In August Ann Case and Angus Deaton published an amazing paper called “Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century” that has been roiling the waters of American journalism and politics ever since. The surprise discovery is that, while death rates in developed nations around the world are still dropping, in the US among white, non-hispanic (as they say) people between 45 and 54 the death rate is rising. Much of this rise is attributable to self-inflicted harm such as substance abuse and suicide. It’s also the case that white people with less money and education are the ones dying off. Well-off, well-educated white people are still fine.
Debates about what this means have been all over the map. But I just read this piece by Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, which is very smart, reasonable, and suggestive.
Basically, Marshall writes, the die off indicates a radical loss of hope and future due to the fast-shifting demographics and power structure in the United States. The American population is changing; old race and class structures are beginning to crumble (not a moment too soon). The people with the least capacity for living with change are the ones at the bottom of the heretofore privileged class.
This thought structure, it seems to me, has been preserved through to the 21st century in one form or other. But the contradictions of reality are finally beginning to impinge. The rage of the Tea Party and the Trumpite GOP points straight at the symbols of threatened privilege from political correctness to Planned Parenthood to voter registration to American Muslims to the Confederate flag.
Now what’s really interesting to me is the fact that when the left thunders against white privilege it paints all whites as privileged. And they are. But the generalization misses the nuance: a majority of underclass whites have NO PRIVILEGE ASIDE FROM RACE. The black slaves called them poor white trash and looked down upon them (which only enraged them more). Structural racism has been the ONLY PRIVILEGE these people have enjoyed. And now it’s being taken away from them. Now they must face the fact that they have nothing of their own to fall back on. No resources, no education, no special rights, no reserved place in society, no identity.
Let me say this again. The trouble with accusations of white privilege (and what makes lots of underclass whites angry) is that a large number of white people are not privileged at all, can’t get jobs, have no influence or pull, except that they are white and can FEEL better than people of colour. This is not a real position of privilege; it’s more of a phenomenological sense of superiority. It’s ugly, a fantasy, and self-deceiving, but it makes them feel better about themselves. More or less consciously, this is a perceived superiority, an identity, they don’t want to give up. And it’s all they have.
To fill out the nuance I need to add that white privilege is a fact. Nothing I’ve said explains that away at all. But there are several more or less distinct classes of white people and privilege. There are certainly some well-educated, cosmopolitan white people who are comfortable with change and a multi-racial society. And then there is an oligarchic class of white privilege that really does want to maintain power, influence, and status. This is the equivalent of the planter class in the South prior to the Civil War, a class that used paranoia and racial separation to manipulate and control both black and white underclasses. Then, as now, the white underclass, the violent, impoverished good old boys were/are the truly dangerous crowd. And they are mad. They will not go down quietly.
But wouldn’t it be nice if they got mad at the people who are actually responsible for their manipulation and subjugation (hint: not black people, not Hispanics, not natives, not Muslims, not Jews, not women…). Instead of letting voices of oligarchic privilege orchestrate their anger (as the planter class did in the Old South; think: how did they get all those poor, non-slave-holding, good old boys to fight in the Army of Virginia?), imagine them turning their anger on the appropriate parties and voting them away.
This is not say that poor, ill-educated white people are just plain awful. But history, poverty, and class have dropped an evil cage over their heads that is increasingly difficult to escape. They have fewer avenues for individual betterment and fewer avenues for political expression, at least avenues in the old sense. Change is increasingly not an avenue they embrace; they rant against it and cheer on the demagogues. Under stress, hopeless, their mudsill of identity crumbling, they opt increasingly, on the one hand, for the well worn paths of hatred and resentment, and on the other hand, for the dubious escape of substance abuse and even suicide.
[A somewhat analogous drama has been working itself out in Canada, where the Conservative government, now defeated, ran on neo-liberal, tea partyish, divisive policies, playing up Muslim threats and crime issues (all code for protecting what the then prime minister called “old stock Canadians” which is code, yes, for white Anglo people). When Justin Trudeau was elected, he quickly put together a cabinet that is 50% women and included a man in a wheel chair, Sikhs, native Canadians, and French-Canadians. When asked about the diverse profile of his cabinet, he had two reactions. 1) He wanted the cabinet to look like Canada as whole. 2) It’s 2015. This is a man comfortable with change.]
Read Josh Marshall’s text “You Can’t Understand American Politics Without Reading This Study” here @Talking Points Memo.
A day later Marshall added new charts and figures based on a critique of the original study. The new graphs don’t change the thrust of his essay, but they add fascinating specificity to the original stats. For example, it turns out white women have a death rate rising faster than white men.
- “What Cash develops throughout his book is what he identifies as the enormously hedonistic quality of the Southern people. He sees them as self-satisfied, complacent. They will not be diverted from their smugness, their unwillingness to look critically at what they are, with the result that throughout their history anyone who has attempted to point out to them the extent to which they are being used and manipulated for the benefit of those in power has been unable to get anywhere. Conversely, those who have flattered their self-esteem and confirmed them in their prejudices have been able to manipulate them to vote and act contrary to their own economic and political interests.” W.J. Cash After Fifty Years By Louis D. Rubin in http://www.vqronline.org/essay/wj-cash-after-fifty-years↵
- There, at the core of Southern capitalism, Johnson detailed how the masters performed a kind of ritual, conjuring their own whiteness and masculinity as they jockeyed for status at the slave pens. In turn, because so much of the master’s sense of his own self rested on the situation at the auction block, slaves had an opportunity to manipulate their buyers and sellers, and thereby their own fate. While the masters built their identities by performing for one another, the slaves preserved their lives by performing for their buyers—all morbid “advertisements for myself” in the charnel house of Southern consumerism.” Gabriel Winant in “Slave Capitalism” in N+1 Issue 17: The Evil Issue Fall 2013↵
- “The term white trash first came into common use in the 1830s as a pejorative used by house slaves against poor whites. In 1833 Fanny Kemble, an English actress visiting Georgia, noted in her journal: “The slaves themselves entertain the very highest contempt for white servants, whom they designate as ‘poor white trash'” ” This is from a fascinating discussion of the origins of the phrase at http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/41778/what-is-the-early-recorded-use-of-white-trash-and-has-its-meaning-changed-over↵