health care, and other human necessities cannot compete with the affinity and attachment to the myth of white supremacy and its power to provide them a sense of belonging – self-identity, self-worth, self-esteem.
Any disruption in social relationships that are perceived as threats to their sense of whiteness and belonging can provoke violent outbursts. Racism and xenophobia are the methods provided by the power elite. It works. They have since been unable to see that African Americans, Native Americans, and now Mexicans and Muslims are not the source of their oppression. Their need to believe in the myth of white supremacy blinds them to their own oppression through classism. They are rejected and despised especially by whites who identify as middle class. The epitaphs PWT (poor white trash) and trailer trash are the equivalent of “nigger” for Blacks.
The white other is easily and strategically aroused and motivated by the mythology of white supremacy. They more than any group of whites embrace this myth because it provides them a sense of belonging and connection to the meaning of being an American. Racist beliefs and images imbue their sense of whiteness, of being American. If working class and poor whites who believe in racist ideology can turn their attention away from hatred, they will be able to see their own oppression. Racism and classism go hand in hand; racism is a necessary component o perpetuate American classism. Without the promotion of racist beliefs and images, the other white Americans would have to look critically at their social and economic positions in American society. They would have to ask: Why? Why am I poor and despised even though I am white? Why am I looked down on and called poor white trash or trailer trash? It is not blacks and immigrants who working class and poor whites should fear; rather it is the classism which imprisons them in their precarious lifestyle.
When will they recognize that their racism and xenophobia are encouraged in order to protect the interests of the elite?
When will they gain awareness that the only needs that the ideology of white supremacy meet are emotional?
When will they learn how the trick played on them by the colonial masters has kept them stuck in a social class position always impossible from which to ascend?
Will the myth of white supremacy always prevent them from seeing the oppression of classism?
Trump has made them feel like Americans, like they belong. Is this the beginning of a class war in America? Or a continuation?