Class and Race as Competing Self Interests or Whiteness as Symbolic Politics, Part 2

Read Part I

By Thomas Rudd,

Research conducted by Kinder and Winter (2001) suggests that there is a huge difference in public opinion between Whites and Blacks on policy issues related to race. They maintain that the racial divide over such policy issues as school integration and affirmative action is mostly a story of political principles and social identity. Their analysis suggests that if differences of principle and identity could be eliminated, the racial divide would be drastically diminished. The republican party has capitalized on this ideological gap by openly opposing school integration and equal opportunity policies. This opposition has intensified with the election of Barack Obama. In this landscape, it would be unwise for progressives to think that the ideological differences between Whites and African Americans can be nullified by a colorblind narrative, by avoiding a dialogue on issues that have a racial context. As a powerful symbolic attitude that directs political behavior, whiteness will be reinforced and reconstituted without a dialogue on race and, if left unchallenged, this power will continue to align with the political party from which it gains the greatest energy—republicans, and especially the tea party coalitions.


If we accept the premise, as conservative politicians have, that whiteness and white privilege are powerful symbolic attitudes capable of overpowering deep-seated self-interest in economic gain, family security and other tangible rewards, then it is imperative that progressives conceive of ways to counteract this power. Two strategies seem salient: First, expose and confront the underlying notions that support the ideology of whiteness – notions like racial and cultural superiority and fear of the “racialized other.” Second, illuminate and contextualize socio-political-economic barriers to prosperity that confront not only poor and working class Americans but middle class Americans as well. This narrative must include the reality that while all populations suffer in a recession, populations of color have, historically, suffered the most and that remedies to these problems must employ a “targeted” approach that acknowledges this reality. As Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres suggest in their powerful book, The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy (2002), racial inequality is a warning sign that the entire society is out of balance.


In a political and economic environment that increasingly favors corporate profiteers, wealthy elites and Wall Street speculators over ordinary citizens and where conservative politicians increasingly pander to the interests of the wealthiest Americans and the corporations that empower them over the needs and interests of the “99%”, liberals and progressives have a splendid opportunity to build coalitions across racial and class lines. When American corporations send manufacturing and service jobs to competing countries to increase profit, shareholder dividends and executive bonuses, African Americans workers are especially hard hit, but everyone in the 99% is affected—poor people, people near poverty, working class people and middle class people. When republicans hold hostage unemployment benefits to protect tax breaks for the wealthy, whiteness does not insolate middle class workers; when toxic sub-prime loans saturated African American communities and greedy banks rolled this dog and pony show into middle class neighborhoods, playing on the misguided belief that white banks will not deceive White people, whiteness did not save hundreds of thousands of families from foreclosure.


The occupy movement is an angry response to the realization that widespread institutionalized greed is colorblind and class-blind, that corporations, banks, Wall Street and wealthy elites will indeed deceive and steal from White middle class Americans to maintain their own position of privilege and power and that the very politicians who have gained their power from middle class voters are riding shotgun over these crimes. This is an incredibly rude awakening for millions of White Americans who have believed that whiteness would protect them from the burdens imposed for centuries on African Americans and other populations of color in the U.S. The occupy movement is a visible expression of collective self-interest, but still without a salient recognition of race-based inequality.


As we approach the 2012 presidential election, conservative politicians are counting on White voters to violate their own collective and individual self interest as they have done in the past. By appealing to racial resentment and fear, appealing to implicit notions of white privilege and white superiority, embellishing the “American dream,” and distorting the real causes of the current economic crisis in the U.S.—blaming liberals, democrats, poor people, people of color and the President rather than greedy corporations and banks—conservatives hope to win the White House and eventually take full control of the U.S. Senate. If this happens, tea party inspired politicians will do everything in their power to “take back the country,” and turn it over to megacorporations, Wall Street, big banks, White nationalists, nativists, homophobes, misogynists, and gun-toting ideologues of every ilk. If you think it is unimaginable that conservative legislators in several states have proposed bills that would allow restaurant owners to refuse service to gay patrons, then, baby, you ain’t seen nothing yet…



Works Cited

Staats, A. W., and C. K. Staats (1958). Attitudes established by classical conditioning. Journal of Abnormal

and Social Psychology, 57, 37-40.

Lau, R. R., Brown, and T. A., Sears, D. O. (1978). Self-interest and civilians’ attitudes toward the Vietnam War. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 42, 464-481.

Sears, D. O., Lau, R. R., Tyler, T. R., and Allen, H. M., Jr. (1980). Self-interest vs. symbolic politics in policy attitudes and presidential voting. The American Political Science Review, 74, 671-684.

Frankenberg, R. (1993). White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

powell, j. a. (2006). Dreaming of a self beyond whiteness and isolation. Washington University Journal of Law & Policy, 18, 13 – 45.

Kinder, D. R. and Winter, N. (2001). Exploring the racial divide: blacks, whites, and opinion on national policy. American Journal of Political Science , 45, 439-456.