Saturday, October 9, 2010

White Anxiety

There are structural reasons for middle-class unease.   Middle-class ethnic minorities have a much better understanding of this in the sense that through solidarity with the minority experience, there is intimate knowledge of the ways in which the economy can be an unfair mistress.  This is heightened by continued ethnic ties in which exposure to structural inequality is more frequently encountered.   Middle-class whites have less experience with this basic unfairness.  Middle-class job security isn't what it once was, and fewer careers can be guaranteed based on investment of time in college or trade skills.  To the ethnic minority, from communities never flush with social capital to begin with, this is nothing new.  There is an understanding of the role of social and economic privilege that whites are not as familiar with. 

This is constantly reinforced in the media and by the levers of power in larger society.  The upper-class people on television, civic and business leaders, or even those stepping out of luxury cars at the mall seem - at least from a distance - to be white people like them.  And in an ethnic sense they generally are.  Yet what is often unseen is the privilege that lurks behind their success.  While generational upward mobility does exist, more than often it does not and the "haves" will be found to have "had" much more often than to have "had-not".

The ethnic minority is much more comfortable with viewing socio-economic status dynamics through the prism of privilege, or social capital.  Good-faith attempts at success are nothing new to minority, or immigrant communities.  Nothing is ever handed to anyone on a silver plate.  By contrast, the middle-class white faces very legitimate economic anxiety, yet struggles to find a palliative narrative.

The Democratic party has traditionally stood for seeing economic troubles through a prism of privilege and structural inequality, which government can serve to mediate.  The Republican party has stood for seeing economic inequality as a personal problem the alleviation of which only free-enterprise can ever facilitate.  The latter view is one minorities tend to discount, largely prima fascie, in favor of the former. 

The Republican party has been able to offer the white middle class - its largest base of support, a story that attempts to bridge the gap in these radically different understandings.  Instead of asking the white middle class to blame itself (or larger inequality) for its own economic anxiety, it has created a structural bogeyman in the form of the "big government", which it claims through endless repetition to be the ultimate cause of all economic misfortune.  Because middle class whites do not have the same class solidarity and direct experience with structural inequality as do ethnic minorities, this narrative is able to find a resonance that it otherwise might not.

Famously coined the "southern-strategy", Republicans were able to go one further and appropriate racial grievance by not only fingering "big government" as the cause of economic unease, but also then pointing to government programs designed to help the least among us (who of course tend to be disproportionately minority) as the specific expenditures the taxes for which are costing the country growth.  The simple fallacy in this argument is the fact that these expenditures are dwarfed by programs such as defense, social security, medicare or public schools that are targeted towards the general public at large.

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