The white norm error

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.


  1. agender says

    It is also the problem European social democratic parties have handled that way -- dysfunctional.
    And I do know them (poor whites, what in American English is called “middle class”) -- from my ugly childhood, up to the circles I did not really get out of now. It is a “culture” of blaming victims, believing in rhetorics of the most depraved kind (they are used to it, because the priest said it) and of being not only unable but very much more unwilling to use their brains.
    I have invented the slogan “I use my brain because I have one!” when I had to defend myself for attending school -- and that described (and still describes!!!) the difference between me and the people I encounter everywhere except in political and feminist circles.
    If there are well-off AND wellmeaning people in such areas, concentrate on helping the youngsters who WANT to leave, otherwise it is no use.
    I have experienced this split among women, as soon as religious ones had ANY say the womens´ movement was over.
    (I am furious about these 53 % white women who voted for Trump, but not astonished)
    The logical approach, as for politics, is to concentrate on racism (Europe: refugees and other brown people) and put everything else precisely: LGBT rights and reproductive rights are human rights, against corporate “rights”, etc.
    Catering to the modes of speech of holier-than-thous as in “white working class” is of no use.

  2. rpjohnston says

    Trying to reach these people politically is futile. As the first article says, simply being a Democrat makes any Democratic politician an enemy; they could have a “free puppy for everyone” plank and there will be hue and cry about the puppies having implanted tracking chips so jihadis can find and beahed people in their sleep.

    On a societal level, some progress can be made with them by surrounding them with strong, forceful countervailing messages; especially ones that come from “one of them” and authoritatively turn around their own dogma. Rather than speaking as an outsider making an formal argument to get them to change, speak as one of them, stating your belief in the tone of the default position in order to cast their position as the outsider position (similar to how O’reilly and Hannity and others don’t make arguments, they simply speak to the “truth” of How Things Are).

    Since political campaigning for these people is a waste of resources though, politicians should focus on getting the people who already favor them to turn out -- which means turning into a REAL leftist party.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    I still keep coming back to the fact that many of these supposedly awful people did vote for Obama. That indicates to me that they aren’t necessarily irredeemable with the right message and messenger.

    The main problem I have with articles like this is that the people who write them sound like people who would rather be right than win. The Democratic coalition used to consist of working-class people, urban minorities, and over-educated types like most of us folks here on these boards. If you kick out the working class, are you really positive that there are enough votes left with the other groups for us to ever win a national election again? The more we say “You’re all a bunch of deplorable racists,” I fear the longer the era of Trump and his followers may go on. That’s too high a price to pay, even if the assessment of them as racist is accurate.

    It’s worth noting that this is actually what Hillary was saying, in her “basket of deplorables” speech that many people think lost her the election. If you look at what she was saying closely, the point she was making was that half of the people voting for Trump WEREN’T deplorable — and if we couldn’t figure out how to reach those people, she would lose. And she was right.

  4. hyphenman says

    Good morning Mano,

    Growing up in rural Washington County, Ohio—where pastors convince their flock that they, and only they, are heaven bound because they’ve joined his church and the rest of the pretend Christians are going to hell; where the uncle of a friend once proclaimed: I may be a poor farmer, but at least I’m not a damn nigger—shaped a lot of my own political views. I think that both the person writing as Forsetti’s Justice and J.D. Vance clearly articulate a a political reality that I have tried, unsuccessfully, for years to articulate to my urban progressive friends.

    I saw Trump coming back in August of 2015 because of the conversations I was hearing from downstate. I still believe that Bernie could have beaten him because he offered the light-side of Trump’s dark-side message, but now we have to deal with the president we have, not the president we wanted.

    While I remain more optimistic than most about the next four years, I’m certain that nothing coming out of the 2016 Democratic National Committee will be worth a bent farthing in lifting us out of the hole we’ve dug.

    For now, I think, our best hopes lie in organizations like the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus and Our Revolution.

    Seriously, do all you can to make today a better day,

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  5. says

    @3 Bruce:
    That indicates to me that they aren’t necessarily irredeemable with the right message and messenger.
    I saw it pointed out, though, that Obama had to be Harvard educated and very well spoken. Neither Trump nor Bush before Obama had to have much in the way of either brains nor the ability to form more than a 4th grade level sentence. So, while what you say may be true, it may also be a high bar to reach.

  6. agender says

    I have to add: Rewire has a horrible article that the unions should bow to the rightwingers among their members
    Of course this is bad advice.
    Maybe to adress the respective group more as “evangelicals -- white or otherwise -” could work.
    As for women: I read German magazine EMMA jan/feb 2017 today in the library.
    Their writers, founder Alice Schwarzer among them, do quite a good job in distinguishing between the women who want selfdetermination, and those who call themselves “feminist” but just force their respective religion and/or patriarchy on other women and girls, LGBTQs, and even manage to mention the unknown percentage of cismales who want to live as equals.
    I gave up EMMA because their stance against sexwork, which seemed moralistic to me (a lot of jobs in capitalism are ugly) and they have never adressed the risk of invoking the penal law (the “normal” rape laws are patient paper, mostly, adding laws does not make this better). But this issue had good articles and photos.
    I have to check if this is enough to put the distinction precisely in German, and there are good articles here on ftb, and orbit (and the new one is too much for me to read regularly). English is not my mothertongue, and I cannot say whether it suffices, but 1. to invent words and symbols/shortcuts is something we can do.
    2. Making them accepted is much more difficult.
    But we should and could try -- naming the fact that “whites” very often references to assholes who define themselves according to priviledge, no matter how ugly the facts, like lack of wellpaying jobs, as such are -- and not to mention it effects this even worse! Therefore: Go, Mano, go!!!
    And c5, Leo: A short outburst of emotion -- and the votes for President Obama were this, and Bernie Sanders would possibly won one, too -- does little to curb a worldview that builds(!) on the “better-than-thou”.
    A Better New Year Than the Last One To You All!

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