Photo of a tea party rally. A sign is visible that says, uninsured but free.
Photo by Fibonacci Blue, Flickr CC

Many working-class white Americans — even those stricken by poverty or poor health — favor policies that defund programs that could benefit their health and opportunities. Racial resentment may be part of the reason why. In an interview with Vox, Jonathan Metzl suggests that working-class white populations often scapegoat immigrant and minority populations, instead of blaming those who actually shape these policies — the elite and corporations.

In the South and Midwest, Metzl finds that working-class whites have rejected policies that would otherwise benefit their access to healthcare and educational resources, leading to shorter lifespans and higher high school dropout rates — all to block these same resources for immigrants and minorities. However, Metzl makes it clear that individual racism is not the sole factor driving this paradoxical situation. Instead, he suggests that the issue is more structurally-rooted; the policies themselves are racially motivated, not necessarily the individuals that support the policies. However, Metzl did find many whites who feel that public services only benefit racial minorities, including using stereotypes such as “welfare queens,” which continues to be a powerful racial trope in politics.

It is important to remember that racial resentment and white privilege are not new to the United States. Metzl discusses:

“Philosophers have been wrestling with this in the United States for centuries. I mean, this was the core question that W.E.B. Du Bois asked after Reconstruction: Why is it that low-income whites, working-class whites, don’t align their interests with newly freed slaves? If they did, it would be an insurmountable union that would really force some benefits from upper-class people to make the lives of working-class people better…And what he found was that there was this idea of a reward of whiteness that was given to white people. It was a psychological benefit that allowed them to feel a sense of psychological prestige and overlook their own material conditions.”

When working-class whites attempt to hold on to white privilege — by supporting policies that continue to defund education and health care in the United States, for example — they help perpetuate a situation that is, according to Metzl, “hurting nearly everybody.”