One possible test

One possible way to test the extent to which a given group is predominantly politically liberal, white, and middle class is to look at that group’s attitudes towards environmentalism:

“The evidence suggests that most mainstream environmentalist groups have traditionally had little interest in issues faced by poor, minority, urban people…. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that at least some observers have had harsh words for mainstream environmentalism. For example, in his book Environmental Quality and Social Justice in Urban America, James Noel Smith has argued that mainstream environmentalism is ‘a deliberate attempt by a bigoted and selfish white middle-class society to perpetuate its own values and protect its own lifestyle at the expense of the poor and underprivileged.’ A similar view was expressed even earlier by Richard Hatcher, then mayor of the city of Gary, Indiana. ‘The nation’s concern with the environment,’ Hatcher said, ‘has done what George Wallace had been unable to do: distract the nation from the human problems of black and brown Americans’ (“The Rise of Anti-Ecology,’ 1970)….” [Environmental Justice: A Reference Handbook, David E. Newton (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO), pp. 15-16.]

If a group is predominantly concerned with the siting of hazardous waste disposal sites and incinerators, heavy metals in the soil, high cancer rates due to environmental toxins, environmental hazards concentrated in communities of color, food security, etc., you can safely predict that that group has few liberal white middle class people in it. If, on the other hand, a group is predominantly concerned with carbon footprints and alternative energy, preservation of non-local wildlife and natural spaces, “locavore” issues, and the like, it is more probable that such groups are dominated by liberal white middle class people. (And if a group believes that the best solutions to hypothetical environmental problems will be created by businesses and the free market, there’s a good chance that those groups are dominated by more conservative white middle class people.)

6 thoughts on “One possible test

  1. Steve Caldwell


    The stereotypical predominantly politically liberal, white, and middle class demographic associated with Unitarian Universalism seems to correspond well with the “Stuff White People Like” list:

    For example, you probably have many folks in UU congregations who:

    – drink fancy coffee (extra points for fair trade coffee)

    – belong to religions that their parents didn’t belong to (which is apparently true for about 90% of adult UU’s)

    – shop for organic food

    – buy produce in farmer’s markets

    – ethnic diversity (as long as we’re talking about restaurants)

    – work for non-profit organizations

    – drink fancy tea (as long as we don’t focus on the role of colonialism in tea)

    – having “gifted children”

    – being an expert on the cultures of others

    – drink microbrew beer

    – not having a TV

    – having a vegan/vegetarian diet

    – listen to indie music

    – eat sushi

    – listen to public radio

    – going out of their way to avoid drinking water straight from the tap or water fountain (yes … in nearly every US city, the water from the tap is perfectly safe to drink but you wouldn’t know it from the bottles people carry around with them)

    – play Ultimate Frisbee and other Frisbee sports

    – eat hummus

    And there is plenty more on this list (they’re up to item #132 – “Picking Their Own Fruit”).

    So … do you think this list describes the typical UU?

  2. Dan

    Steve @ 1 — You ask: “So … do you think this list describes the typical UU?”

    Well, OK, I guess in some congregations this list may be applicable — although this list is about presumed cultural preferences, not about immediate political concerns related to environmentalism.


    I have to say I find the Stuff White People Like Web site pretty problematic. Take, for example, eating sushi — in San Mateo, where we live, there are lots of sushi restaurants, because there is a big Japanese American population; you won’t see many white people in those restaurants, but you’ll hear a lot of Japanese being spoken. Or take, as another example, drinking tea — in San Mateo there’s a new specialty tea store; the owner’s first language is Mandarin, and the primary clientele is Chinese American — I won’t even go into the fact that for some people of South Asian descent, drinking tea is a normal part of their culture; to say nothing of my friends who were born in England and Ireland. Many other items on that list are pretty problematic for similar reasons. The Stuff White People Like Web is not really about being white, it’s about being middle class (maybe upper middle class), colleg-educated, of the professional class — so you’ll find middle class, college-educated, professional black and Asian people who could check off nearly every item on that list.

    One of the items on that list particularly bothers me, and that’s the thing about buying food at farmer’s markets. The city of East Palo Alto, just a few miles from the Palo Alto UU church, is populated primarily by people of color, and people of generally lower income than surrounding cities. A non-profit organization managed to get a farmer’s market into East Palo Alto — this is a big deal, because there has not been a supermarket or grocery store there for decades; it’s what’s known as a “food desert.” Also, nearly all the farmer’s markets in this area take EBT, so farmer’s markets are not exactly an exclusive upper middle class preserve. Finally, I watch lots of people of East Asian descent, and lots of Hispanics, shopping at our local farmer’s market in San Mateo. Access to good inexpensive produce is not just something that white people want.

    At the same time, I have to admit that my post oversimplifies matters to some extent — there are plenty of white people outside major metropolitan areas who don’t have much access to political power and who have to put up with environmental disasters like CAFOs, toxic output from factories, etc. Environmental justice is also a major concern for many white communities who are susceptible to job blackmail, economic threats, and the like. As is typical in the U.S., matters of race and class are so interwoven it can be difficult to disentangle them.

  3. Jean

    Being white west of the Hudson or east of, oh, the California border doesn’t tell you much about anything but, well, skin “color” (am I *really* “white”? dear Census taker, no I’m not. Today I’m sort of taupe, headed toward tan).

    Here in my city of Richmond, indiana, we are predominantly white so that — as they say here — don’t tell you much. Here then is a better list:

    Stuff People in the Midwest Like:

    – drink gas station coffee in big travel mugs (extra points for drinking it black, no crap in it)

    – belong to religions that their parents and grandparents did belong to (and knowing who brings the best deviled eggs, ham salad, angel food cake, and three bean salad to the pitch-ins)

    – shop for clearance food at Save-A-Lot, Aldi’s, and Big Lots

    – buy produce in farmer’s markets — okay, we do that too, but our farmers are our neighbors. And half are Amish. Or related to us.

    – religious diversity (in this city of 38,000, there are 150+ churches. You can find everything from silent meetings to services where they speak in tongues; four Catholic churches, more Quakers than you can shake a stick at, Episcopals (and yes our Episcopal priest is gay, and just got married in the church), Methodists, Latter Day Saints, Churches of the Brethren, and some really cool “storefront churches” with names like Hem of His Garment; Church of the Open Door; House of Jesus.)

    – work for lower wages than most of the rest of the country

    – drink iced tea (what’s “colonialism”?)

    – having lots of children, and praying that they graduate on time, don’t get pregnant, and stay out of jail

    – being an expert on what the government has screwed up this week

    – drink Bud.

    – having a TV that’s wider than the sofa

    – having a diet that features a lot of MEAT

    – listen to country music

    – eat pork rinds, grits, biscuits and gravy

    – listen to AM radio

    – going out of their way to avoid drinking water straight from the tap or water fountain (because we like Mountain Dew)

    – play basketball

    – eat chips and salsa (now that’s ethnic, doggone it, and don’t tell me it ain’t)

    – Pick our own strawberries, apples, and mushrooms.

  4. Elz

    To go back to the environmentalism thing, I don’t think that is true anymore. Some of the terminology is different, but the African American Back-to-the-South movement of the last decade has been big on reclaiming traditionally farmed foods. The urban clean air movement has been very closely associated with racial and economic justice, because poor communities tend to be served by buses rather than trains.

    On an international basis, there are environmental activists risking their lives in China and India, as well as other “under-developed” countries. I sometimes wonder what is going to happen to us “do-gooders” as these cultures learn to take care of themselves.

    The only thing I’ll give you on this, is, the racial divide over camping, hiking, etc. Someone had a great thread on how getting trapped in the woods has a totally different history and connotation for folks who were hunted like wild animals, escaping either slavery or Jim Crow laws. Even those pictures of the Civil Rights martyrs still look scary to me. And I don’t suppose there are tons of folks who struggle to find water in the desert, watch their friends die in search of a better job — and then go home and tell their kids, “Yeah, it was hard but it also was beautiful. Let’s go there on vacation.”

  5. Tracie W.

    I laughed out loud at #132, as I just finished my own blog post about the blueberries I picked today.

    Stuff White People Like is problematic, but in some ways so dead-on it’s thought-provoking. I laugh when I see my own habits reflected there (Moleskin notebooks, NPR, etc). White, middle-class people DO have a culture, especially if they are UU (great articles recently about this in UU World), To an extent, it does involve the generic or even selfish concerns you mentioned in relation to class and race rather than the poor. Here in Florida, I think liberal environmentalists are more enraged about the impact of the oil spill on the Gulf and their beaches than they tend to be about the lower-income people it harms (fishermen, the French Choctaw).

  6. Dan

    Jean @ 3 — Best list of what white people like that I’ve seen yet. And yeah, Bud is good beer.

    Elz @ 4 — Guess it depends on where you are. Carol’s and my experience in New Bedford, Mass., was that there was a substantial divide between the environmental interests of professional-class whites vs. people of color and working class whites. It’s also a suburban/urban divide. When the professional-class suburban whites held their environmentalism conference in downtown New Bedford, right across the street from our apartment, they distributed leaflets in the neighborhood telling us ignorant urban dwellers how to recycle — yet I wasn’t aware that their conference addressed toxics in the environment, despite the fact that the conference was just a few blocks from one of the biggest Superfund sites in the country.

    What we also saw in New Bedford was that the professional-class whites were focused on things like carbon footprint and wind power (they were opposed to the Cape Wind project because they all had sailboats and didn’t want to see wind turbines in Nantucket Sound); working class whites and people of color were more concerned with toxics in the environment (e.g., heavy metals in soil, PCBs in the harbor). So we were definitely seeing a divide in New Bedford.

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