Divide and Conquer:

The Mystification of Working Class Whites

by Aristotelis Santas


Tim Lee's



Do you ever wonder why it's hard to get white people to speak out when their black brothers and sisters are being wronged? Do you ever wonder why low income whites in Valdosta, who have much in common with their black brothers and sisters are often the most bigoted towards blacks? Is this an accident?

Example 1: Drawing the Color Line (Zinn, Higgenbotham)

We are seldom told that the first Africans who came to North America in 1619 had a status very similar to that of white indentured servants. Nor are we told that these persons, similar in status and holding much in common, spent time together, intermingled, created friendships, married and had children. These alliances between white servants, Africans (and natives) created difficulties for the ruling elite, so laws were enacted to discourage if not prohibit inter-group interaction, severely punish whites who helped Africans escape or joined with native people's societies, and give disparate punishments for blacks and whites for the same crimes. The point of this was to divide working class white from black and natives so that the ruling elite could continue to exploit them all. We are not told this. The result, consequence of which we still feel today, is the creation of feelings of superiority and resentment between the groups. DIVIDE and CONQUER

Example 2: The Myth of Confederate Unity (Rubio)

We are seldom told that during the civil war era, 2/5 of the whites owned slaves and only a small percentage of that--less than 10%--were large plantation owners. The rest were yeoman farmers-the middle class of the day--with ties to the ruling elites and aspirations for upward mobility. Nor are we told that when the war broke out, there was not unified support for the confederacy, that it was called a rich man's war and a poor man's fight. The "Twenty Negro Rule," which stated that slave owners who owned more than twenty slaves were not subject to the draft created a lot of resentment. And most of the volunteers fought not because they owned slaves, but because they were fearful of having to compete with free black labor. In fact, the North Carolina popular vote, for instance, was narrowly against secession. Desertion and sabotage during the war was widespread and came largely from working class whites. We are not told these things. The result is that those in power profit from a portrait of unity, solidarity and difference. DIVIDE and CONQUER

Example 3: The Georgia State Flag Change of 1956 (Davis)

We are seldom told that after the civil war, the battle flag of the confederacy was considered too sacred to be displayed frivolously, that wishes of the confederate veterans were to display the emblem rarely if ever. Nor are we told that when the Georgia Legislature decided to change the State Flag in 1956, they were opposed by both the Sons of the Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In fact, the previous flag that the current flag replaced was designed by a confederate veteran who created it to honor the confederate dead. Most white Georgians opposed the flag change because of the cost and a suspicion that only the northern flag making companies would gain anything from the change. Those who did support the change did so because it symbolized defiance toward the federal government and the Brown vs. Board of Education decision of the Supreme Court. Today working class whites brandish the emblem in the name of unity, pride and heritage. They are not told the full history. The result is continued division between whites and blacks. DIVIDE and CONQUER.

Example 4: Affirmative Action Backlash (Personal Observations)

We are seldom told that the majority of persons benefiting from Affirmative Action programs are white women. Nor are we told that those who do get in seldom get beyond low level low status positions. When we look to see who are in positions of power and privilege today, we see mainly white men. When we look to see who makes the most money and exercises the most control of our policies and procedures, if we really look, we see again, white men. Yet there are positions, inferior as they may be, that have become open to traditionally under-represented groups. Those positions, like secretaries, custodians, fire fighters, are ones traditionally held by working class whites. What that means is that again the working class whites have to bear the brunt of the small measures of social equity and must make the largest sacrifice. They are not told this. The result is continued resentment from low income whites and an excuse for the elites to remove these programs before their positions are open for fair competition. DIVIDE and CONQUER.

Racism Far and Near

Whose benefit? Whose loss? Vitriolic hatred and bigoted decisions are cultivated in the lower class. Low income white voters clamor to the polls to support race baiting politicians. Hate groups recruit from uninformed disenfranchised whites. Meanwhile middle class whites distance themselves from overtly bigoted behavior while supporting policies, practices, and procedures detrimental to the well being of people of color. Meanwhile the upper class continues to profit from our mystification. Working class whites divided from blacks. Middle class whites divided from low income whites and blacks. Divided we fall.





John Walker Davis, "An Air of Defiance: Georgia's State Flag Change of 1956," Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. LXXXII, No. 2, Summer 1998.

A. Leon Higgenbotham, In the Matter of Color (Oxford, 1980), Chapter 2.

Phil Rubio, "Civil War Reenactments and Other Myths," in Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey, eds., Race Traitor (New York: Routledge, 1996), pp. 183-94.

Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (New York: Harper Collins, 1990), Chapters 2,3.