“Laughing at What I Love”: Notes on White Working-Class America
Let me say at the outset that the main reason why it is difficult for the white working class to talk about race is that significant numbers of them are prejudiced and bigoted, probably at about the same proportion as upper-middle and upper-class whites.
At the same time, if racism is understood as a systemic, structural reality, as prejudice plus power, a good question can be raised as to whether white working-class people are nearly as racist as powerful elites who shape the policies and procedures of this country to a far greater degree. In addition, there is a long history in the United States of blunting class resistance and rebellion by turning lower-class whites and people of color against each other.
These are important considerations, but in this brief space I want to address other issues less often raised about why working-class whites don’t talk about race. I direct my comments at those most likely to read this journal, that is, Anglo and European whites who are more likely to be liberal in their political and economic views. I begin this discussion with certain practices of class.1
So far as I know there is really only one racial slur that you can use in politically correct circles and get away with it. That slur is “redneck” and one hears it frequently used by people on the left. If one used virtually any other racial slur among such political company, one would be either frozen out of the room or driven from it, and I certainly support active opposition to racial slurs. Yet one frequently hears attributions like “redneck politics,” “redneck mindsets,” or simply the characterization of someone or some group as “redneck.” In a paper on Elvis Presley, Will Campbell takes on this racial slur directly:
“it is an ugly word, an invective used to defame a proud and tragic people – the poor, white, rural, working class of the South. … Now, if I had said the word we must consider is nigger, chink, jap, dago, spick, chick, or broad, all of you would have been morally outraged at just hearing these despicable epithets said aloud. At least I hope you would’ve been. You should have been. But hearing the equally offensive insult, redneck, draws not a flinch in most circles. Only a chuckle.”2
Could it be that a disparaging characterization of white working-class people is a reason for their not talking about race, feeling somehow not just left out of conversations about racism but seen as its primary progenitors?
The Genuflections of Class
But it is not only the racial slur. To live in the white working-class world – indeed, to live in the bottom third of the American class structure whatever your race – is to be immersed in the rituals and liturgies of inequality. It is to live in a world where you basically take orders but do not give them, and where you must shut your mouth and offer unreciprocated respect. The granular rites of being defined by class, of being told what to do, of being named as less, and of dealing every day with gestures, glances, and verbal sleights: these constitute the genuflections of stratified domination.
Further, to be working class in a world that worships being “Number One” is to rehearse failure in everyday life. Yet more, in many jobs it is to risk life and limb. And where work is not physically dangerous one must endure ice-pick assaults on one’s dignity. And when white liberals talk about the integration of neighborhoods and schools, they mean that lower-class people of color and whites will engage that venture while the children of the affluent – successful Anglos, African Americans, and Latinos – go to private schools or those well segregated by costly houses and condominiums. In these “worlds of pain” of the white working class, as Lillian Rubin once described them, it is difficult to talk about race unless the legitimate concerns of these white working people are intrinsic to the conversation.3
A Forgotten History
In discussions of racism, white working-class people often hear talk of white privilege. They hear of the necessity for reparations and the need to make up for the advantages they have had in comparison to people of color. There is no question that in American history it has been better politically and economically to be working-class white than black, brown, gold or red. Still, most white working-class Americans probably do not know their own history because it is not taught in most of our schools. They did not own slaves. More than half of the American colonists – “a large underclass of miserably poor whites” – came to these shores as indentured servants. In England, the growth of commerce, the emergence of capitalism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the land enclosures that were established in order to produce wool loaded up the cities with poor people without work. These poverty-stricken masses subsequently suffered legal punishment, incarceration in workhouses, and/or exile to America.4
Other whites came to the colonies as convict labor, migrating to this country to serve out their terms as servants to their “temporary” masters. Many of these died before their terms could be completed.
Most working-class whites may not know that indentured servants on plantations were often treated worse than slaves, mainly because they would serve their master only for the time of indenture whereas the master’s slaves were a lifelong investment. As Eugene Genovese explains, wealthy Europeans learned long ago to regard “the lives of the lower class [as] cheap.”5 In other words, these aristocrats did not require African slaves to teach them brutality.
Further, working-class whites may not know that poor whites who worked on slave ships died at a significantly higher rate than did the enslaved Africans on board, although, I hasten to say, the great preponderance of slaves on these ships meant that thousands of more slaves died than their keepers.6 At the same time, ships filled with white indentured servants had high death rates. A sea trip to America took eight to ten weeks. Bad weather during the voyage meant a longer trip and the risk of running out of food. One sloop, the Sea Flower, left Ireland in 1741 on a voyage that took sixteen weeks. With 106 passengers on board, forty-six died of starvation, and six of those were eaten by the survivors.7
What working class whites do know is that they have to work harder and longer now than they used to and that it takes two paychecks to make it, provided there are two earners in a family unit. They must know now, as everyone must, about the increasing disparities of wealth and income that occurred over the last forty years. It is obscene that since the mid- 1970s productivity increased 80.4 percent in the U.S. while wages for working Americans increased just 10.7 percent, with most of this growth occurring during the mid-to-late 1990s. 8 In fact, the seeming gains on white working men by working people of color and by working white women are more a function of the dismal wage situation of these white men than substantive gains by these others. As one white working man said to me: “I may not be real smart, but I do know the difference between a rainstorm and somebody pissing on my boots.”
I do not have the space here to say more about the long history of white laboring people in the American colonies and the U.S. It is a wicked history of struggle, oppression, exploitation, and violence. To speak of the privilege of the white working class in this land is to obscure this history. To discuss race and gender apart from this history is to engage in a profound falsification. But let me be very clear. I have no interest in minimizing the wickedness of American slavery and its Jim Crow consequences, or of the violations and exploitation of the brown peoples of this land, or the twisted bigotry, exploitation and incarceration of Asians, and certainly not the stealing of the continent from and the genocide of Native Americans.
At the same time, the exploitation, domination, and class warfare committed against white working people must also be part of this story. If more attention were given to this story of race and class, white working-class people would be more likely to enter talk about race and perhaps enter into alliances with people of color so necessary to reform the violations of race, class, and gender in this society.
Still, it is not only because of the bigotry against, and the struggles of, white working-class people that make it difficult to talk about class. It also has to do with a difference of culture. The group I want to speak of is a very large segment of white working people often labeled as “social conservatives.” I contend that this label and the identification of this label with certain positions on social issues obscure a great deal of what goes on with people often misidentified by this term. I describe this large group of working-class Americans as people of a traditional oral culture. To be sure, not all working-class people participate in this culture, but most do. And not all of those formed in this culture are working-class people. Further, this large cultural group has certain resonances with racial and ethnic minorities even with all of their differences. But my focus here is on this large white working-class traditional oral group.9
Family vs. Market Freedom
Let me contrast this tradition with the laissez-faire economic position in order to sharpen the differences between that conservative mindset and the traditional oral culture I have in mind. Among laissez-faire conservatives the focus is on the free individual, who is “prior” to society and the state. This individual pursues self-interest in a competitive free market. The conviction is that individualistic pursuit of self-interest in a free market results in the greatest good of the greatest number. Defenders of this position support high military spending in a minimalist state, and their greatest fear is the loss of market freedom.
In contrast, traditional working-class people place primary emphasis on the family, not the free individual. The family is the core institution. They seek cooperation among key groups like the family, the school, the church, and other traditional institutions. They do not stress self-interest, especially of an individualistic kind, because it is corrosive of family relationships. This is especially so in the case of the man, provided there is one, as the primary breadwinner. If he pursues his individual self-interest, he may walk out the door, leaving poor families devastated and near-poor families poverty-stricken.
Further, the greatest fear of these traditional oral people is moral corruption, and this for a basic reason. 10 Anthropologist James Ault Jr. makes the case that morality in this culture serves to support the structure of family relationships in order to cope and survive. He finds that this kind of traditional culture basically operates to control male sociality and to minimize the potentially disruptive behavior of men in these settings.11
It is important here to understand that political and economic positions on social issues are not at the base of the lives and practices of these traditional families. More foundational are the relationships, convictions, commitments, and practices that enable these families to deal with a world that does not come out right. This means that their political attitudes can vary significantly depending on how a given question relates to their lives. The great majority of these families do not listen to the National Organization of Women or to Focus on the Family. They do not turn to the NAACP or to the Ku Klux Klan, though, of course, these influence some. They are far more likely to address problems by thinking about them in terms of how they affect their families, the cooperative institutions upon which they depend, and the morality that sustains the structure of these relationships and enables them to manage and to make it through the night.
The point is that the practices of this traditional oral culture do not generate a commitment to an explicit list of positions on social issues. In fact, it is a good question whether thinking in terms of social issues is the way to approach the people of this culture in any case. So talking about race as an issue may be the least effective way to approach the relationship between the white working class and people of color. It is far better to deal with the relationships of the family, institutions, and the contexts of the people they know. I suspect this would also work well with many working-class people of color.
The people of this tradition are also oral. I do not mean orality as found in a primal culture, one where there is not a written language or print. Most of the people of a traditional oral culture can read and write, although many cannot. By the use of the term oral I am referring to a way of using language. The people of this oral tradition do not process language the way that college graduates do. Proverbs, adages, and sayings populate their talk. They reject the formalities and niceties of more “sophisticated” words and discourse. They are suspicious of fine print, big words, and fancy language, having been hustled by people using language this way many times, not to mention the ways in which they have been put down by those who use words and talk this way. These traditional oral people engage the world with story, and stories are the embodiment of their wisdom, great sources of their humor, and rich ways of understanding the world and dealing with its mystery. Further, much of their use of language is of a more tacit kind, suggesting a contrast with more representative language. That is, their tacit language like their tacit knowing does not attempt to state in the descriptive and conceptual terms of a high literacy a given topic or question, but rather uses the ostensible situation to convey what they mean. Most of the skills and jobs of the working-class world are not learned through manuals and literate discourse, but through apprenticeship training and through being shown: “Do it like this.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that this traditional oral culture affects the way one comes at any question and certainly the way one approaches “social issues.” In fact, one can say that these traditional oral people are not interested in social issues, at least not in the way the college-educated are. This does not mean, for example, that they are unaffected by or unaware of the impact of black or brown people on their lives. They have varying opinions about affirmative action or immigration, especially as these impact job opportunities in their communities for themselves or members of their families. But talk about such things is difficult when in the presence of others, especially the college-trained.
One person in my extended family speaks with great frustration and irritation about two friends who went away to college and who now have “opinions about everything” and “an answer to every question.” It is quite clear from our conversations that her two college friends, however, have little or no interest in the circumstances my family member faces and the difficulties of her life. Her friends talk of African Americans, Latinos, homosexuals, and the glass ceiling of corporate America. They never mention white working-class people as a “social issue.” They hardly know any such folk, except my relative, and regard working people in general as rednecks. Some of their “best friends,” however, “are African American.”
So stack these things up: calling people by a racist slur, telling them how privileged they are, failing even to notice the realities of class in the white working-class world and its long history of oppression and exploitation, speaking out of a cultural setting they do not share and being ignorant of the traditional oral culture white working people not only embody but value, and then expecting them to talk about the “social issue” of race. Why would not these things alone make it difficult?
Pastor Lourey Savick tells the story of being in an audience where a white Ph.D. candidate made a presentation on the liberal and the “social conservative” mindset. Before a largely white liberal audience the presentation opened with a couple of cartoons on creationism, which provoked considerable laughter from the group. The presentation then moved on to a larger range of questions and issues but nevertheless with each issue covered in a similar way of demeaning the so-called “social conservative position.” After the presentation the audience was invited to respond with questions and comments. One of the persons present said: “You liberals need to understand that when you laugh, you laugh at things I love, things that are very dear to me, really, at me.”12
Tex Sample is a freelance lecturer, workshop leader, and preacher, after retiring as professor of church and society at the Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, where he taught for thirty-two years. His many books include Earthy Mysticism: Spirituality for Unspiritual People (Abingdon, 2008) and Powerful Persuasion: Multimedia Witness in Christian Worship (Abingdon, 2005).
1 I want to express my appreciation to the Rev. Sam Mann for his careful reading and comments on this article.
2 “Elvis Presley as Redneck,” Elvis Presley Symposium, University of Mississippi, Aug. 7, 1995, p. 1.
3 Lillian B. Rubin, Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working- Class Family (Basic Books, 1976).
4 Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (Harper Colophon Books, 1980), p. 42.
5 Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (Vintage Books, 1974). p. 57.
7 Zinn, A People’s History, p. 49.
8 Lawrence Mishel, “The Wedges between Productivity and Median Compensation Growth,” Economic Policy Institute Issue Brief #330, April 26, 2012, www.epi.org.
9 I have addressed this large cultural group in a number of my books. See Living with Will Rogers, Uncle Remus, and Minnie Pearl: Doing Ministry in an Oral Culture (Westminster John Knox, 1994), White Soul: Country Music, the Church, and Working Americans (Abingdon, 1996), and Blue Collar Resistance and the Politics of Jesus, (Abingdon, 2006).
10 It was Rebecca Klatch who first alerted me to this traditional group in contrast to the laissez-faire conservative. See her Women of the New Right: Women in the Political Economy (Temple, 1987).
11 Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church (Knopf, 2004), pp. 189-200.
12 I thank Pastor Savick for permission to use this story.