Dec 052015

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[3] 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.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. “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
  2. 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
  3. “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

  6 Responses to “From the NC Office of Gross Oversimplification: White people dying off & why”

  1. Maybe a related question, Doug: how well is the white underclass represented in literature? I don’t know the answer, but my sense is not much. If I’m right, why that is so might open up the discussion about the state of affairs today. Faulkner at least gave sharecroppers existence, and on occasion some dignity.

    • I would have thought very well represented, esp if you include the romanticized literature of the Civil War, southern writers (Faulkner, of course, Barry Hannah, Bobbie Ann Mason, Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers to name just a few off the top of my head). Also people like Denis Johnson, Hubert Selby, etc. All literature and movies that glorify the Good Old Boys. Steinbeck, for sure. My short story “Tristiana” is a foray into the field.

      The rebel white underclass is a great and glorious American subject (says he, somewhat cynically). Whether literature sees its subject correctly or in fantasy is another question. By contrast, there is really very little representation of blacks or natives.

      • No, I mean now, in the last ten years. Denis Johnson is a good example though.

        • Pinckney Benedict? I have a collection of his stories called “The Wrecking Yard”. That one came out in 1992 but he is still busy. Annie Proulx, very conscientious in writing about work, which is not common. Yes, Denis Johnson, for “Angels” which scares the bejeesus out of you.

          As for the literary possibilities for this hellbound population, there is for sure an All-American novel to be had from the Bakken, and a Canadian from the tar sands. Having the two of them to compare would be very interesting.

          On the topic of dg’s post: Fox Butterfield wrote a book way back about a black man who was then the most violent prisoner in the country. Butterfield thought he could trace the conventional recourse to violence in that man’s family to ante-bellum South Carolina. Blacks, outside the law and so without redress, adopted from whites high and low the practice of settling matters of honour and reputation without going to the law. Dis me and die. I vaguely recall a study of U.S. murder that showed how the greater proportion of killings followed on spats over relative trifles. People just could not bear to be slighted.

          But there is another and more comprehensive way of looking at it than black and white pride and white privilege, one which accounts also for Appalachia, where there have never been many blacks, as well as for the lowland south.

          Years ago we were at the Louisville Zoo and found there a scaled-down replica of the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial, in fibreglass I believe. This was touring the country on a flatbed, so that people who could not travel to Washington could nonetheless see their dead recognized. Tributes of flowers had been placed along the foot of the wall, some with notes attached. It was troubling to me. What with this and a trip to Berea College and my mother-in-law’s subscribing me to “Goldenseal”, the magazine of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, I eventually got to “Apples on the Flood”, Rodger Cunningham’s highly explanatory book on “The Southern Mountain Experience” — with epigraphs from Blake, R.D. Laing, and Hugh O’Connor, a documentary filmmaker “shot for trespass by Hobart Ison, Lecher County, Kentucky, September 1967,” whose last words were, “Why did you have to do that?” Cunningham’s book attempts to answer the question by examining the “psychological heredity” of the Scots-Irish who came to live in the mountains.

          Essentially, he adapts political-economic “peripherilization” theory to discuss the psychological consequences of living in an intermediate region, between a metropolitan core, which conceives itself as civilized, and an outer land which the core deems savage. ( As a Canadian this schema is of course of great interest to me.) “The result for the ‘savage’ ” Cunningham writes, “Even when the latter has been spared physical extermination, has been psychic and socio-cultural destruction. Again and again, a stable society of mature adults has been disrupted by ‘civilized’ efforts (even, or especially, well-meaning efforts) to ‘raise’ it from a state defined as ‘childish’ — and these efforts have created a self-fulfilling prophecy of turmoil and dependency.” The putative savages soon learn to regard the civilized as the savage ones, while the intermediate have “impaired identities.” They are in everyone’s boundary zone, on two peripheries. “Thus they are manipulated into carrying out the metropole’s genocidal program while being culturally and socially destroyed themselves. They are encouraged to see themselves as the representatives of ‘civilization’ against ‘savagery’, while the metropolitan in fact looks on them as little, if at all, better than savages themselves.”

          There is a lot more though. The arguments are various and subtle, Blake and Laing are not on the doorpost for decoration, and Cunningham leads us eventually all the way to “The Region of Merlin”, defending myth against the charge that it is always an “individualistic distraction from collective struggles in the concrete world.”

          I see in the CBC’s online Top Stories that the corp has decided to discontinue comments on aboriginal stories, owing to the indecorous character of many of the contributions. The accompanying clip has aboriginal employees reading a selection. I don’t know which is worse, to let our aboriginal brothers and sisters be insulted by the bigots, or to silence them so that the rest of us lose track of the whole mentality of our countrymen. At this point, probably the second, because aboriginal self regard has become very strong again, probably strong enough to withstand the contempt. I just don’t know.

          • Thanks, Shawn. The Wrecking Yard was in my mind, but in haste I didn’t mention it. I wrote a review of that when it came out and later reprinted it on NC. Of course.

            There are some brilliant books and papers on violence and Southern honour. Elliott Gorn’s “Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch: The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry” and Wyatt-Brown’s Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South are two texts I’ve read. There are more, but it’s late.

            Thanks for the peripheralization theory. I will have to look into that.

            A very interesting response. I appreciate it very much.


  2. The causes of the white midlife mortality are alarming. I mentioned this post to a doctor friend of mine who said he wasn’t surprised at all. One problem he researched is widespread addiction to oxycodone, a pernicious painkiller freely prescribed by doctors and pushed by the drug companies—very much a backwoods phenomenon.

    Cash can read like a gloss to Faulkner, where we see the owner/slave/white trash dynamics come into play. However perverse and corrupting, this structure provided a basis for identity for poor whites. I wonder what has taken its place now and whether that replacement has been reflected in recent literature, especially in the South, the reason for my question. Or if they have anything. The Confederate flag is now seen as a symbol for racism, especially after the Charleston slaying. No wonder they turn to Trump.

    And thanks, Shawn. I wonder if poor whites aren’t seen by the culture now as “savages,” suffering the effects of marginalization you describe. My sense today is that in polite civilized society, poor whites aren’t a group we’re supposed to talk about, thus the awkwardness of this discussion.

    Or do we all, on some level deep down, see ourselves as marginalized “savages.” That might explain our fascination and horror with Denis Johnson’s characters.

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