Don’t think economic anxiety is rational and racial anxiety is not

Photo by Patrick Feller (and check out his essay about it:
Here’s a very quick thought, over which I’m happy to hear objections.

You know how people say “inner city” or “urban” or “low-income” instead of Black because they don’t want to seem racist by mentioning race? This debate over whether Trump supporters are motivated by economic anxiety or racism reminds me of that.*

The debate seems to divide class leftists from race leftists. Some class leftists want to emphasize the economic anxieties of racist Whites (with which they are sympathetic), and the race leftists want to emphasize the racism of economically anxious Whites (which they want to expose). In the regular liberal media, at the same time, there is the common tendency to treat class anxiety as rational and material while any racial motivations are by definition irrational and emotional (which makes “I don’t see race” a moral high ground.)

But Whites losing their race privilege is a real, material concern. And losing class privilege motivates ugly hatred and animosity too. What if “China” threatens your jobs, and your emotional response is to support a dictator who opposes imports and immigration (which will do nothing for you economically)? What if a Black president and anti-discrimination laws threaten your privileged access to relatively high status social recognition, and your rational response is to support school segregation and oppose affirmative action (which might actually protect your privileged status)?

Of course, defense of both class or race privilege can be emotional and ugly and vitriolic, and they always are coming from the mouths of Trump supporters. And you could reasonably argue that all people would be better off embracing a more open and inclusive politics even if it cost them some ill-gotten gain. But those defenses can also be rational and material, and the privileges they protect may need to be forcefully degraded rather than just reasoned away.

Why should Trump supporters motivated by economic anxiety be any more deserving of respect than those motivated by racial anxiety? That’s the politics of our time; don’t treat it as fixed or essential.

Now, you wouldn’t excuse rich bankers supporting a dictator because they had anxiety about their economic position, even though they might really have a lot of economic anxiety. So Why would you excuse White working-class people from supporting a dictator because of their economic anxieties? Is it because they’re actually poor or economically insecure? Well, they’re poorer and more economically insecure than the people having this conversation, but not compared with actual poor people in this country or — shudder — in most of the world that disgusts them.

It is an empirical question whether the anxieties around race are more or less rational than the anxieties around economics for White working-class Americans. Losing your race privilege might mean getting worse service from schools and emergency services and police, and not seeing your people in high status and visible cultural positions, and not hearing your music all the time, and so on and on. These are all the things minorities want. Of course I don’t feel sorry for people losing them like I do for people who never had them, but the issues are the same. You can’t say minorities are rational for demanding these things and then say Whites are irrational for trying to hold onto them. You could (and should) argue it’s not a zero-sum game, of course, but that’s an empirical question and a matter to be worked out through politics and cultural change.

People who support Trump definitely are anxious about losing things of value as the world changes, and their response is deplorable and must be opposed — regardless of the relative mix of economic and racial components in their minds.

* Not doing a full lit review, but to get a sense of it, read and follow the links in pieces by Dylan Matthews, Mike Konczal, Derek Thompson, or Michael Tesler, Brian Beutler, and there must be some other White men I’m missing. Feel free to recommend readings you prefer in the comments.

7 thoughts on “Don’t think economic anxiety is rational and racial anxiety is not

  1. Economic well-being is not a zero-sum game. Some economic shifts can make us all better off, or can make some better off without harming others. But status is zero sum. It is intrinsically relative. Maybe that’s why it’s more important in people’s political choices


  2. When it comes to racial anxiety, what distinguishes Trump voters from voters of other candidates (from both parties) is their anxiety about Muslims and immigrants (E.g., see the Pew survey from March, WashPo reporting, especially Dana Milbank). Is it rational to believe that the presence of Muslims in the country and immigrants represent a threat to white privilege? Perhaps. On the other hand, a recent Pew poll suggests that Trump voters are much less concerned about immigrants taking their jobs than they are about them causing crime. How rational is that? After all, immigrants are less, not more, likely to commit crime than natives are. Plus, according to Gallup, Trump voters, who are richer than average Americans, are less likely to live in areas affected by immigration or by trade (with China or otherwise). How rational is their fear of the other?


    1. I agree those fears are irrational, but they may come from a place of losing privilege. Similarly, how rational is the idea that stopping immigration will help them get their mining or manufacturing jobs back – or bring any other economic benefit?


      1. I did a survey experiment that asked respondents their degree of support of a range of anti-discrimination interventions. We experimentally manipulated whether the intervention was targeted to race or gender. Here are the questions with the race target. The gender-target ones are identical, except they refer to “gender inequality” or “women” instead of “racial inequality” or “minorities.”

        • Implement policies to address racial inequality in the workplace.
        • actively recruit racial minorities to apply for job openings.
        • offer voluntary diversity training to their employees.
        • have mandatory diversity training of all employees.
        • provide minority employees with mentors who can assist
        them with job and career challenges.
        • try to reduce subjectivity in their employment practices
        by relying on formal criteria for making decisions about hiring
        and promotion.
        • have a special office or committee that identifies barriers
        to diversity and works to remove those barriers.
        • establish numerical goals for increasing the number of
        racial minorities in jobs in which they have been underrepresented.

        White men express more opposition to these policies when they are about race than when they are about gender, especially on “actively recruit” and “numerical goals.” Hardly any of the disparity is mediated by anything we measured, including education, beliefs about the sources of inequality, employment status, party identification, liberal/conservative, etc. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a measure of whether they worked in jobs alongside women or minorities, so we can’t get directly at whether the intervention might be objectively zero-sum from their perspective. But the bottom line results is that white men oppose these interventions regarding race BECAUSE THEY ARE ABOUT RACE.

        Isn’t it plausible to assume that white male privilege in the workplace is due more to gender segregation/discrimination than it is to racial segregation/discrimination? In other words, white men have enjoyed the benefits of workplace-level economic rents around gender more than around race. Yet they seem more anxious about losing their race-based rents than their gender-based rents.


  3. It’s irrational for minorities to care so much about cultural prerogatives, and irrational for whites to care so much about losing their cultural status. Race politics is fundamentally irrational nonsense cooked up by the John C. Calhouns on one side and the WEB DuBois’ on the other to keep poor members of ethnic groups under the intellectual and political sway of the racial bourgeoisies. It’s indistinguishable from nationalism, which we’ve all seemed to recognize as nuts. It’s less a special case of class and more a way to reorient politics from material aims to petty tribalism.

    At the end of the day, what amounts to identity and culture, popular and otherwise, is merely the legitimization mechanism of a disloyal, global, aloof elite. Identity distracts people from the innate struggle of human existence, the struggle for resources and wealth.


  4. First, I like your post and think it is well-argued. Also I agree with its main argument. HOWEVER, I disagree with this statement:”It is an empirical question whether the anxieties around race are more or less rational then the anxieties around economics for White working-class Americans.” Whether something is “rational” is NOT an empirical question, it is a question of how you define the word “rational.” No empirical evidence can adjudicate the “rationality” of concerns or opinions. I can give a much longer exposition on this point if you wish, but perhaps I don’t need to.


    1. That term is a bit of a minefield, isn’t it… I guess I meant it in the sense of practical or actionable or useful. This does actually sort of get to the heart of the matter – thank you.


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