Who says the Left hates the white working class?
I saw a post on Medium last weekend, “Burning Down the House: Identity Politics and its Discontents”, which posited that white working-class voters who had voted for politicians like Donald Trump had faced “a double-bind”, a choice between a left-wing party that believes that they are ‘privileged’ for having white skin and which sometimes appears to love everyone but them, or a right-wing party that holds that they are poor because they deserve to be. It also gives a few examples of progressive hostility to expressions of white working-class culture or whiteness itself (e.g. ‘snobbish’ bans or sneers about displays of British or English flags, reference to whiteness as a pathology or ‘psychosis’ or to white people as evil) as if to demonstrate why white people might not choose to vote for the party which was historically based on their vote. The article, however, fails to acknowledge the reason for why white working-class voters may perceive the progressive left as despising them: there is simply no mention of the words ‘media’, ‘press’ or ‘tabloid’ anywhere in the article and I believe more people in that demographic read tabloid newspapers and listen to radio phone-ins than have any exposure to the sort of activism that portrays white people or whiteness as evil, other than what the media chooses to tell them.
To begin with: the displaying of flags and similar trappings of patriotism is not part of working-class culture in the UK. It is something the tabloid press encourages from time to time and which comes and goes around the time of international football tournaments such as the World Cup and European Championships. Similar is the case with poppies: they have always been ubiquitous in the media but there have always been adults who are not in any public-facing role who do not buy or wear them, but it was only when the Sun started preaching to everyone that they should wear them that they started to be seen as a marker of who is really British. There are many expressions of indigenous culture such as music and cuisine which is not generally regarded as ‘white’ even if most of the people who enjoy them are. By and large, white people enjoy foreign food, whether of European or other origin, because they want something more appetising and varied than native food — the “Sunday roast” served at the many carvery restaurants being really the only type of native food we take pride in. I’ve never heard it suggested that someone is racist for liking any of these things, instead of or as well as music or cuisine of overseas origin. It’s not generally accepted that, say, English folk music is an expression of “white pride” and when fascists periodically try to reclaim them as such, the musicians rebuff them.
The author quotes a few examples of (mostly American) Black activists making arguments for such things as Black-only spaces, and questioning whether their children can be friends with White (American) people. He does not question why they may be doing this, and given that he is British, he does not really examine the differences between the American situation and the British one in which there is much greater integration, particularly in the cities. Personally, I have a number of (mostly if not all Muslim) Black American contacts on social media, some of whom formerly took a very conservative position on issues such as the family and attitudes to the law and so on, who have increasingly taken withdrawn from ideas of integration, even with other Muslims, in the few years since the spate of unjust killings that led to the Black Lives Matter movement and then the Trump campaign ramped up. They have become increasingly convinced that Whites hate or despise them and (in the case of the Muslims I know) that immigrant Muslims identify as White or aspire to do so and despise them, and aware that the State does not regard the lives of their Black sons, brothers and husbands as sacred, that they can be killed in short order for no reason, and that some of their white ‘friends’ will assume that they must have done something to provoke that. They are increasingly aware that their White (especially middle-class) friends have no idea what their lives are like, that they are aggressive when reminded of the fact, and expect extreme gratitude for small favours (the “ain’t I always been good to you people?” response as seen in The Color Purple).
“Post-Liberal Bot” does not seem to question whether the White vote for Trump is a cause or an effect of the increasing turning-away of Black people from integration and friendship with Whites. Besides the fact that Republicans have always, since the days of Richard Nixon, relied on racially-coded appeals to White resentment and on tactics aimed at suppressing or corralling the minority vote (gerrymandering, felony disenfranchisement accompanied by over-policing, and so on), Trump combined this with open associations with the white Far Right, with violence at his rallies, with openly racist generalisations about Mexicans being rapists, with threatening rhetoric about “law and order” along with a few vague promises to White voters in the Rust Belt that he might bring jobs back. The sight of people voting for an open, aggressive racist who made promises to restore law and order and economic certainties reminds a lot of people of the rise of Hitler; we have seen a similar thing recently with Narendra Modi’s rise to power in India. People who will not be the main victims of the gas chambers or the machete mobs will feel safe voting for a fascist.
I’ve seen some of the rhetoric about ‘whiteness’ but in all honesty, I doubt that the average White voter in the street, either here or in the USA, has much exposure to it. As a number of White Liberal commentators have abundantly demonstrated, the right-wing media have sought over many years to persuade the provincial White voter that the Democratic party is dominated by the “metropolitan elite” which is only at home on the Atlantic or Pacific coasts and treats the interior as a ‘flyover’, and additionally is in hock to the inner-city welfare-dependent population (i.e. Blacks) and does not care for the self-reliant real American. A less extreme variant of this message is given out by the Tory party and press here; right now, they cannot persuade anyone that getting rid of the NHS is a good thing, but they can persuade people that all manner of undeserving people are getting treatment they aren’t entitled to, or isn’t really necessary, on their readers’ taxes. Really, the people who come into contact at first hand with the rhetoric described in PLB’s article, and are at risk of accusations of inadvertent racism, are activists themselves.
That’s not to say that all of these accusations are justified. There is a tendency in many activist circles for people to claim to be offended on the basis of a theory when the language used (as it is usually about language) could not possibly have hurt them; I call these sorts of people “pro-flakes”, people who make a career, or at least a hobby, of finding things to get offended at. The most recent example was last week in which a number of Black activists on Twitter took umbrage at the use of the term “poorface”, meaning wealthy people trying on poverty for size, in an article for the Independent by the cookery writer Jack Monroe. The term is a reference to “blackface”, in which white performers “blacked up” to perform parodies of Black culture and music to white audiences, and the terms “cripface” and “cripping up” have been used by disabled people to refer to non-disabled actors playing disabled roles in films, TV etc in preference to disabled actors who are passed over for roles they could play. Monroe of course apologised and had the Independent remove the offending language from the piece, but how much could it really have offended anyone? All the people I saw complaining were much too young to remember the Black and White Minstrel Show which ended in the late 70s on British TV, much less the American heyday of the practice. It was not a question of the language causing widespread, genuine offence, but of it triggering a learned offendedness reaction in a small group of people.
Racial activists often do not regard themselves as part of the “progressive left” anyway; they regard it with some degree of suspicion, because they have come across race-blindness and behaviour influenced by white privilege in liberal and left-wing circles as much as anywhere else — but in any case they are one part of a large coalition. They vote Labour or Democrat, including when the candidate is white and relies on but does not reward their vote, often because the alternative is worse. However, I do not see why they should be expected to keep quiet about the way they see the world when they suffer discrimination on a regular basis and risks of violence that white people do not even think of because it might hurt white people’s feelings, or be twisted by people with a hostile agenda. In short, the idea of the progressive left as “hating working-class white culture” is a right-wing commercial media trope which has no real basis in reality; progressives despise the attitudes encouraged and fostered by the vulgar right-wing media rather than actual indigenous culture; the media translates this into hatred or contempt of ordinary working people.
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