Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from What’s the Matter with White People: Why We Long for a Golden Age That Never Was by Joan Walsh. Copyright © 2012
Empathy for one party is always prejudice against another.
—Senator Jeff Sessions, July 2009
I am repeatedly struck by the extent to which conservatives have given up on the America we all grew up with: apparently it costs too much and we can’t afford it, and besides, we can’t all get along, so we can’t enjoy it.
In 2011 New York Times columnist Ross Douthat warned Americans that we can no longer provide a strong social welfare state—the kind of society that supports people the way we did from the mid-1930s until the end of the 1970s—because we’re too diverse for it. As Douthat argued:
Historically, the most successful welfare states (think Scandinavia) have depended on ethnic solidarity to sustain their tax-and-transfer programs. But the working age America of the future will be far more diverse than the retired cohort it’s laboring to support. Asking a population that’s increasingly brown and beige to accept punishing tax rates while white seniors receive roughly $3 in Medicare benefits for every dollar they paid in (the projected ratio in the 2030s) promises to polarize the country along racial as well as generational lines.
Douthat seemed to fear that the “brown and beige” kids who’ll be paying into Social Security and Medicare for the next generation might not look kindly on supporting a population that’s disproportionately white. So we may as well unravel our social insurance programs before those tawny kids pull the plug on Grandma? How cynical, how sad.
It’s brazen of anyone on the right to warn us that government programs might polarize the country along racial lines, as though we are not already polarized, at least partly because of GOP divide-and-conquer politics. Yet the relationship between American diversity and trust in government is actually an old controversy, with Douthat adding a twenty-first-century right-wing spin. Scholars have long debated whether Americans have a weaker public sector because of our heterogeneity. Some argue that we have less social support and more harried lives than people in comparable nations, at least partly because we don’t want to take the chance that increased social spending and a broader safety net will help “other people,” those slackers and moochers we’ve always feared.
In fact, the United States lags behind all industrialized nations when it comes to direct government funding of health care, family leave, child care, and unemployment benefits. In an influential 2004 book, Fighting Poverty in the U.S. and Europe: A World of Difference, Harvard economists Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser attributed most of the gap in social spending between western Europe and the United States to our unrivaled mix of racial and ethnic groups and the distrust that engendered.
Now, when you add in American social spending on public education, which used to be the highest in the world, as well as employer-provided social supports subsidized by government with tax breaks—health insurance and 401(k)s, to name two big examples—the U.S. welfare state isn’t necessarily smaller than that of a lot of industrialized nations. But it’s a heavily privatized welfare state, and that strange hybrid has a lot to do with our racially and ethnically polarized political history. Yet even that hybrid is now being threatened as employers insist they can’t afford to keep the promises made in an earlier generation. As businesses shed the benefits that used to help keep American workers in the middle class, they imply that those workers are greedy to expect them. They’re slackers. Moochers. Privatized-welfare queens.
There is also a fascinating correlation relationship between societies that provide universal government programs—such as Social Security and Medicare, as opposed to food stamps and Medicaid and cash grants only for the “poor”—and societies with high levels of social trust. Which comes first, the trust to provide universal government programs, or government programs that foster a sense of unity and trust? As the right loses faith in the America we grew up with, it gives the rest of us an opportunity and a clear responsibility. Douthat seems to be saying we can’t have a real social compact in a multiracial society; it works only in monochromatic societies. I think it would be the ultimate example of American exceptionalism to prove him (as well as Pat Buchanan and Charles Murray) wrong. We have to be the ones who develop a version of the American Dream that works for everyone.
And yes, that includes the white working class.
It’s impossible to generalize about “white people,” of course, and almost as hard to make bold, broad statements about the “white working class.” There are regional differences and differences in age; distinctions according to whether people are married or have children. The biggest difference seems to be whether you define that group by income, or whether you define it in terms of people without a college degree. The Democrats’ current political troubles have more to do with white people who lack a college education than those who lack income. In 2008, Obama lost white voters who didn’t go to college by 18 points, but he lost whites who made less than $50,000 by only four points. No wonder Santorum didn’t want us to go to college. (Intermarriage rates are also highest among the college-educated.)
Young or old, surveys and polls find that whites without college degrees are the most pessimistic Americans, with a majority saying they expect their kids to be worse off than they are. Are they all like Pat Buchanan, sulking because their country no longer looks the way it did when they were younger, and they are unwilling to share it with people who aren’t white? No doubt, some of them are. But the way that white people, particularly the economically vulnerable, react to the browning of America will have a lot to do with how we treat them. Yes, I said we and them. The forces of social justice have always looked out for the rights and singular insights of minority populations. We’re about to have a new one to think about.
I know white people still hold disproportionate wealth and power in this country. They make up an estimated 95 percent of the top 1 percent. But I’m more interested in the more than 99 percent of whites who are excluded from that top group. Whenever I am trying to figure out whether someone is more interested in equity or in racial score-setting, I ask myself, How do they feel about the top 1 percent having 40 percent of the nation’s wealth? Is it wrong, whoever the top 1 percent is, or is it only wrong because they’re almost all white? Would it be okay if the top 1 percent still controlled their gargantuan share of the nation’s wealth, as long as it was racially representative of the US population? It wouldn’t be okay with me, or with most Americans, I think.
Some in the white working class are finally, belatedly, waking up to the issue of economic inequality and the fact that they’ve been sold out by the GOP. We can either say, “Screw you, what took you so long?” Or we can say, “Welcome, let’s get to work.” You know my preference. I’m sure most people share it.