Whatever you think about the outcome of the US election, one thing is clear. The US is a divided nation. The Left believes bigotry and racism are tearing the country apart. The Right believes identity politics and political correctness are tearing us apart. I think both are right. And I’m increasingly concerned that many diversity programs may actually be contributing to the problem. Instead of promoting inclusion and belonging for everyone, some groups seem to be excluded, with people from the so-called ‘working class’ at the top of the list.
To be honest, I’m not even sure what politically correct term to use to describe this cultural group. “Poor” sounds too derogatory, as does “blue collar” or “rust belt.” And as with any cultural grouping, the working class of the US isn’t a monolith. Socio-economics is only one dimension of our identities. But the point is, working-class families have had the lowest upward mobility rates in the US for the last several decades. And for whatever reason, to many white working class individuals, it felt like the only person listening to them was Donald Trump. Love him or hate him, Trump somehow tapped into a group that felt like they’ve been left behind by the American Dream run by cosmopolitan elites flaunting their liberal ideas. Many working class people have had enough and they made that known in the last two presidential elections.
Diversity leaders have done an excellent job of broadening the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) conversation beyond race and gender. Most DEI initiatives include other marginalized groups like those who are differently-abled, religious minorities, and the LGBTQ+ community. But what might it mean for DEI programs to reach further to more consciously include class diversity?
First, we need to familiarize ourselves with some of the data. Despite the global scope of our work at the Cultural Intelligence Center, I’m focusing for the moment entirely on the US context, some of which may apply elsewhere. There has been some improvement over the last two decades in closing the gap on US racial and gender inequity, albeit Covid-19 has demonstrated that those inequities continue to be monumental. But the disparities associated with class have gotten progressively worse over the last twenty years.
Towns all across the US have been gutted from the loss of manufacturing jobs. For many years, manufacturing provided a decent living so that people without college degrees could easily live a solid, middle-class life. But that’s not the case any more. For average workers in the US, wages haven’t increased beyond inflation for 30 years, while incomes for high-wage positions have soared.
If you’re born into a family that is struggling financially, it’s harder than ever to break out of it. A person born in the bottom 20 percent of family income only has a four percent chance of making it into the top 20 percent. So much for the American Dream!
Robert Putnam, a sociologist whose work has deeply shaped my thinking, provides powerful insights on life in many of these hallowed manufacturing towns across the country. He describes his hometown in Port Clinton, Ohio, as a “place of stark class divisions where wealthy kids park BMW convertibles in the high school parking lot next to decrepit junkers that homeless classmates drive away each night to live in.” Rich kids have significantly more access to extracurricular activities, particularly as more schools have “pay to play” sports programs. And consider this: Wealthy kids with the lowest standardized test scores have a better chance of finishing college than poor kids with the highest test scores do.
Of course being poor and Black is a double strike against the chances of upward mobility. There’s an uneasy correlation between economics and racial disparities. 58 percent of America’s poor are racial or ethnic minorities. And unfortunately, working class whites are too often pitted against working class people of color, rather than seeing their many shared needs.
One of the only research-based strategies for developing cultural intelligence (CQ) and mitigating bias is perspective-taking, the ability to perceive a situation from another group’s point of view. Those of us leading DEI work and cultural intelligence efforts should be leading the way in promoting perspective taking, but when it comes to understanding the working class, and especially the white working class, I’m not sure we’re rising to the challenge.
Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang describes the negative reaction he received when he talked with truck drivers, retail workers, and servers in diners across the US and told them he was a Democrat. For Yang, Democrats are the party of the working class. But he says, “In their minds, the Democratic party has taken on this role of the coastal, urban elites who are more concerned about policing various cultural issues than improving their way of life that has been declining for years.”
The CQ community is diverse politically. I’ve sat in many lively discussions with colleagues and friends debating issues like wealth creation versus wealth distribution, the role of government in legislating lifestyle, and affirmative action. But let’s be honest. Much of the diversity conversation in the US leans left, and with that comes some blind spots.
What does it mean for DEI leaders to engage in perspective taking with individuals who voted for Trump? One Trump voter said, “Maybe I’m just so sick of being called a bigot that my anger has pushed me to support this seriously flawed man.” (Chua, 189). To what degree can we talk about the Trump voter in non-evaluative terms? I’m not suggesting we should shy away from calling racism what it is. Nor am I suggesting that polite conversations that treat all viewpoints as equally valid are the answer. But we have to stop and consider why so many working class individuals feel like diversity programs teach people to tolerate and include everyone except them.
Let’s take the topic of white privilege for example. I teach and write about the realities of white privilege in places all over the world, acknowledging that I myself am a picture of privilege. But what’s the culturally intelligent way to teach about privilege to a white person who is barely hanging on financially?
I’m not sure. But something doesn’t sit right with me when I hear a DEI leader tell a person who just filed bankruptcy that they need to “Check their privilege.” Do white, poor people have privileges that black, poor people lack? For sure, because of all the systemic reasons that go with racial discrimination. It’s also true that someone with Stage 2 cancer is better off than someone with Stage 4 cancer. But it’s not very compassionate to tell them that. Many working class individuals believe progressives and diversity advocates have compassion for everyone but them. Might they be right?
Ensuring Diversity Includes Everyone
Kimberlé Crenshaw, originator of the enormously useful concept of Intersectionality worries that her work has been misinterpreted and used to divide people into more and more sub-groups while missing the point of what she was after. She says her work has been taken too far to become “identity politics on steroids”. We’re right to caution against group blindness (e.g. “I don’t see color”) but at some point, we seem to have lost the value of calling people to see our shared humanity.
One group of researchers found that diversity practitioners are remarkably dogmatic. Most DEI leaders identify as global citizens who celebrate humanity everywhere; but when it comes to flag-waving, patriots in rural regions, many workshop facilitators allow things to be said that would be immediately called out as inappropriate if it was said about another group. For workshops that are supposed to engage in openness to different points of views, participants quickly sense that there are many “right” and “wrong” perspectives when it comes to diversity agendas. This kind of approach does little to foster understanding, acceptance, and belonging.
For starters, let’s cancel the “cancel culture” movement where only certain views are celebrated and instead, create safe places where we can have honest dialogue about many diverse perspectives. There are of course times when we need to exert leadership and protect marginalized groups from being further traumatized by hearing bigoted perspectives but hopefully that will be the exception rather than the norm. I’m calling us to facilitate creative discussions where we can be for Black Lives Matter and support police. We can dismantle systemic racism and care about the individual realities many people face. We can have compassion for working class white people and establish policies that address racial inequities.
This is a far more US-centric article than I usually write. But cultural intelligence is also lived locally. While I’m not originally from Midwest America, it’s where I live today. I feel my own impulse to rush to judgment when I drive through certain communities or overhear conversations from people who probably perceive me as the coastal elite. But in my quest to build a more culturally intelligent world, I want to do more to hear them, understand them, and ensure that our work includes the working class as well as the many other identities we seek to include.