Divergent Identities Among the White Working Class: Implications for Attitudes About Race and Immigration

January 7, 2020

Eric Knowles (New York University), Monica McDermott (Arizona State University), and Jennifer Richeson (Yale University) are working on a research project that examines political opinions and identity formation among the white working class. Knowles and McDermott are visiting scholars at the Russell Sage Foundation for the 2019-2020 academic year. Richeson was recently appointed to the foundation’s board of trustees. 

While at the foundation, McDermott and Knowles (in collaboration with Richeson) are working on a book manuscript which focuses on the attitudes and beliefs of white working-class individuals toward racial minorities amid changing U.S. demographics. The book aims to a) lay theoretical groundwork from sociology and psychology introducing the notions of coalitional and adversarial intergroup relations, b) present the initial experimental work and subsequent interview studies, with an emphasis on the forms of working-class white identity that emerge from the latter, and c) present the survey’s results—pointing to interventions that may encourage working-class whites to form class-based, cross-race coalitions.

The study focuses on 77 in-depth interviews with white working-class men and women in Missouri, Kentucky, and Indiana in 2017. It seeks to answer two questions: Why do working class whites aspire to affiliate with more privileged whites instead of with working-class non-whites? Why does increased exposure to non-whites exacerbate differences in race and class affiliations? The investigators aim to develop a more complex understanding of this group which had a vital impact on the 2016 presidential elections. They identify three categories of interview subjects: the “class conflict aware,” who explain differences in class and race according to structural issues, the “working-class connected,” who value their working-class identity more highly than their American identity, and “working-class patriots,” who are more likely to identify with the middle-class and less likely to express sympathy for the poor. Each of these groups displays different political sentiments, with the working-class patriots most likely to express anti-black and anti-immigrant views and to have supported Trump in 2016, while the class conflict aware and working-class connected seem the most open to appeals for cross-racial political solidarity. The in-depth interviews are supplemented by a survey of a nationally representative sample of more than 3,000 working-class whites, non-working-class whites, and working-class black and Latinx people. 

Eric Knowles is an Associate Professor of Psychology at New York University and its Director of Graduate Studies for Psychology. He studies how intergroup thought affects behavior and attitudes—with a particular focus on political judgment.

Monica McDermott is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, Arizona State University. Her book, Working-Class White: The Making and Unmaking of Race Relations, (University of California, 2006) was an ethnographic study of interracial interactions and white identity in Atlanta and Boston. Her areas of interest include race and ethnicity, social class, immigration and public opinion.

Jennifer Richeson is the Philip R. Allen Professor of Psychology at Yale University. The foundation has provided grant support for several of Richeson’s research projects, which generally concern the ways in which sociocultural group memberships such as race, gender, and socio-economic status impact the way people think, feel, and behave, especially during interactions with members of different sociocultural groups. 





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