The White Working Class: America’s Prodigal Son

Issue 243

Will the left embrace white blue-collar workers in their hour of need and create an unbeatable progressive coalition?

Nicholas Powers Feb 1, 2019

He looks like he hasn’t slept in days. The waiter, an older white man with thick glasses, chats me up about Reno. Young people are leaving. Jobs are scarce. His quiet hopelessness reminded me of other workers; the woman luggage handler in Ohio, the cab driver in upstate New York and the crew at the car wash. 

The Prodigal Son reaped the benefits of undeserved privilege for centuries. Now millions of people find their inherited whiteness is worthless.

They are part of our future. The 2018 midterms showed a diverse rainbow wave can break the Republican red wall. The 2020, presidential is next and with it, a chance to create a permanent Leftist coalition that will snap American conservatism for generations. It can happen but only with a chunk of the white working class. But how? 

The answer is in the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son. The U.S. ruling class used race to divide American workers, but now whiteness is becoming an empty inheritance. Abandoned by global capitalism, millions of rural Trump voters and non-voters are in pain. If the left can see them not as “a basket of deplorables” but as the Prodigal Sons of history, it can welcome enough back to create a social democratic America.

Splitting the Inheritance

Before America, whiteness did not exist. The early colonial era was a brutal time but not a racial one. In the New World slaves and indentured servants, Africans and Europeans lived in a limbo. Free Africans could buy land. Europeans could be whipped for disobeying masters.

They worked relentlessly in blistering winters and boiling summers. The sweat of labor glued them together. They were exploited by the same wealthy landowners. When Nathaniel Bacon led a rebellion against Virginia’s colonial government in 1676, Africans and Europeans shared musket balls and shot the same British enemy.

The revolt was crushed violently. New laws, written by the ruling class, pitted the two groups against each other. Now “white” became a privileged identity. The Prodigal Son was born. He was white and male, he got more rights, more land and status. He felt his power against a black background. He left the human family.

Today, we live among his descendants. They are in the millions across America. They took their portion and their brother’s portion of the land’s riches. Every wave of European immigrants took up the Prodigal Son’s role. And squandered what Martin Luther King, Jr. would later call “the vast ocean of material prosperity.”

Whether Irish, Jewish or Italian, they bought new “white” lives, new faces, new cars, new homes and new last names. They called it the Roaring Twenties and the Fabulous Fifties. In the ’80s they called it Morning in America, in the ’90s the Dot Com Boom. It was in Luke 15:12, he “took his journey into high country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.”

Now, finally, after centuries of wild stock markets and with a planet teetering on the edge of environmental collapse, a great famine has struck the West. Capitalism, the engine of whiteness, has now left it behind. Technology replaced workers. Overseas, cheap labor replaced American labor. The Prodigal Son scrapes at nothing.

And I see it. In Ohio, I pass near empty towns, where families, push shopping carts on the street. In Reno, the waiter has bags under their eyes. Upstate, the cabbie tells me of working five jobs because not one pays enough to live.

They have a memory of white inheritance. Too many are easy marks for the demagogues of nostalgia. One says “Make America Great Again” and they wear his hat as they wait for their future to return. 

Basket of Deplorables

After Trump’s election, a deep wild rage at red state America rose in our throats. How could they? How could they miss it was a promotional stunt gone wrong? Did they not see Key and Peele joke that he didn’t even want the job?

Conservative pundits flooded media with white working class apologetics. The Prodigal Son was a victim. He was hooked on meth and dying; he was unemployed and ashamed. He was hurting and needed help. Author J.D. Vance gave him a hillbilly elegy. Charles Murray said he was coming apart. It was like the verse in Luke 15, “There arose a mighty famine in the land and he began to be in want.”

It was a hard sell. In 2016, nearly 230 million Americans were eligible to vote and 139 million did and they split 66 million for Hillary and 63 million for Trump. The angry Trump rallies made it hard to see any of his supporters as victims. In the campaign, Clinton tried to parse the bigots from those suffering. “Half of Trump’s supporters are in the basket of deplorables. They’re homophobic, xenophobic, misogynistic,” she said. “But that other basket feels that government let them down, the economy has let them down. Nobody cares about them.”

It was an even harder sell after the election, when fear fueled our anger. Reports showed wealthy, educated white voters went for Trump. And it was about race. They panicked at losing status in a new America. They weren’t victims. They were the inheritors of whiteness and they wanted to keep it.

Except some were hurting. A report broke down the Trump coalition into five types. Some were hopelessly lost like staunch conservatives and free marketers. The American Preservationists were the poorest but also the most racist. The types open to a leftist class-based message are the anti-elites and the disengaged who make up 19 percent and 5 percent respectively, which adds up to 15 million voters. Here are the Prodigal Sons, who are scraped raw by the newfound loss of class status, bitter toward elites and not fully partisan.

If those voters go to the right, they’ll hit a dead end. The GOP is led by a president who channels racial anxiety at global elites and minorities while pushing business-friendly policies. More tax cuts. More labor rights repealed. If they go further right, Neo-Nazis will embrace them as victims but there’s still a taboo against being, well, a Nazi. 

If they go to the left, they’ll meet disgust. Sociologist Jonathan Haidt mapped political morality and defined liberalism as in part driven by a focus on harm and fairness. The left in essence creates “sacred victims,” he said. That spawns a disgust at those with privilege as “subhuman, monstrous, morally deformed.”

Many of us on the left are appalled by the Prodigal Son. We see him as a white straight male and Christian victimizer who now finds himself the victim of the very forces that once gave him power. He took his inheritance. He took the land and wealth and even life. And he lied to himself that the theft could go on forever. Now he wants sympathy?

Our disgust at the Prodigal Son comes through in our fetishizing of elite political jargon and the near-religious embrace of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Afro Pessimism. It comes out in neoliberal Democrats like Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Kamala Harris using race and gender to angle for power. It ripples out from colleges, where professors repeat the iconography of victimization. It is less a language than our border wall to keep the Prodigal Son out. 

Parts of the left are like the elder brother in the parable, who in Luke 15:28 was so angered that the feckless brother was being welcomed home, “he would not go in.” It is like the activists who gave Bernie Sanders flak for speaking awkwardly at times about the relationship between race and class. What can break this disgust? 

The Celebration

“How do you defuse disgust,” the interviewer asked Haidt at his TED talk. He bobbed his head  as if trying to get the right word. “The opposite of disgust is actually love,” he said, “Disgust is about borders. Love is about dissolving walls. Personal relationships are probably the most powerful means we have.”

In the Prodigal Son that wayward child returns home in rags. Luke 15:20 says his “father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” The son apologized for his foolishness but the father, seeing he suffered, did not punish him but celebrated his son’s homecoming.

The scene tells us something vital for our political moment. First, the Prodigal Son has to want to come home. A permanent, ruling progressive coalition can take shape if millions of working-class whites, accept an equal role, not a dominant one in the new America. If a class identity can outweigh, if not totally dissolve, a racial one. Second, we have to be ready to take him in.

Welcoming a lost child back is tradition in the Black freedom movement, where leaders have turned historical suffering into a bridge. In his 1988 Democratic Convention speech, Rev. Jesse Jackson said, “Most poor people are not lazy. They’re not black. They’re not brown. They’re mostly white and female and young. But whether white, black or brown a hungry baby’s belly turned inside out is the same color.” Years later, Prof. Cornel West repeated the theme, “White working-class brother. We know you have pain … but we’re asking you to confront the most powerful, not scapegoat the most vulnerable.”

What if this is what our ancestors worked so hard for? They put us in the position to decide the fate of the nation. The centuries-long struggle to transform ourselves from slaves to citizens gave us the authority to define the meaning of our history. We’re not victims. We’re inheritors of a powerful empathy that can rescue others who are being trapped like we once were. Maybe we can be the elder brother in the parable who meets the Prodigal Son, all the millions of them in America, and tells them it’s time rejoin the family.

James Baldwin said in an interview with poet Nikki Giovanni, “For a long time you think, no one has ever suffered the way I suffered. Then you realize … that your suffering does not isolate you, it’s your bridge … so that you bring a little light into their suffering, so they can comprehend it and change it.”

It’s not in the Bible but I like to think that the elder brother went into the house where his sibling sat at the table, trembling with shame. I like to think he bent down, lifted his brother and hugged him. I think he felt joy when he did.

Illustration by David Hollenbach.

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