An Open Letter From a Black Man to White America's Dying White Working Class and Poor
My white brothers and sisters, believe me when I tell you that I love and care about you. Because I care, I will tell you things that you may not like. On occasion, I have been moved to write you an open letter. I always do this with concern and care. For example, after the horrific mass shooting in Charleston, I wondered when and if my white brothers and sisters would confront the plague of gun violence in their community. Such worries were met with deflection, denial and anger. Because I love my white brothers and sisters, I will try again.
In rapid succession, over the last few days and weeks, The New York Times, “60 Minutes,” and MSNBC have featured stories about the heroin epidemic that is ravaging the “heartland.” These stories were accompanied by new research that shows how the middle-aged white working class and poor are now dying at extremely high rates as compared to other groups.
Something startling is happening to middle-aged white Americans. Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this group have been rising, not falling.
That finding was reported Monday by two Princeton economists, Angus Deaton, who last month won the 2015 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, and Anne Case. Analyzing health and mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from other sources, they concluded that rising annual death rates among this group are being driven not by the big killers like heart disease and diabetes but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.
The analysis by Dr. Deaton and Dr. Case may offer the most rigorous evidence to date of both the causes and implications of a development that has been puzzling demographers in recent years: the declining health and fortunes of poorly educated American whites. In middle age, they are dying at such a high rate that they are increasing the death rate for the entire group of middle-aged white Americans, Dr. Deaton and Dr. Case found. The mortality rate for whites 45 to 54 years old with no more than a high school education increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014.
My brothers and sisters in White America, do these facts scare you? They probably should.
My grandmother grew up under the wicked regime of Jim and Jane Crow. Like many other black Americans she escaped to a northern American city during the Great Migration that occurred after World War II. I remember her telling me that the average white person wouldn’t survive being black for even a day. They would die from stress and anxiety.
I believe that she may have been exaggerating. But her observation does get to something real about the way white privilege manifests. Research suggests that the average white American has no basic idea about how white racism and white supremacy impact the day-to-day lives and life chances of non-whites. In fact, social psychology experiments have shown that white folks believe that not having access to television is a far greater hardship than being black. This absurdity is compounded by the belief, demonstrated in recent surveys, that in the Age of Obama, “discrimination” against white people is now a bigger problem in the United States than racism against people of color.
In all, white privilege is a system that gives unearned advantages to white people because of their perceived racial group membership. Those unearned advantages in turn nurture and cultivate a deficit in coping skills. (This is not a function of race, but rather of power. Men likely have worse life coping skills relative to women, and straight people less so than those in the LGBT community.) This should not be a surprise. White America was built upon stolen land, income, labor and wealth, taken from First Nations, African-Americans and other people of color. More recently, the modern white American middle class was created through transfer payments and government subsidies such as the G.I. Bill and VA/FHA housing programs, opportunities that were systematically denied to black and brown Americans. Racism (and sexism) in the American labor force meant that jobs which earned a living wage were deemed the near exclusive province of white men.
And now white people — and white working class men in particular — are suffering an identity crisis, as their perceived birthright is being taken away from them.
Of course, the facts undermine any claims of relative disadvantage compared to people of color. Poor and working class white people possess much more wealth and assets than do black and Latinos who are nominally “middle” or “upper class.” By implication, poor and working class whites have greater financial security than people of color in the same economic cohort. Nevertheless, it is the perception of white insecurity and suffering that matters, not empirical reality. Those who have historically been privileged will feel like equality is oppression.
White America — its poor and working classes in the throes of depression and hopelessness about the future, and killing themselves, intentionally or otherwise — must now summon up in itself the very same “personal responsibility” that the right so often uses to disparage the suffering of the black and brown poor. While globalization is most certainly pushing the white poor and working classes even further into a category of expendables, this same group of people must acknowledge their own complicity with such an outcome.
The truth hurts.
Poor and working class white Republicans, who vote for policies that hurt people like them, have contributed to this problem. White conservatives in the South, who flocked to the Republican Party because of anger about the civil rights movement, have caused this problem. Poor and working class white Republicans, who use the financial prosperity and success of the rich and upper classes as a barometer for how they should vote (a choice made even more absurd in a country where inter-generational upward mobility has been basically non-existent for decades), are a cause of this problem.
And white poor and working class people (as well as white folks en masse) — who do not realize that white elites have systematically lied to them by using the politics of racial resentment to focus their attention on “black crime,” “illegal immigrants” and “welfare queens,” instead of properly on the destructive power of neoliberalism — are among the primary conspirators in their own destruction.
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What is perhaps most unnerving about the current concern for the wellbeing of white America is that Black, brown and First Nations peoples have been dying at far higher rates for years, decades, centuries. Yet there was no great cry of public alarm or panic then.
In this moment, white people struggling with addiction are to be treated with mercy and empathy. A white Republican presidential primary candidate, Chris Christie, has even been recorded sharing a story about a rich white man, a dear friend from law school, whose addiction to pain killers ruined his life. By comparison, black and brown people who use drugs are locked up without mercy or pity by a carceral society that views their pain as criminality.
Black and brown communities were ruined by the Great Recession. Yet their loss was greeted with crickets in the mainstream news media. Black people are recorded being shot, choked to death, beaten up in schools and otherwise brutalized. And yet too many of those in White America engage in excuse-making, and defend the thuggish behavior of its racist and classist criminal justice system.
White America now increasingly encounters those same broken dreams, because the wages of whiteness do not pay the dividends they once did in the not-so-recent past. And this time the mainstream media inaugurates a crisis.
The suffering of people of color in the United States is the rule, a quotidian matter, a given. By definition, white privilege means that white people will have better life chances than whose who are not white. This is the cruel calculus of the color line both in the United States and around the world.
Undoubtedly, there are some black and brown folks who will have no sympathy for white drug addicts, who won’t care how the white working class and poor are dying at increasing, alarming rates. Such cynicism is wholly understandable. But I will not surrender the moral high ground. That is incumbent upon us who are heirs to the Black Freedom Struggle.
What’s more, I am also a secular humanist. I care about all people—even those who are invested in the lie that is Whiteness. Because loyalty to whiteness is treason to humanity, those who see themselves first as “white,” before they see that we are all human beings, are the most in need of help and guidance about how to live a full, rich and ethical life. To borrow from Baldwin, Wright and Ignatiev: A person cannot be a full member of the human race without first dropping and surrendering the lie that is “whiteness.”
James Baldwin spoke to this reality with his genius insight as:
“I’d like to say that when I say ‘white’ I’m not talking about the color of anybody’s skin. I’m not talking about race. It’s a curious country, a curious civilization, that thinks of it as race. I don’t believe any of that. White people are imagined. White people are white only because they want to be white.”
But, I am very worried. The anxiety and the pain and the loss that is being felt by working class and poor white people should occasion a moment of transcendence, one in which they realize that their elites have lied to, tricked, hoodwinked, and bamboozled them. I dream that this moment of white pain and suffering could be the impetus for new alliances across lines of race and class. There, Lani Guinier’s vision of what she describes as “political race” could be made real: Collective and shared self-interest could trump individual, provincial and superficial, albeit very real, differences of perceived “racial” identities, and the arbitrary value assigned to a person’s melanin count—or lack thereof.
Unfortunately, American history is replete with examples when white people chose racism and white racial affinity over shared class interests with people of color. When threatened, those who are invested in Whiteness as a type of property and psychological wage often double down on protecting it. Instead of embracing black and brown Americans, White America in crisis may wholly abandon the chimera of “post racial” politics and fully embrace a reactionary type of white racial identity politics—and perhaps even overt, old fashioned, bigotry.
White America is hurting. White America is in a panic — stirred up by know-nothing nativists like Donald Trump, the bigotry and resentment-based politics of the Republican Party, as well as the eliminationist anxieties produced by the right-wing media. I worry that, as horses in a fire, that White America will run back into the burning barn instead of running out to the freedom that awaits them should they ever try at meaningful alliances with people of color.