Class and Race as Competing Self Interests or Whiteness as Symbolic Politics, Part. 1

By Thomas Rudd,

In the heart, where empathy and compassion reside, who cares more profoundly about the welfare of the poor, the working class and the middle class in America—Barack Obama or Mitt Romney? Which of these men is more connected, emotionally and intellectually, to the struggles that millions of Americans face every day as they reach for some small measure of comfort and optimism about their future and the future of their children? Which of these men is more likely to subordinate the needs of the 99% to the wants of the 1%? Why aren’t voters asking these questions?


In the ever increasing discourse over the “red-state, blue-state” phenomenon, popular culture pundits, social scientists, political analysts, scholars, journalists and just plain folk are trying to make sense of the behavior of millions of White working class and middle class Americans whose voting behavior in presidential elections often appears to betray their own deeply vested self-interest. Popular author Thomas Frank dissects this phenomenon in his 2004 book, What’s The Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. In a 2004 interview Frank explained that Kansas is a metaphor for the rest of the country. What’s wrong with Kansas is that it is becoming increasingly conservative and this pronounced slide to the right has caused the people of the state to vote against their own economic interests. Much of the state, Frank said, is“in deep economic crisis – in many cases a crisis either brought on or worsened by the free-market policies of the Republican party – and yet the state’s voters insist on reelecting the very people who are screwing them…”.


Frank and other political observers have puzzled over the behavior of millions of White voters in the states that won the White House for George Bush in 2004. This perplexity stems from the prevailing hypothesis that voting behavior is driven by political attitudes and that political attitudes are formed, maintained and energized in direct relationship to an individual’s assessment of material gain and wellbeing—variables like financial status, health, domicile, and family security. Inherent in this hypothesis is the notion that “people develop or change attitudes which maximally satisfy their needs or serve their interests when incentive-contingencies change…” (Sears, 1978; Sears, 1979 ).


One salient explanation for this paradox is found in research on the formation of symbolic attitudes and the process of cognitive consistency. Researchers in this area suggest that:

  • Attitude development may take place without regard to whether or not the individual’s needs are satisfied, such as by a process of simple conditioning. That is, attitudes may often be acquired simply by being paired with positive or negative unconditioned stimuli (Staats, 1958).
  • A child will hate communism if that concept is paired with contemptuous or derogatory expression each time he or she hears it. The individual’s needs or interests are irrelevant to attitude formation (Lau, 1978).
  • By this line of thinking, people acquire stable affective preference through conditioning in their pre-adult years, with little calculation of the future costs and benefits of these attitudes. The most important of these are presumably some rather general predispositions, such as party identification, liberal or conservative ideology, nationalism, or racial prejudice. When confronted with new policy issues later in life, people respond to these new attitudes on the basis of cognitive consistency. The critical variable would be the similarity of symbols posed by the policy issue to those of long-standing predispositions. Political attitudes, therefore, are formed mainly in congruence with long-standing values about society and the policy, rather than short-term instrumentalities for satisfaction of one’s private needs (Sears, 1980).

Sears, et al. (1980) tested the impact of self-interest vs. symbolic attitudes on responses to four policy issues: unemployment, national health insurance, busing, and “law and order.” The independent variables in this study are self-interest, symbolic attitudes and relevant demographic variables. Three significant symbolic attitudes were used: party identification, liberal or conservative ideology and racial prejudice. These researchers found that, generally, self-interest had little or no effect on voters’ policy preferences, while symbolic attitudes had major impact. For example, findings indicate that no self-interest index significantly explained whites’ opposition to busing. In contrast, all symbolic attitude variables had significant impact. “In all cases, liberalism-conservatism far outstripped any of the self-interest variables, and racial prejudice did so in two areas (busing and law and order) where it was relevant.” Even when the order of entry of these three variables is varied in the regression analysis, “symbolic attitudes are consistently much more important than self-interest in determining policy preferences.”


If we accept the proposition that symbolic attitudes like party-affiliation and racial prejudice are more powerful drivers of political preferences and voting behavior than self-interest, how can we use this information to frame the dialogue for a progressive political agenda, to build support for liberal ideology and liberal political candidates? Within this context, will an appeal to class interests, absent a salient discussion of race and American racial politics further this goal? These questions cannot be answered without an understanding of “whiteness,” the implicit need to maintain boundaries around idealized and tangible white space.


In America, “whiteness” is a dominant symbolic attitude. It is the collective unconscious belief that certain people are entitled to a position at the top of an imagined social/political/economic hierarchy, that this is the natural order of things. Author Ruth Frankenberg (1993) defines whiteness as a structural location that confers exclusive privilege, “a standpoint from which to view and assess Self and Other, and a set of cultural practices that is usually unmarked, unnamed, and normatively given.” Even among white ethnic immigrants, whiteness is profoundly important in America. Frankenberg maintains that conflicts over the meaning of whiteness and Americanness precipitated by European immigrants have been resolved through processes of assimilation, not exclusion. Euro-ethnic mobility into whiteness, she suggests, was facilitated by shifts in social climate that the 1940s war effort engendered by state policies and subsidies. Scholar john powell (2005), currently Director of UC Berkeley’s Haas Diversity Research Center, has suggested that the development of racialized identity in America coincided with the historic development of the American psyche and that, therefore, White Americans are heavily invested in maintaining the boundaries around whiteness that regulate the distribution of benefits. This view suggests a dynamic synergy between whiteness and patriotism.


So, if whiteness is a dominant symbolic attitude in America and symbolic attitudes can be more powerful than individual self-interest in shaping responses to political ideology and policies, can a unified class-based appeal energize a progressive political agenda without illuminating and challenging the structural dynamics that account for significant differences in opportunity between White Americans and Americans of color? Popular definitions of whiteness suggest that Whites go about the business of maintaining white space, energizing race-based power differentials, managing racialized arrangements, and reinforcing racialized disparities in the distribution of opportunity and burdens without an explicit reference to race or racism. By implication then, a political agenda that does not speak openly about race, implicit racial bias and racial disparity in America will, by default, reinforce prevailing attitudes of whiteness. Left unchallenged, prevailing attitudes about whiteness will continue to fuel racial resentment and fear and impede the development of a shared notion of collective self-interest among poor, working class and middle class Americans of all races and ethnicities.

Read Part II