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29 April 2017

From white trash to the whitelash: what do white people want?

Class, culture and religion all play a part in how white voters feel about themselves. 

By Helen Lewis

A few weeks after the election of Donald Trump, a veteran British politician told me about visiting a multi-ethnic primary school. He watched a lesson where the pupils were asked to draw something that represented “their culture”. Everyone got to work, except one kid – a white boy. When asked what was wrong, he replied: “Miss, I haven’t got a culture.”

The story encapsulated something that has bubbled beneath many of the political conversations of the moment. We are now comfortable with hyphenated and minority identities – black British, Asian-American, disabled, Welsh, gay – but instinctively uncomfortable about majority perspectives.

Yet you have only to look at popular culture, in which “white people problems” are mocked on Saturday Night Live and where “stuff white people like” (Banksy, camping, Moleskine notebooks) spawns a whole website, to know that whiteness is more than a purely racial identity. The trouble is, as these examples suggest, that “white people” has become a byword for privilege, and usually for wealth. (It also implies unfashionability, or being “basic”; yoga is classic “stuff white people like” because it gives them a taste of exoticism otherwise absent from their dull, bland lives.)

White people are the butt of the joke, which is no problem if you’re shielded by status and wealth. You can afford to laugh it off. But where does that leave those who are not rich and who don’t feel privileged? By the rules of polite society, they are certainly not allowed to be proud of being white. They can’t complain, either, because the general belief is that they are holding an ace.

At the start of his exploration of white, working-class identity in Youngstown, Ohio and east London, Justin Gest sums up the problem: “White working-class people are perplexing. They are subject to the pressures of intensifying inequality across much of the developed world, and yet inherit the advantages of language and integration . . . Some have become quite rebellious. Has ever a group so purportedly marginalised possessed such power?”

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Gest’s book is one of a slew published around the time of Trump’s election, all of which try to explain the economic and social conditions that led so many white Americans to elect a uniquely unqualified president. (About 58 per cent of whites voted Trump, compared with just 8 per cent of black Americans and 29 per cent of Hispanics.) Particular horror was reserved for white women, 53 per cent of whom voted for a Republican who had boasted about “grabbing pussy”. But in a highly racialised society such as the United States, it doesn’t feel surprising that many white women chose to emphasise the identity they shared with their fathers, husbands and sons, rather than the one they shared with Hillary Clinton.

One of the most provocative explanations for blue-collar Trumpism came from the US law professor Joan C Williams. She attributed his success to the “class culture gap”: essentially, that Trump was seen as merely rich, while Hillary Clinton was seen as a “professional”. Trump was like a poor person, just with more money. (His terrible hair and gaudy interior decor showed his disdain for elite good taste.) “Hillary Clinton, by contrast, epitomises the dorky arrogance and smugness of the professional elite,” Williams wrote. “Worse, her mere presence rubs it in that even women from her class can treat working-class men with disrespect.” Clinton reminded them of every doctor who had the power to sign them off sick and wouldn’t, and every traffic cop who gave them a ticket.

Still, it’s too easy to bring Trump into this. Research shows that his voters weren’t unusually poor or concentrated in manual jobs; the FiveThirtyEight website found that the median household income of his primary voters was $72,000, higher than the national average of $56,000. And as the Guardian reported, “Of the one in three Americans who earn less than $50,000 a year, a majority voted for Clinton.” So Trump voters weren’t at the bottom of the heap. There’s a better case, however, that they were at the bottom of the white heap.

This interplay between racial and class politics is sketched in Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash. Isenberg opens her book with a reference to one of the most compelling portraits of white trash in American fiction: the dirty, poor, lazy, incestuous Ewells of To Kill a Mockingbird. But the roots of this archetype lie in the very first days of America as a country.

From the start, there was a white underclass in the New World, composed of criminals and ruffians expelled from Britain. This “human refuse” was deemed expendable, and its original sin was landlessness. Isenberg shows how a slave-owning oligarchy stitched up the system in its own favour: “By 1760, only 5 per cent of white Georgians owned even a single slave, while a handful of families possessed them in the hundreds.” (These rich Southern families later wrote the rules of conscription for the civil war to exclude themselves and other slave-owners.) By restoring class to the narrative, Isenberg rewrites the founding myth of the US, noting that “because of how history is taught, Americans tend to associate Plymouth and Jamestown [the sites of the first English settlements] with co-operation rather than class division”. The “crackers” (a word that first appeared in the 1760s) were resented for being more trouble than slaves. Meanwhile, for the abolitionists, a critical argument against slavery was that it was unfair competition for white labourers, who would succumb to inbred laziness in the absence of good and honest work to do.

J D Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy explores these stereotypes through the story of his own family, whose roots lay in rural Kentucky. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio; his maternal grandfather moved there in search of work and found it. But today the local steel company, Armco, survives thanks only to a buyout by a Japanese firm and it is no longer the economic engine of the town.

The author’s mother is an addict, which reflects a wider problem: rural America is riddled with abuse of prescription drugs, especially opiates. She has 15 partners during her son’s youth, depriving him of a stable home. This is provided instead by “Mamaw”, his mother’s mother, a self-confessed hillbilly with a foul mouth but who instils a much-needed sense of discipline. Vance gives her credit, along with his time in the marines, with turning his life around. (He studied law at Yale.)

It is too easy to universalise from Vance’s story, and the conclusions he draws from his upbringing can feel simplistic – he believes in the conservative ideal of “strong families”, for instance, but does not explore the idea that policies to encourage couples to stay married often do little more than deprive women of economic agency and force them to stay with abusers and drunks. Vance also argues that some of his peers in Middletown were plain lazy, and that they turned to anger through “a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself”.

Economists are now looking at the problems of being poor in a rich society, whose social frameworks are not built with the poor in mind. The Nobel winner Angus Deaton, who has studied early “deaths of despair” among white Americans, has argued that “if you had to choose between living in a poor village in India and living in the Mississippi Delta or in a suburb of Milwaukee in a trailer park, I’m not sure who would have the better life”. Part of his reasoning is that “life expectancy in much of Appalachia is below life expectancy in Bangladesh”.

Whatever the caveats, there is a reason why Hillbilly Elegy became a bestseller. It lays out a sense of loss, and grievance, in these communities; how rural Americans smart to see coastal urbanites laugh at Nascar racing and country music. It also prods gently at a white sense of entitlement: the unspoken feeling is that of course black folks and immigrants have it hard – that’s the way of the world – but aren’t white folks supposed to deserve something better?

Vance instinctively approaches rural white America from the right, while Arlie Hochschild admits that she has to scale an “empathy wall” to shake off her Californian sensibilities and connect with residents of Louisiana. Strangers in Their Own Land is an astonishing, eye-opening book. It takes a simple question – in one of the most polluted states in the US, why do so many people hate the government? – and explores it through a haunting and likeable cast of characters. There’s Lee Sherman, who was ordered to dump toxic chemicals in the bayou by his bosses, until he got sick from being doused in something that “burned my clothes clean off me” and was promptly laid off for absenteeism. Years later, Sherman confessed to what he’d done by parading silently at a meeting of local residents with a sign that read: “I’M THE ONE WHO DUMPED IT IN THE BAYOU”. Just as compelling are the Arenos, who refuse to move from their home even though half the family has contracted suspiciously similar cancers, and Mike Schaff, an oil-rig engineer who lives in an abandoned neighbourhood, ruined by a sinkhole caused by a drilling company.

Hochschild sketches “deep stories” for her characters, parables that help make sense of their lives. Some are “cowboys” – men who work in hazardous environments but eschew protective gear, because that’s for sissies. Others believe that life is a trade-off: the state needs the oil companies because they provide the jobs, and you just have to suck up the pollution. (Christian faith, with its emphasis on sacrifice and suffering, is important here.)

Her final parable is the story of the hill. Her subjects are queuing, as in a pilgrimage, “along with others who are also white, older, Christian, and predominantly male”, and over the summit is the American dream. Behind them are most people of colour, but there are plenty of folks ahead of them, too. To those in the line, progressive politics feels like a queue-jumper’s ­charter: refugees are given a place; affirmative-action programmes help minorities move forward; women demand access to the workplace. The government will help others, and call itself virtuous for doing so – but what about you? “Your money is running through a liberal sympathy sieve you don’t control or agree with,” Hochschild writes. And: “You are a stranger in your own land.”

As an anthropologist, Hochschild is carefully non-judgemental, but even her interview subjects acknowledge the racial dynamics of this world-view. They have no narrative to explain how things might get better. They feel like victims but hate the language of victimhood.

A better understanding of class must be part of the response to Trumpism, but the greatest achievement of Hochschild’s beautiful book is that it does what anti-racist politics aims to do. It stops us seeing people we might dismiss as Other – in this case, white people – as unfathomably different, and shows their common humanity. 

The New Minority: White Working-Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality by Justin Gest

White Trash: the 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J D Vance

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This article appears in the 26 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On