From the Series: What Are You Reading? Responses to the Election and Inauguration
John Hartigan’s Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit (1999) engages Whiteness in a prescient way that is directly relevant to the current political moment. This comparative ethnography of inner-city, working-class, and gentrifying areas of Detroit takes everyday lived Whiteness seriously, not simply in symbolic opposition to Blackness and Otherness, but as caught up in a complex mix of class distinctions.
The book does not provide easy answers, nor does it comfortably align with implicit liberal hierarchies of moral racial engagement. For example, Hartigan illustrates a provocative paradox when contrasting racial relations between inner-city and more suburban areas. On the one hand, he finds that poorer inner-city Whites regularly traffic in racialized language, while on the other hand have significantly more friendships and everyday interactions with non-Whites, basing their racial understandings more on real-world interactions and class nuances than on symbolic categories. Furthermore, he finds that inner-city Whites in Detroit, as a numerical minority, do not assume that they are racially normative or unmarked, identifying themselves and others based on distinct categories of Whiteness. Even so—and even more salient with regard to the election—Hartigan finds that suburban Whites tend to have few, if any meaningful non-White relationships. They speak in carefully coded registers about race, while identifying with anti-racist politics framed in moral opposition to an imagined inferior White working class.
Throughout the book, Hartigan articulates Whiteness in counterintuitive ways that challenge popular wisdom on race and class that has contributed to widespread surprise and misunderstanding around Donald Trump's seemingly unlikely presidential victory. The book is especially useful in disrupting mainstream political frameworks on White racism that tend to scapegoat the poorest and least educated while ignoring its more insidious forms, which entangle White privilege within systems of polite wealth and power, fueled by record levels of income inequality.