“Only the white trash in Pennsylvania vote for Trump, right?”
The girl who asked this question obviously meant no harm. She knew of my enthusiastic-bordering-on-annoying support for Hillary Clinton. This, combined with my laptop sticker in the shape of Pennsylvania with the word “Home” on it, had led her to assume that I would not object to this offensive characterization of the Trump supporters in my home state. She was wrong. I hesitantly told her that I disapproved of the phrase “white trash.” She modified her statement: “Trailer trash, then?”
Students at the Claremont Colleges have consistently impressed me with their willingness to consider different perspectives and their intersectional approaches to social movements. Unfortunately, the open-minded compassion in abundance at liberal arts colleges does not extend to working-class socially conservative whites. It should.
I am not arguing that Trump supporters are not racist. Many are. All are voting for someone who wants to bring back the decades of white supremacy that made being a white working-class person liveable. In the mid-20th century, instead of choosing workers based on their education or qualifications, employers used racial biases to determine their workers’ capabilities. Uneducated whites had access to stable jobs because employers passed over qualified people of color. Between 1947 and 1973, the real wages of the average young white male worker doubled. However, the American white working class today is in crisis. Less-educated whites have experienced wage stagnation since 1980. Many blame affirmative action policies and political correctness for destroying the economic stability they once knew; a 2012 poll conducted by the Public Region Research Institute found that 60 percent of working-class whites and 30 percent of whites with a college education believed that discrimination against white people was as much a problem as discrimination against racial minorities.
Despite the problematic racial attitudes displayed by some members of the white working class, dismissing the legitimate grievances of high school-educated whites out of hand is unproductive. Thirty percent of employed white working-class people have jobs that require changing shifts weekly and 50 percent have had to take an extra job or work extra hours to scrape by in the last year. Middle-aged white people are the only group in the country with a rising mortality rate, partly due to an opioid epidemic especially rampant in the South. Although their living standards remain higher than those of working-class people of color, working-class whites are uniquely pessimistic about the future. A surprisingly large amount – 50 percent – believe that their children’s lives will be worse than their own. Though they are not penniless, they are not nearly as privileged as most white students in Claremont, whose families earn more money on average than the average working-class family.
Moreover, it is difficult to criticize Trump supporters for voting for demagogic populists when liberal elites display open contempt for working-class whites without college degrees, especially those who are socially conservative. For decades, this demographic has seen their most pressing concerns ignored by the establishments of both major political parties. They are against free trade because they believe it depresses their wages. They are against open borders because they regard undocumented immigrants as lawbreakers who steal jobs. They are against environmental regulation because they think burdensome regulations will drive away employers. They are against wars in far-off countries because their sons and daughters are the ones fighting the conflicts concocted by neoconservatives in Washington. They are against racially based affirmative action policies because they think these policies serve as a form of anti-white discrimination.
Mainstream Republicans and Democrats alike regard these views as ignorant and not worth listening to. Donald Trump may be a despicable self-centered alleged rapist with a bad spray tan, but he has tapped into very real frustration. Trump’s base relished his open mockery of old money establishment Republicans like Jeb Bush, who he called “low-energy” after Bush used a teleprompter, and Mitt Romney, who he claimed “choked like a dog” in the 2012 presidential election.
Working-class whites may gripe about racial minorities and undocumented immigrants, but they also hate white establishment elites like many of the students in Claremont. We are not helping ourselves by displaying snide condescension towards a massive swath of our country. It is possible to confront the racism and xenophobia in the white working class while making an effort to understand that community and refraining from mocking them for their economic and political concerns. We do not need to ‘unfriend’ people on Facebook because they share pro-Trump memes and were not accepted to selective liberal arts colleges. Polarization in the American electorate has been growing for decades and has helped exacerbate both the frustration of working-class whites and the vitriol in the current election season; let’s not make it worse. As liberal arts students who have the tools to understand intersectionality and facilitate dialogue, we can and should do better.
Kate Dolgenos PO '17 is a politics major from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She wears better shoes than you.