Class, Not Race, Divides America

Nothing is stranger in these tense days than the monotony of the inexact and non-descriptive mantra of “white privilege” and “white solidarity”—as if there is some monolithic white bloc, or as if class matters not at all.

In truth, the clingers, the deplorables, the irredeemables, and Joe Biden’s “dregs” have very little in common with those who so libel them, but superficially share supposedly omnipotent and similar skin color.

In the past, we saw such tensions among so-called whites in CNN’s reporting of the allegedly toothless rubes at Trump rallies, in the Strzok-Page text trove about Walmart’s smelly patrons, in the callous coastal disregard for the five-decade wasting away of the American industrial heartland, in the permissible elite collective disparagement of Christian evangelicals, and in the anthropological curiosity about and condescension toward such exotic, but presumably backward, Duck Dynasty and NASCAR peoples. 

As a result, we have reached the surreal point at which the nation’s privileged whites on campuses such as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, in the top echelon of politics, and the corporate and entertainment worlds, all deplore in the abstract something they call “white privilege” in others who have never really experienced it. 

Of course, whatever such a thing is, they possess it in abundance but give no hint they have any intention of giving it up other than rhetorically or through the medieval concept of hair-shirt penance and Twitter confessionals. On the other hand, they are furious that middle-class whites do not join their theatrics of bending the knee and offering abject apologies for original sins. 

Progressive, affluent whites run most of the blue states that oversee the big blue cities who hire the liberal police chiefs and their unionized officers. So how strange it is for liberal elite white people to damn supposed white privilege for the logical sins of their own ideology and governance.

Little in Common Culturally and Socially

Across the hollowed-out rust belt, in Appalachia, throughout California’s foothills and Central Valley, or in the rural South there are millions of white Americans who fail in terms of income, longevity, suicide rates, dependence on government assistance, and drug dependence statistically compared to nonwhite ethnic groups such as Punjabi immigrants, or Asian-Americans in general, and elite black and Latino minorities. 

But more importantly, I can attest after living my entire life near the rural nexus of Fresno, Kings, and Tulare Counties, ground zero of the 1930s and 1940s Grapes of Wrath Oklahoma diaspora, that many whites by no stretch of the imagination could be defined as “privileged.” They are also not deplorable, irredeemable, or clingers to their guns and religion, much less dregs. Whatever they may be, they are not the beneficiaries at birth of any intrinsic advantage. They certainly did not enjoy the affirmative action of the white elite, defined by familial networks of like professionals, alumni influence, money, quid pro quo interning, incestuous leveraging, and good ol’ boy favoring.

So they have little culturally or socially in common with the elites of predominantly white coastal corridors from Boston to Washington and La Jolla to Seattle. The indifference of one to the other is mutual. There is no shared concept of “It’s a white thing, you wouldn’t understand.” Again, the white underprivileged feel about the white privileged about the same as the latter feel about them. In that sense, the generic “white” means very little.

Class matters, not superficial commonalities of race. Lower-middle-class or poor whites are more likely to live among poorer minorities than are elite, high-income whites whose experience of the Other is often confined either to career contacts with wealthy minority professionals of like tastes, education, backgrounds, and values—or their asymmetrical brief conversations with their own gardeners, housekeepers, and nannies. 

The white underclass lives, schools, and works among the supposed Other; the overclass not so much. As a result, in our increasingly polarized racial society, the white overclasses have constructed a psychological edifice to contextualize the paradox of their own de facto racial apartheid and segregation. 

In rural Fresno County, for example, most poorer whites—in terms of the local public schools, friendships, and social outing—have far more in common with Mexican-Americans and Hmong minorities and are of the same class, than they do with the wealthier and professional white classes in the Bay Area.

One reason that many African-Americans are often suspicious of white liberal elites is that they sense their apologetics serve as cheap penance for their apartheid lives of privilege. No one has much respect for a chronic dissimulator, appeaser, and apologist, even if superficially ideologically akin. A great unexplored topic is the African-American disdain for the white elites who so easily are superficially obsequious, not out of authentic desire to be equals but to preen among one another of their condescending paternalism. Only in the irrational venom toward black conservatives, who warn of the white progressive elite, do we see the extent of the white elite liberal’s superciliousness.

Racial Demagoguery vs. Class Appeals

One of the reasons that the Left and the Democratic Party feared and hated the Trump movement was its emphasis on class rather than race, a more fluid and potentially more dynamic appeal, and one with the potential to unite rather than divide those of different tribes.

Indeed, much of the left-wing focus on Trump’s supposed “racism” emerged in response to the fact that, unlike past Republican bogeymen such as Mitt Romney and despite his billions, Trump was not so easily caricatured as an elite grandee who felt uneasy among the nonwhite. 

Whatever Trump was, he talked to blacks just as he talked to everyone else—same accent, same mannerism, same vocabulary. He was not going to feign a black patois and pander in the Joe Biden style of “Put y’all back in chains” or “You ain’t black,” or reinvent himself in Hillary Clinton fashion as a civil rights veteran possessed of a phony drawl, “I don’t feel no ways tired. I come too far . . . ” Think of the logic driving these white liberal elites: “Blacks cannot understand my good English, so I will descend into their poor grammar, diction, and syntax to feign ‘y’all’ and ‘ain’t’ and ‘no ways tired.’”

In the context of promoting real national healing or efforts to ensure a more equitable society, Americans need to understand something about many of the Antifa protestors in the streets; the professors at the barricades; the New York and Washington grandees; and the Pelosis, Schumers, and Bidens of the world. Their abstract lectures about “privilege,” public prostrations on their knees in the Capitol with Kente cloths, self-interested promises of additional billions of dollars for blue-city bureaucracies, and narcissistic virtue signaling with other superficial bumper stickers of the revolution condemning white anything or privilege something—all of it—amounts to nothing more than day jobs to be turned on at 9 a.m. and switched off at 5 p.m. The show means little to most of them except the otherwise necessary price for feeling good about doing even better in their own eyes

After Mitt Romney’s recent walk in a Black Lives Matter protest, an interview on television ostensibly displayed his caring for the black underclass. Do we recall prior left-wing hit jobs on him as a racist during his 2012 presidential bid? There were so many, but two ads stand out.

One was that now-infamous secretly recorded tape in which, to a receptive audience, Romney expressed his credo “there are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president [Obama] no matter what” because they are “dependent upon government . . . believe that they are victims . . . believe the government has a responsibility to care for them . . . these are people who pay no income tax.” 

Romney apparently no longer believes that or least would not again utter it even in the presence of a friendly audience. But at the time he seemed oblivious to the fact that some of those 150 million Americans did not make enough income to pay income tax, or were unemployed and wished to work, or were disabled or were sick or were on Social Security without any other private assistance.

And second, there was a vicious, but equally effective hit ad against him, a quite unfair one starring his empathetic black garbage man. He complained that Romney, supposedly unlike his other more humane customers, never greeted or talked with him. (“We’re kind of like the invisible people.”) 

My point is not so much that the smear ads were unfair, only that such propaganda worked.

Why so? Not because Barack Obama, Romney’s opponent, was any more concerned with the underclass than was Romney. Indeed, the Obamas likely by now have a far greater income and perhaps even a greater net worth than Romney and may soon surpass his number of luxury homes. They probably live an even more segregated existence.

Rather, both ads suggested that the “caring” of the public Romney was demonstrative, while the private Romney, if the public could just get a glimpse of him, was not so interested in personal empathy or outreach. A cynic might add, in this age of loud virtue signaling, that had Romney just spoken to his garbage man, or told a private meeting of supporters that “the 47 percent” really could be reached and persuaded that new policies would help far better than fossilized programs, he might not have found  himself in the position of much later needing to feel the need to march in front of a national audience in a fashion that will have little if any effect on anyone but Mitt Romney.

Separatism Won’t Heal the Racial Divide

If one is actually troubled—indeed, really concerned about the plight of the nonwhite underclass, about systematic violence in the inner city, about the abject failures of the public schools, about the insidious spread of microaggressive racism, about virtual immunity given rogue cops—then one should recognize that virtue signaling from the gated estate, public confessionals, and medieval penance to square the circle of private apartheid have done nothing and will do nothing to address these problems. 

We need not hear any more sermonizing, even from the iconic Michelle Obama, who ventures out from her multimillion-dollar Martha’s Vineyard estate or Washington mansion to lecture black Americans—millions of whom are now locked in their inner-city homes, terrified by looting and arson, and not a policeman to be seen—that they cannot become “too angry,” all before venturing back inside her chateau rooms with a view.

Instead, why not commit to real change? Why do we not integrate Sidwell Friends with those schools of the inner-city and of lower classes? Why do not our actors, the Pelosi grandchildren, the scions of the Zuckerberg, Gates, and Bloomberg families, all vow to place their offspring into the public schools, to become personally engaged with the less fortunate, and to pledge that their own fates will hinge on those of others? One can write a check for millions to the anti-Semitic and racist Al Sharpton and his charity and thereby do far less than simply tutoring one inner-city teen or taking him on as a personal intern to advise him how one gets ahead in America.

Indeed, why not eschew the third home, the walled compound, the private-jet getaway, and instead have a second home in an inner-city or Latino suburb or among the rural hamlets of the Central Valley or Western Texas? People do not want tele-condescension but rather face-to-face dignity. And dignity comes from being treated as an equal and a partner, not as a cause.

Why not have over to dinner those who make $50,000 rather than $500,000? Why not eschew giving a check to Black Lives Matter and instead quietly and privately help mentor African-American youth in the arts of business, or medicine, or law, and invest personal time in genuine devotion to those who do not have the tools and support network to ensure upward mobility? Or why not weld alongside, or hammer with someone you romanticize in the abstract as much as you avoid in the concrete? 

The racial divide will not be healed by black separatist tribalism. It will not be bridged by the white apartheid guilt of the well off. It certainly will not end by this absurd medievalism of affluent, sequestered, well-meaning, white progressives championing black causes in ways that are loud and public, but ultimately selfish.

The next time we hear a lecture about caring from a woke Yale professor, or a sermon on systematic racism from a CEO, or more Hollywood confessional video drivel, we should pause and politely ask, “But where do your children go to school? And why do you live where you live? And dine with whom you dine?” Then remember class, not race, is what divides America—the truth that the upscale white progressive dares not utter.

About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is an American military historian, columnist, former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He was a professor of classics at California State University, Fresno, and is currently the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush. Hanson is also a farmer (growing raisin grapes on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author most recently of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict was Fought and Won (Basic Books).

Photo: Drante/Getty Images

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