We are smack dab in the middle of the 2016 presidential primaries, and as we watch Trumpism – a term that didn’t even exist two months ago – take over the hearts and minds of many lower to middle class white Americans, most of us on the left are perplexed. Where are all these people *coming* from? And why do they think that Trump will solve their problems? Why didn’t they show up in our movements – how did we miss them? The answer, to me, is alarmingly clear. And it says a lot about the unspoken strategy behind many of our social justice movements.
When I think about what has moved white folks into action within our movements, I think of three categories: epiphany, outrage, or direct experience.
The epiphany is the a-ha moment often brought to us via formal or informal education – i.e. I learned about climate change in school, so I protested the Keystone pipeline. It assumes an openness and a malleability, and most importantly, access. This is much more common with young folks, who are still making up their minds about where they stand, and have the time and the support (financial or otherwise) needed to attend classes, watch a documentary, or join a bookclub. For many of us, this constant re-education is part of our lifestyle. But it has its own unique roots in class, education level, and our network of support.
Outrage is often bound to a single event or issue that can eventually unravel into a wider belief system, i.e. Mike Brown’s murder incensed me and I had to do something about it. Outrage has become much more common in the days of social media, and it has been a valuable tool in our movements. But, as a very function of how often we use social media, outrage can also become common. Instead of action, we often see desensitization or distancing. The difference is often a matter of how well-supported someone is in their belief system, or whether or not their social circles are rooted in the values of social justice. In other words, it requires previous epiphanies, or at least, a trusted activist friend.
In my experience, epiphany and outrage are the most common catalyzers among white folks who join movements for social justice. The problem with these two catalyzers is that they place the onus on the individual to find their own epiphany, or to feel enough emotional connection and empathy for an issue that may not be directly personal for them. As such, this often attracts folks who are at least middle class, who come from an educated family, and who are supported in doing the unconventional work of movement building. These are folks who don’t fear being ostracized if they are seen at a protest. In fact, in many cases their involvement may actually build their social capital.
Direct experience, however, is something for which there is no substitution within our movements. Without directly affected folks at the front lines of our work, we fail. People who organize from a place of direct experience are those who can speak with authenticity. Their stories can naturally compel people into action. These are the folks that say: “I lost a loved one in a Iraq, and so I committed my life to anti-war movements.” Not only are the directly affected the soul of the work – they tend to have the longest and most reliable buy-in. They are in it for the long haul, because it is an indelible part of them – for many, to organize was never a conscious choice to begin with.
People who organize from a place of direct experience are unicorns – they are transformative, but they are also hard to come by. For one, this is because it is hard enough to fight injustice as an individual, let alone fight it as a system. We cannot reasonably expect someone who may be struggling to take on additional, probably unpaid work that will be long, arduous, and fraught with failure. (Bringing more joy and victory to our work is something that’s needed, but that’s an entirely different blog post). But I am proposing that, in the case of low income and working class white folks, we aren’t even looking for them to begin with.
For white folks in social justice movements, low-income and working class white Americans are often our family members, friends, and our former classmates – and, coincidentally or not – they are often the people we are the most scared to talk to about our work. We have become very skilled at blocking conservative Facebook friends, deleting comments from our un-woke family members, or only inviting people to the rally that we know agree with us. In other words: we expect the directly affected to also be both enlightened and outraged in order to participate. If they are not, they are probably not our people, and we mostly don’t work with them – certainly not at the dinner table. It’s easier to organize our kind, so we stick with that, and hope folks walk in the door who have been magically moved to action on their own.
The problem with this, of course, is that it hasn’t worked. Organizing our kind might work well for short-term campaigns, but for long-term change – ending racism, economic justice – we are shooting ourselves in the foot. It’s a strategy that has emboldened the right, and only given credence to the idea that social justice movements are full of self-righteous academics who are disconnected from the real world. It has us perpetually preaching to the crowd, and the crowd isn’t getting any bigger.
But the crowd of Trump voters is getting bigger by the minute, with hundreds of thousands utterly seduced by a populist, outsider approach that focuses on jobs, economic insecurity, and the refusal to be a professional politician. Yes, he has also built an entire campaign on racism and xenophobia, but all you have to do is watch interviews of Trump supporters to see where the priorities lie. Nearly every Trump supporter interviewee will at some point tell an incredulous interviewer that they like him because “he tells it like it is,” faster than they will bring up any policy proposal. But if you remove Trump, the man, from the picture, but kept the “outsider” rhetoric, it would have many of us progressives nodding our heads! Status quo politics? Transparency and honesty? It almost sounds like the pillars of a Bernie speech.
As someone who hails from a town where there are likely to be a good handful of Trump voters, I think we do ourselves a disservice if we assume that racism and xenophobia are Trump voters’ true issue platforms. Instead, most are probably tired, angry, have little access to political discussion outside of TV, and feel historically underrespresented in the political arena. In other words: they are directly affected by shitty governance and policy. This is not to say that white folks haven’t been represented, or that Trump supporters haven’t supported a GOP candidate in the past. It’s to suggest that even those candidates (on the right and the left) and movements who have claimed to speak for low income and working class white folks have repeatedly left them in the dark. And thus, they have paved the way for a much more extreme, much more violent person, to claim the floor. I think we have to acknowledge this as truth, even though it hurts most of us to consider Trump supporters as people who may be suffering themselves.
But because Trump has recognized how to capitalize on this frustration, low-income and working class white folks have now, astonishingly, come to see themselves in this billionaire. Or perhaps more accurately, they feel seen by him. And most tragically, as the very result of this trust, they have come to believe that people of color and immigrants really are the source of their struggle. This is not to downplay how deeply entrenched racism is in our country. It’s to suggest that low-income and working class white folks are humans, who are subject to the information they hear most often. They are not on some irreversible track toward fascism. We know, of course, that Trump is the very enemy that poor white folks should be organizing against. But because of his willingness to convey a likeness, because of his ability to get on these voters’ level and speak to their direct experience, their hearts have already been stolen. I am simply suggesting that we may have something to learn from this.
What if we constantly asked ourselves the following questions when we organize:
- Who are we the most apprehensive about talking to about our issue? Do we still do it? Why/why not?
- What level of expertise or knowledge to we expect from newcomers to our work?
- Do we alienate those who don’t speak our language and/or use our terminology?
- Do we respect those who are new to the work? Do we acknowledge their struggles? How do we show it?
- How do we help low-income and working class folks to understand the connection between their personal struggles and our systemic ones? How can we explain this in ways that are relevant, relatable, succinct, and simple?
This is work that I would never expect people of color, who should be busy leading the movements, to be doing. It is often downright unsafe, and it requires a patience and a compassion that would be unfair to require of someone fighting back against racism that affects them personally each day. But I do think it is a job for white folks in social movements. I think we have to invest our time, energy, and resources into going into the very arenas we have historically been avoiding. We have to organize outside of our enlightened and outraged bubble. And we have to make sure that our organizing spaces don’t feel like bubbles in the first place.
If we start rolling up our sleeves in less than “down” neighborhoods, Trump and his kind might be relegated to a brief and unfortunate phenomenon, brought about by a growing working-class disenfranchisement and a brief lapse in intelligent strategy on the left. If we don’t, I fear we are further cementing the idea that the left isn’t a place for working class white folks. And in that, not only are we failing, we are participating in the rise of Trumpism, and effectively putting folks of color (and ourselves) in danger.