Nell Irvin Painter tells NY Magazine Americans need to stop thinking of the working class as white

Historians in the News
tags: Nell Irvin Painter



An interview with  Nell Irvin Painter, the author of The History of White People.

What is it about the white working class that has such a strong hold on American politics?

We have a racialized definition of workers, which is much older than this past election. For instance, when historians or normal people talk about America before the Civil War, they don’t tend to talk about enslaved workers as workers. They are units of race — they’re not unpaid workers with no rights. If you include those people in your concept of the American working class, it changes the generalizations and it changes the history.

A similar example is the migration of Southerners out of the South during the First World War and after. This occurred for southern people generally, both white and black. But most people don’t pay attention to the Great Migration of white Southerners. That’s something that’s come up now with some new literature around the election — here are people in the Midwest whose roots are in Kentucky or Arkansas. But the Great Migration has been thought of as a racial movement, not as part of the American working class’s movement. I mean, even Bernie Sanders has talked like this. On the one side, there are the people who the Democrats have been paying attention to, and it’s women and people of color and non-Christians and so forth. And on the other side, the white working class, as if there were no nonwhite working class.

Yet you’ve commented that the 2016 election “marked a turning point in white identity.” Why this election?

It’s made it so visible, partly after the backlash against Obama. The assumption of whiteness had been that white people didn’t have race — that was somebody else’s problem. But some of the attacks against Obama, the birtherism, the really ugly commentary that didn’t necessarily use the word white and sometimes didn’t even use the word black butwere so clearly racialized attacks. The southern congressman who stood up during the president’s address to Congress and shouted “You lie.” I mean, that kind of insult just off the top comes out of southern history, which is a racialized history.

The election put whiteness under the microscope, so to speak. But part of the assumption that real Americans are white people or rural people is deeply structured in our politics. Where do presidential campaigns start? They start in Iowa; they start in New Hampshire. They don’t start in Newark.

For me, the conversation around rural drug addiction cries out to be placed in the context of the older conversations about addiction, from the 1960s and ’70s, the ’80s, about crack. Urban issues have, for so long, been exactly the same. Addicted mothers, grandmothers having to raise children, children being left adrift because their parents are not functioning, very brittle unions with low levels of marriage and high levels of divorce — all of the social ills that go with poverty, deindustrialization, and unemployment. The sociological and even the literary discussions of the wages of addiction in urban America are vast. I have yet to see it put together with addiction in rural America. And I think it would be so helpful if attempts to address addiction and its problems would not stop at the color line.

The movie Moonlight, for instance — one of the central figures is the mother, who’s an addict. In that movie, there’s not a grandmother. There are sort of surrogate parents, in the older drug dealer and his girlfriend. But the question of the nonfunctioning parent is central to the narrative. So there’s art, there’s literature, there’s policy — there’s prisons. We have dealt with issues of addiction before. You would never know it by reading much of the current discussion, which is about white people, it’s as if this never happened.What I would like to see is, let’s talk about economic issues that have to do with working-class people in a capacious way, that isn’t racialized, that realizes that American workers are in the country and in the city and they’re black, white, and brown, and yellow, and red.

What would that look like?

Well, for one thing, it would abolish the term “white working class.” 




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