The Wages of Whiteness?: The Role of Racial Animus and Economic Insecurity Explain Working Class Whites Support for Trump


Commentators have argued that Donald Trump’s election is an indication that President Obama failed to appeal to the White working class. These arguments downplay the role of race and contend that Obama’s inability to calm working class Whites’ economic fears contributed to Trump’s victory. These claims ignore how race defined the Obama presidency and that working class Whites have historically resisted multiracial coalitions.

Opportunities for multiracial class-based movements to challenge the American economic system have arisen, but never matured as racial differences outweighed class similarities. In the post-Reconstruction South, small farmers and newly freedmen formed an alliance in the Republican Party that quickly dissolved when confronted with calls for racial purity. The formation labor unions further demonstrates this problem as many either excluded Blacks or participated in discriminatory practices.

E. B. Dubois argued that working class Whites’ are reluctant to work with Blacks because they perceive working with Blacks as a threat to the benefits of Whiteness. Commonly referred to as the “Wages of Whiteness,” the White working class received a “psychological wage” from participation in public functions that excluded Blacks. By being “not slaves” or “not Blacks,” the White working class sanctified their labor and ignored exploitation.

The New Deal coalition is used as an exception; however, the presence of Blacks made the coalition fragile. Further, unchecked racial discrimination meant that Blacks benefitted the least. Finally, when the Democratic Party stopped these discriminatory practices, White southerners and blue collar Whites in the North stopped their support.

The history of economic angst and racial animus among working class Whites makes it important to examine how these attitudes factored in the 2016 election. To accomplish this, I use the American National Election Study 2016 Pilot Study, which was conducted in January of 2016. Working class whites, which make 61.4% of the White respondents, are categorized as those over twenty-five without a college degree. Racial attitudes are measured using the racial resentment measure, which indicates the extent respondents black Blacks for racial disparities and opposes government action to resolve the disparities. Economic insecurity measures concerns about economic advancement, such as “People’s ability to improve their financial well-being is now better or worse.” To evaluate political leaders, I use feeling thermometer scores. Finally, vote choice is measured using a matchup between Clinton and Trump.

The examination of these measures finds consistent class based differences. Working class Whites rate Trump significantly higher and Obama significantly lower compared to White college graduates. Whites without a college degree also express higher levels of resentment and economic insecurity. The comparison of co-partisans finds a similar pattern with two notable exceptions. First, the class difference in the Obama score disappears, indicating that working class and college educated Whites, in both parties, agree on their assessment of Obama. Second, there is no class gap among Democrats regarding economic insecurity, suggesting that the insecurity difference is driven by Republicans.

Mean Feeling Therometer, Racial Resentment and Economic Insecurity Scores, by Level of Education

To assess how these attitudes influence the evaluation of Trump, I add resentment and insecurity in a model that accounts for demographics and partisanship. The results demonstrate that racial, not economic concerns, influence how working class Whites’ evaluate Trump. Among the working class, higher resentment is associated higher Trump thermometer scores. For the college educated, resentment increases the score, but insecurity decreases it. This pattern remains even when the analysis is limited to co-partisans.

Predicted Value of Trump Feeling Thermometer Score given Racial Resentment and Economic Insecurity, by Level of Education

Racial resentment also increases the chance that both groups will cast their vote for Trump. Further, resentment decreases the chance that the working class will abstain. However, it increases the probability that the college educated will abstain. The increase in abstention among college educated Whites may be driven by Sanders supporters who expressed disdain for Clinton and noticeable racial animus.

Predicted Probality of Vote Choice given Racial Resentment and Economic Insecurity, by Level of Education

Contrary to resentment, economic insecurity only helps Trump among the college educated as it increases their likelihood of voting for him and decreases the likelihood they will abstain. Among working class Whites, insecurity reduces the likelihood of voting Clinton, while increasing the chance of abstention. Additional analysis finds that this link between insecurity and mobilization is driven by college educated Republicans.

These results do not indicate that the White working class’s support for Trump is solely about racial animus. This type of conclusion is wrong and unproductive. However, arguing that race played no role is a fallacy. As history and these data demonstrate, race is just as important, if not more important than economics in White vote choice.

As scholars and pundits discuss the rage of the White working class, they must acknowledge the validity of their frustration. But they cannot ignore how the White working class’s shouts for economic justice are muted by their support for racial supremacy.

Eric L. McDaniel (Associate Professor, University of Texas at Austin)

Picture Credit: Bingo, Solidarity