Laughing at What I Love: Notes on White Working-Class America

October 1st, 2016

Let me say at the outset that the main reason why it is difficult for the white working class to talk about race is that significant numbers of them are prejudiced and bigoted, probably at about the same proportion as upper-middle- and upper-class whites. At the same time, if racism is understood as a systemic, structural reality, as prejudice plus power, a good question can be raised as to whether white working-class people are nearly as racist as powerful elites who shape the policies and procedures of this country to a far greater degree.

So far as I know there is really only one racial slur that you can use in politically correct circles and get away with it. That slur is “redneck,” and one hears it frequently used by people on the left.

Could it be that a disparaging characterization of white working-class people is a reason for their not talking about race, feeling somehow not just left out of conversations about racism but seen as its primary progenitors?[ii]

But it is not only the racial slur. To live in the white working-class world—indeed, to live in the bottom third of the American class structure, whatever your race—is to be immersed in the rituals and liturgies of inequality. It is to live in a world where you basically take orders but do not give them, and where you must shut your mouth and offer unreciprocated respect. The granular rites of being defined by class, of being told what to do, of being named as less, and of dealing every day with gestures, glances, and verbal sleights: these constitute the genuflections of stratified domination.

Further, to be working-class in a world that worships being “number one” is to rehearse failure in everyday life. In many jobs it is to risk life and limb. And where work is not physically dangerous one must endure ice-pick assaults on one’s dignity.

A Forgotten History

In discussions of racism, white working-class people often hear talk of white privilege. There is no question that in American history it has been better politically and economically to be working-class white than black, brown, gold, or red. Still, most white working-class Americans probably do not know their own history because it is not taught in most of our schools. They did not own slaves. More than half of the American colonists—“a large underclass of miserably poor whites”—came to these shores as indentured servants or convict labor. These poverty-stricken masses subsequently suffered legal punishment, incarceration in workhouses, and/or exile to America.[iii]

As Eugene Genovese explains, wealthy Europeans learned long ago to regard “the lives of the lower class [as] cheap.”[iv] In other words, these aristocrats and their colonial descendants did not require African slaves to teach them brutality.

What working-class whites do know is that they have to work harder and longer now than they used to and that it takes two paychecks to make it, provided there are two earners in a family unit. They must know now, as everyone must, about the increasing disparities of wealth and income that occurred over the last forty years.[v]

I do not have the space here to say more about the long history of white laboring people in the American colonies and the United States. It is a wicked history of struggle, oppression, exploitation, and violence. To speak of the privilege of the white working class in this land is to obscure this history. And discussing race and gender apart from this history is to engage in a profound falsification.

But let me be very clear. I have no interest in minimizing the wickedness of American slavery and its Jim Crow consequences, or of the violations and exploitation of the brown peoples of this land, or the twisted bigotry, exploitation, and incarceration of Asians, and certainly not the stealing of the continent from and the genocide of Native Americans.

At the same time, the exploitation, domination, and class warfare committed against white working people must also be part of this story. If more attention were given to this story of race and class, white working-class people would be more likely to enter talk about race and perhaps enter into alliances with people of color so necessary to reform the violations of race, class, and gender in this society.

Still, it is not only the bigotry against, and the struggles of, white working-class people that make it difficult to talk about class. It also has to do with a difference of culture. The group I want to speak of is a very large segment of white working people often labeled as “social conservatives.” I describe this large group of working-class Americans as people of a traditional oral culture.[vi]

Family vs. Market Freedom

Let me contrast this tradition with the laissez-faire economic position in order to sharpen the differences between that conservative mind-set and the traditional oral culture. Among laissez-faire conservatives the focus is on the free individual who pursues self-interest in a competitive free market. The conviction is that this results in the greatest good for the greatest number.

In contrast, traditional working-class people place primary emphasis on the family, not the free individual. The family is the core institution. They seek cooperation among key groups like the family, the school, the church, and other traditional institutions.

They do not stress self-interest, especially of an individualistic kind, because it is corrosive of family relationships. If primary breadwinners pursue individual self-interest, they may walk out the door, leaving poor families devastated and near-poor families poverty-stricken.

Further, the greatest fear of these traditional oral people is moral corruption.[vii] Anthropologist James Ault Jr. makes the case that morality in this culture serves to support the structure of family relationships in order to cope and survive, operating to control male sociality and to minimize the potentially disruptive behavior of men in these settings.[viii]

Political and economic positions on social issues are not at the base of the lives and practices of these traditional families. More foundational are the relationships, convictions, commitments, and practices that enable these families to deal with a world that does not come out right. This means that their political attitudes can vary significantly depending on how a given question relates to their lives. They are far more likely to address problems by thinking about them in terms of how they affect their families, the cooperative institutions upon which they depend, and the morality that sustains the structure of these relationships and enables them to manage and to make it through the night.

The point is that the practices of this traditional oral culture do not generate a commitment to an explicit list of positions on social issues. So talking about race as an issue may be the least effective way to approach the relationship between the white working class and people of color. It is far better to deal with the relationships of the family, institutions, and the contexts of the people they know.

Traditional Oral People

The people of this tradition are also oral. By the use of the term oral I am referring to a way of using language. The people of this oral tradition do not process language the way that college graduates do. Proverbs, adages, and sayings populate their talk. They reject the formalities and niceties of more “sophisticated” words and discourse. They are suspicious of fine print, big words, and fancy language, having been hustled by people using language this way many times, not to mention the ways in which they have been put down by those who use words and talk this way. These traditional oral people engage the world with story, and stories are the embodiment of their wisdom, great sources of their humor, and rich ways of understanding the world and dealing with its mystery. Their tacit language like their tacit knowing does not attempt to state in the descriptive and conceptual terms of a high literacy a given topic or question, but rather uses the ostensible situation to convey what they mean.

This traditional oral culture affects the way one comes at any question and certainly the way one approaches “social issues.” In fact, one can say that these traditional oral people are not interested in social issues, at least not in the way the college-educated are.

One person in my extended family speaks with great frustration and irritation about two friends who went away to college and who now have “opinions about everything” and “an answer to every question.” It is quite clear from our conversations that her two college friends, however, have little or no interest in the circumstances she faces and the difficulties of her life. Her friends talk of African Americans, Latinos, homosexuals, and the glass ceiling of corporate America. They never mention white working-class people as a “social issue.” They hardly know any such folk, except my relative, and regard working people in general as rednecks.

So stack these things up: calling people by a racist slur, telling them how privileged they are, failing even to notice the realities of class in the white working-class world and its long history of oppression and exploitation, speaking out of a cultural setting they do not share, being ignorant of the traditional oral culture white working people not only embody but value, and then expecting them to talk about the “social issue” of race. Why would not these things alone make it difficult?

Pastor Lourey Savick tells the story of being in an audience where a white PhD candidate made a presentation on the liberal and the “social conservative” mind-set. Before a largely white, liberal audience the presentation opened with a couple of cartoons on creationism, which provoked considerable laughter from the group. The presentation then moved on to a larger range of questions and issues, but nevertheless each issue was covered in a similar way of demeaning the so-called “social conservative position.” After the presentation the audience was invited to respond with questions and comments. One person present said: “You liberals need to understand that when you laugh, you laugh at things I love, things that are very dear to me, really, at me.”[ix]

Tex Sample is the Robert B. and Kathleen Rogers Professor Emeritus of Church and Society at Saint Paul School of Theology in Leawood, Kansas. His many books include A Christian Justice for the Common Good (Abingdon, 2016), Earthy Mysticism: Spirituality for Unspiritual People (Abingdon, 2008), and Blue Collar Resistance and the Politics of Jesus (Abingdon, 2006).

  1. A longer version of this article, “’Laughing at What I Love’: Notes on White Working-Class America,” first appeared in the Yale Divinity School Reflections, Spring 2013, pages 21–24, and is reprinted here with permission.
  2. I want to express my appreciation to the Rev. Sam Mann for his careful reading and comments on the longer draft of this article.
  3. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (Harper Colophon Books, 1980), 42. See also Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (Viking, 2016).
  4. Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (Vintage Books, 1974), 57.
  5. Lawrence Mishel, “The Wedges between Productivity and Median Compensation Growth,” Economic Policy Institute Issue Brief #330, April 26, 2012,
  6. I have addressed this large cultural group in a number of my books. See Living with Will Rogers, Uncle Remus, and Minnie Pearl: Doing Ministry in an Oral Culture (Westminster John Knox, 1994); White Soul: Country Music, the Church, and Working Americans (Abingdon, 1996); and Blue Collar Resistance and the Politics of Jesus (Abingdon, 2006). To be sure, not all working-class people participate in this culture, but most do.
  7. It was Rebecca Klatch who first alerted me to this traditional group in contrast to the laissez-faire conservative. See her Women of the New Right: Women in the Political Economy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987).
  8. Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church (New York: Knopf, 2004), 189–200.
  9. I thank Pastor Savick for permission to use this story.
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