The Useful Myth Of Mighty Whitey
Politico has a couple of interesting interviews focusing on the question, “What’s going on with the white working class?”
[Politico‘s Glenn] Thrush: If we’re looking statistically—and who the heck knows what’s really going to happen, but Nate Silver is giving Hillary Clinton around an 80 or 90 percent chance of winning as of today—what becomes of these folks without Trump? How does this manifest itself in the political dialogue? Is this group going to go quietly into the good night?
[Emory University historian Carol] Anderson: No, we are going to be dealing with it after Trump because Trump merely tapped into what was already there. What Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” tapped into was a layer of resentment in what was then the solid Democratic South, as well as the working-class white ethnic enclaves in the North and in the Midwest. It was very targeted. It stirred that pot. It told them that your ills, your stunted economic growth and opportunities, are because of them. And the “them” becomes racialized, and it worked so well that we get to this point where now you’d get a Paul Ryan who realizes that when they talk about “we couldn’t directly go after Trump because we were afraid of turning off his base, of getting his base to turn on us,” that base is what the GOP has been nurturing since 1968.
Thrush continues the questioning in a separate interview with “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance. Excerpt:
Glenn Thrush: Obvious question, but an important one: Why do you think Donald Trump’s tone resonates so much with white working-class people?
J.D. Vance: His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground. The no-bullshit tone, the anger …
Thrush: Why don’t Democrats, apart from Bernie Sanders, seem to get it?
Vance: I certainly think a lot of liberals are able to see what these people are going through, but there is this weird obsession—a preoccupation—with the belief that the Trump movement is all about racism. The Trump people are certainly more racist than the average white professional, but it doesn’t strike me that this is the 1950s. There is a certain amount of racial resentment, but it’s paired with economic insecurity, and a willingness to believe Trump and a lot of the things that he says, despite evidence that a lot of it isn’t true. I really worry if this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If he’s couching what he’s talking about in a racial resentment, and progressive elites are saying, “All these people are racist and xenophobic,” people’s attitudes are going to change and they are going to become more racist over time. That’s probably happening here. I actually think that Donald Trump is changing the way people think about other groups of people in a very negative way.
There’s a lot that can be said about these interviews, but I’ve chosen these two excerpts to make a point. Notice how the Emory historian falls back on the tried-and-true narrative of how the GOP racialized the grievances of whites, and exploited them for political gain (“It told them that your ills, your stunted economic growth and opportunities, are because of them”). And there is no doubt some truth buried beneath all that. J.D. Vance is strong in his book on how poor whites sabotage their own prospects by believing that they are helpless pawns in somebody else’s game. It is not the case that some white guy in Breathitt County who can’t be bothered to show up for work faithfully is poor because a Mexican immigrant has taken his job. That’s on him. That’s the kind of thing Vance is talking about. In his book, Vance talks about how he personally saw poor white welfare cheats ripping off the system, while at the same time denying that they were doing so (and probably thinking that blacks are the real welfare scammers).
However, it strikes me that what Anderson points to is exactly what the Democrats and liberal elites (such as academics) do to black Americans. They point to whites and say to blacks, “Your ills, your stunted economic growth and opportunities, are because of them.” And we can’t deny that there is more than a little truth to that as well, in a historical sense. The problem is the same dynamic that J.D. Vance identifies in poor white communities: it removes any sense of moral agency, of self-responsibility, from the lives of poor black people. It is not the case that a black male who drops out of high school and cannot find reliable work is denied material progress because of white racism. A young black woman cannot have children out of wedlock and expect the road to stability and economic success to be anything but steep. Whites aren’t making her have babies. And so on.
We have this weird thing in American life in which many people, on both the left and the right, seem incapable of thinking in gray terms when it comes to race, class, and economics. It’s either 100 percent the fault of racism, or 100 percent the fault of lazy people who ought to be bootstrapping their way out of poverty. Why can’t both be true to some extent? That there really are structural and historical barriers to blacks (and poor whites) rising, but that individual initiative and individual moral choices (for both blacks and whites) really do matter as well.
And there’s this, discussed by TAC editor Dan McCarthy in his cover story for the magazine about class and current politics:
Sanders has been more in line with his party’s orthodoxy on that issue. But that didn’t save him from being attacked by Clinton backers for having an insufficiently nonwhite base of support. Once again, what might have appeared to be a class conflict—in this case between a democratic socialist and an elite liberal with ties to high finance—could be explained away as really about race.
Race, like religion, is a real factor in how people vote. Its relevance to elite politics, however, is less clear. Something else has to account for why the establishment in both parties almost uniformly favors one approach to war, trade, and immigration, while outsider candidates as dissimilar as Buchanan, Nader, Paul, and Trump, and to a lesser extent Sanders, depart from the consensus.
The insurgents clearly do not represent a single class: they appeal to eclectic interests and groups. The foe they have all faced down, however—the bipartisan establishment—does resemble a class in its striking unity of outlook and interest. So what is this class, effectively the ruling class of the country?
But, as usual, I digress. Here’s a very good Boston Globe story about what it’s like to be white in Norcross, Ga., a community that has undergone tremendous change in a very short time because of immigration. Here’s a section of the piece that resonated with me, because 13 years ago I interviewed people like this woman in Irving, Texas, a Dallas suburb:
Some longtime residents have turned to state and county officials to change zoning and housing laws in a bid to preserve the old ways.
A leader in this effort is Faye McFarland, who cleans homes for a living and keeps a US flag flying near her front door.
The 70-year old recalled living in Germany when her husband was in the Army. None of the Germans catered to her wants and ways then, and she doesn’t see why she’s expected to do so now.
Her main complaint came when a Guatemalan family moved into a tiny ranch house next door. She said she counted 15 people living there. But what really set her off was that the family seemed to be running a siding and roofing business out of the home. About a dozen cars would be parked outside and supplies would be piled up, an eyesore in a residential neighborhood.
She felt like she was living next to a warehouse, and at night there would be work trucks parked on the lawn. Her new neighbors, she said, would simply pay fines for violating the zoning law but didn’t change the way they were living.
“My quality of life was absolutely destroyed with all those folks and all of those vehicles,” McFarland recalled.
She began going to City Council meetings. Armed with photographs and persistence, she’d make her case over and over. “We would put up the pictures and say, ‘This is what I have to live beside,’ ” McFarland said.
The council finally passed an ordinance: Now only up to four cars can be parked on a driveway of a house in Norcross. Additional vehicles need a permit from the city.
Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson said the ordinance has worked. “We had people parking all over the place,” he said. “We don’t have that situation anymore.”
And McFarland’s neighbors, perhaps tired of her calling various law and code enforcement agencies all the time, packed up and moved out.
“We have fought for this neighborhood,” McFarland says. “We have really had to fight.”
To a lot of people in power — both Republicans and Democrats — people like Faye McFarland are at best an embarrassment and at worst “deplorables.” The Faye McFarlands of the world have judged rightly that the Establishment doesn’t give a rat’s rear end about them. There will not be Emory professors offering theories about why the Democratic Party, academics, and liberals in the media — as well as big-business conservatives — frame the Faye McFarlands as enemies of what is good and right and decent, for the sake of disempowering them.
Bless Annie Linskey of the Boston Globe for simply giving them a voice in a news story. The Washington Post‘s great Stephanie McCrummen does this too, for poor whites on the fringe (remember this piece about Dylann Roof?). I’ve come to anticipate articles written by Mike Cooper, a lawyer and Democrat who lives in small-town North Carolina, and who writes with critical sympathy about the lives of the working-class and poor whites he sees. He has a new piece in US Newsabout how Trump is a false idol for people who are truly suffering. Excerpt:
Trump’s followers are anxiously falling out of the middle-class and can’t afford to retire. Their jobs were destroyed by smartphones and they’re too old to enroll in community college with their kids.
Western civilization went from rewarding their hard work to rendering them useless, so Trump’s Americans mourn the economy they built with their own sweat. Their heart is broken and they feel no sense of honor in the call center or behind the counter of the dollar store. They don’t want welfare. They just want their dignity back.
The Democratic Party cut their cultural connection to these Americans, Republicans took them for granted and it took Washington almost a decade to realize working-class whites were dying from their own despair. It was too late.
Trump promised victories when no other politician seemed to care. But he’s a false idol taking advantage of honest fears.
I agree with this. The heartbreaking thing is that Trump’s not going to do anything for these people. Some of the problems they face are beyond any politician’s ability to fix. Here’s the thing, though: long after Trump has left the scene, they are going to continue being the Establishment’s villains. They wouldn’t put it in these terms, but many of them are aware that liberals in positions of power control public discourse to marginalize their voices, while granting privileges to other groups solely on the basis of race, gender, and sexuality. It’s called “celebrating diversity” when they do it, but called bigotry when these whites do it. This is not news. What is news this political year is that these slurs are starting to lose their power.
Don’t get me wrong: I have a strong aversion to political organizing around race and tribe, given the history of white supremacy in power in this country, and the heady power that comes with a mob mentality. But the identity politics embraced and proclaimed by the Left validates political organizing around race and tribe. And the way liberal and progressive elites tend to demonize everyone to their Right (don’t believe men should use the women’s room? BIGOT!), and attempt to dispossess them, may compel whites to organize that way simply as a matter of self-protection. God help this country if that happens.
By stigmatizing and/or ignoring people like Faye MacDonald, and valorizing others solely on the basis of racial, sexual, and gender identity, the Left has been inadvertently laying the groundwork for something very, very nasty in this country. And the decline of Christianity, especially among the working class, has removed a restraining factor. As Ross Douthat has said, if you don’t like the Religious Right, just wait to see the Post-Religious Right. It’s coming. The fact that Donald Trump defeated the entire GOP establishment to become the Republican Party’s nominee for president shows that it’s already here.
That Emory historian can say that white working-class racism is going to outlast Trump because the Republican party has been stoking it for decades, but she is blind to the role that progressive bigotries play in this process, because if she’s anything like most socially progressive elites in academia, media, business, law, and government, she sees those bigotries as virtues.
UPDATE: Forgive me for those rambling, inchoate comments. Like many of you, I’m struggling to understand what’s happening in US politics, and finding something to dislike and distrust about everything and everybody. I’m glad that a blog is just a writer’s sketchbook, not a place for polished work. For a much more coherent discussion of these themes, read Joshua Rothman’s smart, detailed, favorable New Yorker review of J.D. Vance’s great book. Especially these parts:
Why is hillbilly culture so defensive, insular, and frozen in time? Vance argues that—because no culture exists in a vacuum—hillbillies are only partially to blame. In the course of his journey from Middletown to the Marines to Yale, Vance finds that hillbilly pessimism is, in its toxicity, equalled by the disdain that metropolitan people feel for those they call “rednecks” or “white trash.” The Marine Corps is a genuine American melting pot and, for Vance, a transformative experience. But, at Yale, Vance learns that he’s better off hiding the details of his upbringing. He elides the fact that he was raised mainly by his grandparents (a normal circumstance where he comes from), and begins talking about his “grandmother” and “grandfather” even though, at home, he calls them “Mamaw” and “Papaw.” He braves Whole Foods, learns to make cocktail-party chitchat, and endeavors to keep his voice down in public (restaurant screaming matches are unexceptional among Middletown couples). He is shocked by the extreme and near-universal affluence of his classmates.
White poverty, Vance comes to feel, is a source of special shame: no one at Yale sees dignity in it. Instead, they define themselves in opposition to people like him. One professor says that, in his opinion, Yale Law shouldn’t bother accepting students from non-Ivy League schools, since it’s not in the business of “remedial education.” Vance takes a new friend to Cracker Barrel, one of his family’s favorite restaurants, but the friend can’t enjoy it—to him, it’s just “a greasy public health crisis.” There’s nothing Vance is prouder of than his service in the Marines, and yet his fellow-students routinely express contempt for the military—it never occurs to them that there’s a veteran in their midst. Vance often feels like a class traitor who’s grown “too big for his britches.” At the same time, he’s tempted to give up on the project of socioeconomic ascent. “It’s not just our own communities that reinforce the outsider attitude,” he concludes. “It’s the places and people that upward mobility connects us with.”
It’s through these back doors of memory and family history that “Hillbilly Elegy” arrives at its broadest subject: our hopelessly politicized approach to thinking about poverty. At least since the Moynihan Report, in 1965, Americans have tended to answer the question “Why are people poor?” by choosing one of two responses: they can either point to economic forces (globalization, immigration) or blame cultural factors (decaying families, lack of “grit”). These seem like two social-science theories about poverty—two hypotheses, which might be tested empirically—but, in practice, they are more like political fairy tales. As Kelefa Sanneh wrote earlier this year, the choice between these two explanations has long been racialized. Working-class whites are said to be poor because of outsourcing; inner-city blacks are imagined to be holding themselves back with hip-hop. The implicit theory is that culture comes from within, and so can be controlled by individuals and communities, whereas economic structures exert pressures from without, and so are beyond the control of those they affect.
This theory is useful to politicians, because political ideologies function by identifying some people as powerless and others as powerful. The truth, though, is that the “culture vs. economics” dyad is largely a fantasy. We are neither prisoners of our economic circumstances nor lords of our cultures, able to reshape them at will. It would be more accurate to say that cultural and economic forces act, with entwined and equal power, on and through all of us—and that we all have an ability, limited but real, to harness or resist them.
Rothman concludes his reading of “Hillbilly Elegy” by saying:
As individuals, we must stop thinking about American poverty in an imaginary way; we must abandon the terms of the argument we’ve been having—terms designed to harness our feelings of blame and resentment for political ends, and to make us feel either falsely blameless or absurdly self-determining.
UPDATE.2: A reader writes:
The congregation I serve is an interesting mix near [deleted]. We’ve got [deleted] professors and students. We’ve also got white working class folks just hanging on. As a congregation it could be an unstable mix. The professionals have it together and the congregation depends upon them, while much of the ministry is working with people on the fringes of the congregation and family situations that beggar belief.
But the point is one about how the media and professional society in general treat these folks. This last Sunday the gospel lesson was Luke 15:1-10, the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin. The parables are told in response to a specific situation. The tax collectors and sinners are drawing near to Jesus to hear. The Pharisees and Scribes, far away as they were at John the Baptist’s baptism, respond by shouting, “This one receives sinners, and eats with them!” To that Jesus tells the parables. Unlike the moralistic “be nice” gloss these normally receive, i.e. respectable Pharisees why can’t you just give the sinners a break, the situation is Jesus telling the Pharisees that they are the ones lost. In the context of the gospel where sinners draw near to hear, it is the Pharisees that intentionally withdraw and set up high boundaries and demand that anyone respectable (i.e. Jesus) do the same.
Is racism a sin? Yes. Is it the largest besetting sin in these people’s lives? It doesn’t even come close. Yet the political and professional culture shouts and stigmatizes anyone who would work with the white working class, just like the lost Pharisees “these ones receive sinners and eat with them”. It is how they reaffirm their separate and higher caste. Those sinners are irredeemable to them. Partly because if they were redeemed there is no clear separation marker anymore. Jesus’ response is never to deny the sin. It is pretty hard to find a tougher chapter on sin than the preceding Luke 12-14 which includes the “narrow door” and “repent or perish”. But Jesus never turns away the sinner who draws near to hear. The parables are really a plea to the Pharisees to see that they are the one sheep that has separated themselves from the 99 who have drawn near, that they are just as sinful but in a much worse place because they don’t know that.
Politics isn’t the church, but it is a place where we debate and define morality. The new class needs white working class sinners to define themselves against. And as with all Pharisees, you can never be pure enough.