White Angst Presents an Opportunity

Somewhat disturbingly, I have to largely agree with Ross Douthat on the likeliest explanation for why working class whites (and only working class whites) are seeing an increase in their mortality rate in this country. Although, unsurprisingly, I’d put the emphasis less on losing their religion and family structures and more on something else that Douthat identified.

Noting that religious practice has fallen faster recently among less-educated whites than among less-educated blacks and Hispanics, [Andrew Cherlin and Brad Wilcox’s] paper argues that white social institutions, blue-collar as well as white-collar, have long reflected a “bourgeois moral logic” that binds employment, churchgoing, the nuclear family and upward mobility.

But in an era of stagnating wages, family breakdown, and social dislocation, this logic no longer seems to make as much sense. The result is a mounting feeling of what the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher calls white “dispossession” — a sense of promises broken, a feeling that what you were supposed to have has been denied to you. (The Donald Trump phenomenon, Dreher notes, feeds off precisely this anxiety.)

For obvious historical reasons, though, Hispanic and (especially) black communities have cultivated a different set of expectations, a different model of community and family (more extended and matriarchal), a different view of success and the American story writ large.

These distinctives come with their own set of problems, particularly where family structure and fatherhood are concerned. But they may create a kind of resilience, a capacity for dealing with stagnation and disappointment (and elite indifference or hostility), which many working-class white Americans did not necessarily expect to ever need.

In this context, the word “resilience” is doing a lot of work. But it’s the right word.

I think the best analogy I’ve seen for this is that white Americans have been playing the game on the lowest difficulty setting. Like a video game that allows you to start off as a beginner and advance to expert, people who have never had to deal with the worst the economy can bring are not as well prepared to deal with ever-increasing levels of adversity.

What we’re seeing is a lot of folks who are just giving up and turning to alcoholism and opioids because they don’t have experience with playing the game on the expert level.

Now, maybe that’s insulting to white folks, and that’s not my intention. But the black community has already experienced high unemployment, drug epidemics, mass incarceration, and the sensation that the system is rigged and just biased against them. That’s the default setting of their lives, and always has been in this country.

So, yeah, partly, white folks have to up their game. But they also need to adjust their expectations. Douthat seems to get this:

Maybe sustained growth, full employment and a welfare state that’s friendlier to work and family can help revive that nexus. Or maybe working-class white America needs to adapt culturally, in various ways, to this era of relative stagnation, and learn from the resilience of communities that are used to struggling in the shadow of elite neglect.

Or maybe it will take a little bit of both, more money and new paths to resilience alike, to make some of the unhappiest white lives feel like they matter once again.

The first thing they need to figure out is that they aren’t going to get to play this game on the beginner setting anymore and that yelling at the better players is no substitute for watching and learning from what they do.

The second thing they need to figure out is that their lives still matter and that they can change things for the better by joining with the folks who’ve been getting screwed from the beginning.

Now, it’s been frustrating to watch white and black progressives argue about priorities in this election, and both sides need to learn. White progressives need to better understand that these class issues are so ingrained in our minority communities that they simply don’t seem all that pressing. It’s like complaining that there are too many alien invaders on Level 12 of your video game. It’s like complaining about potholes or bad schools or things that never change. Those things are always a concern, but they’re different in type from being denied the right to vote or getting gunned down by the police. Basic civil rights are what’s on the minds of minority voters, and white progressives need to respect that.

Black progressives, however, need to understand that something is changing. Where once they had few natural allies on class issues and structural biases in the system, they now have a cohort of working class whites who should be welcomed into the tent.

That’s not easy when a lot of those working class whites are still kicking and screaming and acting out their frustration with racist acts and statements. But, with your eyes open, you can see that whites are having their own crack epidemic with heroin and oxycontins. They’re beginning to support sentencing and prison reform. They’re as fed up with the post-Citizens United campaign finance system as anyone. They’re pissed off at Wall Street.

I don’t know if Hillary can bring these whites into the fold and I don’t know if Bernie can bring blacks into his fold, but between them they have the basic idea right.

Perhaps what’s needed here is for blacks and whites to give permission to their politicians to go after each other’s votes. And this is just a suggestion, but I’m guessing that the folks who’ve been playing the game of life on the harder difficulty setting will need to be the folks who offer the first olive branch.

It should surprise no one if the minority community figures this out first.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.