Carving out common ground with blue collar White guys

There seems to be a virtual consensus among the journalistic punditry about the heart of the Tea Party: white men who are frightened and angry.  They lash out against any insult or imagined insult.  And, this portrait gets worse as we look down the economic ladder.  Once again, the poorly educated guys have the worst cases of White man’s disease.

But this portrait is drawn from a great distance.  It tells the story about the “other,” who is objectified and diminished in the telling.  There must be exceptions, but virtually every writer I can think of excludes himself or herself from this picture.  I can’t entirely do that.  I don’t share Tea Party opinions and I don’t vote Conservatively.   But I can identify with some of the feelings that drive these men.

We had no money when I was growing up in the Bronx and Levittown.  Later, as a teenager, when I delivered flowers in Manhattan, I would be directed to the ‘service’ entrance—I thought of it as the ‘servants’ entrance—and told to take ours shoes off in order to carry the heavy pots into the Park Avenue apartments.  I felt humiliated and angry.  I felt the same when I was caddying at a fancy golf club.

I  must have been forty years old, and very much a successful professional with a house of my own, before I could walk into a clothing store without worrying that the salesmen would look at me and say “what are you doing here.”  When we were teenagers, friends would borrow their parent’s cars and drive up to Great Neck to gawk like tourists at the “mansions.”  What I felt was not envy but anger.  I wanted to throw rocks.  I didn’t but that desire to get even—for what exactly, I don’t know—was palpable, and it’s not so hard to feel it to this day.

I imagine that many of the people who analyze the White guys come from backgrounds like mine, but they don’t write that way.  They hide whatever identification they might feel.  Maybe identifying ‘down’ would be humiliating.  Maybe it would put them in touch with uncomfortable feelings like raw anger and shame.  So, with some trepidation, I would like to offer my not-so-distant understanding of why the White guys are so angry.

To begin, it they are filled with a feeling of having lost something and entirely unclear whether they will be able to regain a stable and secure place in American society.  The loss of blue collar jobs to Asian factories and the decline in blue collar wages have become the iconic image of the declining White man in America.  But, however important it is to earn a descent living and to support your family, there is more to the economic situation than money.  There is knowing that you can help lift your children out of this depressed life.  There is the stability, emotional as well as economic, that a steady, long-lasting job brings—and takes away when it is gone.

There is also the sense of protection and belonging that came with union membership.  That, too has eroded.  And with it the ability to fight for one’s rights and livelihood.  Everyone can be angry, but if you have a union that “has your back,” as the returning veterans currently say, that focuses your anger through campaigns and gives you a chance to win against all those rich snobs, then the anger isn’t so bad. It can yield positive results.  Organized anger, even though it upsets people in suits, is superior for an individual White men, who now must hold it himself, knowing that he, alone, can’t fight and win the battle for dignity and security.

His declining standing in the family seems equally important and less understood.  With the flight of stable and sufficient income, men can’t easily claim their traditional place at the head of the table.  When women earn almost as much, as much, or more, then the challenge to family leadership is legitimized.  When fifty years of women’s rights activity has entered every marriage, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, then it’s a new game that men have not yet figured out how to win or even how to fight.  Among other things, it’s not clear who the judge or the sheriff is.  Who will resolve the fights?  By what rules?  By all accounts, the women are more adept in this court.  Men are humiliated by their incompetence.  When they are humiliated, they may turn to violence.  But that victory is always horrible to the women, sickening to all, including the children, and at best a pyrrhic victory for the men.

They may retreat to bars, to drugs, to binging on sports, to a kind of despair.  They can’t see a way out of their dilemma.  It’s a dead end.  It looks endless.  They feel defeated.  The more they fall to these despairing activities, the less standing and nurturance they have at home.  The less nurturance, the more they retreat, the more they are alone.  No family to have their back then piles onto the loss of unions and solidarity with other workers.

Family loss may (or may not) be most intense among the poor and working class men, but it is surely not limited to them.  There is a similar sense of displacement among middle class and often enough among well-to-do men.  How many doctors and lawyers, for example, spend long days at work, commanding respect from nurses and administrators, then go home to their families who, after years of the long work hours, feel more neglected than eager to have them.  These professional warriors are not welcomed home, not given their proper place.  So they stay longer at work and become more alienated from families, and so the cycle builds.  This is why they often vacillate  between feelings of alliance and distancing themselves from their working class brethren.

While these immediate losses at work and at home are the most devastating, the cultural changes that surround their personal lives confirm and compound their sense of being left behind.  Take sports, not participatory but couch-based sports.  The players, the heroes, no longer look like them, at least not enough of them do.  They are often Black and Latino.  That’s certainly true in basketball and football.  Not so much true in baseball and hockey, whose popularity has seen a resurgence these days.  Take entertainment.  More and more singers and actors are people of color; and even the White entertainers are too often liberals, who really don’t understand the White guys.  More snobs, like the Wall Street crowd.  Too damn many successful people look and act different.  The class divide has been exacerbated.

The very idea of success is passing the White guys by.  Success is for somebody else.  It looks and talks and dresses like somebody else.  Not even the army offers a redemptive image—not like the heroes of World War II.  The army guys return, often beaten, traumatized, without sufficient support for work and health.  They may be publically lauded as heroes but, if you listen to their stories, that’s not their experience.  Nor can the veterans point the way towards a successful life.  They’re not the road out of the White guys dilemma.  They represent another way that the road out is closed.  Success remains hidden.

I’m no different than the analysts in my dislike for the road taken by these White guys, the votes for Trump, the nativism and racism, the fascination with guns, the domestic violence, the disdain for education.  But I do appreciate what has brought them to this place.  I do understand their attachment to the Trumps and the Tea Party as symptoms, not causes of disaffection in America.  We have to find a way to join forces—with them—to attack the real problems that have disenfranchised them.  It is up to us, too.  If we don’t, if we keep our distance, then we are very much a part of the real problem.

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14 thoughts on “Carving out common ground with blue collar White guys”

  1. I’m struck by recent polling data that show the profile of Trump supporters being less about disaffected blue collar white guys who’ve lost their jobs or social standing, and more about white people who live in monocultural enclaves. Somehow I now have less sympathy for their plights. My mother would say, build a bridge and get over it. (Short for, grow up.) Maybe the solution is to find ways to expand their awareness of, and inclusion in, multicultural modernity. Now that is something I have sympathy for!

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    1. A wise comment, Harry–yours and your mother’s. I’ve also read about the monocultural communities, but that doesn’t exclude the working class white guys as a community. It just draws the circle wider. I like the wider circle, which is why I included the middle and upper class in the essay.

      I don’t think that we can “expand their awareness” though unless and until we expand our own. We may like to think that we are above or beyond the thinking of our enclave but I doubt it. If we stay in our own, our commentary will surely seem arrogant. It will surely be rejected.

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  2. Well stated, Barry. (This blogging thing suits you!) And the problem is compounding because we aren’t really addressing the root of it. The world has changed, sometimes caused with good intentions and many times caused with bad. (I think of the deliberate effort to destroy unions.) And the nature of work has changed. Just as there aren’t many jobs nowadays for buggy-whip makers, so there are fewer and fewer jobs for coal miners or assembly line workers. Even if Trump were to miraculously bring back factories to America the work in those factories would be done more and more by robots. Going back to coal? Why not back to wood? The most sobering thing is we haven’t a clear idea of how to re-educate, re-train, re-equip for quality jobs all those displaced men who are angry right now, or what work to train them for. We have given them no way out of feeling humiliated and powerless.

    What IS work like now and in the next 50 years? Inquiring minds want to know –

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    1. Bob, as ever, yours is among the wisest responses I have had. There is no going back. That idea of a return to past paradises may have sentimental pull but it is bankrupt. But we do need to put a great deal of thought and resources into the future of work.

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  3. Hi Barry,
    Sorry I can’t place my comments on a higher intellectual plane, but there are so many topics in this blog. Work, economic security and personal satisfaction in accomplishments and friendships are all under assault. Yes, robots have replaced manufacturing jobs and so have labor sources in third world markets, but professional employment is under attack as well. Over twenty years ago, my electronics company outsourced software programming to India and local hospitals send X-Rays for real time analysis to overseas staff. Where does this trend end. I have not heard a solution addressed by anyone in a meaningful way.
    Meanwhile, while visiting my in-laws in Wisconsin, I am surrounded by mostly blue collar workers. Growing up in a mono-cultural environment, their political alliances vary all over the spectrum. They are mostly content with their socio-economic status. Why is that?
    On a more personal level, my dad, Friend, always said that one should never be ashamed of honest work and I never did mind stocking goods at a department store, and felt great pride in learning how to properly use a sledge hammer. While doing surveying work in Muttontown, I was astonished to see private homes with stables and riding rings. It never made me angry. Now, our neighborhood that was built in the 1950’s has been largely replaced with huge homes. The only feelings that I have are a sadness that the trees are being displaced, and an inability to find out what types of employment enable people to afford the properties and the expenses (even my banker and lawyer friends are unable to answer that question).
    And lastly, good for your neighbors and friends that they do not have a fascination with guns. Having had my home broken into several times, my businesses broken into multiple times, my cars broken into multiple times, my friends and family members mugged multiple times, I do have a fascination with guns. This is a violent society, and I appreciate my right to use firearms to protect myself and family.
    Please continue your most thought provoking blogs.
    Mitch

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    1. Dear Mitch,

      I so appreciate your candor and the eloquence of your passion. To be able to discuss our disagreements with respect and without rancor is a rare pleasure in this polarized world.

      I share your feeling for the dignity of work. I always liked working in the garment district. I have always loved carpentry. Building my own house in New Hampshire was as deeply pleasurable as anything I’ve ever done. In general, physical labor, alone and with others, has a concreteness and immediacy that is incredibly satisfying.

      As to the big houses, the mcmansions that that are blighting our land, requiring as much energy to keep them going as you’d need for an entire village–that still pisses me off.

      You I’m glad to call a friend for over sixty years now.

      Barry

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  4. Thank you Barry, for your openness and your initiative in sharing these thoughts. There is so much that we can all learn about racialization and class. Thanks also for sharing so openly your own story. It prompted me to reflect on the writings of author Jeff Chang who warns of the current moves of certain candidates for office and elected officials to tap-into white identity politics within the frame of the zero sum. Chang talks about the politics of racial anxiety and how the year 2042, when the country becomes, in quotes majority minority, is before us. He asks “if we are all minorities, how to we begin to imagine a new majority?” I love the use of the word imagine here.
    How can we learn and choose to embrace equity and begin to work toward what Martin Luther King, Jr called “The beloved community.” I would welcome the opportunity to exchange thoughts and reflections, Barry. Be well. [Jeff Chang is author of “Who We Be: The Colorization of America,” and “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, A History of the Hip Hop Generation” and other pieces]

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    1. Angela, thanks for your thoughtful comment and references. I’m particularly interested in the question of a “new majority.” Many modern thinkers believe that every society has an ascendant group and that the narrative they create grants them many privileges. Makes sense to me. Wouldn’t it be great to have a much more of a pluralistic narrative that made it hard for any group to gain excessive power.

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  5. Dear Barry,

    Thanks for sharing this blog and with it, your own story and perspective. Your thesis is an interesting one, and I can see where you’re coming from. Your anger came from a place of injustice and was directed to the wealthy oppressor. The anger of the current White man, as you point out, is reflected however to the other victims of the social and economic oppression, and racial discrimination. After the recession and even with the economic recovery, Latinos are approximately 60% more likely than Whites to be unemployed (so much for them taking all the “good” jobs), and the picture is not any better for Blacks. And as you know, the wealth gap between Whites, Blacks and Latinos is stark and growing, even after controlling for education.

    In his book, Under the Affluence, Tim Wise recalls the effect of the “temporarily embarrassed millionaires”; or the mentality that the poor would be poor today, but in this, the land of opportunity, anyone can climb from rags to riches in a generation. This was true for the average White male after World War II, as policies were enacted to help lift them up (while Blacks and other ethnic groups were marginalized). It is also true that this is much harder to accomplish today for White males, or anyone else for that matter. So, the part that I can’t sympathize with is that instead of directing his anger towards the actual source (capitalists like Trump), the White male has chosen to direct his anger to the least common denominator: Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, immigrants AND women. And the rhetoric and behavior that he has decided to follow is divisive and offensive, and would make it very hard to join forces with him, as you proposed, to attack the real problems.

    As a glass-half-full thinker, I hope that we indeed can pull together for a better future for all; a future in which we can learn to respect our differences and begin enacting equitable and just policies for all. I want to thank you, Barry, for your effort in explaining this dichotomy, and spurring this thought-provoking conversation. Although I must admit that at this very moment and given the current toxic environment (and in quoting the Rolling Stones), I have no “Sympathy for the Devil”.

    Best regards,
    Vanessa

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    1. Dear Vanessa,

      Thanks for your thoughtful–and accurate–note. I agree with everything you’ve said; and I feel as you do. The capacity of the American corporate and political system to divide and conquer is astonishingly efficient. I think that it was somewhat weakened by strong union systems–that is, until the unions themselves grew less progressive and,
      once again, reflected the general bigotry of the nation.
      I don’t know what to do without a strong union movement to convert working-class anger into positive policy. But that, to an extent, was the hope beneath my essay.

      Thanks again for the seriousness of your note.

      Barry

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