In his book The Big Sort, Bill Bishop argues that Americans have spent the past thirty years sorting ourselves into culturally and politically homogenous communities. This has made us less likely to share social space with people we believe are different. Distance, in turn, increases polarization and decreases communication outside of our narrow circles.
This has cost us as our high levels of polarization are mirrored by high levels of inequality and growing numbers of very poor Americans.
Increasingly, well off suburbanites don’t know first hand of inner city poverty and those struggling to make ends meet in the exurbs have no connection to the truly poor living in rural America. Despite all our “connectivity” we know less and less about our fellow Americans.
It is hard to come together to forge solutions to our most vexing problems if we only know our story and our perspective. The Nathan Cummings Foundation has long believed that challenging conventional wisdom, especially in today’s polarized political climate, is essential to making systemic and lasting change. It’s why we were early funders of the Apollo Alliance and Encounter – two very different efforts both premised on hearing “other” voices” and finding new ways to work together to solve our problems.
It is this pillar of our approach that has animated our inquiry into white working class America. Why, despite alignment around key issues, has the white working class been overlooked by most social change philanthropies and overshadowed by dynamic organizing efforts in communities of color? Cultural alienation from and ignorance about this community is rampant. For most of us, what we know about the white working class comes from the media and the movies. Exclude urban whites and union members, and our obliviousness is near total.
There are exceptions. Some unions (including CWA, SEIU, NEA, UAW) continue to represent and organize in working class white communities, as do a number of community-based organizations like Isaiah, Ohio Organizing Collaborative, and Center for Community Change, which we support.
But their work and the stories of white working class America are largely ignored or overlooked when we – social change organizers, community leaders, and philanthropists – talk about the struggle to create a more economically just society. Instead, we lament their absence and look to academics and journalists to tell us just what’s the matter with Kansas.
To get beyond the stereotypes that inhibit our understanding of the real values and needs of white working-class Americans, The Nathan Cummings Foundation helped commission a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute.
Some of the results conform to our generalizations; working class whites are more generally more conservative than other Americans, more angry at the failings of government, more resentful of people of color. But some of the results defy expectations.
Think you know what the white working class is thinking? Click here to test your knowledge against some of the results from the survey.
Hopefully this survey will encourage all of us to begin to rethink our assumptions. Hopefully it will encourage us not to sort ourselves out of relationships across lines of difference.
By understanding the nuances, the complex interests and experiences as well as the struggles of more than one-third of our nation we will be able to better confront the challenges facing Americans of all backgrounds.