Nine Things Liberals Don't Understand About the White Working Class

Dec 3, 2016

Joan Williams, Distinguished Professor of Law, UC Hastings Foundation Chair and Director of the Center for WorkLife Law
Credit UC Hastings

How could a billionaire born into wealth become the champion of the white working class?

That question stumped a lot of liberal commentators, but Joan Williams wasn’t surprised.

Williams studies the white working class and is founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of the Law.

On the Front Porch podcast, she makes a case for reaching across the class-culture gap to understand one another.

Here are nine things she said many liberals (and some non-liberal elites) don't understand about the white working class.

1. White working class folks tend to admire the very rich, but really resent professionals

“These (professionals) are the people who are ordering them around every day, often disrespectfully," she said, such as the college kid who gets promoted ahead of you, or the doctor or teacher who condescends to you.

And the rich? “That’s what the white working class would like to be,” she said.

“They don’t want to make all the cultural changes required for them to become professional families. They just want to be exactly the way they are, living their lives the ways they’ve always lived them with the values they’ve always had…but with more money.”

Clinton represented the condescension of professionals, she says. Trump represented their dream.

2. They are afraid of change…with good reason

“I associate change with loss,” one working class man told Williams. She says change has meant loss for this whole class of people over the last 30, 40 years.

3. College is not the answer for many working class kids

Our society seems to offer two options – a four-year college degree or dead-end, minimum wage service jobs.

But four-year degrees are increasingly hard and expensive to get for working class families. Many don’t try, and others try, but drop out – incurring debt along the way.

Williams says our government needs to offer more options between four-year-degrees and minimum wage – such as certificate programs at community colleges.

4. “We on the left have made racism and misogyny truly delicious” to the white working class

“Liberals have defined their coalition as women, people of color, LGBT, the disabled, the poor,” she said. “The white working class are just stupid racists with bad taste. Shame on us for creating a coalition that leaves out a key disenfranchised group.

“Racism and misogyny becomes a way to poke the elite in the eye.”

5. Straight talk is valued by the white working class, more than expressing feelings

“Talking through your feelings is part of being a good person” to the elite. To many working class people, “that’s kind of weird and self-obsessed and off-putting.”

6. Different classes see food in radically different ways

For the elite, it’s how you can signal sophistication to the world, i.e. the dinner party.

Working class families use food to signal comfort – large portions of everyday foods - and tradition, such as sharing family recipes.

7. There’s a big chasm within the working class between settled and unsettled families

In “Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance lived with his mother, who lived a chaotic life full of substance abuse and a parade of different men.

Vance’s father, however, found a settled life, defined by strict rules and religion.

8. Working class does not mean poor – or even necessarily low-income

Working class people can and do often make good money. That’s why Democratic promises of raising the minimum wage don’t get them very excited, Williams said.

When liberals talk about working class, they’re typically thinking of the bottom 30 percent of families (in income.) She’s talking about the middle 50 percent.

She says the “professional elite” also calls itself middle class, when it really is not.

9. Dignity is a huge issue to the white working class

They want work, not charity. And language of “lifting people up” or helping them will be rejected.

“That language will be rejected as condescending because it IS condescending,” she said.

"The Front Porch” is a place where we tackle the tough issues facing West Virginia and Appalachia with some of the region's most interesting thinkers.

WVPB Executive Director Scott Finn serves as host and provocateur, joined by Laurie Lin, a conservative lawyer and columnist, and Rick Wilson, a liberal columnist and avid goat herder who works for the American Friends Service Committee.

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