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WHITEWASHED: THE RACIALIZATION OF AMERICA’S MIDDLE CLASS IDENTITY

Abstract
The “middle class” identity – one of the most popular identities in American politics – is implicitly racialized, and understood by most Americans as referring to “whites”. This enables racially coded patterns of political communication by political elites, and engenders racialized patterns of behavior among members of the public. Due both to media and political depictions and to racially unequal economic opportunities, many Americans implicitly associate the “middle class” economic identity with white racial identity. Because the middle class identity is racialized, politicians can use appeals to the middle class to reassure and mobilize whites – sometimes successfully – on the basis of racial identity. A content analysis of Timemagazine covers presenting the middle class predominantly feature whites rather than minorities. The media’s conflation of the middle class identity and white race substantiates the idea that citizens may internalize and hold a mental image of the middle class identity and white racial identity. Campaign advertisements aired by candidates for the House, Senate, and Presidency reinforce this racial messaging. Further, American National Election Studies data demonstrates that that whites are more likely to identify as middle class and express positive attitudes toward this group than are other racial groups, even controlling for objective indicators of class status. These findings indicate that both whites and non-whites have internalized the cultural messages projected by Time and other mass media products, and sort themselves into class identities in racialized ways. Several unique survey experiments – including conjoint and item count techniques – demonstrate that whites consistently draw a connection between the middle class identity and white racial identity. Finally, whites receiving campaign messages referencing the middle class rely more heavily on their racial attitudes in forming opinions about issues, indicating the identity can serve as an implicit racial prime. Thus, when public officials talk about the “middle class”, they may be (intentionally or unintentionally) encouraging citizens to bring their racial attitudes to bear in politics. The racialization of the middle class identity introduces a problematic, and often hidden, racial subtext into discussions of class, economic policy, and party politics in the United States.
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