They Work Hard for the Money
As a kid, Labor Day meant one thing: school would start on Tuesday, and this was summer’s last hurrah. Days of frolicking by the pool, ice cream in the middle of the day, and waking without the help of an alarm clock were over. Back to pencils, back to books, back to teachers’ dirty looks.
These days, I’m no longer blessed with summer vacations, and Labor Day represents not much more than a three-day weekend (with Sundance, of course) and the promise of autumn breezes and cooler temperatures ahead.
And yet, I think it’s important to remind ourselves what the day is, and why it’s important. Labor Day is a day off, to be sure—but its intended audience is those who not only work, but those who toil.
Labor Day was created to provide a day of physical rest for those who generally work while standing up, who labor with their bodies as opposed to those who sit behind desks and laptops. For those of us who do occupy the owning classes, it’s a day to honor those who labor—not just work, but those who truly labor.
Given that a presidential election is on the way, we hear a lot about the working class these days, as a slew of candidates sell themselves as the best president for this particular group. Sadly, in most of the news analyses I read, the word “white” is usually inserted into the equation. The “white working class” has become a sought-after demographic that is much debated, much examined, but not very well understood.
Of course, the working classes of America are not solely white—but the non-white working class isn’t talked about nearly as much, because they form a rather reliable base for one of our political parties. They’re a group that prizes civil engagement, and aren’t likely to be swayed, and so our attention often turns to the blue-collar workers with white skin.
One of the reasons why this group is so vexing to many Americans is that they seem to many of us (including myself, in full transparency) to vote, typically, against their own economic interests. They vote for candidates who give lip service to the working class, while giving tax cuts to corporations and the richest among us. To those who impose tariffs that hurt the nation’s farmers and auto workers, while ignoring the roads, bridges, and highways that working-class voters depend on to maintain a livelihood.
The reasons for this are varied and complex, but they do have a common root cause. Those who live a life outside of comfort and luxury need dignity. They live in a world which worships Kardashians and unreal Housewives of…”; a world in which it can be difficult to think well of oneself.
Sadly, there’s a political party which does everything possible to make the poor even poorer, but still manages to win the votes of many in the “white working class.” And it does this by appealing to America’s original sin—bigotry. Quite simply, it’s not so bad worrying about how you’ll pay the rent, afford your medications, or put food on the table if you can be sure—absolutely certain—that you are vastly superior to someone else.
That particular “someone else” can be a person of color, an immigrant seeking asylum, or a member of the LGBTQ community. Anyone who is generally unknown to the voter, but whom the voter can blame for all their troubles. So focused on those they deem “below” them, that they don’t notice those above them robbing them blind.
It’s not a new tactic; it’s likely as old as the nation itself. But those who practice it today have new tools: data mining, social media, and blatantly false news stories from completely unreliable sources that make their way onto people’s screens. These reports tell them that a former first lady is running a child sex ring out of the basement of a pizza parlor, among other nonsense.
And the stories are often believed—not because those in the white working classes are evil, or stupid—but because those in the ruling classes have sown such distrust in the “other” that they honestly believe they’re saving themselves by voting for those who only seek to oppress them.
I wish I had a solution to offer. I don’t, really—other than to stay informed, check your sources, get involved, speak to your neighbors, and most importantly—vote. Vote for your own future, and for the good of your community, and when you see members of America’s working class chanting on your television at a demagogue’s hate rally—vote for those people, too. Happy Labor Day. ▼
Eric Peterson is a diversity & inclusion educator and pop culture enthusiast living in Washington DC. He is the co-host of a weekly podcast about old movies.