"Deaths of Despair" and Left-Wing Hostility to Poor Whites' Narratives
Where there is no vision the people perish.
.In March, 2017, Anne Case, the Alexander Stewart 1886 Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University, and her husband, Sir Angus Deaton, a Nobel laureate, gained much media coverage for their work. They reported that death rates are rising among those American whites who are classified as “working class,” “non-college educated,” or simply “poor.” Suicide, drug addiction, and alcoholism cause a significant enough number of these anomalous deaths that the researchers dubbed them “deaths of despair.” There is no similar rise in death rates among Europeans in roughly comparable socioeconomic cohorts, or African Americans or Hispanic Americans, whose death rates are improving.
Case and Deaton are economists. They seek the cause and the solution to the problem they describe in facts and figures. I seek the cause and any potential solution to “deaths of despair” in narrative: in the stories that people tell about themselves, and the stories their opponents tell about them. Abundant examples of warring narratives are readily found in the comments sections of online discussions of Case and Deaton’s work.
In The Atlantic, the most popular comment is from an anonymous “middle-aged white man.” He wrote,
“We feel downtrodden, but we don’t even get to use the language of the oppressed since we’re universally acclaimed as the oppressor. And we don’t even get to take on the role of an oppressor since we’re powerless. We used to be breadwinners, but now we’re not. We used to be fathers, but more and more often our kids aren’t with us. We’re certainly not the heads of household … We’ve abandoned religion, so there’s no hope of a reward in the next life. We have no faith in a government who doesn’t seem to care about us … the world has passed us by and doesn’t need or want us anymore.”
Responses to this plaintive confession are unsympathetic. Posters allege that poor whites are racist, ignorant, lazy, junk-food eating, beer-swilling opiate addicts who cause their own problems by voting Republican.
One April, 2016 Salon headline reflects the attitude: “We Must Shame Dumb Trump Fans: The White Working Class Are Not Victims.“
In December, 2016, after Markos Moulitsas advised his readers to rejoice over coal miners losing health insurance, The New Republic suggested, “Liberals Should Try Not Having So Much Contempt for the Poor.“
In October, 2015, In These Times asked “Why The Left Isn’t Talking About Rural American Poverty.” Their answer: the left assumes “that rural white voters are racist and illiberal and intolerant” and unworthy of concern.
Case and Deaton’s work on “deaths of despair” among poor whites is a challenging topic for me. As my fingertips hover over a silent keyboard, my guts begin to twist and my breath becomes shallow. I am poor and white. My father mined coal and carried rich men’s bags at a country club. My mother was a cleaning woman and factory worker. My grandparents, in the Old Country, were peasants. There are no princes, bishops, or admirals in my family tree. There are lots of folks who withstood Nazis, Soviets, kulturkampf, and czars. As a child visiting Slovakia I met an aunt who was gang raped by Red Army soldiers and I saw the beaten, animal look in the eyes of my loved ones when talk turned to the Nazi occupation.
By merely mentioning left-wing prejudice against poor, white people, I risk being demonized as a flesh-and-blood embodiment of the very stereotype I am attempting to reject. I must be a KKK member. Silencing me earns the silencer points as a Politically Correct knight – not in white – oh, no, not in white – but in multicultural armor.
There isn’t even a name for what I am trying to describe, no “Islamophobia,” “transphobia,” “looksism,” or “ableism.” Liberal contempt for poor whites is the hate that dare not speak its name. What do you call someone who chooses to condemn people he dislikes as “white trash,” “rednecks,” “Bohunks,” “honkies,” “crackers,” “hillbillies,” “greasers,” “trailer trash,” “Okies,” or “knuckle-dragging-wife-beater-t-shirt wearing Neanderthals”? Possibly you call him “professor,” “author,” “congressman,” “minister,” or “late night comedian.” Maybe you call him “Mr. President.” During his successful, 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama told wealthy donors in San Francisco that poor whites are bitter xenophobes who cling to guns and religion. One blogger paraphrased Obama’s message as, “Vote for me, you corncob-smokin’, banjo-strokin’, chicken-chokin’, cousin-pokin’, inbred hillbilly racist morons.“
Yes, right-wingers support cutting government programs, and right-wingers can be snobs. But a right-wing person’s ideological adherence to small government, free market principles, or even merely his own fist tightening around his earnings that the taxman craves to requisition is one thing. What I have felt in encounters with some-not-all leftists is something different. While the left protects some groups with speech codes and concepts like “microaggression,” ugly slurs against poor whites are met with laughter – or a sense of righteousness. Not only is it okay to mock poor whites; doing so elevates the virtue status of the speaker. Why? Left-wing hostility to poor American whites is not caused by mere chance, but by real conflicts in how left-wingers and poor whites tell their respective stories.
During the mass immigration c. 1880-1924, the left passionately courted coal miners, steel smelters and garment workers. Marx wrote, “Workers of the world, unite!” but these immigrants didn’t want to identify as workers. They identified as Poles, or Italians or Americans, or Catholics. And they didn’t especially want to unite with other workers. In spite of robber barons’ harsh treatment, the immigrants wanted to succeed at capitalism, not overturn it. Marx wrote that religion is the opiate of the masses, but these immigrants clung to their faith.
I tasted some of poor white’s rejection of leftists’ unrequited love back in the 1980s, when I was a fellow traveler with Manhattan’s card-carrying communists. “Don’t you see,” a comrade instructed, “when chivalrous Polish men kiss your hand, they are silently demanding that you use those hands to wash dishes?” Being a Polish-American woman who runs a clean home is a cherished part of my self-identification. I could never adopt his ideal of a communist woman, who, apparently, is anti-dish-washing.
I repeatedly pelted my comrades with this question: Marx taught that the onset of the dictatorship of the proletariat was an historical inevitability. Communism was so appealing to the workers that humanity would eventually evolve into the workers’ paradise. And yet, no one was less interested in bringing on communism than the workers themselves. Communism smashed “bourgeois” values. Free love, violence, and sedition were all morally acceptable. But in left-wing thought, there was original sin, and that sin was rejecting communism. American workers were not only uninterested in reading my comrades’ free pamphlets, American workers, by ignoring Marx and living by capitalist and Christian values, were deeply immoral.
My comrades replied to my question by identifying themselves as the “vanguard,” a more advanced and more enlightened version of the working class. It was the vanguard’s job to bring the workers into alignment with the party. They were, in short, an intellectual and moral elite whose goal it was to educate, lead, and save American workers. Working class Americans were not yet quite smart, moral, or trustworthy enough to run their own lives. The vanguard’s self-definition condemned American workers to a contrasting definition: “You reject us because you are stupid.“
The left realized that poor whites were not embracing them. They moved on to more revolutionary populations. Poor whites were abandoned for blacks.
Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, himself a black man, remarks that young African Americans, as a group, perform worse than other groups academically, and yet they have among the highest self-esteem. Why? Their positive self-image “has powerful support from some of America’s largest corporations.” Drugs, crime, sexual conquests, and hip-hop music earn blacks “a great deal of respect from white youths.” American culture has worked hard to elevate the self-esteem of African Americans, and to marginalize any critique of them. When poor whites attempt to adapt to and succeed in American capitalism, leftists dismiss them as contemptible, counter-revolutionary suckers. Patterson describes powerful whites rewarding blacks for playing the role of the outlaw. Blacks who don’t play the outlaw, from Booker T. Washington to Sidney Poitier to Ben Carson, are derided as “Uncle Tom.“
The left has shown that it can abandon blacks, too, and move on to even more revolutionary Muslims. In 2010, black journalist Juan Williams said that when he sees passengers in Muslim garb on airplanes, he gets nervous. NPR fired Williams for this comment. NPR’s president, Vivian Schiller, publicly stated that Juan Williams, because he fears Muslims on airplanes, requires the ministrations of a psychiatrist.
The left’s self-definition as a vanguard who is leading the less enlightened masses to a Utopian future plays into another, related reason why the left has such a problem with poor whites. It’s a blunt and primal urge: everyone wants someone to feel superior to. African Americans traditionally supplied that need in the US. The Civil Rights Movement rendered taboo overt displays of white-over-black. The need to feel superior to someone did not disappear. Poor white people filled the gap. Two kinds of poor white people, Poles and Southerners, were selected as epitomes of everything that was supposed to be wrong with the entire class.
UC Berkeley folklorist Alan Dundes described how Polak jokes suddenly became popular in the 1970s, shortly after the previous decade’s Civil Rights advances. Dundes wrote, “Lower-class whites are not militant and do not constitute a threat to middle-class white America … with the Polack [joke] cycle, it is the lower class, not Negroes, which provides the outlet for aggression and means of feeling superior.“
Poet Lloyd van Brunt is from the south. He, too, saw the Polak joke as an expression of contempt for all poor whites.
“Unlike blacks and other racial minorities, poor and mostly rural whites have few defenders, no articulated cause … And they have been made to feel deeply ashamed of themselves – as I was. This shame, this feeling of worthlessness, is one of the vilest and most self-destructive emotions to be endured. To be poor in a country that places a premium on wealth is in itself shameful. To be white and poor is unforgivable … That’s why I call them the Polish-joke class, the one group everybody feels free to belittle, knowing that no politically correct boundaries will be violated … trying to hide some shameful secret, some deep and unreachable sense of worthlessness … is the legacy of America’s poor whites.”
This culture-wide treatment of poor whites as inferior is so powerful poor whites resort to it themselves. As a graduate student, I worked on the Polak stereotype. One day I was seated at a staff table with other university personnel. One of my peers proudly remarked that she had received her degree at one of the best universities in the South. The following words popped out of my mouth, “‘The South’ and ‘best university’ cancel each other out.“
Everyone at the table laughed, except for the Southern woman. Her face fell. I had hurt and humiliated her in public, and no one at the table had the sense to come to her defense, and to chastise me.
It took me years to recognize that in the same way that my fellow Americans had been brainwashed into unquestioningly accepting prejudice against Polaks like myself, I had been brainwashed into unquestioningly accepting prejudice against all Southerners.
Not only did I feel it was acceptable to make such a nasty comment to a peer and friend, I felt righteous doing so. I had been brainwashed to locate the sin of racism in the South. By making fun of a Southerner in public, I was avenging Emmett Till. More on this point, below.
White working class culture, or cultures, are simply different. My grandparents didn’t speak English. Two of them could not read or write. I’ve been hungry enough that I think throwing food away is sinful. In a million, similar, small ways, I am culturally closer to other low class whites, from north or south of the Mason Dixon line, than I am to middle class people.
Rich liberals have learned, at least publicly, to interpret black people’s cultural differences as “different not worse” and often “different and better.” Black people are soulful, musical, good athletes. Illiterate black grandmothers are griots, warehouses of unique tribal wisdom. Illiterate white grandmothers are slobs, proof of poor whites’ inferiority.
When I served in Peace Corps in Africa I saw this romanticization and exoticization of non-whites run amok. I knew a volunteer, a daughter of two Ivy League professors and a descendant of Mayflower arrivals, who hired an African man to clean her house, because, as she told me without any hesitation, she enjoyed watching his scantily clad, heavily muscled black body performing domestic chores. She was a thoroughgoing political liberal.
Recently a wealthy, liberal friend remarked to me how much she admires and envies black and Hispanic women’s body attitudes. “They parade their fat in midriff-baring tops and spandex tights, even if they have cellulite.” She found this beautiful. For herself and her family, this friend maintains a strict regime of diet and exercise. She keeps her husband and children slim with Fitbits, a fridge full of wilting kale, and, affixed to household surfaces, notes recording weights, exercise routines, and optimal food choices.
This romanticization of “people of color” may have reached the point of self-parody in the opening sentence of best-selling author Emma Donoghue’s 2017 book, The Lottery Plus One: “Once upon a time, a man from Delhi and a man from Yukon fell in love, and so did a woman from Jamaica and a Mohawk woman. The two couples became best friends and had a baby together. When they won the lottery, they gave up their jobs and found a big old house where their family could learn and grow.” This fantasy would lose its allure if it were about “cisgendered,” working class whites. Who wants to read about Stan and Heather and Frank and Jane, who work at Walmart and live in Buffalo?
Having black friends earn points for rich liberals. Poor white friends earn scornful glances and inquisitorial questions: “Slumming?” Once I visited a friend’s summer home. His spinster aunt was weirdly protective of her handsome young nephew. Every vocabulary word, every item of clothing, every food choice, made me feel like a witness in the dock giving high-stakes testimony to prove a case I never really understood. I had never eaten lobster; indeed, I had never been on premises where lobster was served. I tasted and it found I didn’t like it. Scandalous! I went to bed early. I heard my friend’s “liberal” aunt harangue him, in a voice certainly loud enough for me to overhear. “What’s this all about? What’s she doing here? She is not our type. She lives in New Jersey. And not the desirable part. I’ve never heard of anyone like us living there.” I rose at dawn and left, truncating my visit. John and I had been friends for a year – but I had never met his family, nor visited his exclusive zip code. John’s aunt won. We never spoke again. I’ve not eaten lobster since, either.
With the power of the new invention, TV, the Civil Rights Movement tarnished white supremacy. TV brought police dogs and lunch counter hooligans into American homes and changed how we assessed Jim Crow. Rejection of American racism was propelled with America’s horror over Nazism’s crimes committed in the name of a master race. We came to understand racism as America’s original sin. We needed a scapegoat – someone to be blamed for that sin. Empowered whites chose poor whites as that scapegoat, as their trash receptacle. Numerous observers, writing in the 1970s, noted how popular culture was beginning to insist that racial prejudice was a phenomenon to be found exclusively among poor, not rich, whites. These observers also pointed out that when it came to real, measurable behavior and attitudes, poor whites were no more racist than rich ones. Sociologist Richard Hamilton’s “Liberal Intelligentsia and White Backlash,” which appeared in Dissent in 1972, sounds like it could have been written today. “In the world view of liberal intellectuals, those persons who share decent and humane values form a tiny minority standing on the edge of an abyss … there are so few people who share those values.” Not included among those who share decent values are “the dangerous white working class.” Hamilton cited a series of opinion polls proving that working class whites are not the bogeyman that the liberal intelligentsia were making them out to be.
In Archie Bunker, Norman Lear, a Hollywood producer, put race hatred in the mouth of a fat, cigar-chomping, working class slob in Queens. South of the Mason-Dixon line, somehow slavery and Jim Crow became, not a blot on rich white landowners, but on the kind of poor white sodomizers, idiot-savant banjo virtuosi, and inbred cannibals and serial killers who inhabited the Grand-Guignol fantasies of Deliverance, Prince of Tides, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Racism has been contained – in the bodies of poor whites. Like hazardous waste, we must be quarantined.
Of course there are racists among poor whites, as there are among rich ones. But liberals use a distorted, self-serving metric to differentiate between racist and non-racist. When it comes to how one talks about race, there are differences between poor whites and rich, white liberals. In this instance, poor whites are again defined, not as black people might be, as different-but-equal or even different-and-superior, but rather as different-and-sinister.
I have lived among black people all my life – my childhood next-door neighbors and playmate were black, and I live in a majority-minority city now. To me, black people are no better or worse than anyone else, and I employ no conversational kabuki to talk to or about black people. There are no Magical Negroes in my narratives.
“A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged,” quipped Irving Kristol. Given statistical realities, poor whites are more likely to have been victims of black crime than rich white liberals. There is an historic, silenced narrative in New Jersey. Many Italians, Jews, and other immigrants’ children, all of them over fifty years old, have recounted to me detailed narratives about their family arriving in the US, struggling to reach home ownership in Newark, Paterson or Camden, and being driven out after their white child was singled out for a beating by black bullies, or their store was burned, or their street hosted a National Guard tank. They know these details of their biographies are taboo, so they merely speak these stories, and never commit them to print. These stories are whispers, and when the tellers die, they may leave no trace.
In print, in official narratives, in college classrooms, in journalism, all of these working class Italians, Jews, and Irish are simply racists. When blacks began to move to northern cities, those city’s white residents engaged in an historic “white flight” whose only motivation was white supremacy. The official story is that poor whites are ignorant racists who remade American demographics and ruined American cities with their irrational hatreds.
Economically better off and liberal whites are more likely to have had ancestors who owned slaves, killed Indians, or exploited natural resources. They may have had black servants. They are more likely to suffer from white guilt. As Shelby Steele describes, rich and liberal whites expiate their guilt by becoming the magnanimous saviors of blacks. They do this through government programs like welfare and affirmative action. They assume that all whites should feel as they do – that high taxes and government programs are the only non-racist approach.
Poor whites are much more likely than rich whites to experience any of the goods of life – home, wealth, achievement – as coming after lifetimes of hard work, delayed gratification, self-sacrifice, and stoically swallowing biblical amounts of insult, frustration, and disappointment. Poor whites may conclude that African Americans’ surest route to advancement is through right-wing solutions like a work ethic rather than through left-wing solutions like government handouts. Given this, poor whites are likely to be positioned as the philosophical and economic opponents of rich white liberals’ narrative of white guilt and its expiation through paternalistic government programs.
I have never seen my rich, white, liberal friend “Tom” interact with a black person. I’ve attended parties at Tom’s house with dozens of guests, all of them white. Tom proves his virtue by adopting stilted speech codes when discussing black people.
When I say to Tom that I think that LBJ’s Great Society may have damaged the black family and developed a crippling dependency, Tom reacts as if I had said, “Let’s go lynch someone.” He has concluded that I am a hardcore white supremacist because I question welfare. Tom doesn’t give me enough space to mention that I reached my conclusion at least partly by reading the work of black economists, Thomas Sowell and Walter E. Williams.
Poor whites cannot tell their own life stories in a left-wing environment. If they attempt to do so, poor whites must be silenced, or, most generously, “corrected.“
I attended college decades ago, shortly after the Civil Rights successes of the 1960s, and during the rise of the Polak joke, and the evil redneck Southerner as the most reliable go-to cinematic villain. Deliverance was released in 1972, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974, and The Deer Hunter, about a bunch of working class, rust belt Bohunks who are somehow single-handedly both responsible for and victims of the Vietnam War, was released in 1978.
Like a lot of poor whites, I attended a “non-selective” school. We worked as waitresses, gas station attendants, and landscapers, took a shower, and went to class. Our professors, with Ivy League degrees and attitudes, held us in open contempt. In English classes, we were assigned to read, of course, the canon: Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Hemingway. We were also assigned to read works newly appearing on college syllabi, like The House on Mango Street, about Chicanos and Puerto Ricans, and The Color Purple. Our professors divided the world into elite whites and struggling, noble “people of color.” I was never assigned anything that reflected the life I or my friends lived. There were no struggling white people on our syllabi. No one like my mother who worked two minimum-wage jobs: running a noisy, stinking wick machine in a candle factory during the day and cleaning offices at night. My mother told me that she once saw a police officer kick my downed father in the stomach. This story could not be told at college; in the professors’ world, only black men were ever mistreated by police. There were no white girls like me who worked full time as nurse’s aides, attended school full time, and got straight A grades. No, I enjoyed “white privilege,” the equivalent of a comic book hero superpower, that magically protected me from all harm and delivered into my lap whatsoever my heart desired.
My friends and I survived on contraband wordsmiths we passed around with urgency, as if they were bits of bread in a distant prison. I didn’t learn of Anzia Yezierska, Jean Shepherd, Jack Kerouac, Bruce Springsteen, or Dorothy Allison from teachers; I learned about them from friends, and they kept me going. When I mentioned to my betters how much their work meant to me, I was given little lectures about why their work was not “art.“
If we told our stories, our professors’ stories, about rich, empowered whites and struggling, noble minorities, would crumble. We poor, white college students were not allowed either sympathy for our struggle nor pride in our successes. If we had to work menial, minimum-wage jobs, it was because that was all we deserved. If we got A grades in spite of lives that left us exhausted and tuition bills that left us eating potatoes for a week, we got those A grades because we were privileged.
The white privilege dogma receives religious defense. Even for the purposes of discussion, it cannot be questioned. Somewhere some poor white person is trying to tell a liberal that he had to defy odds and work very hard to acquire everything that he has. In response, the liberal screams, “Oh yeah? Well, slavery was much worse!“
The poor white person might respond, “I know. I’ve read Frederick Douglass’ Narrative. I’ve also read John Guzlowski’s Echoes of Tattered Tongues, about his Polish parents’ enslavement under the Nazis. Have you? I’ve read about the Muslim Slave Trade that, in time, geography, and number of victims, dwarfs the Atlantic Slave Trade. Have you? I’ve read about my ancestors, who were serfs until 1861. Have you?”
The liberal, as sure as night follows day, will respond, “You are a beneficiary of structural racism!” “White privilege” and “structural racism” are no poor white person’s superpowers; rather, they are rich liberal’s kryptonite; they exist to erase poor whites’ biographies.
Leftist dogma locks poor whites into the bottom rung of a human classification system as rigid as the Darwinian hierarchy of species. Given how “privileged” poor white people’s lives are, given “structural racism” that greases their chutes to pots of gold, if a white person has not succeeded, that person must be especially worthless. Right-wing people who invest in the Horatio Alger narrative do not imprison poor whites in such a rigid system. They believe that if we try hard, we can make it. Right-wing people, in my experience, unlike liberals, have no ideological need to silence poor whites’ mention of their own struggles, or poor whites’ pride in their accomplishments.
Finally, of course, contempt for religion supplies rich liberals with yet another a Politically Correct excuse for their contempt for poor whites. Not all liberals are wealthy or atheist, and not all poor whites are religious, but atheism is more frequently found among high-income people, and religiosity is correlated with poverty. Bill Maher has said that religion is “stupid and dangerous,” and that Americans’ belief in the Bible is “proof that this is a stupid country.” Maher called the God of the Bible a “dick.” Richard Dawkins compared religion to smallpox. Sam Harris called Christianity an “engine of stupidity.” Christopher Hitchens said that people who believe in Jesus Christ would believe in anything. The Bible provides the most important, life-affirming narrative for millions of poor whites. To rich white liberals, the Bible is the opiate of the people and a seal of poor whites’ stupidity.
Rich liberal contempt for poor whites is not a victimless crime. Richard D. Kahlenberg has shown how Affirmative Action programs, meant to elevate African Americans, victimized poor whites – and disproportionately aided rich and middle class blacks, including recent African immigrants whose ancestors never experienced antebellum slavery or Jim Crow. Marie Gryphon makes the case that Affirmative Action has done more harm than good to African Americans. Princeton sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford demonstrated that “diversity” “punishes poor whites.” Diversity programs are designed in such a way that poor whites and white Christians are underrepresented on elite college campuses. George J. Borjas, the Robert W. Scrivner Professor of Economics and Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, has shown that recent immigration trends have hurt poor whites.
I’m no Nobel-Prize winning economist. I don’t know if any of the above cultural trends and hostilities contribute to shortening the lives of Case and Deaton’s subjects. Whoever wants to address “deaths of despair,” though, must at least take these trends into consideration.
Danusha Goska is the author of Save Send Delete.