There’s been buzz since Bernie Sanders won West Virginia’s primary about the nature of the white working class. Touching it off were a series of polls showing high support for Trump among the voters who handed Sanders a nearly 16 point lead in the 97.3 percent white state. Almost 40 percent of Sanders supporters said they would vote for Trump in November, compared with a third of primary voters overall. The same night, Trump won 77 percent of the vote. For liberal pundits, the upshot seemed clear: Even when they dress up as socialists, white working-class voters are more committed to white supremacy than economic populism.
As Connor Kilpatrick quipped in Jacobin, “Somehow, someway, West Virginia’s vote for a Jewish socialist Brooklyn native was a vote for racism.”
At the same time, however, West Virginia native Jedediah Purdy — writing for Scalawag — explained the Democratic primary results by saying, “I can’t pretend that his 15 point victory in my home state is an embrace of his Scandinavian-style democratic socialism. West Virginia is neither a secret socialist stronghold nor a racist fever-dream.”
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In many parts of Appalachia, economies have been built brick by brick around a single industry: coal. As toxic and complex as the legacy of mining in Appalachia remains, however, it’s also a region that has been shaped at least as much by militant, organized labor. More specifically, a rich if complicated history of integrated unions, stemming from the Knights of Labor and then the United Mineworkers of America, or UMWA. As in other industries in other parts of the country, big business — coal operators, in this case — were central to breaking unions and racial solidarity alike, weaponizing existing divisions to break unions and maintain control over the mines. Did the coal barons invent racism? Of course not, but they did exploit it plenty to stamp out dissent and accumulate profits.
By the early 20th century, a quarter of the UMWA’s membership — around 20,000 miners — were black. As the Great Depression rolled through America in 1934, some 60 percent of UMWA members were African American, a significant portion living in the Jim Crow South. Notable, too, was the election of several black members to the union’s executive board at a time when union leadership nationwide remained almost exclusively white.
Where black workers were systematically excluded from the North’s manufacturing economy, work in coal mining and transport offered paying — if brutal — opportunities. Coal companies saw their own strategic benefit to keeping workplaces integrated. “Here,” writes historian Ronald L. Lewis, “operators maintained control over their workers through a policy of ‘judicious mixture,’ which enabled them to divide and conquer by offering the carrot of equal opportunity to all miners without regard to race or nationality and the stick of company police repression against those who did not accept complete subservience.”
They also had no qualms about paying black workers the lowest wages for the most dangerous jobs, and handing supervisory positions over to their white counterparts. Coal camps, self-contained communities amounting to virtual fiefdoms, became more segregated through the early 20th century, between white and black workers, respectively, and recent immigrants.
In Coal, Class, and Color, historian Joe William Trotter traced the history of black miners in West Virginia. When addressing a period of accelerated black migration to Appalachia, he wrote, “As new coalfields opened during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, [coal] operators upheld the principle of segregation in public schools; supported the continuation of state prohibitions on interracial marriage; and either segregated or excluded blacks from rooming houses, cafes, poolrooms and theaters.”
That industrialists were so interested in stoking racial division is one reason why UMWA miners strove to keep the union united. “I was raised a slave,” black UMWA organizer George Echols once said. “My master and my mistress called me and I answered … and I feel just like we feel now … Let us be free men. Let us stand equal.” While racial inequality certainly coursed through integrated unions, solidarity among miners was a key factor in a number of fights against the coal industry.
A favorite and especially nasty tactic used by mine owners around the country was bringing in black (non-union) strikebreakers to keep operations running as the UMWA fought for contracts and better wages. The tactic infused existing racial tensions with a deeply felt economic anxiety, leading to outright violence against black miners that often left unaffiliated black families caught in the fray. These strikebreakers were often uninformed or — more likely — deceived about the conditions they were entering, especially in places where there were few other jobs on offer. Many found themselves as cannon fodder in dangerous and often deadly battles between unions and coal operators.
“Colored miners come along,” read one 1890s ad for an Alabama mine embroiled in a major strike action. “Let us see whether you can have an Eden of your own or not. I will see that you will have a fair show … It is not likely you will have another chance to demonstrate to the world that you are capable of governing your social affairs without the aid of interference of the white race.” After responding to a similar ad for jobs in Kansas, 175 men decided to ignore its claims and turn back when they discovered mineworkers in the area were striking.
These stories, of course, aren’t unique to either Appalachia or the coal industry. Everyone from Henry Ford to Andrew Carnegie used racism to their advantage in turning beefier profits, often by tamping down on workers’ right to organize. When industry won, the results were eerily similar: black workers were hurt or killed, unions were broken or weakened, and workers walked away with lower wages and less power.
As Ian Haney-López and Heather McGhee detailed for The Nation in January, conservatives have only continued to weaponize race against working people in the post-war era, using racist tropes to starve public support for key entitlement programs. As the party tacked right in the early 1990s, Democrats like Bill Clinton joined in and even spearheaded efforts to “end welfare as we know it.”
“Today’s right-wing, anti-tax, anti-spending agenda succeeds by stoking a deep distrust of the purported beneficiaries of government in thinly veiled dog-whistle language that is almost always about race,” Haney-López and McGhee wrote. “By exposing how the political manipulation of racial anxiety has hollowed out of the middle class, Sanders can elevate a simple message: When racism wins, everyone loses.”
In few places has that statement been more true than in Appalachia. As the lines of today’s two-party system continue to shift into uncertain territory, movements eager to continue the political revolution — and win over white working class voters, away from Trump — might do well to pick up Haney-López and McGhee’s call.