The white working class has never had it easy in American history. It’s been viciously exploited, disrespected, deceived, divided, repressed, and otherwise and generally abused from the United States’ colonial origins through the present day. If you want to glimpse some of what I mean, read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1905), John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Harriet Arnow’s stunningly beautiful and tragic novel The Dollmaker – a harrowing tale of an Appalachian family’s migration from Kentucky to Detroit during World War II. And listen to the following passage from the great U.S. Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs’ statement to a federal judge readying to sentence him for violating the Sedition Act in 1918:
“At fourteen I went to work in a railroad shop; at sixteen I was firing a freight engine on a railroad. I remember all the hardships and privations of that earlier day…I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and the factories; of the men in the mines and on the railroads. I am thinking of the women who for a paltry wage are compelled to work out their barren lives; of the little children who in this system are robbed of their childhood and in their tender years are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the monster machines while they themselves are being starved and stunted, body and soul. I see them dwarfed and diseased and their little lives broken and blasted because in this high noon of Christian civilization money is still so much more important than the flesh and blood of childhood. In very truth gold is god today and rules with pitiless sway in the affairs of men.”
Most, if not all the workers Debs was thinking about in this oration were certainly Caucasian.
Why hasn’t the U.S. working class risen up to destroy the capitalist system and the pitiless masters who have treated the laboring masses with murderous contempt? Part of the answer lay in the way that American capitalism has encouraged the white majority of workers to, in historian David Roediger’s words, “define and accept their class position by fashioning identities as ‘not slaves’ and ‘not blacks.'” By W.E.B. DuBois’ account in 1935, anti-black racism grants lower and working-class whites a “public and psychological wage” – a false and dysfunctional measure of status used to compensate for alienating and exploitative class relationships. As Martin Luther King Jr. observed in 1968, racialized capitalism has given its Caucasian proletarian prey the “satisfaction of…thinking you are somebody big because you are white.”
The satisfaction has always been a terrible lie. It has helped cloak white workers’ subordinate and expendable status, which never disappeared despite the advantages white skin privilege has conferred relative to non-whites. It has injured those workers’ material status by undermining their capacity to enhance their economic and political power by joining in solidarity with nonwhite workers. It has joined them in spirit and political allegiance to rich fellow whites who couldn’t care less about working class people of any color. It has focused white workers’ ire on the wrong enemies – those with the least power (non-white workers and the poor) instead of the moneyed elite, which wields its wealth and power to cripple and destroy lives and the common good. And it has (along with numerous other the related reactionary messages in the reigning American ideology) encouraged white workers to blame themselves for their own difficult circumstances under the remorseless reign of capital. “Privileged” people are supposed to be doing well, after all. If they’re not, it must be their own fault.
The “wages of whiteness” (Roediger’s phrase) have not been paying off for any working class peoples, Caucasians included, across the long neoliberal era, Since 1979, productivity has increased eight times faster than pay in the U.S. If the U.S. minimum wage, currently pegged at a pathetic $7.25 an hour, had kept up with productivity it would more than $18 today. Between the late 1980s and today, the average American CEOs pay went from being 59 times higher than the typical U.S. worker’s pay to 301 times higher. Since 1979, the average hourly wage of the nation’s bottom 30% of wage “earners” has risen less than 1% while the top 95th percentile saw a 41% increase.
During Barack Obama’s first term in office, 95% of the nation’s income gains went to the top 1%. Such are fruits of neoliberal, so-called “free market” capitalism – substantive material injury beneath the wounded pride that many white Americans have felt over the presence of a black family in the White House (no small symbolic anomaly for the psychological wage of white privilege, real and imagined).
I could go on and on with terrible data from the current US “New Gilded Age,” wherein inequality has become so extreme that the very disproportionately white top 1 percent of Americans possesses more wealth than the still predominantly white bottom 90 percent.
This is all critical context for some remarkable data reported across major U.S, media earlier this November. “Something startling is happening to middle-aged white Americans,” The New York Times noted: “Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this group have been rising, not falling.”
There are three particularly notable things about this recently rising white middle-aged death rate. First, it is driven almost completely by rising mortality among middle-aged working class whites (ages 45-54), with no more than a high school education. Second, the death rate increase of that group is off the charts: it rose by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014. “It is difficult to find modern settings with survival losses of this magnitude,” according to the Dartmouth economists, Ellen Meara and Jonathan Skinner. Working class whites are dying off at such a high rate that they are significantly increasing the death rate for the entire cohort of middle-aged white Americans.
Third, this dramatically spiking white working class mortality is not being driven by standard big working- and lower-class killers like heart disease and diabetes. It reflects instead “an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids” (NYT). Much of the rising death among middle aged working class whites is significantly self-inflicted.
These terrible finding may be less mysterious than some of the experts seem to think. Over recent decades, the U.S. working class has been subjected to a relentless top-down class war on their livelihoods, unions, and standard of living – a sweeping rollback of the “middle class” status and security that much of the white working class attained during the anomalous post-WWII “golden age” of American capitalism. It has been subjected to unprecedented labor market competition with the global proletariat, including immigrant workers and workers across the low-wage global periphery, to which U.S. capital has relocated much of its manufacturing plant in pursuit of cheap labor. Millions of once “productively employed” white working class people have become “surplus Americans” in a time when Silicon Valley geniuses soberly design the near total elimination of manual labor and intellectuals debate the coming of “a world without work.” Along the way, the large-scale entrance of women into the labor market has significantly expanded U.S. capitalism’s reserve army of labor and helped upend traditional family life – assaulting what we might call the psychological wage of patriarchy for make workers – in working class households.
The neoliberal economic assault has been accompanied by the rise of a reigning capital-sponsored culture of neoliberalism that “can imagine,” in the words of the prolific left cultural theorist Henry Giroux, “public issues only as private concerns.” It works, Giroux notes, to “erase the social from the language of public life so as to reduce” all questions of social inequality and oppression to “private issues of …individual character and cultural depravity.” Consistent with “the central neoliberal tenet that all problems are private rather than social in nature,” it portrays the only barrier to equality and meaningful democratic participation as “a lack of principled self-help and moral responsibility” on the part of the poor and oppressed. It all comes down to personal and group irresponsibility on the part of those on the wrong end of structural disparity and oppression. “They did it to themselves” is a central article of American extreme-capitalist (neoliberal) doctrine.
Caught in the vicious victim-blaming webs of neoliberal capitalism and the great white lie of skin privilege, much of the white working class finds itself torn between suicidal self-loathing and revanchist white-nationalist hatred of the even worse-off Black and Latino lower and working classes. Its heroin, booze, and/or other pain killers with a good dose of Donald Trump’s “authentic” call for a giant racist immigration wall to “make America great again.”
One key task for a responsible Left today is to open up a third alternative: solidarity with fellow workers and poor of all races and ethnicities in rejection of capitalist divide-and-rule and on behalf of decent conditions for all working people. This was the path taken with no small success by the onetime and commonly Left-led unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), symbolized by the top slogan of the old CIO packinghouse union: “Black and White, Unite and Fight.” The emergent mass production unions of the 1930s – the once militant industrial unions that did so much to bring millions of white workers into the short-lived “middle class” mainstream after World War II – knew that they could not succeed without challenging the racial division employers exploited to defeat prior unionization efforts and strikes. The “psychological wage of racism” is a vicious white lie meant to cloak the real culprit behind the endless, many-sided tragedy that is life under the profits system: capital.