On White People Acting White
I have this friend who is a very hard worker. He’s what you would call one of the working poor. I may have known people who worked as hard as him, but I’ve never known anyone who works harder. He has a big heart. Yet he is poor, and the older we both get, the more I’ve come to realize that he will always be poor. When we run into each other and get caught up, the stories he tells about his own life and the lives of his extended family members beggar belief. No need to go into details, but let’s just say that it would take a vivid imagination to come up with a set of collective behaviors more likely to produce chronic poverty.
Once he was living with a woman who was treating him abusively (not physically). He told me he wanted out, but owned some property with her, and didn’t know how he could extricate himself from the bad deal he had made. I wanted to help him, so I went to my lawyer, told him the whole story, and asked him to get involved. I told him I would pay the legal bill for my friend. My lawyer looked at me skeptically and said, “I’ll do it if you want me to, but let me tell you from my own experience: he’s going to go back to her. These kind of people always fall back into the messes they’ve made.”
Well, I told him, I’ll take that chance, just to help my friend get free of this woman. I told my lawyer to stand by, that I was going to get in touch with the guy and make the offer. We got together three days later, my friend and me, and I told him I’d hire a lawyer to help him get free.
“Oh, we made up,” he said, nonchalantly. “I’m gonna stay.”
“But what about all those things you told me about last week?!” I said. “That’s serious stuff. You shouldn’t have to put up with that.”
He looked at me like I just didn’t understand. My lawyer had been right. The whole thing made me sad, because like I said, this is a good man, a man I care for, a man who gets taken advantage of all the time. It’s very clear to me that most of his problems — and the problem of his clan — has to do with foolish personal choices. Yet to hear him talk about it, they are all in the hands of fate. Things just happen to them.
These are white people, by the way, and that’s why I thought of my friend and his clan when I read Kevin D. Williamson’s piece on what he calls “the white minstrel show.” The essay, in his terms, is “about white people acting white.” That is, it’s about irresponsible poor white people blaming others for their self-inflicted problems, and especially hating whites who live more orderly, disciplined lives. Here are excerpts:
The parallels to the “acting white” phenomenon in black culture are fairly obvious: When aspiration takes the form of explicit or implicit cultural identification, however partial, with some hated or resented outside group that occupies a notionally superior social position, then “authenticity” is to be found in socially regressive manners, mores, and habits. It is purely reactionary.
… American authenticity, from the acting-even-whiter point of view, is not to be found in any of the great contemporary American business success stories, or in intellectual life, or in the great cultural institutions, but in the suburban-to-rural environs in which the white underclass largely makes its home — the world John Mellencamp sang about but understandably declined to live in.
Shake your head at rap music all you like: When’s the last time you heard a popular country song about finishing up your master’s in engineering at MIT?
White people acting white have embraced the ethic of the white underclass, which is distinct from the white working class, which has the distinguishing feature of regular gainful employment. The manners of the white underclass are Trump’s — vulgar, aggressive, boastful, selfish, promiscuous, consumerist. The white working class has a very different ethic. Its members are, in the main, churchgoing, financially prudent, and married, and their manners are formal to the point of icy politeness. You’ll recognize the style if you’ve ever been around it: It’s “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am,” but it is the formality of soldiers and police officers — correct and polite, but not in the least bit deferential. It is a formality adopted not to acknowledge the superiority of social betters but to assert the equality of the speaker — equal to any person or situation, perfectly republican manners. It is the general social respect rooted in genuine self-respect.
Its opposite is the sneering, leveling, drag-’em-all-down-into-the-mud anti-“elitism” of contemporary right-wing populism. Self-respect says: “I’m an American citizen, and I can walk into any room, talk to any president, prince, or potentate, because I can rise to any occasion.” Populist anti-elitism says the opposite: “I can be rude enough and denigrating enough to drag anybody down to my level.” Trump’s rhetoric — ridiculous and demeaning schoolyard nicknames, boasting about money, etc. — has always been about reducing. Trump doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to duke it out with even the modest wits at the New York Times, hence it’s “the failing New York Times.” Never mind that the New York Times isn’t actually failing and that any number of Trump-related businesses have failed so thoroughly that they’ve gone into bankruptcy; the truth doesn’t matter to the argument any more than it matters whether the fifth-grade bully actually has an actionable claim on some poor kid’s lunch money. It would never even occur to the low-minded to identify with anybody other than the bully. That’s what all that ridiculous stuff about “winning” was all about in the campaign. It is might-makes-right, i.e., the politics of chimpanzee troupes, prison yards, kindergartens, and other primitive environments. That is where the underclass ethic thrives — and how “smart people” came to be a term of abuse.
Before you jerk your knee, understand that Williamson grew up in this underclass, in Lubbock, Texas. He writes about it in this piece. Williamson acknowledges that conservative social criticism often fails to take into account larger social and economic forces working on poor communities. It also fails to see how racialized its take can be. For example, says Williams, the crack epidemic (from a white conservative point of view) was all about poor blacks not being able to control their craving for drugs. But now that whites are overdosing on opioids, white conservatives find themselves more willing to look at the complexities driving addiction, and not simply reduce it to moral failing.
But — and here’s where his own biography comes in — there really are moral failings at work here. You need to read the piece to get the gritty details, but unless you do read it, you can’t sit in judgment of Williamson’s point of view. Here’s the lesson he learned from his own family’s experience, including his folks being chronically broke, despite his mom and stepdad earning decent money:
They didn’t suffer from bad luck or lack of opportunity. Bad decisions and basic human failure put them where they were. But that is from the political point of view an unsatisfactory answer, because it does not provide us with an external party (preferably a non-voting party) to blame. It was not the case that everything that was wrong with the lives of the people I grew up with was the result of their own choices, but neither was it the case that they were only leaves on the wind.
Of course they hated, just hated, “elites.” Williamson says this kind of resentment-driven populism soothes the anxiety and pain of those who hold it by relieving them of any sense of agency for their own fate. He writes:
The opposite message — that life is hard and unfair, that what is not necessarily your fault may yet be your problem, that you must act and bear responsibility for your actions — is what conservatism used to offer, before it became a white-minstrel show.
Read the whole thing. Honestly, please do. As I’ve said here before talking about Williamson’s views on the white underclass, I would place more blame on those outside forces than he seems to, but then again, Kevin D. Williamson has actually lived the underclass life, as a child. I have not. It’s easier for me to be sentimental about such things (unlike, say, my lawyer, who works with the poor a fair amount in his practice). I think it’s easy to miss Williamson’s larger point, which he lays out in that final graf I quote. It’s not about claiming that the playing field is always level, and that nobody ever rigs the game against anybody else. It’s not, and they do. Williamson’s point is that life is by its very nature hard unfair, but you’re supposed to make the best of it anyway, with the cards you’ve been dealt.
This was my father’s point of view too. He didn’t grow up in the underclass, but he did grow up very poor in the Great Depression. His father spent most of my dad’s young childhood on the road, making money to send back home to the family, which consisted of my dad, his older brother, their mother, and their grandmother, all living in a little cabin in the country. Many nights all they had to eat was cornbread and mustard greens. Daddy told me that on some nights, if they wanted any meat at all, he and his brother had to go into the woods and shoot squirrels with their BB guns.
Daddy came out of that experience with a very strong ethic of work and self-reliance. He never, ever felt sorry for himself. We never had a lot of money growing up, but we lived comfortably enough. The thing about my father is that he never despised a poor person, and warned my sister and me that we had better not, because he too had grown up poor. But there was nobody on this earth he despised more than a man who would not work to better himself, and who blamed others for his problems. Now that I think about it, my dad had a real immigrant’s mentality in that sense.
What he could not see is that the narrative that he accepted as a young man was the classic postwar American story, where working-class men could use the GI Bill to go to college, get an education, and rise into the middle class. Daddy believed that hard work — including in school — and self-discipline really could raise a man and his family up out of economic distress. Because it did it for him, and it did it for most of the men of his generation, and their families. By the time he retired, the job market had changed so much that he could not fully comprehend how unstable things were.
And yet, it is still the case that for most people, getting an education, having a strong work ethic, and getting married (and staying married) will produce a better economic outcome and greater stability than its opposite. What else is there to do? Yeah, marriage is hard. School is hard. Self-discipline is hard. It was never easy for anybody. Again: what’s the alternative for any of us? Failing to do those things will only result in us digging ourselves deeper into the hole. We can’t change everything, but we can take responsibility for those things we can change. In fact, we have to take responsibility for those things.
I think Daddy could have been more understanding of broad social and economic forces that drove people into poverty, or kept them there. But I think Daddy was more right than wrong, and even if he was quite wrong, his ethic was a noble one, a much better and more human one to live by than what’s on offer today. My father was less a Christian than some kind of existentialist, in that he believed in radical responsibility. This is why he didn’t have a lot of regard for inherited wealth either, and why he looked down on wealthy folks who didn’t work. You could be a millionaire, but in his eyes, if you were a hard worker who lived a morally responsible life, you were a good man. But if not, not. One of the problems he had with me is that he could not grasp how anybody could get paid for writing. It didn’t seem like real work to him. Deep down, he thought I was getting away with something.
Anyway, yes, my father’s worldview was flawed, in my judgment. But I think he and Kevin Williamson would have understood each other perfectly, though to be honest, it’s hard to think of my dad taking the harsh tone that Kevin often does. I think about him a lot, my dad, because even though we saw the world differently in many ways, I deeply admire the life he made for himself with what he was given, and I honor the values of self-discipline, work, getting an education, and taking personal responsibility, that he imparted to me. It was a real gift.
However, had my father lived, I’m pretty sure he would have voted for Trump, all that notwithstanding. He had a lot of anxiety about how the country that he knew and loved was going to hell, and I think he would have pulled the lever for Trump not as the lesser of two evils, but because he believed in him. My dad died in the summer of 2015, so I’ll never know for sure, but based on long conversations with him the last three years of his life, I can say with confidence that he would have been a Trump voter. For him, it would have been a matter of anguished nostalgia for a lost America. That would have kept him from seeing what Kevin Williamson saw clearly: that Trump is the repudiation of the kind of conservative values that my dad honored.
Daddy was afraid for the future, though, and reasonably so. I think part of his fear had to do with the fact that the decent, respectable white working class that he had grown up with, the people he understood, a class that he was proud to be a part of, was falling apart. He had lived long enough to see that, and it grieved him. I mean that: it really grieved him.
“I’m glad I’m not going to be around to see where all this is headed,” he said to me one day, watching the news. I didn’t disagree with him on that, but for me, the state of the world may not have been our fault, but it was our problem, and we have to figure out what to do about it. At this point, the greatest threats to our stable, meaningful lives are not the kind of things that can be voted away. This is why I work on the Benedict Option.
There is nothing Donald Trump, the Koch Brothers, the state of Louisiana, or anybody in this world can do for my friend that will make
her his life better than the things that he can do for himself, despite his poverty. And if he doesn’t do those things, it’s likely that nothing that anybody else does for him will make much difference.