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White and Working Class

By Colleen Kearney Rich on February 6, 2017

In his new book, The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality (Oxford University Press, 2016), Schar School of Policy and Government professor Justin Gest analyzes alienation in white working class people in the United States and the United Kingdom.

What inspired you to write this book?

In 2010, I published my first book, Apart: Alienated and Engaged Muslims in the West. It was a study of the dynamics of Western Muslims’ political behavior and their sense of marginality. However, I grew interested in the white working-class people [I encountered]—Muslims’ antagonists who were condemning Islam as a religion and demanding innocent Muslims’ deportation. White working-class people’s claims of heritage and authenticity in diverse societies appeared as a competing fundamentalism from a group that also felt marginalized in Western societies subject to increasing inequality and demographic change. And in different ways, their politics were almost as radical as that of Muslim extremists. The curiosity was too much to turn away.

Justin Gest

What there anything that surprised you while doing research for this book?

At first, I was surprised by how quickly I would feel a sense of empathy for my subjects. They are so vilified in the field of migration studies, but their reality is nowhere near as simple as racism or economic outmoding. Then, as my research progressed, I was surprised by how quickly outlets for their frustration grew in the form of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy in the United States and the Brexit campaign in Britain.

Could you talk about your research methods?

I spent six months conducting full-immersion ethnographies in Youngstown, Ohio, and East London, England. I spent a lot of time in pubs, working man’s clubs, factories, churches, storefronts, family living rooms, and porches. In total, I interviewed 120 people. I then followed up this work with two surveys of white people in the United States and U.K. just before national elections began in each country.

What are you working on now?

I am finishing my next book, Crossroads, which examines immigration policy outcomes across 50 countries worldwide. It will be out with Cambridge University Press next year. I am also undertaking a number of experiments—on refugee integration in the United States, the preferences of prospective immigrants from the Middle East, and the effect of U.S. citizenship on green cardholders’ lives. It’s an exciting time to study immigration and demographic change.

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