Between the Haves and the Ain’t-Gots: Working-Poor Whites and White Privilege - By Ben Latter
Updated: Sep 14, 2019
White privilege might be defined as the continued, unofficial precedent of law, government, and cultural and social norms favoring the interests of people who are white in appearance. The term has come to encompass all race-related disparity in America, and rightfully so: the foundational laws of America were incontrovertibly designed for the advantage of white men, and in fact, often for the direct oppression of other groups. In these mere few-hundred years since the advent of American culture and society, it’s safe to presume that any effort to remove these once-sacred facets is at the very least incomplete, if not failed. And, if their existence is not in question, then neither can be the need for the continued effort to dismantle them, at least not from the perspective of the progressive, liberal agenda. Such change requires a great deal of awareness, mobilization, and agile alliance between groups spanning the political identity spectrum, not the least of these being white America itself. But the term “white privilege” can be problematic: While alliance is easily garnered from white groups that identify best with privilege, it is nearly impossible to garner from groups that identify only with white, as it is typical that within this same group, privilege is perceived to be decidedly scarce.
Despite being one of the least affected groups by percentage, white Americans make up the largest proportion of America’s poor.
According to TalkPoverty.org, 8.7% of white America falls below the poverty line, making them the second least affected group. However, as white Americans are also the single largest demographic in terms of population, this impoverished percentage totals 17 million individuals—nearly twice that of the next largest group. It is in this massive population, where stark poverty and white identity converge, that the concept of privilege is heavily refuted, often not only as an aspect of race, but as a matter of working-class honor. In his memoir of working-poor America, Hillbilly Elegy, author J.D. Vance recalls his time growing up in rural Appalachia, where people sought to identify as hard-working and deserving, and therefore, strongly rejected concepts of intrinsic privilege. He writes, “Mamaw and Papaw believed that hard work mattered more. They knew that life was a struggle, and though the odds were a bit longer for people like them, that fact didn’t excuse failure” (36). These sentiments recur throughout Vance’s book, as his real-life characters relate to themes of identity and poverty through tradition and hard work, rather than race. But Vance later writes about a shift: as they face intensifying poverty, his family grows increasingly aware of their whiteness, leaving clues as to why the concept of white privilege can confound working-poor whites. He writes, “There is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites” (192), a profound statement on its own, but especially considering an earlier reflection wherein he writes, “I knew even as a child that here were two separate sets of mores and social pressures. My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood embodied another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful” (148). The result is a key takeaway—working-poor whites reject and resent the suggestion that they’re privileged because of two conditions of their identity: One, because their individual understanding of privilege does not match their reality, and two, because they reject the notion that what little they have was not hard-won.
The term is further rejected by working-poor and working-class white communities because it is perceived to resemble other negative stereotypes that have been used to disparage them. Lucy Jarosz and Victoria Lawson address this in their essay, “‘Sophisticated People Versus Rednecks’: Economic Restructuring and Class Difference in America’s West”, in which they write, “Popular culture representations of rednecks at the national level focus on class as lifestyle, rather than on underlying political-economic processes of changing opportunities and displacements” (14). This sets a basis for a reasonable perception—that the rest of America does not look upon working-poor whites favorably, and that whatever economic imbalances they may experience, it is unrecognized or dismissed by their countrymen, who have now endeavored to also call them privileged. Jarosz and Lawson further demonstrate this by arguing that, “We draw on a variety of sources to illustrate how poor whites are constructed as obsolescent, the throwaways of modern society, who have ‘chosen’ their lifestyle. These discourses rely on abstract rural spaces that are construed as poor, underdeveloped, and wild and that construct rural subjects as lazy, dirty, conservative, and racist” (23). It is easy to understand, then, why working-poor whites have come to take umbrage with the concept of white privilege, as to them, it is based in not only a disregard for their innate value of hard-work, but also hypocritically implies that race is an important aspect of achievement and societal success—a contradiction to the perfunctory public-school lessons they received about diversity and inclusion.
But it’s not in their dispute of being privileged that the worst danger lurks: it’s in their reformed identity afterward. When group members can no longer identify with the broader, socially-instituted definition of the group, they tend to seek new groups or to redefine those to which they already belong. Thus, if the most pervasive terms for defining working-poor whites available in media portrayal and public discourse are negative, they will seek to establish new terms, likely including backlash toward the terms they rejected. In Courtney Jung’s article, “Why Liberals Should Value ‘Identity Politics,’” she asserts that identity is not a realization of self, but an aspect of assimilation, writing, “Identity isn’t self-proclaimed: it is borrowed from a set of preordained group parameters” (33). She then goes on to explain the importance of finding identity in a political context. She writes, “One’s ability to get oneself heard in a democratic system crucially depends on whether one can claim membership in a group with preexisting political weight, or forge a group identity with new political weight. In contemporary politics, race, gender, and ethnicity have developed such a weight” (35). This demonstrates the importance of identity, and thus why individuals seek it, but it also clarifies how identity is formed: Individuals seek out the group traits to which they can most strongly relate, as well as those which will aid in substantializing their voices. If the “set of preordained group parameters” can only offer a definition of white identity that is rejected by its members, such as privileged, they will seek other terms to which they can adhere, such as race. This, combined with economic disparity, leaves working-poor whites vulnerable to identity traits proffered by groups that represent exclusivity, hate, and supremacy, which negatively affects American democracy for everyone.
It’s essential to reiterate that white privilege does exist, and that its most affected victims—communities of color—suffer exacerbated versions of an otherwise insatiably impartial economic disparity as a result.
It’s also essential to acknowledge that the biggest challenge facing efforts to dismantle white privilege is widespread misunderstanding and ignorance. In the now-classic essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh said it first and best by asserting that, “I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group…that racism could end if white individuals changed their attitude. But a "white" skin in the United States opens many doors for whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us” (36). This statement brings to light the fact that even those who would endeavor to unseat racism as defined by historical accounts might misunderstand privilege as a facet of the same inequality. It’s simply not indoctrinated as a part of globally applicable, racially sensitive values, let alone any values that can be practiced in community, which often enough is lacking in racial diversity. As such, increasing education that illustrates their privilege will unlikely be unsuccessful in imploring working-poor white communities to stand up for others, as it continues to fail to relate to any aspect of their identity.
An obvious solution may be to change or update the term, but doing so not only fails to achieve inclusion of working-poor whites, but also disintegrates the great strides communities of color have achieved against it.
Further, a replacement term creates two immediate problems: one, it caters to the demands of racial identity and sensitivity, which furthers the problem of white privilege entirely, and two, it changes merely the term, not the problem with the term. Nor should the term’s usage be curtailed to appease any specific group. The objective is not to alleviate responsibility, but to cultivate awareness. This endeavor is increasingly successful in white middle and upper classes, where privilege is not as refutable, but continues to fail in working-poor white communities. But to be successful in aiding all people affected by political and economic disparity, all people affected by political and economic disparity must be included in efforts toward resolution. If inclusion cannot be achieved by demanding that working-poor whites admit their privilege, and altering the term is infeasible, then the remaining solution is to appeal to their identity traits of self-reliant, hard-working, and faithful, and charge them with the task of helping. This shifts their obligation from responsibility, to compassion, an identity term with a far-more positive connotation that welcomes participation.
This is clearly demonstrated in the 2012 study, “White Privilege Awareness and Efficacy to Reduce Racial Inequality Improve White Americans’ Attitudes Toward African Americans”, in which the effects of empathy reinforcement on white students’ attitudes toward people of color was measured. In the study, white participants were asked a series of questions to establish the degree to which they identify as white. They were then presented numerous scenarios in which their choices reflect their capacity for empathy toward—specifically—African Americans. Finally, participants were provided varying degrees of reinforcement as to the efficacy of their decisions. The results support the idea that encouraging empathy is effective. As the authors write, “Those who received reinforcement that their individual efforts to reduce inequality would be effective showed more positive attitudes toward African Americans than did participants given low efficacy feedback” (21). Interestingly, the participants’ identity score did not affect this. The study’s authors note that, “…the degree of white identification did not significantly interact with efficacy feedback…Thus, the positive effects of increased efficacy on White participants’ attitudes toward African Americans did not depend on having lower white identification” (21). This establishes that including working-poor whites in undermining white privilege is entirely possible, and that characterizations such as empathetic are as applicable to their identity.
This inclusion of working-poor whites in efforts of social justice is essential. They are too often alienated because of reasons that themselves reflect variations of privilege, such as disdain for their vernacular, or lingering stereotypes that justly put them in a position of defense, or because they’ve been failed by public education or misled by opportunistic polemicists. It does not benefit a progressive objective to charge these shortcomings to working-poor whites as a group, community, nor race, less they be rendered the unseen victims of a new, horribly myopic iteration of white privilege: one that promised to be inclusive and enlightened, but left 17 million people behind.
“Basic Statistics.” Talk Poverty, Center for American Progress, talkpoverty.org/basics/.
Jarosz, Lucy, and Victoria Lawson. “‘Sophisticated People Versus Rednecks’: Economic
Restructuring and Class Difference in America’s West.” Antipode, vol. 34, no. 1, Jan. 2002, p. 8. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/1467-8330.00224. Accessed 26 Mar. 2019.
Jung, Courtney. “Why Liberals Should Value ‘Identity Politics.’” Daedalus, vol. 135, no. 4, Fall 2006, pp. 32–39. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1162/daed.2006.135.4.32. Accessed 26 Mar. 2019.
McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Independent School, vol. 49, no. 2, Winter 1990, p. 31. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=9604164115&site=ehost-live. Accessed 26 Mar. 2019.
Stewart, Tracie L., et al. “White Privilege Awareness and Efficacy to Reduce Racial Inequality Improve White Americans’ Attitudes Toward African Americans.” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 68, no. 1, Mar. 2012, pp. 11–27. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.2012.01733.x. Accessed 26 Mar. 2019.
Vance, J. D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Harper, 2018.