By Karen Miller
A couple of weeks ago I observed a colleague’s Introduction to Sociology course. He was talking to his students about W.E.B. DuBois’ idea of the “racial wage.” He reminded them that they had already spent a significant amount of time talking about what race wasn’t, but this lesson was about how race worked. My colleague emphasized DuBois’ important point that poor and working-class whites only needed to be positioned slightly higher than African Americans within a brutal system of exploitation in order for them to see their interests as congruent with those of white elites. As DuBois put it, white capitalists “compensated the low wage earning whites with a sort of public and psychological wage.” Poor and working-class whites’ sense that they belonged to a “superior race” meant that they saw their interests as unrelated to the interests of their African American neighbors. The increasing disenfranchisement of African Americans alongside aggressive occupational segregation, the suppression of black wages, African Americans’ minimal access to industrial employment, and black criminalization all contributed to whites’ sense that African Americans were naturally inferior. White poor and working-class men and women in the South as well as the North embraced racial inequality as a foundational piece of their racial identity and saw its amplification as a way to build a better world.
The current debates about whether race or class can help us understand Trump’s victory in the Electoral College misses the inextricability of race and class that DuBois so effectively explained in Black Reconstruction. Not all white workers or poor people side with elites and against people of color who live in similar economic circumstances. But, in order to understand those who do, we need to remember the affective power of the racial wage. Trump supporters believe in inequality. So tax cuts to the rich are a win if you may be rich one day, and if you believe that white wealth is a marker of superiority. Meritocratic fantasies can be soothing because they make the world make sense, even if you, yourself, will not benefit materially from Trump’s organization of wealth and power; even if you will lose out as the state’s redistributive programs are defunded and dismantled. Trump supporters will find deep, deep solace in knowing that racial inequalities are amplifying. Part of the affective draw of his demagoguery is that it’s built on the fundamental belief in inequality. In this system, racial inequality, which Trump and his supporters cast as normal and natural, also needs to be upheld. Understanding that in spite of our national creed, Trump and his supporters believe in inequality, and particularly in racial inequality, is absolutely urgent.
All this needs to be understood at the same time that we should see that whites who voted for Trump were disproportionately better off than those who did not. The median income of the white Trump voter was $72,000. Statistically, poorer whites were more likely to have voted for Clinton. They see their interests as more in line with a redistributory state. The racial wage gap is smaller for them, and is less able to animate their politics.
Still, understanding the racial wage helps us see why a white middle or lower-middle class person who depends on government programs like Medicare, social security, state-funded education, roads, garbage pick-up, mail delivery, bridges, tunnels, mortgage interest tax breaks, the Affordable Care Act and other non-means-tested benefits may vote for a party that promises to defund the non-militarized aspects of the state.
I strongly believe that the political answer here is to mobilize people who have not voted by developing a far stronger commitment to redistribution than the Democratic Party is willing to embrace in its current state. We cannot fight the racial wage by telling whites that it is a myth because sadly, with the current organization of power and resources it is not a myth. They do benefit from their whiteness and those benefits, while not always monetary, are material and real. The only way to fight the racial wage is to first imagine and then produce new realities that undercut its power. That is only possible through radical struggles for economic and racial justice – ones that recognize that these political categories can never be disentangled. The time is now.
Karen Miller is Professor of History at LaGuardia Community College and in the MALS Program at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is currently writing a book about internal labor migration and the US colonial state in the Philippines. Her first book, Managing Inequality: Northern Racial Liberalism in Interwar Detroit shows that white northern leaders embraced egalitarian ideas about race in the 1920s and 30s at the same time that they helped build racially segregated and unequal cities. Dr. Miller’s articles and reviews have appeared in the Journal of American History, The Middle West Review, The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Michigan Feminist Studies, and Against the Current and the edited collection, Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Struggles in America.