Teaching Opinion

Taking on Prejudice Against Working-Class Whites in Schools

By Harry C. Boyte — January 19, 2016 3 min read
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Dear Deb and colleagues,

As a basis for the coalition we’re discussing, I like your idea that all members of the extended community are treated respectfully. I also agree the question has dimensions like African American boys often feeling disrespected. These can’t be brushed aside.

I’m writing this on MLK day, January 18. It’s useful to give a story from my experience working for ML King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a young man. It highlights another issue.

I remember in my high school in North Carolina, there were two groups of kids: the upper middle class kids from Myers Park, almost all going to college; and those from Mathews, a poor rural town, poor and working class (all were white - this was the time of segregation in 1961).

The teachers almost all looked down on the Mathews kids. They didn’t do very well. They reminded me of my southern relatives.

King, deeply political in the older sense of politics, engaging the interests and perspectives of one’s opponents, understood this dynamic. This led a story of white prison guards, whom many liberals saw simply as racist, in Drum Major Instinct.

“When we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens [came to] the cell to talk about the race problem. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, ‘Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. You’re just as poor as Negroes! The same forces that oppress Negroes oppress poor white people.’”

Such politics were at the heart of the “organizing” parts of the movement, as we earlier discussed. When King assigned me to do community organizing among poor whites in Durham, I took these lessons.

Certainly I saw racial prejudice, which I also knew from my extended working class southern family. I also saw people like Basie Hicks, a wonderful community leader in East Durham who battled racial prejudice her whole life. She chased away the Klu Klux Klan when they came after me.

I also saw capacity for generosity. When the community was able to get action from the city on dirt streets, the neighborhood made connections with the black community across the tracks. I realized that narrow ways of thinking often are rooted in powerlessness. I saw again discrimination -- Besie battled the nearby school constantly, where the teachers were very prejudiced against “mill kids.”

Finally, I saw the dignity of hard work. This was a community of mill workers and hair dressers, secretaries and police. We got a glimpse of such grit and spirit on 9-11, when police and firefighters rushed into the collapsing buildings.

An invisible part of progressive politics -- reaching into schools -- is prejudice about poor and working class whites more generally that would not be tolerated about African Americans.

It’s becoming work. In Getting the Left Right, the political scientist Thomas Spragens shows how respect for work and working people among progressives in America has declined since the 1930s, replaced with pity for the poor. In the Nation, in an article sympathetic to Black Lives Matter, Barbara Ehrenreich observes that while blacks face harsh discrimination, they sometimes fare better in the popular culture:

“At least in the entertainment world, working-class whites are now regularly portrayed as moronic, while blacks are often hyper-articulate, street-smart, and sometimes as wealthy as Kanye West.”

Last year Anne Case and Angus Deaton won the Nobel Prize in economics through research that discovered working class white men 45- to 54-years old are the only group in America with declining life spans.

Declining respect as well as stagnating wages are the discontents which demagogues appeal to with divide and conquer strategies. Liberals don’t help. Timothy Eagan in the New York Times on Saturday described supporters of Trump as “xenophobers, defeatists and alarmists, the Eeyore Party with a Snarl.”

How can respect for working class whites be built into our coalition?


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