Though Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated decades ago in 1968, forward thinking statements from some of his best speeches and writings indicate that the man was far ahead of his time and may have even predicted the political climate which led to the rise of Donald Trump.
The civil rights leader addressed the pervasive issue of white economic anxiety in his sermon “The Drum Major Instinct.” In the sermon, the Reverend points out that when poor white Americans feel oppressed, rather than uniting with poor black Americans based on economic similarity, they side with their rich oppressors to degrade their fellow man.
“That the poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice, he is forced to support his oppressors. And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he’s superior because his skin is white — and can’t hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out.”
This idea was not an uncommon one, and now we can look at the state of poor White Americans in many civil rights issues and see the impact they had.
Rather than finding kinship, poor white Americans considered themselves temporarily embarrassed millionaires rather than definitionally poor. They were made to feel superior to minority groups so that they would focus on the oppression of these groups rather than recognizing their resentment toward those higher in the economic chain – and of the same race.
Now, that same trend has taken hold in America. Though the popular think-pieces like to imagine that Democrats lost the election due to a disconnect with the working poor, the truth is that they have been groomed by terror attacks and violent rhetoric from the right to believe that the threat from Muslim terrorism is far worse than any economic threat here at home caused by greedy corporations and a bought election system.
As King said so many years ago, Trump voters were eager to prove to themselves and others that their skin was still valuable as social currency.
In many ways, this is what Senator Bernie Sanders was referring to when he dismissed the idea of identity politics in favor of economic politics. By viewing economic needs with a more wide-reaching lens, we can begin to break up the divide and remind poor, working class white Americans that they are in a much greater battle than the one over skin.
The inspiration for this piece came from Think Progress’s religion reporter Jack Jenkins who mentioned the above quote from MLK Jr. in his piece “A post-election reading (and listening) list for religious progressives.”