The White Working Class and America’s Shifting Racial Landscape
Part of a Series
Shortly after I wrote last month about a study showing that contrary to nearly every empirical measurement a significant slice of white Americans believe that they suffer greater racial discrimination in America than black Americans, I came across yet more evidence of this misguided fear. A trend is afoot.
Writing in the National Journal, political commentator and journalist Ronald Brownstein noted recently that in 2004 the white working-class share of the adult population dipped below 50 percent of the total population—something that hasn’t happened in the nation’s history going back as far as the Revolutionary War era.
As Brownstein writes, “In the American mosaic, that vast white working class was the largest piece, from the yeoman farmer to the welder on the assembly line.”
Here’s the telling part of the puzzle that makes this narrative clearer: The American Community Survey, conducted by the Census Bureau, reported that as late as 1990, white Americans without a college degree represented more than three of every five adults. Today, Brownstein writes, that demographic cohort accounts for less than 48 percent of the nation’s population.
In other words, less educated and presumably less economically stable white Americans are discovering for the first time in their historic memory what it means to compete from the bottom position, as a statistical minority in this country. And they don’t like it too much, if the recent surveys on the matter are to be believed.
These findings help explain in finer detail why, as I wrote previously, whites at the lower end of the ladder tend to scapegoat minorities and immigrants for their loss of economic security.
Yet another recent study, this one by the Pew Charitable Trust’s Economic Mobility Project, revealed that working-class whites are among the most pessimistic demographic group when asked about their future. Comparatively, racial and ethnic minorities expressed considerably more upbeat assessments.
One particularly surprising fact from Pew’s study (titled “Economic Mobility and the American Dream-Where Do We Stand in the Wake of the Great Recession”) found that “Minorities are more optimistic about their future economic circumstances than whites. While only 48 percent of Caucasians believe their economic circumstances will be better in ten years, substantial majorities of African Americans (68 percent), Hispanics (66 percent), and Asian Americans (64 percent) foresee improved personal finances down the road.”
As the nation’s white majority population shrinks, an array of new and challenging political choices and policy changes are likely to confront the changing populace. For instance, will a different, more diverse electorate continue to favor traditional tax policies that tilt heavily toward corporate interests? Will a younger group of “browner” American voters and taxpayers feel compelled to support Social Security, which mainly benefits older, whiter Americans?
There’s also the intangible on top of all the real and measurable indices. The social impact of an incessant media cacophony amplifies the unsettled feeling of loss for the soon-to-be minority group of working-class white Americans. Blogger Scot G. Patterson, a residential building contractor who lives and works in Eugene, Oregon, laments the negative images of working-class Americans like himself depicted in the media.
“It’s popular to claim working-class roots because it implies that you have certain respected values such as honesty, integrity, resourcefulness, and a good work ethic,” he writes on his blog Working Class Pride. “But it’s only a bragging point if you are no longer working class. It is widely assumed that people accept working-class jobs because they don’t have the education or training to do anything else. In other words, working class is not something you should be, it’s something you should be from.”
Patterson gives voice to the people who tend to be mere numbers in dry social surveys, people who actually feel the cultural changes happening around them, even if they don’t have a coherent understanding of what or why things are happening all around them. Their chosen political leaders track toward reactionary conservatism, playing to their constituents’ darker concerns with demagogic fervor. Nobody, it seems, tries to argue against the futility of applying brakes or shifting into reverse as the social changes accelerate.
Patterson seems to think a media campaign will restore the working-class white majority to its rightful place. “The question is, will we stand up and tell America what we do and why it’s important, or will we let the media continue to erode our public image?” he writes. “It’s clear that we need a PR campaign for the working class.”
To be sure, a handful of demographers and social observers are discovering and writing about what my colleagues at Progress 2050 have long suspected. Indeed, this demographic shift shows no sign of abating.
So far, the early analysis of the polls and surveys reflect the displeasure of a segment of white Americans’ fears and resentments about their emerging status as just another minority group in the nation. We know far less about what racial and ethnic Americans are thinking and feeling about these social changes.
Despite the fear and resentment of some whites to the changes that are inevitably altering the old ways in the United States, an opportunity exists for progressive leaders and policymakers to seize upon the hope exhibited by the growing and diverse new majorities emerging in the American population.
Their voices have yet to be discussed and debated. So goes the future—and promise—of America.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.
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