By Barbara Ehrenreich, a founding editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (now in a 10th anniversary edition with a new afterword) and most recently the autobiographical Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything. Originally published at TomDispatch
The white working class, which usually inspires liberal concern only for its paradoxical, Republican-leaning voting habits, has recently become newsworthy for something else: according to economist Anne Case and Angus Deaton, the winner of the latest Nobel Prize in economics, its members in the 45- to 54-year-old age group are dying at an immoderate rate. While the lifespan of affluent whites continues to lengthen, the lifespan of poor whites has been shrinking. As a result, in just the last four years, the gap between poor white men and wealthier ones has widened by up to four years. The New York Times summed up the Deaton and Case study with this headline: “Income Gap, Meet the Longevity Gap.”
This was not supposed to happen. For almost a century, the comforting American narrative was that better nutrition and medical care would guarantee longer lives for all. So the great blue-collar die-off has come out of the blue and is, as the Wall Street Journal says, “startling.”It was especially not supposed to happen to whites who, in relation to people of color, have long had the advantage of higher earnings, better access to health care, safer neighborhoods, and of course freedom from the daily insults and harms inflicted on the darker-skinned. There has also been a major racial gap in longevity — 5.3 years between white and black men and 3.8 years between white and black women — though, hardly noticed, it has been narrowing for the last two decades. Only whites, however, are now dying off in unexpectedly large numbers in middle age, their excess deaths accounted for by suicide, alcoholism, and drug (usually opiate) addiction.
There are some practical reasons why whites are likely to be more efficient than blacks at killing themselves. For one thing, they are more likely to be gun-owners, and white men favor gunshots as a means of suicide. For another, doctors, undoubtedly acting in part on stereotypes of non-whites as drug addicts, are more likely to prescribe powerful opiate painkillers to whites than to people of color. (I’ve been offered enough oxycodone prescriptions over the years to stock a small illegal business.)
Manual labor — from waitressing to construction work — tends to wear the body down quickly, from knees to back and rotator cuffs, and when Tylenol fails, the doctor may opt for an opiate just to get you through the day.
The Wages of Despair
But something more profound is going on here, too. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman puts it, the “diseases” leading to excess white working class deaths are those of “despair,” and some of the obvious causes are economic. In the last few decades, things have not been going well for working class people of any color.
I grew up in an America where a man with a strong back — and better yet, a strong union — could reasonably expect to support a family on his own without a college degree. In 2015, those jobs are long gone, leaving only the kind of work once relegated to women and people of color available in areas like retail, landscaping, and delivery-truck driving. This means that those in the bottom 20% of white income distribution face material circumstances like those long familiar to poor blacks, including erratic employment and crowded, hazardous living spaces.
White privilege was never, however, simply a matter of economic advantage. As the great African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1935, “It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage.”
Some of the elements of this invisible wage sound almost quaint today, like Du Bois’s assertion that white working class people were “admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools.” Today, there are few public spaces that are not open, at least legally speaking, to blacks, while the “best” schools are reserved for the affluent — mostly white and Asian American along with a sprinkling of other people of color to provide the fairy dust of “diversity.” While whites have lost ground economically, blacks have made gains, at least in the de jure sense. As a result, the “psychological wage” awarded to white people has been shrinking.
For most of American history, government could be counted on to maintain white power and privilege by enforcing slavery and later segregation. When the federal government finally weighed in on the side of desegregation, working class whites were left to defend their own diminishing privilege by moving rightward toward the likes of Alabama Governor (and later presidential candidate) George Wallace and his many white pseudo-populist successors down to Donald Trump.
At the same time, the day-to-day task of upholding white power devolved from the federal government to the state and then local level, specifically to local police forces, which, as we know, have taken it up with such enthusiasm as to become both a national and international scandal. The Guardian, for instance, now keeps a running tally of the number of Americans (mostly black) killed by cops (as of this moment, 1,209 for 2015), while black protest, in the form of the Black Lives Matter movement and a wave of on-campus demonstrations, has largely recaptured the moral high ground formerly occupied by the civil rights movement.
The culture, too, has been inching bit by bit toward racial equality, if not, in some limited areas, black ascendency. If the stock image of the early twentieth century “Negro” was the minstrel, the role of rural simpleton in popular culture has been taken over in this century by the characters in Duck Dynasty and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. At least in the entertainment world, working class whites are now regularly portrayed as moronic, while blacks are often hyper-articulate, street-smart, and sometimes as wealthy as Kanye West. It’s not easy to maintain the usual sense of white superiority when parts of the media are squeezing laughs from the contrast between savvy blacks and rural white bumpkins, as in the Tina Fey comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. White, presumably upper-middle class people generally conceive of these characters and plot lines, which, to a child of white working class parents like myself, sting with condescension.
Of course, there was also the election of the first black president. White, native-born Americans began to talk of “taking our country back.” The more affluent ones formed the Tea Party; less affluent ones often contented themselves with affixing Confederate flag decals to their trucks.
On the American Downward Slope
All of this means that the maintenance of white privilege, especially among the least privileged whites, has become more difficult and so, for some, more urgent than ever. Poor whites always had the comfort of knowing that someone was worse off and more despised than they were; racial subjugation was the ground under their feet, the rock they stood upon, even when their own situation was deteriorating.
If the government, especially at the federal level, is no longer as reliable an enforcer of white privilege, then it’s grassroots initiatives by individuals and small groups that are helping to fill the gap — perpetrating the micro-aggressions that roil college campuses, the racial slurs yelled from pickup trucks, or, at a deadly extreme, the shooting up of a black church renowned for its efforts in the Civil Rights era. Dylann Roof, the Charleston killer who did just that, was a jobless high school dropout and reportedly a heavy user of alcohol and opiates. Even without a death sentence hanging over him, Roof was surely headed toward an early demise.
Acts of racial aggression may provide their white perpetrators with a fleeting sense of triumph, but they also take a special kind of effort. It takes effort, for instance, to target a black runner and swerve over to insult her from your truck; it takes such effort — and a strong stomach — to paint a racial slur in excrement on a dormitory bathroom wall. College students may do such things in part out of a sense of economic vulnerability, the knowledge that as soon as school is over their college-debt payments will come due. No matter the effort expended, however, it is especially hard to maintain a feeling of racial superiority while struggling to hold onto one’s own place near the bottom of an undependable economy.
While there is no medical evidence that racism is toxic to those who express it — after all, generations of wealthy slave owners survived quite nicely — the combination of downward mobility and racial resentment may be a potent invitation to the kind of despair that leads to suicide in one form or another, whether by gunshots or drugs. You can’t break a glass ceiling if you’re standing on ice.
It’s easy for the liberal intelligentsia to feel righteous in their disgust for lower-class white racism, but the college-educated elite that produces the intelligentsia is in trouble, too, with diminishing prospects and an ever-slipperier slope for the young. Whole professions have fallen on hard times, from college teaching to journalism and the law. One of the worst mistakes this relative elite could make is to try to pump up its own pride by hating on those — of any color or ethnicity — who are falling even faster.
I’m curious: why was this post tagged “Doomsday scenarios”, among others?
Interesting essay. I really value insight into others’ perspectives, such as the descriptions of how people of different colors/ethnicities fill different roles in the media over time, and how people respond. I try to avoid tv these days, so I don’t get to observe much, and even then, it’s easy to miss elements which are triggers for others but not triggers for me.
It is a doomday scenario because whites are still a majority in the U S of A, a sizable majority. So you have a huge swath of the white population living in economic collapse. Throw in opiates. Throw in millions of guns. Throw in uncontrollable anger at loss of privilege.
We are seeing more and more mass killings by marginalized white people. It is time to talk about suicide, too, which is one of the few taboo subjects in American life.
I believe that when Yves Smith brought up the data a few weeks back, she pointed to 600,000 excess deaths in the last decade. That’s doom.
“White privilege?” We were the majority in our nations. That’s like saying “Asian privilege” in Asia. Someone needs some historical education…
” Loss of privilege” ? That reminds me of something Working Class Nero wrote here long ago. Class-privileged “white” people invoke “white” privilege to accuse class zero-privilege “white” people of, in order to cover up their own lucrative class privilege. The “white privilege” construct is the class-privileged peoples’ way of keeping their own private class-privilege profits private while socializing the imposed dis-privilege losses onto a larger designated scapegoat-group of class privilege-less “white” people. The concept of “white privilege” was invented by people of utter and absolute bad faith, and it is people of utter and absolute bad faith who propagate that profitable-to-themselves meme at the expense of others.
Genteel-intellectual class “white” people who accuse others of “white privilege” should have died in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion . . . inSTEAD of the zero-privilege “white” miners who died in that explosion. Then at least the right people would have died.
To an extent. I don’t think poor white people have it very good, but then do poor white people have the incarceration rates of poor black people for instance? Or the rate of being murdered by police? To call being murdered less by police “privilege” stretches the connotation of the term as it’s more an absence than anything, and yet it might be an “advantage” of whiteness. Perhaps greater rates of poor white people dying in mines (and of general poisoning from things like that, mines have poisoned vast areas) offsets that, and it comes out in the bloody wash that is the bloody thing known as the U.S., but I don’t know that for a fact.
Right. The issue is the scale of the oppression. It can’t be that anything less than being randomly subject to summary execution is privilege. Because that is exactly what the rightwing billionaire class wants us all to believe – that anyone who ANY dignity/security/quality of life has it at your expense.
I believe this analysis is missing a very important component. True, historically poor whites have experiences somewhat more privileged conditions than minorities (admittedly even today they still do), but that traditional privilege has simultaneously caused them to be somewhat more fragile, less resilient than other oppressed groups. Poor whites are more atomized, isolated people in America. They do not have, nor have access to, the same cohesive social structures that have tended to develop among minorities as a survival mechanism against white oppression in the past.
I don’t say that as a theory, but rather as experienced reality. In the trailer park my family still lives in minority groups tend be gregarious and social among themselves (and honestly among others as well if one were inclined to invite himself as I often was). From my experience they were mostly psychologically stable and had a good ability to roll with the punches. The poor whites on the other hand were near universally drug addicts and thieves, and even when they did (or do–they’re still there I mean) form (weak) social bonds they’d nevertheless steal from each other or rat each other out to the police regardless. This was something I never saw happen among minorities (though I’m sure it does happen; I just didn’t see it at all).
Anyway to continue on, I believe that our economic system is in decline across the board, and that everyone’s wealth and prosperity are taking a hit on average (and the poor are getting the worst of it, as is common in collapsing societies–as I believe I understood from Jared Diamond’s work as well as a Sciencedaily anthropology article I read a while back). This being the case, I put the two together and come up with the idea that poor whites simply do not have the social frameworks, that were previously forged by oppression among the minorities, required to survive a declining society–and thus are dying off.
This idea has some other ramifications as well. All people who are used to privilege today and have allowed their social networks to fray will be similarly prone to die off as economic decline continues apace while those who have maintained, or managed to create, social structures will do relatively well, or at least survive. Commercial relationships are a poor substitute for social relationships, a fact that becomes all too apparent in worsening times.
I think its true to say that the poor are the first to take the hit in collapsing societies, at least initially (I think anthropologists will say that when the actual collapse happens, the rich end up being destroyed while the poor return to subsistence living, which might actually be better than being a serf under, say, the Aztec or Khymer empires).
This article from Irish writer Fintan O’Toole looks at it from another angle – the way neoliberalism has undermined the concept of a job well done.
Hah, I always think of Akumetsu-kun whenever I see your name. Too funny. Akumetsu is so inspirational; I wish we’d have a similar hero in America /sigh
Excellent comment. For a better collapse “thesis” and one that should be accounted for in any discussion of collapse, see Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies.
Outstanding comment. It brings to mind what has happened in New Orleans post-Katrina, where the social bonds among AAs were shredded and never restored, but replaced by the neoliberal “freedom” that had no use for the elders who kept the culture intact but were not economically useful. As you say, economic arrangements are no substitute for human bonds. And we who sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.
I agree about how Katrina exposed the decay of stable neighbourhoods. We encountered many N’awlins ‘refugees’ in Bay St Louis and Waveland right after the hurricane. These people tended to be from the older ‘mixed’ or ‘coloured’ areas of the New Orleans metro area. Later encounters suggested that the middle and upper class whites removed themselves farther away from New Orleans to better ‘digs.’ Large parts of Metairie, the principal suburb of New Orleans, which was the original “White Flight” appendage to New Orleans, suffered much less damage, and thus, much less population shifting.
The “shredding” of the Black social fabric of New Orleans looks, from this remove, to have been somewhat ‘engineered.’ The stranded people, mainly of colour, in New Orleans, were outright ‘deported’ to Houston and various other far off areas. The story, true, of the young man who commandeered a bus to drive the ‘refugees’ to Houston serves multiple purposes. First, it is a tale of ‘plucky young entrepreneur’ who uses the neo-liberal playbook, (steal anything not nailed down,) to provide a dubious ‘public good.’ (The people on that bus supposedly went where they wanted to go.) Second, it is a tale of ‘no goods’ who ignore the government and do what the h— they want. (See, you can believe in two mutually opposing things at the same time.) Third, it gives a subtle support to the idea of American ‘ethnic cleansing.’ Ethnic Cleansing, American style is really ‘Class Cleansing.’ N’awlins is now, I’m told, a ‘go to’ destination for Hipsters and Trendies.
While all this is going on, the rebuilding efforts seem to have been concentrated in the upper income areas of New Orleans. The Garden District and Uptown look to be recovering nicely. The Ninth Ward and New Orleans East seem to be languishing into terminal decay.
In this regard, I suggest that the fate of New Orleans as a physical city is not so much the story as is the fate of the people who used to live there. Exiles in their own land.
The “shredding” of the Black social fabric of New Orleans looks, from this remove, to have been somewhat ‘engineered.’
That’s certainly how some black New Orleanians see it, including a couple of the Nevilles, which is why they haven’t returned.
So, some of the Nevilles haven’t returned. That’s sad. The multi generational Neville family were big boosters and enablers of the New Orleans music scene, even down to the public school level! If strong people like the Nevilles aren’t moved to return, that the old New Orleans is well and truly dead. No more Dr Longhair playing at Tips, no more Dr John doing the Mardi Gras Mambo at the Convention Center, where can the Mardi Gras Indians play? Now we have shoot outs at Second Lines!
One fine day I can imagine some future keeper of the peoples’ history lamenting, “By the waters of the Ship Channel, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered N’awlins.”
Your thesis is broadly correct from this New Orleanians perspective, but it’s not quite as dire as it may appear to an ex-pat.
The Indians still second line (and play the clubs around town) and Dr. John still plays (though not as often given his age). Professor Longhair of course cannot be related to Katrina, but I’m guessing you invoke his name in the sense of “the next Professor Longhair” rather than a literal sense. Shootings are rare, but certainly not the norm. There’s a marching club doing a second line pretty much every weekend these days and the Mardi Gras Indians have Mardi Gras and the Super Sunday traditions going strong.
Plenty of younger musicians are filling the void, most were here before the storm (Kermit Ruffins, Trombone Shorty, Leon ‘Kid Chocolate’ Brown, etc.)
There’s a neoliberal vibe to most of the city these days that is discomforting, but it will pass once the hipsters move on and find their next city to ruin.
I’ll add my compliments to those of others here on jgordon’s outstanding comment. I think you’re on to something — all the more so since you’ve actually lived in a trailer park. We’d all do well to spend some time in a trailer park, especially those among the oligarchs, deep state and Wall Street elites who flatter themselves to believe they have all the answers.
As a college-educated, sedentary office worker who has had only minimal contact with the working class over the years, I have to say I’m humbled by the resilience, tenacity and sheer capability and skill of many in these blue- and pink-collar fields. It is shameful that these highly competent, hard-working people are so often consigned to the bottom of the economic rung in this country.
X1000!! The only caveat that I would add to your observation on the social atomization of poor whites in the U.S. is that it overlooks the powerful social cohesion that remains– in certain long-established communities of poor whites. I know personally many poor Irish- Americans in Pawtucket, RI– who are now more than a generation removed from the booming industrial economy that brought their ancestors to the triple-decker tenements there. They would never survive, in their bleak post-industrial world, if not for a tremendous amount of mutual support.
Never thought I’d see a fellow Bucket resident on here!
Lots of great people still rockin’ on the shores of the mighty Blackstone!!
Spot on. Isolation kills.
We shame our poor. We shame ourselves in private for being poor. Rich, poor or otherwise, we don’t talk about our wages. We don’t talk about our debts. We don’t talk about price. These things are private to whites, and the silence around them cross-fertilizes our shame.
In this way poverty ceased to exist in the Public American White just before you or I were born, whenever that might have been. It stands to reason that we are uncomfortable reaching out to catch our brothers and sisters when they fall through the cracks, or reaching out for a hand to grab as we fall ourselves. Surely better to get high and fade away than to compare net worths with your neighbor.
” Poor whites are more atomized, isolated people in America. They do not have, nor have access to, the same cohesive social structures that have tended to develop among minorities as a survival mechanism against white oppression in the past.”
You can see this very clearly in the response to police killings. Racism makes police killings of blacks grossly disproportionate, but they do kill whites, too. Jeffrey Hammond is only the latest example. BLM is a rational, effective response to police killings: they think you’re helpless, so do everything you can to make trouble for them. Historically, it takes a riot, or very nearly, to get any sort of justice against the police. Blacks are willing to do that; whites don’t. Instead, their families say stupid things about “waiting for the process” (not Hammond, the guy before that). And of course, the police get away with it.
It’s an example of whites being paralyzed by their own sense of privilege. The extensive furor over the Hammond case suggests that they may be catching on, which would be better for everyone – except the murderous thugs.
I just saw numbers on TOTAL police shootings: about 42% whites, about 30% (IIRC) blacks. Grossly disproportionate, but more whites than blacks. OTOH, most of the unarmed people killed by police are black.
And not a peep from the #AllLivesMatter crowd. Odd, that. Or not.
The figures, in the form of a pie chart, are here: http://www.rawstory.com/2015/12/chicago-cop-who-killed-laquan-mcdonald-tied-to-cover-up-of-another-fatal-police-shooting/
For ALL reported killings: 42% white, 26% black, 12% not specified.
This observation was described by Mary Douglas in 1970 as Cultural Theory, I believe. Weak bonds between people and an economic framework that precludes upward mobility while protecting the strong results in fatalism.
Capitalism imprinted “individualism” on our culture. Anglo-Saxon tribes were very communal, like the Iroquoise. Even today we have Common lands, trial by peers, etc. from those tribes.
I believe the statement “the ‘best’ schools are reserved for the affluent — mostly white and Asian American” is not true and is a hurtful statement made by the author. There is substantial evidence that Asian Americans face active discrimination at the top-ranked private schools in terms of admissions, in addition to active discrimination in reaching the management levels of corporations, in media portrayals, and in hiring for professional-level positions (like professors, lawyers, etc.). Not to mention the substantial diversity within this body of Americans, with some sub-groups having low levels of education and high levels of poverty.
I generally dislike such “identity politics” because it allows the powerful to place different groups in opposition and competition with each other, rather than empowering individuals to come together to achieve common political objectives. The recent study about the declining health of middle-aged working-class whites is significant to me because it is indicative of a broader trend of a weakening of the different kinds of healths of the American public.
Let me clue you in: your picture of discrimination against Asians isn’t as tidy as you think.
For the at least the last 40 years, all the top colleges have, and continue to, discriminate against students who go to elite private schools like Dalton, Andover, St. Paul’s, Brearley, and a handful of public schools on that level, like Beverly Hills High School, the Bronx High School of Science, and Boston Latin. All of the Ivies could fill 100% of their student body entirely from these schools and would be RAISING the academic and intellectual caliber (measured in test scores) of their student body in doing so. They have quotas for all these schools and admit lesser qualified students from public schools in the name of diversity.
And I’m not current on the ethnic mix of these schools, but given their East Coast bias, and that Asians are not as well represented among the well-paid professionals in the East that can afford to send their kids to schools like these, I would imagine that Asians are only somewhat overrepresented relative to the US as a whole. Informed reader input appreciated.
Jews similarly have long been subject to quotas (certainly at Harvard, and for similar reasons). Thus I’m not sure Asians are as badly treated as you suggest given the other quotas that operate against purely academic merit=based selection that you appear not to know about.
Plus schools select students for diversity reasons beyond ethnic ones. Harvard in 1971, after the riots, admitted a class solely on academic grounds. It had the highest level of suicides in that freshman class ever. After that, it adopted the policy of having 25% be “the happy bottom,” people who were smart enough but were admitted for their social skills and well-roundednees. So Harvard quite deliberately has a large chunk of the class that is not chosen with academic chops as the primary screen.
And you have students at every school selected for athletic ability….
Interesting. Something unbalanced amonst the best and the brightest? For some reason, I am not surprised.
That bit caught my attention, too. But my thought was that students accepted entirely on academic record are students who probably have a “study hard, work hard, and you’ll succeed” outlook. Then they’re placed in a situation where no matter how hard they study and work, not all of them (unlike PE funds) can be in the top quartile of student performers. In other words, the system itself is set so most can’t succeed, as they understand success, and instead of questioning their assumptions about the limits of hard work and the system they may blame themselves as failures, and possibly moral failures. That can have a devastating impact.
Good point. My first thougths was a high concentration of analytics, poor people skills, conflict, despair, then what is it all about. But I think perceived failure in competition probably makes more sense.
Too much competition I’d say. Competition kills.
A required read before making analysis-free based quips.
Very important points. Yet it shouldn’t be forgotten that there is still affirmative action for the old-money super-rich. You can still find kids with little to no academic merit (even as defined by test-scores on tests that favor the rich) who are attending Brown, or Yale, or Cornell who go to classes in buildings donated by their ancestors.
One of my (distant) relatives had mediocre grades at Deerfield, played a poor game of lacrosse, poor SAT scores (even with expensive coaching) and still had his choice of attending four different Ivies! Coincidentally, all four have swelled their endowments over the generations with money from his ancestors.
I don’t think there are Jewish quotas anywhere anymore. Terry Sanford did away with Duke’s in the late ’60s.
I think Ms. Ehrenreich is making a mistake in trying to put Dylan Roof in the lower class white bucket. His family are Lutherans who actually go to church, and his grandfather is a well known Columbia lawyer.
You don’t believe that “the affluent” consists mostly of whites and Asian Americans?
As Yves describes, it’s possible for Asian Americans to be at once discriminated against and over-represented when it comes to elite school student body relative to total population.
I am grateful for the quotas set in the 70’s as it gave me opportunities to pursue a decent career helping others and making a decent living….coming from a high school where only 20 percent go to 4 year colleges I got to attend an elite snobby expensive “extremely competitive school” that only admitted men until the women’s movement. Sometimes these opportunities are a zero sum game there are many good people and not enough spaces etc….
Well what I read into that, that is absolutely true where I live, is that good K-12 public schools exist where housing is expensive, or housing is expensive where good K-12 public schools exist. So you have to buy your way in by paying for expensive property. And yes it is mostly whites and Asians that can and do.
When Larry Summers was sent to Russia to “help modernize”, the life spans of adults collapsed.
Now the same is happening in the US.
he is back.
The best use for Larry Summers is to put him in charge of Haaarvaaard, where he can loose $30 billion or more, instead of just $3 billion like last time. Drying up the wellspring of corruption is the objective.
endowed, no doubt……..
As a side issue, I don’t know enough about Larry Summers career to defend his actions in Russia, but I can tell you what happened to the Russian economy. It collapsed after the price of oil collapsed in the mid to late 1980s, and it didn’t recover until the price of oil recovered in 2000, when Putin came to power and Russian oil and gas production began to rise.
Secret Service Officer: “Good morning, Ma’am.”
Hillary Clinton: “F$$k off!”
Excellent article. Somewhat related is this story from today’s Washington Post about the struggles of working class people in the South. Once we were colonized by northern mill owners. These days the Chinese are starting to take on that role.
Great essay. We really do need to begin thinking about the big picture, the macro shifts as the society breaks down. And as usual these things are determined by demographics. Until the 1970s the U.S. could successfully utilize the strategy of marginalizing a racial minority because the economic pie was growing and, while that discrimination was vile and had anti-social impacts, the societal damage was at least arguably outweighed by the comfort the white majority secured with its racism. When — as the article discusses — the Democratic Party decisively turned against racism it did so as the American economy was beginning the great restructuring and economic insecurity was rising. When white racism was condemned, that removed a vital layer of comfort and poor whites abandoned the Democratic Party, which led to the political feedback loop of evermore pro-business, anti-worker policies, a feedback loop which continues today.
As for the demographics, a large society like America will always have anomie and can generally absorb this without too much trouble. So when a racial minority like AAs was the target the overall culture could withstand the resulting anomie, albeit with further reactionary policies like the War on Drugs and mass incarceration. Still, the society-at-large could absord the impact. But as the great economic restructuring marched on, resources became ever scarcer for all but the rich and the aggregate society lost its resilience, both economically and psychologically. Now that the Shock Doctrine is squarely aimed at white America there is nowhere to hide and nothing to provide comfort.
It certainly feels that way, at times. Yet I would argue that we provide our own comfort to each other whenever we stand together and resist oppression. We cannot hide from the machine, yet neither can it hide from us!
I am coming to believe this more and more. We either band together, resist and fight back or we flail and fail alone. How to develop the organization in this atomized age of despair is the dilemma.
I’m surprised meth amphetamine is not documented as one of if not the primary contributing substances. One would think meth contributes to poor physical health and mental despair much more than opiates…. especially among drug abusing white males in my age group.
I’m also surprised this is happening as smoking rates have dropped dramatically.
Opiates don’t contribute to despair really, but they might kill you, maybe more so if you start shooting them up than the pills (who doesn’t know someone who died from a heroin overdose?), but it’s a pretty logical progression.
“There are some practical reasons why whites are likely to be more efficient than blacks at killing themselves. For one thing, they are more likely to be gun-owners, and white men favor gunshots as a means of suicide. For another, doctors, undoubtedly acting in part on stereotypes of non-whites as drug addicts, are more likely to prescribe powerful opiate painkillers to whites than to people of color. (I’ve been offered enough oxycodone prescriptions over the years to stock a small illegal business.)”
This is one of the reasons why discussions of guns have to get off the point that there is an absolute right to gun ownership. There never was, and only through the NRA’s relentlessness does one seem to be acknowledged now. Jill Lapore had a great article about the history of regulation of guns in the New Yorker a few years ago. She pointed out many instances of regulation.
So now we have a wave of suicidess among gun owners. You think that it would move the discussion in a new direction, wouldn’t you?
Don’t dance around the issue. Either push for a repeal of the Second Amendment or shut up about gun control.
Would have been simpler to just disarm Harvard students rather than changing admission standards..
Oh, come off it RR. The 2nd Amendment is so ambiguous a statute that you can seriously argue over how many 9mms can dance on the head of a pin. An olde tyme Scholastic would chortle with glee. Times change; the quasi mythical “Founders” recognized that and included the amendment process. The present day movements to “honour” the “Founders” would be instantly recognized by the original Scholastics for what they are: Traditionalism.
I will argue that, with the subsumation of the various States’ National Guards into the Regular Army, by usage if not by law, the “Well Regulated Militias” part of the 2nd Amendment has already been trumped.
I have freedom of speech, but not the freedom to defame or threaten willy-nilly. I have the right to assemble, but not the right to form a lynch mob. I have the freedom of religion, but not the freedom to sacrifice my kid to Baal. Freedoms are circumscribed by responsibilities, and all of them are subject to rational analysis and regulation. You don’t need to repeal the 2nd Amendment to have a well-regulated gun ownership system in place. What scares people like me is people like you with such a fervent, absolute NEED to own any gun you like in any number you like. It bespeaks some serious mental issue on your part.
Or maybe people who claim to be originalists should only be allowed weapons in use in 1789. Front-loading rifles anyone?
Well I believe people have an absolute right to kill themselves. I do. Really. Now I believe it’s tragic when healthy people kill themselves (terminally ill are kind of a separate issue), please anyone that is contemplating it seek help, but I still believe it’s ultimately one’s right.
I see so many articles these days regarding this idea of white privilege that it makes my head spin. Most seem full of assumptions and are incomplete at best. Let me posit another viewpoint.
White middle class people are not dying from a loss of privilege, but from a loss of JOBS, and the self-esteem that goes with it. For generations if not eons these people have likely mainly identified themselves with their work. Freud listed meaningful work and love as requirements for a mentally healthy person, at least within the context he was looking at it. With neoliberal globalization and the massive loss of jobs overseas, this culture has been shocked to the core. They no longer have the one thing that meant most to them in their lives – the ability to perform meaningful work. Mental and physical decay follow as would be expected. Many also realize that this loss happened not through a foreign country invading and conquering, but from treachery and treason from within our own system (i.e. government bought and sold by neoliberal capital, wealth extraction, etc, etc). This realization also shows their powerlessness since government, laws, etc. are beyond their influence.
The constant repetition of privilege and “white supremacy” paint a distorted picture. While it might look that way from the POV of certain minorities, that doesn’t make it altogether true. Looking back at labor history in the USA, one sees that the struggles are mainly between classes, and are power struggles. Working class whites only got power once they were organized and forced the capital/industrial class to compromise. Labor strikes were the primary method for this. The labor strikes would not have been successful had in not been also for the community of support within the working classes for their efforts. Any power that the working class at that time (primarily white in the USA) got into their hands was not privilege, but was fought for, with many dying in the process. None of this was the result of “privilege” as in a favor conferred upon others by one in a superior position. Had a minority group been able to organize and effectively cripple the capitalist/industrialist class, they would also have seen their conditions improve. This did not happen, and the results are what they are.
Without this organization, these poor working class people would have remained poor and downtrodden as any other minority. The black working class never was able to wield this kind of power, for any number of reasons. No doubt that one reason would be repression from others who may be white, but this type of repression is not limited to white on black. There are too many examples of repression of peoples by others with the same color of skin to say that repression is some kind of white/”non-white” phenomenen. Besides, repression is always going to be a factor of any group trying to wrest a portion of the power away from those who currently have it, and is a fact of life. Any platitudes about “rights” in the USA for those with no power are coming from those people who still have on rose colored glasses and still believe in the American myth. A brief glance around these days at the ground that is littered with our “rights” will see that “inherent rights” are an ideal only, but I digress.
Getting back to the loss of work and power and the disproportionate effect on whites, I think that many minorities have less mental stress over this in general simply because they have made the mental adjustments needed to survive in that condition. Blacks particularly have had to survive without class power or meaningful work overall for most of their history in the USA. This is new to the current generations of whites, and many are still mentally shocked. Impotence and rage are hell on your health.
I don’t think much work ever was meaningful (maybe pre-industrial work was). Freud’s patients were mostly upper middle class is my understanding, your talking the realm of professionals, not factory workers there, professionals whose work actually can meet needs for self-actualization etc.. Was working in factories on the other hand ever all that pleasant? But in mid-century America it sometimes paid well and was steady and reliable and allowed one to build a bit of a life, and one might take some pride in it if one was so inclined, despite however boring and deadening it was (and plenty expressed how boring and deadening it was as well of course!).
But when I hear about the loss of white privilege I always ask: “who?” as well. Because aren’t there places that have NEVER seen white privilege, like Appalachia? Did it ever even exist in those places to be lost? But certainly whites with college degrees etc. have lost some advantages on average. But I suspect at a certain point the liberal narrative about the loss of all these good things is a false narrative, a mythos. Yes some things seem to have gotten worse (like the plight of college grads). But hasn’t there ALWAYS been a lot of poverty in this country? Maybe a truth we ought to tell instead is: this economic system has NEVER worked for a lot of people, and not just minorities although they bore a lot of the brunt of it.
True, meaningful work is an ideal that many do not fully achieve, but many people take comfort in doing a good job whatever that might be. Many may take pride in a company, particularly if it is a private company that grew locally with their effort. Many take pride in simply supporting their families. And then there’s the social aspect of work.
If all of that is gone in a short period of time due primarily to neoliberal schemes, this will be mentally and physically devastating. Many other non-factory workers in businesses that supported those other workers are directly will be similarly affected.
True, meaningful work is an ideal that many do not fully achieve, but many people take comfort in doing a good job whatever that might be.
I agree. In our culture self-esteem is often derived from employment. And I think that is a healthy element in a capitalist society. Even in a non-capitalist culture, I suspect people derive satisfaction and self-worth from their daily activities — whatever they are — when they are living healthy, balanced lives.
Very good post but would quibble with the last paragraph. I suspect minority communities have just as much stress or more than lower class whites. I wonder if suicide rates are similiar for the particular age class.
I don’t deny that minority stress is there, but the coping mechanisms or adaptations will have developed over time to some extent to any given stress.
Freud also outed himself as a mythologist in one of his latter works…. and yet some wonder how Scientology gained traction so effortlessly….
Don’t forget Jung and his mandalas, and Reich, (any connection?) and orgone, and, well, most Shamans in general.
Let’s not get started on Scientology. At least Christian Science followers are willing to die for their beliefs. Scientology? They already died, somewhere and somewhen way off in outer space.
Remember Werner Erhard and “EST?” I do, I had direct contact with one of their group homes in the late ’70s. I learned a healthy skepticism of “Self Help” groups from that very short escapade.
Oh yeah, only at one remove from Freud, through studying under Wilhelm Stekel, in pre war Vienna no less, there’s Velikovsky.
Scientology is small potatoes though, when compared with Bernays and the ‘Modern’ information State. There is real Mythologizing for you! The Neo- paradigm!
EST…. damn you I had forgotten… oh well…
Skippy…. at least the religion of Oprah is waning…
Speaking of “O”s; the morning ‘circle.’
“Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.”
Gotta love the trickle down economics on her old show…. look everyone… under your seat… a prize – !!!! … or new cars for everyone…. etc.
Skippy…. in a crazzyman fractal universe… Oprah is just Gina Rinehart… occupying two places at the same time…. but in different locations~
halp~… she named… confessional at tennis venue to adoring followers… Japanese anime – http://myanimelist.net/anime/5356/Canaan
Skippy…. too early for this, just saw news feed after previous comment… moar coffee…. double damn you-
Well, I do regret mentioning Freud. it was not necessary for my point. Just simply emphasizing the importance of work that people may find meaning in.
Thanks for this post. I like Ehrenreich’s writing and have read 4 of her books. “Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class” is pertinent to this essay.
However, I think in this essay she is missing a larger piece of the puzzle. In the 1960s the economy was growing, the pie increasing, and people are more likely to accept or at least tolerate ‘outsiders’ if they feel relatively economically secure themselves. What used to be called the protestant work ethic said that hard work would lead to success. But now the economic pie is shrinking. People are more economically insecure than in 1960. Working harder now doesn’t work, but it can wreck your knees or back if you do physical work. You can work harder and harder and still go backward, and be left with a painfully wrecked body as well. If there is despair I’d suggest it is about that. Racism is always with us, and racist logic appeals to racists, of course. To suggest, however, that working class whites are by definition racist is a stereotype. It’s like saying all Muslims are terrorists. My 2 cents is that the white working class has been trying to get ahead by working harder and harder for the last 20 years and that hard work has failed to improve their economic condition. To see one of the deep tenets of white society fail – if you work hard you will succeed – is, I think, as much a contributor to despair and a sense of personal moral failing and dislocation as any imputed racism.
I’m intrigued by that little aside. Quite the contrary, there is little happening today that was not set in motion decades ago. The general drift of society as concentration of wealth and power entrenches itself is fairly predictable. Ehrenreich is quite familiar with this terrain, so I find it noteworthy that even she feels the compunction to qualify the situation, as if systemic oppression and injustice is all some big accident or misunderstanding.
The maintenance of white privilege has not become more difficult. Rather, what has happened is that poor minorities have been crushed under the weight of the two-tiered justice system. The gap hasn’t really closed meaningfully; rather, the bottom has fallen, dragging others below as well as the injustice trickles upward. What is notable is how slow educated whites have been in coming to terms with the magnitude of the horror that is the two-tiered justice system. The drug war in particular is little more than the reincarnation of Jim Crow in a more palatable form to educated whites than the overt racism of the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the contemporary prison binge and war on drugs really kicked off after the legislative gains of the Civil Rights movement.
What is notable is how slow educated whites have been in coming to terms with the magnitude of the horror that is the two-tiered justice system.
Good observation which can be applied generally as well though it is particularly arresting, hahahaha, in the judicial system. The phenomenon doesn’t cease to amaze.
It is inheritance that concentrates wealth (and trust funds).
Capitalism benefits those with Capital (the clue is in the name).
a) Those with excess capital invest it and collect interest, dividends and rent.
b) Those with insufficient capital borrow money and pay interest and rent.
Then the wealthy develop ways to give their own children the best education – private schools and universities.
Here you make the right connections for later in life, plus your own parents high powered connections.
White people started at the top and stay at the top, the system is designed to pass its benefits down the generations.
Point out one heir of a great 19th Century fortune that’s still rich. Of the Rockefellers, only David Rockefeller is still on the Forbes 400. He has about as much money as his grandfather had 100 yrs ago–in nominal terms! Keeping the money is not as easy as you and Mr. Piketty make it out to be. To do so is actually very rare, especially in the United States.
See Rob Arnott’s take:
Harvard, for one.
She’s referring to American mythology.
And yet she is treating the subject as if there is some element of truth to the mythology, as if it is at least somewhat acceptable for higher income, educated people in positions of responsibility and influence to have clung to this comforting narrative when that head-in-the-sand mentality and the soft corruption of careerism is exactly why we are at where we are at. That even Ehrenreich feels the need to pay some homage to how surprising it is that we’ve reached this point is what I find so interesting.
Even the way she talks about life expectancy is remarkably friendly to this mythology. The gap between white and black life expectancy has been shrinking because black life expectancy has been increasing, not because white life expectancy has been falling. Roughly speaking, black men have approached the level white men had achieved at the time we started transitioning from the Civil Rights era to the trickle down era.
There are interesting differences if one is interested in the granular level. For example, blacks die less frequently from chronic lower respiratory diseases than whites. But it doesn’t really have any meaningful impact on the big picture. In aggregate, whites live longer than blacks. Wealthier households live longer than poorer households. To highlight a specific matter like suicide where whites die more often than blacks without talking about the context of things where blacks die more often than whites (like heart disease, cancer, and homicide) is to perpetuate the invisibility of the most disadvantaged and voiceless members of our society.
“The gap between white and black life expectancy has been shrinking because black life expectancy has been increasing, not because white life expectancy has been falling. ”
No. This post shows that the death rate for whites in some categories is actually rising (post-Soviet Russia-style). And the same is true for white women in some counties.
Ah, so you are inclined to my position that things are pretty bad? I left a fairly detailed comment on that because it sounded to me like Yves was arguing that we didn’t have a specific bad circumstance going on like post-Soviet Russia had. Whereas I think we do: we are going through a multi-decade depression that is undoing our social fabric as our public institutions rot from the inside out and the top down. The difference is the Soviet collapse was a compressed event while ours is a long, slow event (and one that starts from a much higher absolute position of wealth, so the decline doesn’t feel as bad – which is a good thing. The breakup of the USSR is one of the worst social events of the post-war world and hopefully things don’t get that bad here in absolute terms).
Anyway, that data is consistent with what I’m saying. Look at the graph. The death rate is basically where it was at the end of the 1980s: a little over 400 deaths per 100,000 people. That’s a problem because of opportunity cost: we could have prevented even more deaths with different public policy. We know this because our European friends were able to do it. But it’s not like the graph spiked to 800 or 1,000 deaths per 100,000. Rather, what happened is that the longer term trend of falling death rates continued for nations like Germany and France whereas it stopped in the US. Moreover, what is going on is that the group ‘middle aged white men’ is not the same today as it was a couple decades ago. The group today has lived in a more unequal society and is thus exposed to more poverty – both monetary and of the human spirit.
More specifically, that article was talking about the past couple decades. I was talking over longer time frames. And I was talking about whites generally, not poor middle aged whites. Poverty is associated with preventable suffering and death independent of race.
Which is why being both poor and black is a particularly unlucky roll of the social status dice, and why increasing inequality undermines public health in a way that is completely unshocking, unstunning, and unsurprising for anyone who ought to know how political economy works.
Not “pretty bad.” Downright awful.
Disagree with the author’s fixation on race. The real reason working class whites are bummed is because their living wage jobs have been decimated by neoliberal economic policies supported by both parties.
All this talk about race and guns is a diversion. Let’s get back to economics.
Here’s some economics: the law of supply and demand. For 400 years the brightest black guy had to take an inferior job or position to the dumbest white guy because that’s the way we did things here in the US of A. The Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s made that illegal. So you had blacks and whites competing, for the first time, for the same jobs. Then the rich convinced themselves in the early 1970s that 1) society was becoming ungovernable because the rabble no longer listened to their betters but wanted a seat at the decision-making table and 2) profits were fall and taxes rising and this had to be reversed. So you got neoliberalism and the drive to destroy unions and offshore jobs for quick profits and stock boosts. Now, you see the dilemma: greater competition for fewer, less secure and remunerative jobs. that’s how race plays into this. it is not exogenous to economics.
The solution would be to abolish Free Trade and restore Protectionism and bring back our millions of jobs held in foreign captivity overseas.
Free Trade is the new Slavery. Protectionism is the new Abolition.
Would have been simpler to just disarm Harvard students rather than changing admission standards..
Request deletion. Should have been in reply to DJG above.
This is what a depression feels like
as we live through this generation’s version.
Impoverishment is never rationally endured.
Drugs, alcohol, or hate do well to feed the misery
that nothing else can.
Barbara Erenreich is a very clear writer/observer/thinker… thanks a lot.
Where the despair comes from ……..
You get where you are in life through your own effort, drive and ambition.
If you fail, it’s your fault.
What is hidden – atrocious social mobility on a par with the class ridden UK and its privately educated elite (2nd worst in Europe after Portugal).
People are made to feel like they have failed when the odds were always stacked against them.
Private schools and Universities help the rich succeed and the poor fail.
We have had a privately educated elite in the UK for Centuries.
What private University did the US elite go to?
There was a Counterpunch article on how they might also lack the educational/spiritual/psychological resources to survive these times without turning to self-destruction.
Now the economic resources would be ENOUGH, there is nothing else wrong with people that that wouldn’t fix probably, a real and successful leftist movement (that granted any number of decent conditions) would be ENOUGH. However, if none of those are forthcoming, and real (not fake liberal but real) leftist philosophy to really change the system finds no followers, then a philosophy of despair is needed, to make it make sense. Certainly not the “it’s all your fault” BS. Proper stoicism where s**t just happens, maybe.
After I read this article, I wondered if it was about racism of the white poor or the reduced life-span of lower-class whites. Certainly she slightly touched on some important factors but missed some other equally important factors. However, considering the space she spent on lower class racial “privilege”, apparently she believes the loss of a sense of superiority of the lower-class white over blacks is a primary factor in the reduction in life span. I just don’t buy it.
I think to discover primary root causes you have to look at both economic and social forces impacting the lower-class white. I think everyone is familiar with and agrees with the significant impact of the shipping of good paying lower-class jobs overseas but little time is spent on the factors weakening lower-class communities. Of course, loss of jobs has a direct impact on weakening of communities but other factors are also in play.
The primary factor to remember about the poor is they cannot afford a mistake. A bad mistake can mean disaster because they lack the resources of the middle or upper-class to recover. So in general they need to be conservative and careful as they are capable. Gambles, new ideas, quick change are frightening because they represent danger. That mistake that will destroy them. Their values and priorities are shaped around survival on the edge of calamity. The values of the middle/upper class can be fatal for the lower class.
Their communities are also shaped around those same factors and strong communities are essential. Living on the edge is one reason why religion and guns are so important for the poor. Religion provides meaning, purpose, common values and social/suppport networks for those living on the edge. For the poor, religion is crucial. Yet it has been under direct attack by the mass media, schools and middle/upper class intelligentsia for decades in America. It weakens poor communities and replaces it with what-materialism, easy sex and shopping malls?
Guns are a different story. For many rural Americans of today, it means meat on the table. It means giving meat to friends keeping social networks alive. It means someone else giving you food when you need it. There are still people alive that grew up during the depression that will tell you what it was like. Creeping along a ditch hoping to catch a crawfish, or walking hours to get to some water to try to catch a fish, or great fortune, kill a bird or a squirrel or a raccoon, or miracle of miracles, a deer, so there is a some meat to split with 8 or 10 people eating some sort of gruel to keep alive. Of course, with everyone doing the same thing, it was very hard to find any live animals to kill. Those experiences shape a community. The living memories may be disappearing but people know it can happen again. A gun kept people from starving. Also guns are a check on those more powerful, whether gangs or the authorities, that would walk right over you, or rob you, or make you a slave. Especially if you don’t trust the police and if you do call them, they might not show up in the countryside for 30 minutes or an hour. Guns mean you don’t always have to submit but always have an option to fight. For rural Americans, it means you can make a stand if things get out of control. So I don’t see poor rural gun owners ever giving up their guns no matter how much the middle/upper classes would like to see them disarmed.
Probably a book could be written on this subject but some other negative factors would include the mass media values, useless schools, the prison industrial complex and probably many other societal forces I haven’t thought of at the moment. Mass media values are in direct conflict with the values needed by the poor to survive. Horrific values piped directly into everyone’s homes. Often the media raises those single parent kids of the lower class today. Have been for the last 50 years or so. And they are taught exactly the wrong values for survival when poor. Then the loss of jobs and prison industrial complex both destroy existing families and prevents the formation of stable families. Of course, many of these factors are exactly the same factors destroying the poor black communities.
Look at the communities for factors in reduced life span. Look at the impact of our societal values and economic system on the poor for the answers. The system we have may work well for the upper and upper middle classes but not so well for those on the bottom.
So no, I don’t buy loss of the feeling of racial superiority as a primary factor in reduced life span of the white poor. I would look at the despair of the poor generated by a type of society which does not value what they have to offer.
Cogent analysis – I totally agree about the destructive effects of the teevee on now generations including myself (although now in remission) – also would add an education system apparently devoted to making drones with no practical manual skills. Work. Real actual manual work validates both physically and spiritually. And under attack in the new order, as are any traditional community institutions.
apologies for rather more poetry than academic prose
I agree. Although not tremendously manual, I get great satisfaction in repairing something broken rather than calling in a repairman.
Yep. I loved working the mills. Gardening, too.
Of course, I think of words as almost tangible objects, so writing for me is close to manual.
I loved working the mills
You might find the story of the Cheney Brothers mills interesting.At one time they boasted Manchester CT was the silk producing capital of the world. http://www.manchesterhistory.org/reprints/MHS3_CheneySilkMills.html
You Sir, need an Austin Healey 100
Yes. These are the exactly people Obama threw under the bus with the comment, in a fundraiser, about “bitter” people who “cling to guns and religion.” As I wrote in 2008:
The Democratic Party abandoned these voters…
* * *
Paragraph five: I can live with guns as a tool for hunting food; reducing risk, as you put it. And one does not, I would imagine, go hunting with the sort of weapon that can be easily concealed. What I can’t live with — and deserves all the ridicule I can muster — is guns as a fetish object, and their endless, capital-like accumulation. And in online discussion — and partisan politics — that’s 90% of the discourse.
Unfortunately, the last two mass shootings have involved “long guns,” not pistols. This may be a rather unfortunate learning curve: except at very close range, rifles are much more accurate. A good thing when you’re hunting, not when you’re killing people. One report from SB called them “assault rifles,” which are military weapons, but it’s a vague term.
In general, I would support a distinction between hunting rifles and pistols, which are useless for hunting and have no military significance; their only use is to kill fellow civilians. I see no real objection to restricting them. Of course, that would inconvenience a friend who likes to play “cowboy,” on carefully staged shooting ranges. (Yes, adults do this.) But the recent events undermine that idea.
Another consideration: at this point, trying to prohibit guns would be pretty much like Prohibition: ineffective and hugely disruptive. It seems to be one of those problems with no good solution.
I’m not sure from the coverage if they were rifles, or if semantics were involved.
Today’s ideal is unregulated, trickledown Capitalism.
We had unregulated, trickledown Capitalism in the UK in the 19th Century.
We know what it looks like.
1) Those at the top were very wealthy
2) Those lower down lived in grinding poverty, paid just enough to keep them alive to work with as little time off as possible.
4) Child Labour
Immense wealth at the top with nothing trickling down, just like today.
The beginnings of regulation to deal with the wealthy UK businessman seeking to maximise profit, the abolition of slavery and child labour.
Today’s ideal of unregulated, trickledown Capitalism is a driver of inequality and its never very nice at the bottom.
I was mostly socialized among middle and lower class white people in small towns in the Midwest. I understand the dynamics in those places better than I wish I did. While I loathe reactionary cultural conservatism and the religious right with the best of them, from a certain angle political correctness can often just be a vehicle for the better off and better educated to sneer at and mock people who are a little worse off. Politically correct attitudes and identity politics are inseparable from college education, and even studying the humanities (as I did) implies a level of background affluence because one is electing to spend a great deal of money studying something which promises little to no economic gain.
I wasn’t hit with the full extent of this dynamic until moving out here and meeting this guy who had went to Sarah Lawrence. I think it’s redundant saying he came from money. He championed every liberal social cause, every leftwing political position, but he would have been frothing at the mouth if he was forced to spend five minutes interacting with working class white people. It was reading Thorstein Veblen at that point in my life, I was obsessed with this idea that we were going through a second Gilded Age, and I began to see such politically correct positions and a college education in general as a form of conspicuous consumption. Education as conspicuous consumption, that’s an angle which hasn’t been taken often enough. Broadcasting the fact that you are liberal politically as a way of saying “I could waste this much time and money on my intellect. This indicates my superiority.”
I haven’t really looked at politics the same way since.
Hard to imagine any message that doesn’t sound like $%@t out of a privileged mouth. And too few of us (rich, poor or otherwise) would willingly cede and inch of privilege to help others, even if some miracle of social organization gave us that opportunity.
Me, I’m okay with Douche-y wealth spouting equality around the suede-0-intellectual circuit. Like syphilis, it’s relatively easy to avoid. And I consider it a few evolutionary steps beyond the rational self interest hogwash that gives solace to so many of their peers.
Thanks. Education as conspicuous consumption is a new idea to me. It helps answer a lot of questions about “liberal” values, and PC culture.
I don’t know where this eruption of the phrase “political correctness” came from; suddenly it’s all over everything like kudzu. It’s apparently a very charged issue for some, but I don’t get why. I understand about the guy from Sarah Lawrence — he has a sophisticated kind of kicking down, it seems to me — but doesn’t a lot of this just boil down to common sense and not being an
assholeglass bowl? Like not calling black people n******s? When the Cleveland Plain Dealer had to shut down its comments section because they were full of racist bile, is that PC? And if not, what’s the label? (I’m leaving out a discussion of whatever’s going on in the colleges because college kids.)
I think identity politics is in a whole other box from PC and is hideously destructive. And it’s what both legacy parties believe is their winning strategy — just with different identities. To me, and very crudely, the population is divided into the 1% who own everything, the 20% who help them do that (20% effectively, 80% as wannabes), and the 80% who are wage workers and not owners except possibly of houses (which, if mortgaged, they do not really own). So one party assembles, out of its slivers of identity, 51% of the 80%, and the other 49%, with its slivers. 51% vs. 49% = stalemate, with which both parties are very happy, and with which the 1% is especially happy, since it can go on looting as it pleases. (And now both parties can fight about class and cultural markers.) Suppose that a party or movement wants to get some real muscle and get much closer to 80%. I don’t see how that can be done with identity politics, because the identity slivers mutually contradict, indeed as if they were almost designed to do so.) Only owners vs. wage earners, and the political and material interests derived therefrom, gets you close to 80%. The issue is, well, hysteresis. You can’t take people’s historical context away from them. (Some) Black people really are being arrested in Ferguson, because they’re black, so the city can make its budget. Being shot, too. That’s bad. Unust. (Some) White people really are dying early in wildly disproportionate numbers. That’s bad, unjust also. It ought be possible to look through the identities — because, face it, where else can we start? — to the commonalities, and get to 80%. I’m not seeing a lot of that from either Democrats or Republicans. No database field for it, I guess.
Really excellent statement. Well, rant.
I think I agree. I am not sure I followed how you got to 51% and 49%. And I’m not sure the math gives a plausible explanation for why that midpoint has shifted so far to the right over the last 40 years – except that the Rs have I guess been better at identity construction than the Ds, which I think is absolutely true.
But I think it needs to be stated more clearly that the identity politics is all about the theater of which team wins, not either the policies that the winning team will enact, which will almost entirely go to benefit the 1% and a portion of their service personnel, or the overall rigging of the game, so that the interests of the 80% (or more) are almost always irrelevant or actively opposed.
It’s a model; a “stylized” fact. In my copious free time I’d put real numbers to it. On paragraph two: Absolutely. The real issue should be Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Food, shelter, etc. Identity politics has nothing to say about that. (To be fair, getting whacked by a cop because you’re black, or assaulted because you’re a woman are the dark sides of identity politics, but I would argue very strongly that even those evils take place in an economic frame; for example, if identities in the top 20% are successfully serviced, reform will stop there.)
Orwell mentioned something like that in the 30s in one of his essays. That middle/upper class, left wing, Brit intellegentsia actually despised the lower classes and wanted to remake them without understanding them. Figgs mentioned the Russian intelligentsia left had a romantic vision of the peasants until they actually lived amonst them. The different classes don’t like each other very much. Neither understand each other because they require different values and priorities to survive within their circumstances. And you can actually see the same attitude fairly often here at Naked Capitalism in the comments sections.
I agree this was an acute problem in the 60s/70s when the American Left — which actually existed! — was populated and dominated by Upper Class whites. I’m not so sure about that now. I certainly don’t see it much here at NC. True, people of different backgrounds always struggle to understand one another. But that’s human nature. It is when people stop trying to understand one another that the real problems begin.
It helps to be downwardly mobile.
That would depend on from where you begin your descent.
We non-elites here in the heart of western culture were just another colony to the well-financed oligarchs. When they took their money and went home we collapsed. I watched Hollande holding a session with African nations at COP21 as he listened to comments from France’s former colonies say things like: We were exploited by you westerners, we never shared in the wealth and you left us undeveloped and unable to make it on our own and now you are looking to make a financial killing on us by offering us loans to build green infrastructure… but we do not want to be exploited and plundered again by you and your financial imperialists. Imperialism by definition shows no interest in its colonies once they have been used and discarded.
I want to thank everyone for their well-considered comments on this thread, particularly jgordon and Jagger. They’ve covered the topic in the ways I would’ve. The subject at large is one I’ve personally grappled with for 40 years, as a former redneck who managed to get into an Ivy, but remained broke due to perpetual school debt. I could add extensive personal anecdotes, but I think I’ll spare everyone.
The marvelous Ms. Ehrenreich would not need to be reminded–as some of the rest of us do–that the failure of empathy toward the white lower middle class has cost the Democratic Party dear, not just in terms of electoral victories but a blueprint for genuine change, which must (when if finally comes) involve ways to meet our basic needs.
It’s actually a group of people that, with a truly progressive politics, Hillary Clinton could both meaningfully address and wrest away from Mr. Trump. Like all of us, they wait with baited breath for real solutions. I will not be holding my breath awaiting that development.
She could, but she won’t. Because she supports Free Trade, just like all the other New Yuppie Scumocrats.
Forgive my Schadenfreude, but America was established on the backs — and dead bodies — of millions of kidnapped Africans. The purpose of the Second Amendment appears to have been to arm their oppressors in order to sustain their mass incarceration.
Working class solidarity has always presented a challenge to the rentiers who have been able to buy the sovereign’s privilege to extract value from the land and the people living on it. The social construct of a “white” working class was a useful wedge to diffuse worker electoral power as suffrage was expanded by elites struggling among themselves to control the republic.
With the advent of globalization, the elites have delivered to the entire working class the essential message of classical/neo- liberalism that had until very recently been reserved for the descendants of kidnapped Africans:
One heartening change that I’ve seen in my own lifetime is the diminuition of reflexive, unquestioned racism among people of all socio-economic classes. There is still far too much of it, yet the younger people I know are less bigoted and more tolerant than many in my and my parents’ generations.
While racism is still useful to kleptocrats trying to keep workers divided, they seem to rely more on relentless propaganda, pushing the myth of “meritocracy” to help workers blame themselves for their own poverty.
Noone denies the plight of the slaves, but to point out their subjugation and omit any mention of those others who gave their backs & lives paints a very incomplete picture, and if done on purpose, is very dishonest.
What about the poor whites who worked in the coal mines???? Are you discounting the importance of coal in the industrial revolution and the building of the USA? Were these miners “privileged”? They were as disposable as the slaves, and received a similar reward for all of their labors. Conditions vary, but the essentials remain the same.
And no, the 2nd amendment was not solely to maintain oppression of the slaves. The 2nd mentions militias, and militias with their guns were a large part of the defeat of the British forces that led to the founding of the USA as an independent entity. I doubt that you could find any of the founding fathers to have said that an armed population was not essential to their break from the British empire.
On the coal mines: “as disposable” implies that human sale (slavery) is the same as human rental (wage labor). That’s not true.
On the militias: I don’t think anybody would deny that the Minutemen and the Swamp Fox guy played a significant role in the American Revolution. A central, war-winning role, as compared to the regular Army? I doubt that very much. And had the decision makers of the time believed this, there would have been comparably less funding and attention for the regulars, and comparable more for the militias. It’s difficult, for example, to imagine a militia co-ordinating successfully with the French Navy to win the battle of Yorktown, for example.
On the Second Amendment: The framing of the Second Amendment as a guarantor of our freedoms omits the bitter irony that yes, part of its purpose was slave catching. (It’s the same bitter irony that “happiness” and “freedom” were also construed as the freedom to purchase slaves, leading to the happiness that comes from wealth.) So this is a “both/and” issue.
On your 1st point, I didn’t say slavery and human rental were the same. I didn’t use rental at all. I’ll defer to ambrit’s post below to show the similarity in how the capitalists/industrialists viewed the poor, no matter what the color or how they came to the country.
Regarding freedom, the slaves were constrained by the well known limitations of slavery. The chance for escaping these bounds were slim, but many did escape, and a good number were able to purchase their freedom. The coal miners hardly had free movement themselves. They weren’t slaves by our narrow definition, but they were not necessarily free to move. It is well known, especially today, that people and nations can be bound by debt. That the miners were paid in script was a definite form of bondage that could be escaped in ways very similar to slaves – run away and hope to escape, or pay off the debt and move. Given that the miners had the deck stacked against them in that their script frequently was completely spent on their necessities such as rent, food from the company store, etc., the chance for them to pay off their debt and achieve freedom was minimal. This stacking of the deck was intentional. They were not a middle class with savings, etc. Were they slaves? Not officially. Were they free? Definitely not, unless you look at freedom as still being alive and having the possibility of eventually running away to freedom. But then, if that’s the case, slaves were “free” as well.
Regarding militias/army, I’m sure you are correct. My point is that both require guns (or should I say the most advanced weaponry at the time, to be more universal) in order to defeat a similarly armed opponent. Without them, they stood no chance and would have been easily defeated. It is a requirement of freedom to be able to defend yourself from those who would conquer you. People take this to heart, and by-and-large it still holds true. To take gun ownership as the key to freedom is to be ignorant of all of the other ways that one may be put in bondage, but it is still important.
Keep in mind that all of this was in response to a post that posited that America was built on the backs of slaves. Omitting to mention any others is what I was taking exception to. As well as representing the 2nd as only regarding suppressing the slave population. Two additional factors sinking this theory in my mind are 1) If the slaves were the sole reason, and the slaves had no power to take the guns away from the masters, why include it in the Bill of Rights? It was not needed to be a law. 2) Why did the 2nd last past the end of slavery in 1865?
The key point: The miners were not slaves LITERALLY. To be a slave is to be OWNED. That’s not the same as being a wage worker, any more than owning a house is the same as renting one, or owning a car is the same as taking a taxi. If the economic relations are not right, then nothing is right. I’m not trying to take anything away from working people, Lord knows, but the foundations have to be right.
On “America was built on slave labor,” I haven’t mastered the literature. I am sure that capital accumulation from the Atlantic Slave trade preceded the Industrial revolution and I believe helped to finance it. IIRC, the capital invested in the ownership of human flesh in the states that became the Confederacy was equal to the amount invested in the Union states in physical plant (for want of a more precise concept of capital). The capital destroyed when the Confederacy was destroyed was immense, and why it may be more appropriate to call the events from 1861 to 1865 a revolution (because of the change to economic relations) than a civil war.
As far as terminology goes, to call the miners of the time “wage workers” is to imply something other as well. We have wage workers in this country at this time. The wage workers now are paid in a common currency that can be used anywhere that this currency is accepted, which is everywhere, for any purpose. The miners were paid in company script, useful in ONLY that company that had full control over the pricing and availability of goods. The companies frequently if not commonly ensured that the script would cover only the basic necessities, and then even not fully, rendering the workers endebted to the companies – i.e. debt slavery. This is a well established term, and it’s historical roots speak for themselves.
Regarding slave labor and finance, I’m not discounting any part of capital’s benefit from slavery. Just pointing out, successfully I hope, that it is only part of the picture and not the whole. Stating that America was built on the back of slave labor is incomplete. Many take that as a truth alone, and that is a problem.
I wouldn’t restrict the misery to only kidnapped Africans. Every wave of poor immigrants has been savaged and exploited. I won’t argue the relative demerits of slavery and wage ‘slavery,’ but the two follow similar patterns.
There is a now covered over canal in New Orleans that was dug, starting in 1838, by hand, by Irish immigrants; the New Basin Canal. It still performs its’ function as drainage conduit for the city. It is supposed to be ‘paved’ with the graves of the 8000 poor Irish labourers who died during its’ construction.
From an article about it: “The builders of the citys’ New Basin Canal expressed a preference for Irish over slave labour for the reason that a dead Irishman could be replaced in minutes at no cost, while a dead slave resulted in the loss of over one thousand dollars.” Mary Helen Lagasse.
As to your point about the Second Amendment, I will give you credit for the ideas’ probability, seeing how Shays’ Rebellion was crushed, right quickly.
I intended to provoke debate, and I got it!
However, my point is that the strongly-held construct of “white privilege” still drives working class whites to vote against their class interests. The GOP “Southern Strategy” of co-opting the Dixicrats is alive and well. “American Exceptionalism” is just a dog-whistle for those who cling to their white privilege.
Racism and the shameful legacy of the horrific, well-armed, and perfectly legal abuse of millions of captive Africans are still major driving forces in American politics that prevent the 80 percent from acting in their own best interests. This history is fundamental to understanding the current strategy of the GOP.
Why do the poor have problems?
We are free to spend our money as we choose
If you have no money, you have no freedom