When Black Folk Are “Middle Class” and White Folk Are Not “Privileged”

While we hear political pundits talk about the mythical “angry white voter” or Trump supporter, we never hear about why these white folk are angry. What we are living through is a type of American language that does not line up with American history or its current present.

When I last posted, I talked about cookbooks and synonyms. As an English doc/professor/nerd, there are times when I am going to pay close attention to the language. As a reader of this blog, there are times when you have run across a number of my typos. I am accustomed to writing EVERYTHING on a legal pad first, then typing them. Yes, I love handwriting and paper and ink and inkpens and markers and calligraphy and even those feather tip deals that you see when you watch Restoration/Victorian era pieces and sealing wax. There is nothing more beautiful than classic cursive in a fine tip pen! So, drafting totally on the computer is a new experience for me and I am not as mindful of my words and letters when I am typing as when I see the letters flow from my pencil/pen and onto the yellow pages of my legal pad. As time progresses and I blog more often, I am becoming accustomed to the sterility of my computer screen and the impersonal nature of the keyboard and the typos are becoming less frequent.

With that said, I also pay close attention to the way people use language. And when I hear politics and pundits talk about “angry white voters” without giving us the reason behind the anger, that sends bells and whistles off for me. And what we are living through, is a crisis of synonyms. In academic social science, in America’s popular imagination, in most news reporting, and in most political discussions Black has become synonymous with “poor” or “underprivileged” and white is synonymous with “middle class.” There is no space in our national media language for “Black middle class” or “white underprivileged,” yet both of these classes of people exist in America today. There are people on television who keep yelling about white privilege, but there may be some person in Appalachia, a white person, who believes that he should be privileged and has done all of the right things as a white man to be privileged and is on food stamps. He drives to the local grocery store and meets a highly educated Black woman who teaches at the university with children in a private school whose clothes cost more than his monthly salary, and he becomes angry. Since he has done everything right in his whiteness, he becomes angry. At who? And for what? Well, his local conservative radio host tells him — the minorities who are using programs such as affirmative action to take opportunities away from him and his children. Blame those people who he can see every day, and not the invisible and inequitable government structures that were never set up for people like him to succeed.

In his book, Angry White Men (2012), Kimmel puts this quite bluntly. The appeal to Trump was a direction of anger to somewhere. It was almost like that river of slime on Ghostbusters II. People bought into white supremacy the way that it was sold to them during slavery: a linguistic package with an awful practice. America, when it was first founded, was governed by wealthy British men. Its laws were actually built upon the British system. With the British governing system came British ideas about class. The only ideas different from the British were ideas that separated church from state…legally. Yet, religious prejudices remained in early colonial America. The Puritans and the Quakers HATED one another in America the same as the Anglicans and the Catholics HATED one another in Britain. In fact, the Puritans persecuted the Quakers. The Puritans believed that their religion should be the only religion and felt that the Quakers were heretics. They harassed the Quakers the same way that the British harassed the Catholics and banned them from all government and civic life at one point.

Economically, colonial America’s wealthy British men used poor whites, Native Americas, and Africans as indentured servants. America was about class and not race. As a matter of fact, emigration to America was used to alleviate the overcrowded burroughs of poor people in Britain’s larger cities. Australia was a prison colony at one point. It was only after the poor whites rebelled against their wealthier overlords that British men in American decided that it would make Africans, with their Black skin that was easier to identify, synonymous with “poor.” And we have been stuck there ever since.

Writing in The Source of Self Regard (2019)in the essay, “The Foreigner’s Home,” Toni Morrison describes how the erasure of the white poor leaped from slavery to the modern press. The vehicle was minstrelsy and the black mask that white performers wore (oddly, while Black social scientists spend exorbitant amounts of energy studying the masks that Black folk wear, it has been English majors who study the masks that white folks wear. We call it Whiteness Studies). Morrison writes:

“ In this fashion, the black mask permitted freedom of speech and created a place for public, national dialogue. For whites that is. On the other hand, the mask hid more than it revealed. It hid the truth about black humanity, views, intelligence, and most importantly, it hid the true causes of social conflict by transferring that conflict to a black population. Without going into the growth, transformation, and demise of minstrelsy (a demise that was simply an enhancement in and a transfer to another site — film, for example), suffice it to say that its strategy is still useful and its residue is everywhere. The spectacle of a black and signifying difference taught to an illiterate white public (via minstrelsy) became entrenched in a literate public via the press. It was a way of transforming organic ignorance into manufactured error, so the political representation of the interests of the white poor is and remains unnecessary” (Morrison 37–38, emphasis Morrison, boldface mine).

White people were indentured servants. They chopped tobacco. They picked cotton. Right alongside slaves. And while slaves worked for no wages, white folk worked for pitiable wages that kept them on the edges of starvation. It is not something that we write or teach about, and it is not something that we talk about. After the slaver, the anxieties of having to compete with this body of labor drove the American Holocaust. And the spectacle that was minstrelsy ensured that the politicians that supposedly led poor whites and had their best interests in mind NEVER had to actually follow through on any promises made to them during campaigns. They never had to actually even discuss poor whites. All they had to do was race bait.

Quick aside. What is minstrelsy? I’m glad you asked. Here’s an example:

To me, this has nothing to do with the way Black folk look, sound, or behave and everything to do with white people’s anxieties. But minstrelsy is one of the major reasons why Black folk try so hard to distance themselves from ANYTHING that reminds them of their agrarian pasts: “country” dialects, “country” clothing, “country” metaphors, “country” similes, “country” cooking. Minstrelsy made fun of Black folks’ skin color, hair texture, eyeball whiteness, lip thickness, and even teeth whiteness. I don’t let it bother me, because Vizine is an essential beauty tool, dentists make thousands of dollars whitening teeth, and reality tv stars have set a new record for lip injections in 2020. So, I’ll keep my “country” dialect, my “country” cooking, my “country” language, and my “country” clothing. Shame surrounding all of these things are “white people problems,” as my students say, and not mine.

Race-baiting often covered the class issues that continue to rot the roots of the American democratic tree. The appearance of a Black caricature in legitimate press outlets such as The Atlanta Journal Constitution led to the disappearance of the white poor from the imaginary body politic. White newspapers carried gory details of lynchings with such gusto, that Ida Bell Wells reminded them, while she was on tour in Britain, that she used their words, and not her own, to inform the English public of the barbarity taking place in the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.” Feeling ashamed of their minstrel-like, but very real coverage of the latest lynching, Memphis’ Commercial Appeal, hired and paid a Black man to travel to England and try to discredit Wells. But, the damage had been done by their own words. Wells, always the astute writer, wrote an article high-lighting great Black men who backed her work while disparaging sniveling, money-grabbing cowards like the one who took money to go against a woman of his own race.

Young Ida B. Wells from Women’s History Museum

Race-baiting was effective in hiding money-moving and power-grabbing by the South. Today, having the words “poor” and “under-privileged” be synonymous with “Black” ensures that we never have to address the economic inequalities encoded in America’s late capitalist system, and we can continue to blame COVID-19 for a “k-shaped” recovery that has characterized our economy since Regan sold his condescending “trickle-down” ideology. Those two synonyms for Black (and do not get me wrong, there are poor Black people) stand-in at all times for “Black” simply erases “poor white.” It seems as if “underprivileged” and “white” have become antonyms. Or the phrase “Black middle class” is an oxymoron. What about the white working class? In our economic body politic, they were erased during minstrel era. And from Fox News to CNN to MSNBC, they are nowhere to be found currently. They are just gone baby gone. And as we, as a nation, continue to behave as neither the Black middle class nor the white underclass don’t exist, we feed the rage that makes white supremacy go.

This is not from a teaching binder, but from my personal musing. Press the hands if you like it. If you don’t, leave an ugly comment.

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. She specializes in literature of the African Diaspora & cultural criticism. And her class never ends! Welcome.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store