“How could this have happened?” Every day, for the past 200 days or so, I have heard a friend, colleague, or acquaintance mutter some version of this question. As many of us continue to grieve the election of Donald Trump, we ask—rhetorically—why our fellow Americans thought this man was fit to be president.
What “we” (the progressive elite) have left unasked, however, is the much harder question that Professor Joan Williams boldly takes up in her new book, White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America (“WWC”). That question is not so much about why “they” (the white working class) voted for Donald Trump, but why our own realities are so far removed from our fellow voters that we cannot fathom their lives or their choices. It is much less about them and much more about us.
While Professor Williams portrays this book as helping her elite readership better understand the white working class, she also effectively presses us to examine our own lives and belief systems. To what extent, for example, have we relied upon personal contacts and entrepreneurial networks to maintain and build upon our elite class identity? How and why do we sometimes displace our own racism onto working-class whites? Progressive elites don’t fault the poor for not embracing our values; so why do we fault the working class? In breaking down and translating “class cluelessness,” Williams effectively puts the rebuke where it is due: on the shoulders of the most privileged.
I had several introspective aha! moments as I read WWC. As someone who thinks and writes about race and class in my own scholarship, I was surprised at how often (and how artfully) this book made me look in the mirror—at my career, at my parenting decisions, at my assumptions. When Professor Williams addresses why a working-class family might not want to “just move where the jobs are” or go to college out of state, for example, she not only explains their social and economic commitments to family and community but also adroitly unpacks why professional elites like me are so ready to move. Moving to a new city doesn’t sound so bad because my family ties are emotional and work is central to my identity. I know I can link up with the Stanford alumni network, find new friends, and tell a culturally exalted story about recruitment.
In so many ways and in so many places, WWC forces the progressive-elite reader—like myself— to denaturalize our assumptions and contemplate our privilege. And in doing so, it entreats us to cross class boundaries and have critical conversations about fear, including a fear of each other. Helpfully, Professor Williams leaves her readers with not only the knowledge but also the skill set to have these conversations, recommending ways to discuss topics as diverse as policing and climate change without isolating or blaming one another. To build real interracial economic justice in the U.S., we need to stop asking rhetorical questions and instead, Williams rightly portends, find ways to have relationships across class and race that bring out our best selves. Let’s get to it.