New Perspective on Different Social Class Attitudes Toward Immigrants

A  new perspective on different attitudes towards immigrants by U.S. elites and non-elites has been provided by Joan C. Williams of the University of California-Hastings College of Law.[1]

Williams’ Thesis

“As recently as the 1990s, Harvard sociologist Michèle Lamont found that working-class men in the New York City area held generally positive attitudes toward immigrants, describing them as ‘family oriented’ and ‘hard workers, just like us.’”

“More recently, however, many working-class men express different attitudes towards immigrants.” Williams attributes this to stagnant real wages. She says “real wage growth for the working class has been abysmal for a generation, and for many native-born blue-collar workers the culprit seems obvious—immigration. “My fiancé’s worked at the same company for 21 years and it’s a union [job], and they are hiring Mexicans,” one Trump voter told the Public Religion Research Institute. “And I don’t want to be racial, but that’s all they’re hiring. He makes like $31 an hour, and they’re coming in at making like $8 an hour.”

Although “economists have demonstrated immigration’s positive effect on gross domestic product, . . .that misses a crucial point: People don’t live the averages. They live where they live, and see what’s in front of them. In 2016 Donald Trump won far more counties than Hillary Clinton did—but Mrs. Clinton’s roughly 500 counties represented two-thirds of GDP. Mr. Trump won in regions left behind.”

Today , Williams continues, “less than half of Americans born in the 1980s earn more than their parents did, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research study led by Harvard economist Raj Chetty. Antitrade and anti-immigrant voices offer a clear explanation of why good jobs left the U.S. (free trade), and why the jobs that replaced them pay less (immigrants).”

“Those who believe otherwise need to communicate an alternative explanation and recognize that anti-immigrant fervor reflects cultural as well as economic divides.” These people primarily are what she calls “global elites, “ who “pride themselves on their cosmopolitanism. Some younger elites reject the notion of national borders entirely.”  Indeed, many of these people “seek social honor by presenting themselves as citizens of the world. And many are, with membership in global networks dating to their college years or earlier.”

Such attitudes or beliefs are rejected by “many blue-collar whites [who] interpret this as a shocking lack of social solidarity. They are proud to be American because it’s one of the few high-status identities they can claim.” They “tend to stay close to home because they rely on a small circle of family and friends for jobs, child care and help patching that hole in the roof.”

“Driven in part by their contrary lifestyles and networks, elites and non-elites hold radically different core values. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that elites focus on achievement and individuality, while the working class prizes solidarity and loyalty—values that bind members to their communities.”

“This class culture gap is also fueled by what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild calls ‘feeling rules’ in her book, ‘Strangers in Their Own Land.’ These unwritten rules govern who deserves sympathy and who doesn’t. Elites’ feeling rules mandate empathy for immigrants, viewed as vulnerable people separated from their families or fleeing persecution, gangs or conflict. This empathetic human-rights lens contrasts sharply with the neoliberal lens elites use for blue-collar Americans, who are often viewed as dimwitted and fat. Homer Simpson is emblematic.”

“All this has created a toxic environment in both the U.S. and Europe.”

Williams’ Suggested Remedies

Williams provides three suggestions for members of the elite class to try to turn things around.

“The first is to recognize that the nation-state matters greatly for non-elites in developed countries. . . . Dismissing national pride as nothing more than racism is a recipe for class conflict and more racism. Better by far to embrace national pride, balance it with concern for those outside the nation, and refuse to allow racism to pose as national pride.”

“The second, . . .highlight the ways President Trump’s immigration and trade policies are hurting red-state constituencies that voted for him. Critics can point to farmers unable to find farmworkers, small-business owners unable to find dishwashers, and construction workers hit hard by steel tariffs.”

“The third step is to fight the scapegoating of immigrants by ensuring that hardworking Americans without college degrees can find good jobs. Economist Branko Milanovic has found that people in the bottom half of rich, developed countries’ income distributions have seen ‘an absence of real income growth’ since 1988. What’s happening, Mr. Milanovic argues, is the ‘greatest reshuffle of individual incomes since the Industrial Revolution.’ [Indeed,] the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that average wages fell last year for nonsupervisory workers in the U.S.”

“There’s no inherent reason why native-born blue-collar workers should be anti-immigrant. They often hold similar attitudes toward hard work and family values. Elites who sympathize with immigrants do themselves no favors by dismissing the working class as too bigoted or too stupid to recognize the economic benefits of immigration. Instead they should actually try to make the case and address the causes of anti-immigrant scapegoating.”

Conclusion

These suggestions make sense although I would add the following as elements to ameliorating the class divide: publicizing the many ways that today’s immigrants enhance the life and economy of the U.S.; emphasizing the need for immigrants in the many parts of this country with declining, aging populations; and reminding everyone of the many injustices that faced prior immigrants who are our ancestors.

There also is a profound need, especially for members of the elite and for individuals in both camps to find ways to meet and have respectful conversations about these problems.

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[1] Williams, The Elites Feed Anti-Immigrant Bias, W.S.J. (July 9, 2018).  Williams is a  Distinguished  Professor of Law  at the University of California, Hastings College of Law, Chair of the UC Hastings Foundation and the Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law. She also is the author of “White Working Class” (Harvard Business Review, 2017). She has degrees from Yale University (B.A., History), MIT (M.A., City Planning) and Harvard Law School (J.D.).