There is a peculiar tendency in America with many phenomena (and maybe it exists in other countries too), that when the data are disaggregated by race, to see the statistics for whites as the norm and use the statistics of minorities as a measure of the problem. I made this point strongly in my book The Achievement Gap in US Education where I said such a way of thinking led to people, even well meaning ones, proposing solutions to the educational system that were misguided. Looked at in that way, they see nothing fundamentally wrong with the educational system (after all, whites are doing ok) and the problem lies with the black community for not taking advantage of the educational opportunities. I argued that there were fundamental problems with the entire system and that white students were also not being served well. As a result, they were underachieving but black students were underachieving even more, thus leading to the achievement gap. But by seeing the levels of white achievement as acceptable, the real problem of widespread underachievement were being ignored and wrong, and even harmful, measures being proposed
We see something similar with the drug problem. As long as it was seen as a problem that affected mainly urban, poor, communities of color, we saw a severely punitive response, a ‘war on drugs’ with harsh police tactics, vigorous prosecutions, and massive criminal penalties. But as the realization has sunk in that white people, especially in rural areas, are in the grip of a serious drug epidemic, the focus has shifted and people are talking about it more in terms of it being a medical problem that requires treatment not merely punishment.
Analyses of what should be done following the recent election of Donald Trump have taken a similar turn. Trump received most of his support from white people, including a majority of them who were women and those with college educations. But his strongest and most enthusiastic support came from rural, white, poor, America and this has resulted in Democrats wondering how they should tailor their message to try and appeal to this demographic.
But thanks to reader Norm, I read this fascinating article by someone who emerged from just that milieu and understands the thinking and who says that we should not try to find ways appeal to that group because their problems stem from their determination to retain outmoded ways of thinking and values. What should be done instead is launch a concerted attack on the backward, racist, Christian ideology that prevents that group from entering the modern world.
As the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump is being sorted out, a common theme keeps cropping up from all sides: “Democrats failed to understand white, working-class, fly-over America.”
Trump supporters are saying this. Progressive pundits are saying this. Talking heads across all forms of the media are saying this. Even some Democratic leaders are saying this. It doesn’t matter how many people say it, it is complete BS. It is an intellectual/linguistic sleight of hand meant to draw attention away from the real problem. The real problem isn’t East Coast elites who don’t understand or care about rural America. The real problem is that rural Americans don’t understand the causes of their own situations and fears and they have shown no interest in finding out. They don’t want to know why they feel the way they do or why they are struggling because they don’t want to admit it is in large part because of the choices they’ve made and the horrible things they’ve allowed themselves to believe.
In deep-red America, the white Christian god is king, figuratively and literally. Religious fundamentalism has shaped most of their belief systems.
The fundamentalists I grew up around aren’t anti-education. They want their kids to know how to read and write. They are against quality, in-depth, broad, specialized education. Learning is only valued up to a certain point. Once it reaches the level where what you learn contradicts doctrine and fundamentalist arguments, it becomes dangerous.
Another problem with rural Christian white Americans is they are racists. I’m not talking about white hood-wearing, cross-burning, lynching racists (though some are). I’m talking about people who deep down in their heart of hearts truly believe they are superior because they are white. Their white god made them in his image and everyone else is a less-than-perfect version, flawed and cursed.
Another major problem with closed-off fundamentalist belief systems is they are very susceptible to propaganda. All belief systems are to some extent, but fundamentalist systems even more so because there are no checks and balances.
This is why I think the idea that “Democrats have to understand and find common ground with rural America,” is misguided and a complete waste of time. When a 2,700-year-old book that was written by uneducated, pre-scientific people, subject to translation innumerable times, and edited with political and economic pressures from popes and kings, is given higher intellectual authority than facts arrived at from a rigorous, self-critical, constantly re-evaluating system that can and does correct mistakes, no amount of understanding, respect or evidence is going to change their minds and assuage their fears.
What I understand is that rural Christian white Americans are entrenched in fundamentalist belief systems; don’t trust people outside their tribe; have been force-fed a diet of misinformation and lies for decades; are unwilling to understand their own situations; and truly believe whites are superior to all races. No amount of understanding is going to change these things or what they believe. No amount of niceties will get them to be introspective. No economic policy put forth by someone outside their tribe is going to be listened to no matter how beneficial it would be for them. I understand rural Christian white America all too well. I understand their fears are based on myths and lies. I understand they feel left behind by a world they don’t understand and don’t really care to. They are willing to vote against their own interests if they can be convinced it will make sure minorities are harmed more. Their Christian beliefs and morals are only extended to fellow white Christians. They are the problem with progress and always will be, because their belief systems are constructed against it.
The problem isn’t a lack of understanding by coastal elites. The problem is a lack of understanding of why rural Christian white America believes, votes, behaves the ways it does by rural Christian white America.
The aricle is hard-hitting and says in sharper form what J. D. Vance, a political conservative says in more sympathetic ways, as described in a review of his book Hillbilly Elegy.
“Hillbilly Elegy,” in my mind, divides into two components: the family stories Mr. Vance tells — most of which are no doubt better experienced on the page than they were in real life — and the questions he raises. Chief among them: How much should he hold his hillbilly kin responsible for their own misfortunes?
In Mr. Vance’s estimation, the answer is: a lot. Economic insecurity, he’s convinced, accounts for only a small part of his community’s problems; the much larger issue is hillbilly culture itself. Though proud of it in many ways, he’s also convinced that it “increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”
Time and again, Mr. Vance preaches a message of tough love and personal responsibility. He has no patience with an old acquaintance who told him he quit his job because he hated waking up early, only to take to Facebook to blame the “Obama economy.” Or with a former co-worker at a tile warehouse who missed work once a week though his girlfriend was pregnant.
Squint, and you’ll note the incendiary nature of Mr. Vance’s argument. It’s always treacherous business to blame a group for its own misfortunes. Certainly, an outsider cannot say what Mr. Vance is saying to his kin and kind. But he can — just as President Obama can say to fellow African-Americans, “brothers should pull up their pants,” as he did on MTV.
An interview with Vance that appeared in the American Conservative magazine drew a huge readership.
What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by. Heroin addiction is rampant. In my medium-sized Ohio county last year, deaths from drug addiction outnumbered deaths from natural causes. The average kid will live in multiple homes over the course of her life, experience a constant cycle of growing close to a “stepdad” only to see him walk out on the family, know multiple drug users personally, maybe live in a foster home for a bit (or at least in the home of an unofficial foster like an aunt or grandparent), watch friends and family get arrested, and on and on. And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops.
The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades. From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues, a la Thomas Frank (more on that below). Maybe they get a few handouts, but many don’t want handouts to begin with.
From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican policy platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and paeans to the noble businessman and economic growth. Whatever the merits of better tax policy and growth (and I believe there are many), the simple fact is that these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis. More importantly, these policies are culturally tone deaf: nobody from southern Ohio wants to hear about the nobility of the factory owner who just fired their brother.
Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears. He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas. His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground. He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.
These articles are definitely worth reading and thinking about as we enter 2017.
Are they fair representations of rural, white, Christian, America? I have no idea since I am about as far removed from that world as you can get. But we should not fall into the trap of thinking that any single group represents the ‘real America’, as people are wont to do with their rose-colored representations and glorification of rural America, as if being close to the soil confers some mystical virtue, even if we do not go completely in the opposite direction as in this scene from Blazing Saddles.