I’m getting very tired of being told that the solution to the political problems in the U.S. today is for me to get out of my “partisan bubble” and go talk to the white people who supported Trump. I’m particularly tired of hearing it from political columnists who haven’t left their secure cocoons in New York or Washington in years.
But I’m also tired of hearing it from more thoughtful people like Arlie Hochschild, a fine sociologist who has done excellent work studying right wing white people in Louisiana. She keeps saying that we need to get out of our liberal enclaves and reach out to these people. She’s from Berkeley. Perhaps she has always lived in a place where liberal views and educated people formed the majority. Maybe she really did need to go meet those people to see them as human beings.
But I don’t. Yeah, I live in California now, but I wasn’t born here nor was I raised in a place of liberal isolation.
I grew up in a small town outside of Houston and I went to public school in the nearby town of Alvin. Every morning I caught a bus with the kids of the white oil field workers who lived up the road. And every morning I heard some of those kids say, “Don’t let those Mexicans sit down” when a couple of Mexican American kids got on toward the end of the route.
While I was waiting for that bus, I watched our neighbor Mr. Mitchell drive an Alvin school bus into town to pick up all the African Americans and take them down the road to Dickinson, where they had a “colored” high school.
I knew those white kids well, and liked a lot of them. And I knew their parents often had a hard row to till, even back then when there were a lot more working class jobs. I remember when a friend’s dad – a longshoreman – was out on strike for months.
We didn’t have much money, either. My parents were journalists, which is rarely a highly paid occupation. But my parents were also educated and liberal and despite having strong Texas roots that went back to before the Civil War, they supported the Civil Rights movement and taught me about the evils of racism. They also supported unions and strikes by working people.
The first time anybody ever called me a socialist as an insult I was twelve years old. I’d said something in support of civil rights or Medicare or something else “radical.” I protested that I was a liberal, and was told it was “the same thing.” And that was by a teacher.
I know some white people are hurting – especially the ones whose parents had those good union jobs that aren’t coming back. I know that other white folks are afraid, though mostly of the wrong things. I also know the bigotry and misogyny that are endemic in those communities.
I spent years trying to be polite to those people, trying to avoid getting into too many political arguments, trying to stay friends, trying to understand their struggles.
A few years ago, I was at my uncle’s house and another guest there began spouting off a bunch of nonsense about President Obama. In an earlier life, I would have ignored them, or tried to reason with them in a gentle tone, especially since I was in someone else’s home and while I knew my uncle didn’t agree with them, I also knew he had to deal with this person at other times.
But I couldn’t do it anymore. I said, “You can’t attack President Obama in front of me.” They tried to argue, and I shut it down, and finally my uncle said to the other person, “I’m afraid you’re among some Democrats here,” and the conversation moved on.
As far as I’m concerned, those people need to be seeking me out, asking me why I support African Americans, why I believe in women’s reproductive rights, why I think single-payer health care is the way to go, why I think we need sane gun laws. And if they’re not going to go that far, they need to be polite enough to shut up about their bigoted opinions in my presence.
But there is a bubble I’d like to see more upper middle class white liberals – and, for that matter, upper middle class white moderates – break out of, and that’s the one created by race.
After growing up in segregated Texas, I moved to Washington, DC, and ended up in a job where both my co-workers and clients were primarily African American. I also lived in neighborhoods where most of my neighbors were African American. I wasn’t the beginning wedge of gentrification – just another person looking for a place I could afford.
I’ve been the only white person in the room (and on the block). I’ve been uncomfortable many times, wondering if I said something wrong when I didn’t mean to do so, discovering that my understanding of a situation wasn’t as good as I thought it was.. But I got comfortable enough to learn some things about Black culture and Black life.
These days a lot of the fiction I read is by African American writers – most of them women. That’s another way to break the bubble – read something by a writer who looks at the world a little differently.
I have learned a lot. I’m still learning. I’d like to see a lot more white people – particularly upper middle class whites who give lip service to anti-racist campaigns – figure out how to do more of that. (I’d like to see the white people Arlie Hochschild writes about do it, too, but I have less hope for them right now.)
Near as I can tell from looking at the recent election results, the Democrats are going to do a lot better if they reach out to African Americans – particularly the women who have been leading the fights – and to Mexican Americans and others who have roots in non-Anglo cultures than they will if they try sucking up to the Fox News watching white guys.
I don’t think white people who haven’t been able to move on from the bigotry that is part of the legacy of slavery are going to save our country. But it’s possible that the people whose roots were on the other side of that divide might.