A View of Whiteness That Is Literally Killing People

There can be no doubt that, starting 20 to 30 years ago, the American economy stopped working well for middle class Americans.

Over the same period [1971-2015], however, the nation’s aggregate household income has substantially shifted from middle-income to upper-income households, driven by the growing size of the upper-income tier and more rapid gains in income at the top. Fully 49% of U.S. aggregate income went to upper-income households in 2014, up from 29% in 1970. The share accruing to middle-income households was 43% in 2014, down substantially from 62% in 1970.

With unemployment at the lowest it’s been in decades, the issue has shifted from jobs to wages.

[D]espite the strong labor market, wage growth has lagged economists’ expectations. In fact, despite some ups and downs over the past several decades, today’s real average wage (that is, the wage after accounting for inflation) has about the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago. And what wage gains there have been have mostly flowed to the highest-paid tier of workers.

That is the kind of data to which researchers often point in order to explain what is driving the “deaths of despair” (those related to addiction and suicide) that we are witnessing among middle-aged white people. But it is important to keep in mind the demographics of the group that has been the most adversely affected by these economic trends—working class Americans.

According to the latest data, non-Hispanic white people make up 64 percent of the overall adult population but just 59 percent of the working class, whereas 75 years ago, those percentages were nearly equal. African American workers make up 14 percent of today’s working class, and Hispanic workers make up 21 percent. The non-Hispanic white share of the working class began to fall dramatically after 1970, when it stood at 85 percent.

While African Americans and Latinos continue to fare poorly in terms of their overall rates of death and disease, the racial gap with white Americans has been reduced in recent years due to these “deaths of despair.” Why haven’t the same factors affected mortality rates among people of color? Carol Graham noted that poor black Americans are more optimistic than whites.

The starkest disparity is found in the detail that poor black people are almost three times as likely to be a point higher on the optimism scale than poor white people. And poor black people are half as likely to report experiencing stress the previous day than poor white people.

Desperation, stress, and worry are closely linked to a greater risk of premature death, regardless of income or race.  People with low levels of optimism and high levels of stress and worry are more likely to die from deaths of despair, or to live in areas with high levels of such deaths. The link is strongest for poor white people without a college education, especially those who live in rural areas.

In attempting to answer the question about why this particular racial disparity exists, Graham looks almost exclusively at the resiliency factors that contribute to optimism among African Americans. But it is equally, and perhaps more important to examine the lack of resilience among white Americans.

Victor Tan Chen suggests that the answer might lie in the fact that “patches of the social fabric that once supported them, in good times and bad, have frayed.” He points to higher rates of white working class people who are deciding not to marry and a waning of religious beliefs. Those could very well be contributors, but they could also be a result of despair, leading to a spiraling effect.

Jonathan M. Metzl, who has written a book titled, Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland, was interrupted last Saturday while giving a talk at a bookstore.

One of the protesters told the audience that “you would have the white working class trade their homeland for handouts,” after which the group resumed their chants of “this land is our land.” That led Metzl to write that, “it’s time to talk about what it means to be white in the United States.” Contrary to what a lot of people might assume, that is not a conversation we have engaged.

For too long, many white Americans have avoided this conversation, and we’ve done so for a reason: We don’t have to see the color white. Race scholars often argue that white privilege broadly means not needing to reflect on whiteness. White is the default setting, the assumed norm.

In writing about the struggles of white people in Hazleton, Pennsylvania to adapt to the changing demographics of their town, Michele Norris reached the same conclusion.

For decades, examining race in America meant focusing on the advancement and struggles of people of color. Under this framework, being white was simply the default. Every other race or ethnic group was “other-ized,” and matters of race were the problem and province of people of color. In a period bookended by the presidential elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the question of what it means to be white in America has increasingly taken center stage.

What the protesters at Metzl’s book event were espousing is the white identity being peddled by our current president.

Trumpian rhetoric defines white identity not by shared values but by shared resentments. Whiteness, in this telling, is under siege. Walled behind Trump’s claim that the country is “full,” and his equivocations on white extremism, lies the notion that immigrants and citizens of color are usurping the privileges of whiteness. This narrative is then amplified by increasingly emboldened white nationalists like the ones who sought to shout me down Saturday.

Trump did not invent insecure whiteness. He is only a skilled manipulator of the fears at its heart.

That is how Trump is tearing this country apart right now: he is responding to the despair that white working class Americans are experiencing by feeding them white identity politics grounded in shared resentments. While empathizing with their pain and supporting proposals to deal with the economic drivers is necessary, it are not sufficient to address what is happening.

A mentality that sees whiteness under siege and therefore, is unable to adapt to the inevitable changes we are facing, is literally killing white people. As Metzl suggests, “what’s needed is a language to promote different ways of being white.” That starts with a refusal to engage the topic of race relations from the zero sum formulation of winners and losers and instead, recognize our shared values and interests. It also means being willing to embrace both the positives and negatives of America’s whiteness—the foundation for any level of identity formation.

That would be a difficult journey for a lot of white people to take, which is why so many have avoided it for a long time. But lives are on the line, and that isn’t simply because white supremacists are committing acts of terrorism—although that should be enough of a wake-up call for a nation with a conscience. But if it takes self-interest to motivate change, the reality is that white people are dying too.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.