While Donald Trump has opposed raising the minimum wage, even called for its elimination, his election as President of the United States last November 8 apparently did effectively increase some particular wages for a certain sector of the American population.
I’m talking about the wages of whiteness, to borrow the title of historian David Roediger’s 1991 book The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Class, which studies the role and perceived benefits of racism in forming and fostering division within working-class identity and politics in American history.
Roediger, of course, takes this title and concept of the wage of whiteness from famed American sociologist W.E.B. DuBois who, in his landmark 1935 tome Black Reconstruction in America, urges us to remember “that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deferences and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools.”
Although it might be a question as to whether or not, and to what extent, white middle-class and working-class Americans are actually receiving this wage of whiteness, and whether it really serves their interest in the long run, the post-election riot of hate suggests that many Americans seem to feel as though the election did issue them a check. This is a check far different from the one Martin Luther King, Jr. references in his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 when he says that African Americans “have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” collecting on the promise of freedom and equality enshrined in our ideals and founding documents.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, charting activity in America’s hate checking account in the nation’s racist bank, reports a surge in recent activity, by which I mean we have seen some white Americans feeling emboldened, indeed unchecked, in asserting, or cashing in on, what they take to be—because Trump basically told them so–their racial entitlement. As Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center recently told USA Today, “Since the election, we’ve seen a big uptick in incidents of vandalism, threats, intimidation spurred by the rhetoric surrounding Mr. Trump’s election. The white supremacists out there are celebrating his victory and many are feeling their oats.”
This surge in white supremacist violence and assertion raises questions not only about what the value of this “wage of whiteness” actually is but, more importantly, what is the tipping point at which the perceived value of this wage will no longer be measured as worth dehumanizing, inflicting violence on, and otherwise aiding and abetting the exploitation and oppression of those people deemed “racial others.”
In short, is there a minimum wage of whiteness? When will those whites, of all classes–since it would be wrong to single out and demonize a white working class—cease to feel a benefit of racism and see a benefit in solidarity?
When it comes to the working class and their economic interests, it seems fair to say that Donald Trump has been quite clear, in both his behavior as corporate head and his very public pronouncements as a political candidate, in declaring that he is not their champion but in fact an avowed enemy.
In an interview with The Detroit News in August 2015, Trump, of course, notoriously revealed his ideas for driving down the wages of autoworkers, whom he deems overpaid, by closing and relocating plants: “You can go to different parts of the United States and then ultimately you’d full-circle—you’ll come back to Michigan because those guys are going to want their jobs back even if it is less. We can do rotation in the United States—it doesn’t have to be in Mexico.” The objective is to make Americans desperate and disempowered so they’ll work for even fewer crumbs from the proverbial cake corporate America eats but which the working classes bake.
And if you thought Trump was just putting his foot in his mouth, he doubled down on these comments in a subsequent appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” declaring his antipathy to the minimum wage and arguing that the U.S. could attract more jobs if there were no minimum wage.
Moreover, the deplorable and illegal treatment of workers at the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas has been well-documented. Not only are his workers paid substantially less in terms of both wages and benefits in relation to unionized hotel workers in Las Vegas, who, The New York Times reports, enjoy a middle-class standard of living, but the National Labor Relations Board recently issued a cease and desist order to Trump to stop the intimidation and harassment of workers and to stop violating federal labor laws.
One could go on and on detailing Trump’s long list of efforts in mistreating workers for his own profit.
What we have to ask, though, is how long must this list get before those segments of white America holding on to this psychological wage of whiteness realize it is costing them more than it is benefiting them? Many working-class white Americans are not realizing this wage of which DuBois speaks, at least not in a shared way with white upper classes. Their kids are not going to the best schools, and they are not admitted into elite spheres that grant them meaningful political and economic power. They are under assault too by Trump and his class.
At moments, in the dismal and desperate aftermath of the Trump election, I have tried to soothe myself by entertaining the fantasy that white America, when they feel the pain they are not expecting but which the Trump agenda promises for them, will cease to cling to their whiteness, that whiteness will disappear.
Now, I know, as we can see from DuBois’ study, that there is a long and stubborn history of working-class people clinging to whiteness, making this choice that enables the divide-and-conquer strategy of the economic elite. Still, I have to wonder, even amidst this surge of emboldened hate, which even saw a man hang two Black dummies from a tree in his front yard, which featured a Trump-Pence sign, as a Halloween display, how long whiteness can last?
What is the minimum wage of whiteness? I both fear and hope we will find out.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.