The American Anxieties

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Is it class? Is it race? Is it something else? What’s at the root of Americans’ identities and political divisions?

This line of thinking spun out from a discussion of Us Against Them, which I have yet to read (though it sounds fascinating), as well as conversations with others on similar topics.

Matthew Yglesias offers a good overview, from back in 2012:

The No. 1 book about American politics that I wish more people would read is Donald Kinder and Cindy Cam, US Versus Them: The Ethnocentric Foundations of American Public Opinion. Absolutely everyone knows that race and ethnicity are central to American politics. Everyone knew last week that Obama would do better with middle-class black voters than with middle-class white ones. Everyone understands that courting the “white working class” is different from courting working class voters in East L.A. But excessive politeness tends to lead pundits to bracket this knowledge off the importance of race and ethnicity from analysis of particular political controversies. Yet that’s foolish. We just had a whole campaign in which the candidates talked endlessly about taxes and Medicare and then skin color and national ancestry turned out to be huge drivers of voting behavior just as they are every year.

The book has some wise things to say about how to bring “the issues” together with demographics by looking at, among other things, how “ethnocentric” (an attempt to be a bit less charged than calling people racist) different classes of voters are. And as it turns out for all voters ethnocentricity is a statistical correlate of views on other matters. Among African-Americans, for example, more ethnocentric people are more dovish on foreign policy.

The key point here is that race matters! But race is only one dimension of American identity, and I want to talk about a couple more.

I’ve never been satisfied with the traditional American debate over race vs. class. Which is more important? Which is the greater driver of voting patterns and group identification? There is no clear answer because there is no rule that holds absolutely. Recent discussions, however, have helped clarify for me what the variables tend to be.

Us Against Them seems to have the right of it that at the root of American identity is a construct of race. This is not for nothing–it has developed as a key group signifier. It’s useful because it is (generally) easy to apply at a literally skin deep level. Broadly speaking, a white person is easy to tell from a black person. Due this countries foundations of and origins in slavery and white supremacy, there is a rigid, long-term hierarchy in place. One aspect of this hierarchy that’s crucial is the way it dampens class anxiety among poorer white Americans. In brief, poor white Americans feel less class anxiety so long as they can continue feel racially superior to non-whites. This makes racism an essential component of maintaining social order.

But what happens when a white person moves up the class ladder? How does one do that at all? There are two things that strongly correlate with higher lifetime earnings: being born into wealth (this is a no-brainer) and obtaining post-secondary education. That being born into money is a greater predictor of eventual class/income status is a discussion for another time. The point is that education ends up being the common factor–put bluntly, rich people tend to be more educated than average. They may not be smarter, but they are more educated, and there are subtle differences. One is that education changes the way you use language. There’s terminology that a college-educated white man living in Manhattan would use that would never emit from the mouth of a working-class white man in rural Wisconsin. It’s also not a coincidence that the way many black people speak–often classified as African-American Vernacular English, or AAVE–is often denigrated by white people as sounding “ignorant” or “uneducated.” It is certainly no less useful as a way of communicating thoughts, feelings, and information, but because it differs from more acceptable (to white people) ways of speaking, it becomes another wedge with which to reinforce the racial divide.

Interestingly, race anxiety appears to diminish as one moves up the class hierarchy. I can think of a few reasons for this. The favorable liberal reasoning is that a well-rounded, educated person is too informed and thoughtful to be racist. Less charitably, higher class echelons have much lower representation of people of color, and so may feel less threatened by them in general, in an “out of sight, out of mind” sort of way. They also have the resources to not live around racial minorities, should they so choose. Indeed, there are few explanations for the waves of “white flight” that coincided with the suburban explosion than white people mustering up enough resources to simply not live around non-whites. In other words, the very ability of a white person to surround himself or herself with only other white people becomes a marker of class success.

Class and race among white people, then, has a very complex relationship that varies based on one’s place along the income curve, which is in turn largely correlated with education level, which is then correlated with political identification. Indeed, the more education a white person has, the more likely he or she is to vote for liberal candidates and policies. This is not to say that poorer whites don’t vote for liberal candidates, but they do so at a lower rate (much lower in the South).

What I find most fascinating about this is the way these relationships end up sorting and dividing society as a whole. One might initially assume that these are all independent variables that have little to do with each other–that there’s no obvious relationship between class, race, education, religion, language, and political identity. But from my own understanding of American history, what we’re experiencing today is essentially a return to the sort of divisions we had in the run-up to the Civil War. Our country has always been divided, but for a handful of decades, things were just mixed up enough that it looked like our divisions might be behind us. Instead, the correlations are only becoming tighter. People of color, for instance, are less and less likely to vote for Republican candidates, while less educated white people are peeling away from the Democratic Party all the time. Conservatives have, in many ways, built a parallel reality: they have their own news sources, their own academics (so-called “think tanks”), their own sets of policies that work extremely poorly under real-world conditions. Efforts to “break” the more left-leaning world of academia have met with limited success, and it could be that it’s almost impossible to reshape the university experience into something more consistent with conservative views while retaining its broad appeal. Ultra-conservative universities do exist, of course–they are mostly highly religious institutions–but they simply don’t attract as many people as state universities and liberal arts colleges.

Given the demographic changes in the US, racially-fixated white people will make up a smaller and smaller voting share over time. This does not mean that white people, as a whole, will soon be dislodged from a dominant position in both society and the economy. It is entirely possible for a powerful minority to rule over the majority, as history has shown. But it’s questionable how long such an arrangement can survive in a country as large, complex, and diverse as the US.

Race looks destined to remain a key feature of American identity, and so its place in our culture and politics is secure, for now. If current economic trends hold, however, class concerns may overtake it–even despite the best efforts of race-baiting politicians. Even then, I suspect it might only be temporary. In the end, race will probably always be a fundamental aspect of the American experience. It is, as I like to say, a “resilient construct.” Nevertheless, it doesn’t have to resemble the construct of race as we know it today. If there’s one thing constructs do, it’s change. Race today isn’t what it was 100 or 200 years ago. When white people are a small minority of Americans, how will we think of race then? With a lot of work–and probably some luck–our conception of race will no longer be so destructive, and won’t be so concerned with ensuring white supremacy.

That would require white people, as a group, to accept such a profound change in status–essentially, the erosion and eventual elimination of white privilege. That’s a pill I don’t expect to go down easy, as necessary as it is to the survival of this country.

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James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

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The American Anxieties

by James time to read: 6 min
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