Maintaining social position by race means racism can never end

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild has been making the rounds to discuss her book Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right about working class white people in the Louisiana bayou country, which is timely in light of the rise of Trump. Here’s her interview at Vox:

While I was there I found Calcasieu Parish, the county containing Lake Charles, a central town in southwest Louisiana. This was one of the top 2 percent most polluted counties in the country. It was a center of the petrochemical industry, which, with cheap natural gas due to fracking, had been growing and expanding. And you can see the smokestacks, you notice that everyone’s drinking bottled water, that on hot days no one is swimming in the lakes. … It’s a fantastically beautiful state, and these bayous are absolutely extraordinary. You see these forests with tupelo trees and 100-foot-high tall bald cypresses with Spanish moss hanging from them. Spoonbills are swooping from one tree to another over the water; it’s really exquisite. And the people I met there love their bayous, they love to fish and hunt.

It isn’t that they don’t care about their environment. They know more about it than anyone in the world, and they love it more than anyone in the world. …But they were even more suspicious of an ever-expanding federal government and state government that they felt was “can’t-do” and money-gobbling.

…they feel like almost like a minority group, forgotten and set aside, displaced.

They feel their cultural beliefs are denigrated by the culture at large. They feel that they’re seen as rednecks, that they live in a region that’s being discredited. Many of them are deeply devout, but they see the culture at large becoming more secular. And then they see economically that this trapdoor that used to only affect black people and people one class below them is now opening and gobbling up them and their children too.

… the deep story I felt operating in Louisiana was this: Think of people waiting in a long line that stretches up a hill. And at the top of that is the American dream. And the people waiting in line felt like they’d worked extremely hard, sacrificed a lot, tried their best, and were waiting for something they deserved. And this line is increasingly not moving, or moving more slowly [i.e., as the economy stalls].

Then they see people cutting ahead of them in line. Immigrants, blacks, women, refugees, public sector workers. And even an oil-drenched brown pelican getting priority. In their view, people are cutting ahead unfairly. And then in this narrative, there is Barack Obama, to the side, the line supervisor who seems to be waving these people (and the pelican) ahead. So the government seemed to be on the side of the people who were cutting in line and pushing the people in line back.

I went back with this story to a lot of the people that I’d talked to. I asked, is this the way you feel? And they said, “Yeah, you read my mind!” or, “Yeah, I live your narrative!”

It seems absolutely true that the economy of the last decade has been treating black and white working class people similarly, in the most disastrous way possible: by treating working class white people as badly as working class black people, rather than treating working class black people as well as working class white people.

And it’s also true that Southern and rural culture is subject to lots of unfair disrespect and humiliation.

But ultimately this “cutting in line” metaphor is a positional argument. It is not about the absolute welfare of working class people, black or white. It is about the social position of white people relative to black people. Some have always sought to divide the American working classes on racial lines. There has always been a group of lower-class white people who defined their social prestige in terms of at least being higher on the pole than black people. And this kind of racial social positioning is simply not compatible with racial progress in the U.S.


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