this earlier post, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in “Black Reconstruction in America,” that the major failure of those years was that poor whites and poor blacks failed to form an alliance around their mutual economic interests and challenges. Instead, white elites doubled down on their efforts to divide poor people of different races.
“So long as the Southern white laborers could be induced to prefer poverty to equality with the Negro,” Dubois lamented, “a labor movement in the South [was] impossible.” Though similarly exploited by white elites, economically disenfranchised whites and blacks “never came to see their common interest.”
More than eight decades later, we’re still waiting.
The unemployment rate for black Americans is twice that for the white community across education levels. Similarly, the income gap between black and white households grew to $25,000 as of 2014, a statistic due in no small part to the same wage stagnation, deindustrialization, and de-unionization plaguing many Rust Belt whites. Trends in wealth have mirrored those in income. Where the Great Recession led to a 16 percent loss in wealth for the average white family, it led to a 53 percent loss for the average black family. As of 2014, around of quarter of black and Latino Americans lived in poverty, compared to 10 percent of whites.
“If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded,” Columbia University professor Mark Lilla wrote.
The best way to with the “white working class” is to argue forcefully that the economic concerns of the white working class and people of color are more alike than different. Working white people understandably complain of lower wages and lost jobs. Yet these economic challenges are part and parcel to those confronting communities of color.
Instead of erasing race from the equation, we should take their cue from Du Bois and get to work building what he called a unified “proletariat” of all colors.