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The New Majority: Uniting the Old and New Working Class


Daria Roithmayr (@droithmayr) holds the George T. and Harriet E. Pfleger Chair in Law at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.

This post picks up where Angela Harris and Noah Zatz left off in the conversation about race and class. The arguments in this post preview arguments I will be making in a new book, entitled “The New Majority.” It will surprise no one that I decided to write the book in November of 2016.

So here’s the central argument. To end inequality, and to defuse white working class backlash, progressives should work to unite both the old and new working class on issues that those two groups share—like the concentration of power at the top, economic precarity in the middle and bottom, access to health care, job growth, wages and quality, freedom from violence and addiction, and reducing exploitation. To name just a few.

If there is a silver lining to the 2016 election and the trail of destruction that has followed, it is this: in the midst of the chaos, progressives have begun a serious conversation about inequality, and about race and class. To be sure, the conversation doesn’t look all that illuminating at the moment. On one side, people like Mark Lilla and others on the economic left (or left of center, or okay, center) make totalizing claims that locate class as the centerpiece in the conversation about inequality. They argue that Democrats have failed to address the concerns of the white working class. They claim, for example, that the experience of plant closings in key districts, explains why many people in battle ground states voted for the GOP. Some in this group argue that progressives ought to jettison “identity politics” in favor of some more universalist principles of fairness or economic justice.

On the other side, Ta-Nehisi Coates and others on the cultural/material left make totalizing claims that race and racism are what stands in the way of true equality. This group argues that anti-black racism and anti-immigrant resentment drove last November’s results—after all, poor and working class voted disproportionately for Clinton, and voters who expressed fear of people of color were far more likely to have voted for Trump, even when they had voted for Obama or for Democrats in years past.

In addition to making totalizing claims, both sides appear to accept the common wisdom that long-standing racial divisions make a unified working class impossible. I want to challenge all of that. More specifically, I want to argue for the possibility of uniting the old and new working class around progressive commitments to things like shared prosperity and the end of precarity, access to health care, an end to violence and a lower cost of debt. This doesn’t mean that I side with the class folks—far from it. Or with race folks. It’s more accurate to say that I side with both. To unite the old and new working class, we must understand the way in which race and class interact, for a particular group of people at a particular historical moment in time.

Let’s back up a minute. What do I mean when I say “unite the old and new working class?” By old working class, I mean mostly white mostly men, working in manufacturing and construction industries, once represented by unions but now not so much. By new working class, I mean disproportionately immigrant and women, more likely people of color, working in the service industry, organizing together in neighborhoods and churches and other non-union worker groups.

Here’s the most important point. By unifying the working class on issues that they share, I don’t mean putting race and gender to the side. I mean that we can unify the working class by putting race and gender and class at the very center of conversations about inequality, by focusing on the way in which race, gender and class structure a world in which some get far more than others. Unifying the working class in this way is more than just a possibility. Progressives have already done it, albeit at a smaller scale. More on that below.

Two key arguments lay the groundwork for creating a new majority.

  1. We must pay attention to both race and class, and the relationship between the two, to understand the current connection between white working class populism and inequality.

Here, I want to focus not on all white voters who voted for Trump but on the smaller population that once voted Democrat or voted once or twice for Obama but in 2016 stayed home, voted for third parties or voted for Trump. I focus on this group because I think it poses the largest growing threat to tackling inequality. Whatever their contribution to the election, research suggests that this group likely will grow both in number and in political conservatism, as the US becomes a majority-minority nation.

To understand this group of voters, we must understand both the “white” and “working class” of their position. In the debate between race and class, commentators miss the important relationship between economic anxiety and racial resentment. For this particular group of voters, we can’t understand class and class anxiety without understanding race and racial resentment. And vice-versa. For this group, economic and class anxiety fuel racial resentment, and in turn racial resentment fuels economic and class anxiety.

The claim that economic anxiety fuels racial resentment in disillusioned white working class populists is relatively uncontroversial. Recent work by Arlie Hochschild and Katherine Cramer illuminates this relationship. Certain groups of white working class voters believe that they are witnessing a new world order, in which they and theirs are falling to the bottom of the pecking order despite playing by the rules, while others get unfair help from the government. Those others are largely racial others–immigrants, refugees, Muslims, blacks who want their lives to matter, and the poor unemployed, who got health insurance at the taxpayers’ expense courtesy of a black president. Preservationists want their cultural, economic and social status restored. Make American great again.

New research by Emily Ekins and others with the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group suggests that the resentments of this sub-group reflect a deep anxiety about their own economic well-being. Economic restructuring, the evisceration of unions and the recent recession have meant that members of the old white working class—white men and some women who worked in manufacturing in particular areas of the country—no longer assume that their economic futures are secure. That uncertainty drives the perception that the racial others listed above are getting an unfair leg up by way of government assistance, while they get little or no help. Importantly, this racial resentment isn’t some diffuse form of hostility or animus that motivates the dislike of immigrants. Instead, this form of racial resentment is rooted in the perception that they are cutting in line.

The claim that racial resentment drives economic uncertainty is a little less intuitive. Here, the idea is that a person’s racial attitudes shape how they see their economic future. Modern survey data by Michael Tesler and others suggests that people who exhibit cold feelings towards black and brown communities of color see the unemployment rate as higher than it is, the economy as less stable, and the job market less promising. They distrust news of a favorable economy from a black president. They perceive their fortunes as falling if immigration is increasing (or if they perceive that it is.)

  1. The way to defuse this self-reinforcing spiral of anxiety and resentment is to unite the old and new working class around a vision of shared empowerment common to both groups.

Understanding the group that we call “the new working class” is an essential part of this unifying strategy. The new working class is only now coming fully into view, shaped by powerful forces that are responsible for displacement of the old. Under pressure from global capital and deregulation, the new working class finds work in the gig economy. The new working class is more likely to be white women and people of color, to be immigrants, to be Mexican or Latin American workers. They are more likely to work in the service industry than in manufacturing or building trades.

But however different the new working class might look, it shares much in common with the old working class. Both new and old are devastated by economic precarity. Access to low cost, high quality health care. The cost of debt. Transportation. Housing affordability and insecurity. The need for paid leave to care for aging parents and young children. Both new and old working classes grapple with the burdens of addiction. The cost of education. The unfairness of an economy rigged to favor the wealthy. It is essential to acknowledge that the burdens of class fall unevenly on people because of their race and gender, among other things. Still, the common stock of shared experience is growing, as the economic forces that undercut the old working class give rise to the new.

Uniting the new majority isn’t just a possibility–it’s actually already a reality. Fight for Fifteen (F4F), an amazingly successful campaign to increase the minimum wage to fifteen dollars, has made great strides towards this kind of unity. The success of F4F in organizing across race and class lines is astonishing. Across the country, in nineteen states, dozens of cities in the US, and 300 cities on six continents, organizers have successfully mobilized to increase the minimum wage.

Several factors explain F4F success. First, the campaigns have begun in each state by putting race, gender and class at the center of their campaigns. These campaigns have begun small and locally, focusing on particular sectors and geographies. Campaigns for hotel workers near the airport necessarily required a conversation about the role that race, gender and immigration status play in segmenting the informal labor market for women of color, subject to exploitation as workers at the bottom of the ladder. Fight for Fifteen focused on the struggle of immigrant women working two jobs to take care of their families.

Campaigns then moved to organize with existing unions—home health care workers, truck drivers and adjunct professors, for example. From there, campaigns expanded to organize cities, like Seattle, Chicago, Saint Paul, St. Louis, Johnson City, Iowa. Then the states—Michigan, Ohio, Alaska, California. Along the way, F4F also allied with the Movement for Black Lives and Dream Defenders as well, understanding also that workers cannot be empowered if they are the victims of persistent police brutality or government deportation. The group has argued to “fight racism, raise pay.” As a unified group, F4F put its money where its mouth is—the campaign’s leadership has been not just militant and united but also multi-racial and multi-gendered.

It bears repeating here that F4F has focused on the way that race, gender and class all structure the operations of capitalism, to justify why some get so much more than others. Here, race, gender and class are important not (just) as identities but as justifying modes of production and an uneven distribution of wealth.

Second, F4F campaigns have succeeded because the campaigns have brought together conventional unions with non-union community organizations, advocacy groups, and churches. In Los Angeles, for example, in the campaign for higher wages, the SEIU joined forces with immigrants’ rights groups, neighborhood and community groups, Black Lives Matter, black churches, etc. Alliance with these organizations was crucial because campaigners were organizing in neighborhoods, churches and cities, not workplace by workplace, one at a time.

And that’s the third reason that uniting old and new working class across racial lines has succeeded in F4F. These campaigns have helped to inaugurate a new model of labor. The new labor focuses less on private workplace organizing and membership drives, and more on organizing at the level of the sector (fast food workers, ride-share drivers, janitors or hotel workers) or region (the city, the state). The new labor focuses on political campaigns, in addition to union building. The new labor builds coalitions differently, uniting generations, advocacy groups, whites with communities of color.

What’s in it for the white working class, including those who feel racial resentment? Simple. A successful movement. More economic stability. Less exploitation. Better health care. Job growth in quality jobs. The capacity to successfully organize for meaningful change. The proof is in the pudding. Fight for Fifteen has successfully mobilized for higher minimum wages in nineteen states, dozens of cities and now globally across many countries. Working together across racial lines for change has the added benefit of defusing racial resentment.

Ekins’ research shows that a significant fraction of the formerly Democratic white working class voters who cast their ballot for Trump are actually economically progressive—they believe that the economy is rigged in favor of the wealthy and believe in government-mediated economic security and access to health care. So does much of the new working class. The opportunity for unity is here, in that shared view.

The old internationalist notion is that an injury to one is an injury to all. More importantly, both old and new working class have common dreams—dreams of a shared prosperity. The project of uniting the old and new working class has the potential to salvage fundamental progressive commitments to equality, fairness and justice in the new economy. A newly revitalized working class has the power to confront the unchecked power of corporations with the power of inclusive democratic participation.

There’s much more to be said—including an in-depth look at Fight for Fifteen, the white working class and the way the movement has organized across racial lines. Look for future posts on this and related subjects!