Working class must break free of caricatures and speak for itself
CHICAGO -- Let's play a quick association game: When you hear the term "working class," what word springs to mind?
If you thought "white," as in "the white working class," you guessed correctly.
Since Donald Trump's election to the presidency, a million think pieces, reports, polls and news analyses have dissected whether white working-class voters elected him because of their anxiety about being culturally displaced by people of color.
The net effect has been to create the illusion that all the people in the so-called working class are, by default, white.
According to a new issue brief from the Center for American Progress, "For some, including President Trump during his campaign, 'working class' has effectively become shorthand for white male workers in the goods-producing industries of manufacturing, construction and mining. But in reality, the U.S. working class -- defined for this analysis as participants in the labor force with less than a four-year college degree -- is more diverse than ever and growing more so."
Alex Rowell, the author of the brief, says that even though policy makers talk about industrial work when they refer to the working class, "it has never made up the majority of U.S. working-class jobs."
Industrial jobs peaked in 1960, when they made up 37 percent of working-class positions. But these jobs have been in decline for years, and they began vanishing even faster after 1980. So, for nearly four decades, the working class has been mainly toiling in the service industry -- today, 76 percent, versus 21 percent who work in manufacturing, construction and mining.
The working class is also less white than it used to be. About 75 years ago, according to the Center for American Progress, the share of whites in the working class was roughly the same as the percentage of non-Hispanic whites in the country. Today, whites make up 64 percent of the overall adult population but only 59 percent of the working class. African-Americans make up 14 percent and Hispanics make up 21 percent.
Lastly, the share of women in the working class has gone up since 1966, from 33 percent to 46 percent.
Though it's clear that the demographic tide that has washed over the country has changed the face of labor, what's not so cut-and-dried is whether anyone will become invested in re-framing the working class to accurately reflect its diversity. Or whether it would help or harm the plight of workers.
"Solutions to address the real concerns and needs of working-class Americans must take into account the true makeup of today's working class," Rowell writes.
This is obviously true, but truth is increasingly the victim of political battering rams.
Arguably, the populist right has a vested interest in valorizing the semi-mythical white rural men who toil in manufacturing or construction. There's no doubt that the narrative of them losing standing in their communities is an effective rallying cry for strong national leadership focused on ensuring that those without college degrees have dignified work to do.
However, does the truth of a more diverse working class open the door to more (and more aggressive) complaints that non-whites are "taking" white people's jobs?
And what about the left? Would understanding that the working class isn't merely a group of people who should be written off as racist "deplorables" spur Democrats to prioritize the economic interests of displaced workers of all races?
Or does the elitist sensibility that everyone who lacks a college degree deserves to be left behind in our so-called knowledge economy continue to serve as a blind spot, encouraging reactive policy proposals centered on identity politics rather than thoughtful responses to kitchen-table issues?
And what about the fact that race has the effect of sorting people into "deserving" and "undeserving" poor?
There are about 2.4 million full-time workers who live in poverty, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released September 2017. If these workers are seen as being increasingly non-white, does that erode public support for policy proposals that could improve their quality of life?
These questions are difficult to answer. And the only way that the working class will be able to fend off being caricatured, over-simplified or taken for granted is for its members to speak for themselves rather than allowing academics, pundits and politicians to speak for them.
Unfortunately, exercising your political muscle is hard when you don't have the luxury of economic stability to support your civic engagement.
Esther Cepeda's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group