“The Incomprehensible Malice—of Poor White America”
New Racializations of White Precarity
The continued upward redistribution of wealth that has accelerated since the Great Recession has greatly reduced the economic guarantees and privileges that many white Americans once took for granted. This period marks the longest span since the New Deal that many white households have experienced sustained economic abandonment—facing levels of debt, impoverishment, and vulnerability that historically only existed in particular regions or economic sectors. Even since the recovery began in 2009, some 95 percent of the country’s income gains went to households in the top 1 percent. To be clear, Black workers, low-wage immigrants, and other low-income households of color fared far worse in this era. Median household wealth for white families in 2015 remained twelve times higher than for Black families, and wealth accumulation in Black and Latino/a households has declined steadily in the last thirty years; households headed by women of color face even sharper disparities. But due to enormous income and wealth expansion among the top 5 percent of white households, these median figures also mask the stagnation and decline in wealth and wages for white households in the bottom 50 percent of earners. For many whites, their racial positioning and privilege has not indemnified them from these transformations.
This chapter explores the contradictory ways in which white political identity becomes mobilized, inhabited, contested, and transformed in the context of material crisis and abandonment. What happens when both the material and “public and psychological wage” of whiteness famously described by W. E. B. Du Bois is no longer paid out as it was throughout much of the postwar era? What political subjectivities and projects are made possible and likely under these conditions? And how do political elites in general and conservatives in particular, who have come to power since the late 1960s, explain the greater precarity faced by the significant numbers of middle- and working-class whites who helped put them in office?
The Declining Public Investment in Whiteness
Before the New Deal, being recognized as white secured some social and political privileges but few economic guarantees. The social insurance programs originating from the New Deal in the 1930s and 1940s changed all that. Massive federal, state, and local commitments to agricultural subsidies, investments in public infrastructure (especially electrification and transportation), labor policy (collective bargaining rights and unemployment insurance), pensions and social security, and housing and education subsidies lifted millions of households out of poverty. These investments also attached a particular material basis to the ways in which whiteness functioned as a signifier of social privilege and status. And while billions of public dollars were redistributed to white low- to middle-income male-headed households, the various forms this public support took were never stigmatized as dependency or parasitism. White workers could thus enjoy enormous public benefits allocated on a racially discriminatory basis, such as government-subsidized home loans, mortgage interest deductions, tuition subsidies, unemployment insurance, social security benefits, and investments in infrastructure programs including freeways and suburbanization projects, while still imagining their economic mobility and social well-being as products of their own work ethic and achievement. Indeed, these guarantees were themselves part of the transformation into an unquestioned whiteness for southern and eastern Europeans, Jews, Slavs, and other immigrant populations from the first Great Wave of immigration from 1880 to 1924.
As the legal theorist Cheryl Harris has demonstrated, the state served to imbue white racial status as a form of “treasured property” premised directly on the power to exclude. To identify as white was to inhabit and embrace a “settled expectation” of this relative status and privilege ensured by the state. As Harris explains: “Becoming white meant gaining access to a whole set of public and private privileges that materially and permanently guaranteed basic subsistence needs, and therefore, survival. Becoming white increased the possibility of controlling critical aspects of one’s life rather than being the object of others’ domination.”
Joel Olson notes that these benefits were provided in large part in order to bind a large section of wage workers to the interests of elites. “The American racial order,” he explains, “has historically been constituted by a cross-class alliance between capital and a section of the working class. White is the term for members of this alliance.” Olson, building on the work of Du Bois and others, describes whiteness in this way as a “form of social status” or a “standing” that provided a “glass floor below which the white citizen could see but never fall.” Importantly, during the period of slavery, indigenous land dispossession, and Jim Crow, “white standing was reproduced through the explicit or tacit consent of local, state, and federal governments.”
These protections did not preserve the standing of everyone regarded as white equally. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has it, “‘White supremacy’ as the official political ideology of the old postbellum southern aristocracy was a political strategy intended to mute the dramatic class differences between rich Southern white men and poor white men. It was never intended that all white men would be ‘supreme,’ but the Southern white ruling class was mitigating against the potential of Black and white solidarity at the bottom by creating a racial and social hierarchy.” The protections of whiteness thus facilitated differential forms of exploitation and abandonment not only for non-white workers but for many whites as well. The political scientist Tiffany Willoughby-Herard observes that “Black people and poor white people are not parallel social locations, even though they are constituted by interested parties and forces claiming to advocate on behalf of white citizens, workers and women.” Thus, James Baldwin contends that these forms of cross-class white racial identifications were themselves a form of misrecognition. The white “American delusion.” he explained, “is not only that their brothers all are white but that the whites are all their brothers.”
In addition, the security and indemnification from vulnerability conferred by whiteness during this period was uneven and never universal. Particularly in rural areas where economies were predicated on resource extraction necessary for the growth and development of cities, the material privileges of whiteness were far less dependable. In 1964, a twelve-page feature by photographer John Dominis in Life magazine titled “The Valley of Poverty” depicted families in former coal-mining towns in the Appalachians in eastern Kentucky facing grinding poverty, sickness, and hunger. “In a lonely valley in eastern Kentucky, in the heart of the mountainous region called Appalachia, live an impoverished people whose plight has long been ignored by affluent America,” the author explained. “Their homes are shacks without plumbing or sanitation. Their landscape is a man-made desolation of corrugated hills and hollows laced with polluted streams. The people, themselves—often disease-ridden and unschooled—are without jobs and even without hope.”
Robert F. Kennedy would return to the region four years later for a two-day, two-hundred-mile “poverty tour” to assess the impact of the first years of the War on Poverty, calling similar attention to dire conditions of abjection. Part of the voyeurism summoned in the coverage and Kennedy’s subsequent tour is tied to a long history of imagining Appalachia as a self-contained cultural world of permanent dysfunction. As the public historian Elizabeth Catte argues, these investments only became more heightened after the 2016 election.
What is important to note, however, about the Life coverage, the tour by Kennedy, and similar exposés of white poverty during this period are the ways in which white poverty and destitution were regarded as fully exceptional—an “invisible land,” as Michael Harrington put in his 1962 study The Other America: Poverty in the United States. Images of malnourished children in eastern Kentucky brought into sharp relief the basic, commonsense understanding that whiteness was not naturally associated with conditions of deep poverty; this is precisely what made Dominis’s images and Kennedy’s tour so compelling to middle-class white readers. While there were debates about the most effective and appropriate policy solutions that might address these conditions—Sargent Shriver, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s main public emissary in the War on Poverty, described the programs as “hand-up, not a handout”—there was general agreement that white poverty was an exceptional condition that could and should be remedied rather than an inevitable expression of deficiency and degradation.
By contrast, we should remember that Gunnar Myrdal’s massive 1944 study detailing conditions of Black poverty and subordination was titled An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. There was nothing “hidden” or illegible about Black dispossession—indeed, it could take on the generalized form of the already understood “Negro problem.” Moreover, it was cast as a “dilemma,” suggesting this problem’s well-understood intractability. The contrasting registers of white poverty as hidden and aberrant and Black poverty as visible and predictable structured public discourses about material inequality across much of the twentieth century. In 1959 the anthropologist Oscar Lewis coined the term “culture of poverty” in his ethnography Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty, a concept further elaborated in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. This contention that racial distinction served as a marker of the behavioral and social dysfunctions (particularly around gender and family formation) that trapped people in poverty shaped welfare and income-support policy throughout the post–World War II era.
The explanation of poverty through racialized constructions of culture and dependence allowed the New Deal political order to become open to Republican appeals in the 1960s as the Democratic Party became more closely associated with Black civil rights. Barry Goldwater built his 1964 presidential campaign partly around the courting of white voters through anti-Black racism and by associating the expansion of civil rights with an attack on popular (white) sovereignty and an enlargement of state power at the expense of (white) freedom and autonomy. Richard Nixon and George Wallace expanded and heightened these claims in their presidential bids in 1968 and 1972. As Joseph Lowndes demonstrated in From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Making of Modern Conservatism, this cross-class alliance of white workers and business elites took many decades and significant political labor to develop and make coherent. Their interests were not naturally aligned, but across time, through a language developed within the Republican Party to address white working- and middle-class voters as the “Silent Majority,” “Middle America,” “forgotten Americans,” and “Reagan Democrats,” a modern conservatism developed that conjoined corporatist and market-based commitments with an assurance that white racial status would protect (most) white subjects from the worst consequences of those markets. In the 1990s, centrist Democrats led by Bill Clinton made similar appeals to “angry white men” and “soccer moms.” In all these cases, the parties successfully appealed to white Americans across classes in opposition to both government elites and those constructed as the racialized and dependent poor.
All of these appeals depended upon the economic stability of those white voters, such that those voters would associate economic vulnerability with Black and brown communities in poverty. From this perspective, poverty and destitution were products of cultural dysfunction and failed gender and family norms rather than of structural and market forces. Thus, in 1995, when President Clinton signed a comprehensive welfare-reform law that tore large holes in the social safety net, the great majority of the white populace (and its elected officials) cheered. White racial identity had become so thoroughly associated with autonomy, self-sufficiency, and independence that a public effort premised on making poor households even more vulnerable and insecure was perceived as a defense of white economic autonomy, even as the majority of households receiving such benefits were white.
Again, this strategy was effective as long as enough white voters were economically secure enough to make these appeals resonant. But a broad set of factors fueled by structural transformations has slowly eroded the political standing and material security of an increasing percentage of white middle- and low-income workers. The economic guarantees for white workers within the New Deal order have become increasingly less secure since the 1970s, evident in political attacks on unions, cuts in income-redistribution programs, and a weakening of employment standards that had lifted millions of white workers during the postwar period. A host of other forces, including automation, the predominance of the finance and technological sectors, deregulation, tax cuts, capital mobility and flight, and the diversion of public funds from education and social services to policing and prisons, have made tens of millions of white households newly vulnerable to economic crisis.
Thus the broad racial pact that had been in place since the New Deal, in which the large majority of low- and middle-income workers who identified as white could expect some access to the surplus produced by the national economy, has been restructured. Today the wealth gap between the richest 20 percent and the rest of the country is the widest it has been since the late nineteenth century, with the top one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans worth as much as the bottom 90 percent. More than forty-five million people in the United States live below the official poverty line; nineteen million live in extreme poverty. Race unmistakably structures these dispossessions; historic and contemporary patterns of segregation, land appropriation, and discrimination render people of color much more vulnerable to this upward redistribution of wealth. But in the hollowing out of the broad middle class, whiteness no longer guarantees the same form of material security and even social identity, rendering its future far less stable than its recent past.
It must be emphasized that this dispossession is not the result of discriminatory actions targeting white people on the basis of race. The recent rounds of income stagnation, loss of household wealth, and other forms of economic crisis are not the result of any collective redistribution to non-white groups. Such claims are the fantasy of white-nationalist groups on the right, echoed through claims of “white genocide,” but they have no basis in reality. Any aggregate or collective material loss borne by white households is dwarfed by far greater losses among workers of color. Households headed by single women of color often have no net wealth to draw upon in times of crisis.
Yet at the same time, Cheryl Harris’s observation that “becoming white increased the possibility of controlling critical aspects of one’s life,” a maxim that has governed the racialized political economy across most of the twentieth century, seems now to require more context and qualification. Whiteness still operates as a form of “treasured property” for many, and as a kind of collective and possessive investment, as demonstrated by George Lipsitz. But there are today many millions of people whose whiteness no longer indemnifies them, their families, or their communities from crisis.
These developments raise fundamental questions about the labor of race in the current conjuncture. On the one hand, whiteness continues to be associated with a range of advantages across all levels of household income. Even at the lowest income strata, poor white households are less likely to be concentrated in high-poverty neighborhoods as poor Black households; have more access to family assets (including emergency cash) in order to survive the effects of financial hardships, such as job loss or long-term disability; face less discrimination in the job market; and are less vulnerable to police surveillance, arrest, and heavy-handed sentencing policies. On the other hand, these privileges are relative rather than absolute. Whiteness alone does not insulate the twenty-eight million white people living in poverty from the effects of hunger and food insecurity, unemployment and underemployment, the burdens of consumer debt, patchwork access to health care (especially reproductive health) and other public services, or even escaping the violence of mass incarceration. Even with the dramatic racial disparities structuring the criminal justice system, the incarceration rate for white males in 2010 was still higher than the rate for any other nation in the world. Twenty-two percent of white males have been arrested by age eighteen. In a country where an estimated twenty-three million adults have a felony conviction and roughly seventy million people, or about one-third of the adult population, has some sort of criminal record, the protections of whiteness for many are incomplete at best.
Deaths of Despair
The sharpest example of these transformations may lie in the steep increase in the rates of “deaths of despair” among middle-aged white people without a college education. In a 2016 study, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton presented longitudinal data showing that while mortality rates among Blacks and Latino/as have continued to fall, they have steadily risen for whites. “In 1999, the mortality rate of white non-Hispanics aged 50−54 with only a high-school degree was 30 percent lower than the mortality rate of blacks in the same age group; by 2015, it was 30 percent higher,” they argued. “There are similar crossovers between white and black mortality in all age groups from 25−29 to 60−64.” Case and Deaton suggest that a “cumulative disadvantage over life” is driving these increases, registered in a sharp growth in deaths by suicide, drugs and alcohol, poisoning, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis. They also note an increase among the same group of middle-aged high-school-educated whites in self-reported rates of chronic pain, mental illness, and difficulty socializing. The growth in these mortality rates is concentrated almost entirely in counties scoring the highest on measures of economic distress and among individuals who do not have a college degree. These increases in white mortality are spatially uneven; they have been highest in rural areas outside of the coastal metropolises.
Case and Deaton argue that an “accumulation of pain, distress, and social dysfunction in the lives of working-class whites took hold as the blue-collar economic heyday of the early 1970s ended and continued through the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent slow recovery.” The growing forms of economic instability that undergird these “deaths of despair” are rooted in the upward redistribution of wealth that began in the early 1970s as well as the dismantling of a broad range of income security programs—attacks on the safety net that occurred over the last thirty years with little objection from white low-income voters or their representatives. As a result, social insurance programs that historically protected low-income white families thrown into crisis by economic transformations and dislocation are no longer available. Here, white workers, believing in their autonomy and self-sufficiency, remained silent while the broad redistributory functions of the state were being dismantled, imagining those cuts would discipline those on the other side of the racial divide. In doing so, they disciplined themselves.
If material conditions alone formed the basis for feelings of hopelessness, African Americans and Latino/as (and Black and Latina women in particular) who contend with much higher rates of discrimination, economic insecurity, and other forms of privation would express the highest feelings of despair. But another recent study finds the exact opposite, explaining that for low-income whites with less formal education “their situation is characterized by lack of hope and aspirations for the future, high levels of unemployment, stark markers of poor health, such as diabetes, obesity, and drug and alcohol addiction, and rising mortality rates driven by preventable deaths from causes such as suicide and opioid poisoning—particularly (but not only) among the middle aged. These trends stand in sharp contrast to high levels of optimism and psychological resilience, gradually improving health indicators, and a closing of the gap in mortality rates among their poor black and Hispanic counterparts.”
In this context, how do we make sense of Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s influential definition of racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” when among some groups, whiteness seems to be a marker of greater vulnerability to early death? An increase in morbidity and mortality cannot be taken as some sign of a racially egalitarian turn. Instead, we need to reevaluate the assumption that whiteness reliably provides a kind of material and social floor below which those marked as white cannot fall. The racialized safety net and state investments in whiteness have themselves been transformed. As Nikhil Pal Singh and Thuy Linh Tu have observed, “What we are seeing in this moment is not a literal diminishment of white bodies, but the stagnation of these wages of whiteness.”
What does this mean, then, in the words of James Baldwin, for “those who think of themselves as white?” In his groundbreaking 1998 study, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, George Lipsitz explained, “Whiteness has a cash value: it accounts for advantages that come to individuals through profits made from housing secured in discriminatory markets, through the unequal educations allocated to children of different races, through insider networks that channel employment opportunities to the relatives and friends of those who have profited most from present and past racial discrimination, and especially through intergenerational transfers of inherited wealth that pass on the spoils of discrimination to succeeding generations.” He argues that “white Americans are encouraged to invest in whiteness, to remain true to an identity that provides them with resources, power, and opportunity.” For Lipsitz, “investment denotes time spent on a given end” requiring a consideration of the “social and cultural forces [that] encourage white people to expend time and energy on the creation and re-creation of whiteness.”
Lipsitz’s work demonstrates the ways these dynamics operated across the post–World War II era to structure differential life opportunities and material advantages for hundreds of millions of people. The cumulative effects of these structures are staggering; median white household wealth today is ten times the median wealth of Black households and eight times that of Latino/a households. But if the “cash value” of whiteness appears to be in decline, at least for some segment of those people who think of themselves as white, how might that shape their investments—their use of time to a given end? And how might it change the orientation of particular political formations, among Republicans and (most) Democrats alike, whose political strategy has long sustained the assumption that white racial identity is a proxy for a set of qualities (the virtuous and self-sufficient producer) that provides protection from destitution and indigence?
For the elites who have abandoned their commitment to the economic protections, institutional supports, and redistribution programs that supported white working- and middle-class people, the growth in white economic precarity raises a daunting problem: How will elites describe and explain the fates of those “virtuous producers” who now find themselves destitute and downwardly mobile?
One response has been a growing tendency to advance cultural and even biological explanations for the expansion of white vulnerability, placing a greater number of whites in discursive categories once reserved for people of color as white poverty is increasingly framed through explanations of dependence, criminality, family disorganization, and genetic deficiency. The anti-Black tropes of cultural and familial degradation proposed by Moynihan’s 1965 The Negro Family now circulate in explanations of white poverty.
Particularly interesting for our purposes are the ways in which caricatures of genetic degradation found in Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s 1994 book, The Bell Curve, that explain and naturalize the subordinated status of Black people are now brought to bear on some white subjects. Met with great controversy and criticism when published, The Bell Curve argued that a “cognitive elite” emerged in the twentieth century that was disconnected from a much larger population with lower average IQ. Building on a long line of hereditarian thought dating to the nineteenth century that viewed economic and social hierarchies as expressions of cognitive differences, the authors contended that intelligence was a mixture of environmental and genetic inheritance that could be mapped through racial categories. In a chapter titled “Ethnic Differences in Cognitive Ability” they offered a schema that concentrated whites and East Asians in larger proportions at the higher end of the cognitive ability spectrum while African Americans were concentrated at the bottom.
In his 2012 book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960–2010, Charles Murray continued to argue that a cognitive hierarchy in the United States explains social inequality, but now no longer exempted whites from charges of intellectual inferiority. He proposed instead what is in effect a new racial category made up of the white poor, constituted by transposing long-standing tropes attached to Blackness (around cognitive capacity and cultural norms) onto destitute whites.
Why has Murray shifted his focus from traditional racial categorizations to elaborate new differentiations among whites? He argues that for decades, sociological research on “trends in American life” has used racial categories with whites as the reference point. “But,” he writes, “this strategy has distracted our attention from the way that the reference point itself is changing.” Murray argues that the white poor have become behaviorally similar to the Black poor he had described in previous work in terms of declining marriage rates, out-of-wedlock births, aversion to work, and increased criminality; and cognitively similar to them in terms of genetic inheritance. Under the chapter titles “Marriage,” “Industriousness,” “Honesty,” and “Religiosity,” Murray portrays a socially disorganized, unmotivated, dependent, morally deficient, and even genetically debased population. Murray’s shifting racialization parallels the economic, political, and social changes that have disorganized the assurances many white Americans took for granted during the postwar era. He turns to long-standing racist depictions of Black poverty and culture to narrate and explain the downward mobility of a growing group of impoverished whites, thus indemnifying the role of structural forces in this process. Poverty thus could not be addressed by state interventions or redistributions of wealth, but only by remedying cultural dysfunction and isolation. The billionaire conservative media tycoon Rupert Murdoch captured this implication directly when he tweeted, following the book’s release: “Charles Murray’s big new study getting great attention. COMING APART. Class divide, not class war. Strongly recommend.”
The flagship U.S. conservative weekly National Review has similarly pathologized white poverty by transposing long-standing racist tropes to explain the fate of impoverished white communities. In a 2014 article titled “The White Ghetto,” Kevin Williamson offered a vivid portrait of Appalachia, employing descriptions of cultural dysfunction that a generation ago were almost exclusively used against people of color. “You have the pills and the dope, the morning beers . . . the federally funded ritual of trading cases of food-stamp Pepsi for packs of Kentucky’s Best cigarettes and good old hard currency . . . the occasional blast of meth . . . petty crime, the draw (welfare) . . . recreational making and surgical unmaking of teenaged mothers, and death,” writes Williamson. “If the people here weren’t 98.5 percent white, we’d call it a reservation.”
Again, these descriptions do not supplant or displace enduring accounts of racialized poverty but rather extend them. For Williamson, the term “reservation” stands in for cultural failure and decline, a legible reference in a long and genocidal history of settler-colonial political discourse. Similarly, Williamson uses anti-Black narratives as a touchstone to explain how white poverty and social disorganization have similar roots: “Like its black urban counterparts, the Big White Ghetto suffers from a whole trainload of social problems,” he writes, “but the most significant among them may be adverse selection: Those who have the required work skills, the academic ability, or the simple desperate native enterprising grit to do so get the hell out as fast as they can, and they have been doing that for decades.”
Following a familiar conservative script, Williamson attributes the crisis in Appalachia to a culture of dependency enabled by the anti-poverty programs of Johnson’s Great Society. When Johnson originally proposed an “unconditional war on poverty” as he toured eastern Kentucky, he emphasized that what would become the Great Society was not just meant for urban Black America. It makes sense then that as the white poor become new targets of pathology in conservative arguments for austerity, Appalachia is a tactically useful entry point.
In another National Review story two years later, Williamson highlighted not merely cultural pathology but also personal failure and culpability, a narrative long used to justify Black subordination and immiseration. The “white working class,” Williamson explained, “failed themselves.” He continued, “If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy . . . you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that. Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence—and the incomprehensible malice—of poor white America. . . . The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.”
David French, a senior writer at the National Review, quickly endorsed Williamson’s account, explaining, “Simply put, [white] Americans are killing themselves and destroying their families at an alarming rate. No one is making them do it. The economy isn’t putting a bottle in their hand. Immigrants aren’t making them cheat on their wives or snort OxyContin. Obama isn’t walking them into the lawyer’s office to force them to file a bogus disability claim. For generations, conservatives have rightly railed against deterministic progressive notions that put human choices at the mercy of race, class, history, or economics. Those factors can create additional challenges, but they do not relieve any human being of the moral obligation to do their best. Yet millions of Americans aren’t doing their best. Indeed, they’re barely trying.” Expelled from any of these accounts are all the developments over the last fifty years that structured the material condition of so many households: attacks on unions and collective bargaining rights; the stagnation of wages and household income; the ravaging of the social safety net; and the many forms of financial predation and plunder that drive inequality.
J. D. Vance’s best-selling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis, participates in this same narrative structure of dysfunction and failure, even as it pleads for greater national attention to the latest incarnation of “forgotten Americans.” Vance, a self-identified conservative, recounts the range of crises—economic, physical, and emotional—that his family endured in a semirural Ohio town in the midst of industrial decline and economic abandonment. And while his narrative evinces a personal sympathy for the neighbors and kin whom he proudly claims as hillbillies, that descriptor also becomes useful when he seeks to account for their misfortunes. Describing the customers in a local market where he worked as a young adult, he writes: “They’d buy two dozen-packs of soda with food stamps and then sell them at a discount for cash. They’d ring up their orders separately, buying food with food stamps, and beer, wine, and cigarettes with cash. . . . Most of us were struggling to get by, but we made do, worked hard, and hoped for a better life. But a large minority was content to live off the dole. Every two weeks, I’d get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else.”
Ultimately, Vance explains that these failures of family, morality, and dependence have produced a culture that “increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” Elizabeth Catte notes that both the National Review and Charles Murray have enthusiastically endorsed Hillbilly Elegy. Indeed, Mona Charen argued in the National Review that the plight of Vance’s family and his hometown should be understood as identical to Murray’s Coming Apart but “told in the first person.” Vance’s work demonstrates how “the white working class has followed the black underclass and Native Americans not just into family disintegration, addiction, and other pathologies, but also perhaps into the most important self-sabotage of all, the crippling delusion that they cannot improve their lot by their own effort.” The conservative American Enterprise Institute organized a panel with both Vance and Murray titled “The Decline of the White Working Class,” explaining that both authors “explore the role of culture, individual circumstance, and responsibility in the social and economic decline of the white working class.”
However, it is not just conservatives who have pathologized the white poor. Liberals have also taken up describing impoverished whites in terms once reserved for African Americans. In his 2015 book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, the noted political scientist and author of the popular book Bowling Alone Robert Putnam tries to make sense of the yawning economic gap that has produced a significant white lumpenproletariat. Yet instead of focusing on structural explanations, Putnam links economic phenomena to culture and behavior, much as Moynihan did in 1965. “The collapse of the traditional family hit the black community earliest and hardest,” he writes, “in part because that community was already clustered at the bottom of the economic hierarchy. That led observers to frame the initial discussion of the phenomenon in racial terms, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan did in his controversial 1965 report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. But it would turn out that white families were not immune to the changes, and with the benefit of hindsight it’s clear that from about 1965 to 1980, American family life underwent a massive transformation.”
While Putnam sees economic disparity as a causal factor in the radically reduced prospects for the poor, he, like Murray, makes family central as well. “The collapse of the working-class family,” he writes, “is a central contributor to the growing opportunity gap.” Thus, just as Moynihan’s report sought to explain Black poverty through the lens of moral decay, heteropatriarchal family breakdown, and social deviance, so now do explanations of white poverty from scholars ranging from Murray to Putnam. In foregrounding the cultural and familial traits that make some white workers unfit to succeed in the market, they draw on a long history of racist explanations for inequality that disregarded the forces of economic exploitation and abandonment.
In this sense, the racialization of white poverty can be described as a process of racial transposition, though it is important to be clear about what is being transposed. The subjects of Murray’s, Vance’s, and Putnam’s opprobrium are not occupying the racialized position of Black people or other people of color, nor has the inheritance or ongoing impact of racial subordination been upset. The reorganization of white economic and social privilege in the age of inequality is not totalizing. The legacy of many generations of investment in whiteness as a form of property and value endures and continues to structure life opportunities. The trillions of public and private dollars that white households retain in retirement and investment accounts, social security, home values, and employment and educational opportunities made possible by this long history of white racial preference continues to provide economic security for many white families. Conversely, the disinvestment, abandonment, and asset stripping that prevented the accumulation of wealth in many communities of color makes those households much more economically, politically, and socially vulnerable.
Instead, explanations of dependency, behavioral pathos, family breakdown, and cultural dysfunction that have long been used to contrast Black failure with white success are now summoned and deployed to discipline white workers around privatized market logics. As some of the central conditions in the postwar economic, political, and social settlement have changed, the (economic) wages of whiteness are no longer guaranteed. The legibility of efforts to explain these new forms of privation as effects of cultural degeneracy and dependence is premised upon an enduring racialized logic and domination that has long naturalized white supremacy. They are rooted in a social vision based on categories of worth and unworthiness that ignores structural explanations of inequality and invites scrutiny into the failures or successes of the individual body and family.
Precarious White Rage
As the privileges and securities associated with whiteness are being reorganized, we can expect many white subjects to resist a decline in the social and material status promised on the basis of race and attempt to reverse the declining returns their investments in whiteness have historically afforded them. These transformed conditions shape the ways in which white political identity becomes mobilized, inhabited, contested, and transformed in the context of crisis and abandonment. Race thus continues to perform critical political labor.
Indeed, the 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump is an expression of such resistance to changes in the GOP and in the United States more generally. While these shifts in the racial order are meaningful, two conditions must be stressed: first, like all political shifts, they are partial and incomplete; second, the economic and social changes underfoot have also produced countervailing political movements, efforts that seek to resuscitate the economic, political, and social guarantees of whiteness that characterized much of the postwar period. This white racial revolt was most explicit during Trump’s candidacy and election, which linked anxious racial standing to economic precarity and fears of political abandonment. Trump offered a narrative about the debasement of whiteness, recited through accounts of state failure, an anemic military, the loss of national economic standing, and the incursion of racialized foreigners into the U.S. polity.
Trump’s first foray into contemporary presidential politics came in 2011, when he challenged the veracity of President Obama’s birth certificate and reenergized the “birther” movement’s claims that Obama had neither the authority nor the legitimacy to serve as president. For Trump and many other birthers, the claim not only challenged the authority of Obama’s legislative and political agenda but also served to index the decline in the sovereignty of the white polity. Obama’s victory, and his alleged success in defrauding the U.S. electoral system, revealed the declining autonomy of the virtuous white populace.
Similarly, when Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination in June 2015, he famously insisted that Mexico was “sending people that have lots of problems. . . . They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” He framed these comments explicitly through the language of national loss, asking, “When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity.” He insisted in his Super Tuesday speech during the Republican primary that “Mexican leaders and negotiators are much tougher and smarter than those of the U.S. Mexico is killing us on jobs and trade. WAKE UP!” To demonstrate the decline of U.S. self-determination, Trump portrays a “Mexico” in the imagination as a place beset by corruption, violence, criminality, and terror that still imposes its will against the United States.
Cheryl Harris argues that historically, whiteness can be conceptualized as analogous to property because of its dependence on the “right to exclude.” Here, then, the perceived loss of autonomy over borders, immigration policy, strength in trade deals, or the distribution of foreign aid registers the loss of a central trait of white authority—the power to exclude. Exhortations to “build a wall” on the border with Mexico, which drew wild applause at campaign rallies across the country, can be understood as a reassertion of such authority. Trump’s calls for a “Muslim ban” and heightened forms of national and religious government registration and tracking operate similarly.
Indeed, Trump’s campaign was also rife with explicit references to permanent loss and failure. While his campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again,” Trump constantly foregrounded themes of defeat and abandonment. All along the campaign trail Trump told crowds: “We don’t win anymore.” “We don’t make anything.” “We are losing so much.” Unlike the leaders of past populist revolts, Trump seemed less a champion of working people than a figure who confirmed their debased status, reveling in such terms as “disgust,” “weakness,” “losing,” and “pathetic.”
Thus, Trump’s candidacy and his mobilization of white rage can be read as reaction to the declining guarantees that whiteness has provided. This is not to say that Trump was elected by the “white working class”—a long-reified concept that has been revived by both conservatives and progressives to describe Trump voters. These narratives obscure the central role that white middle- and upper-income voters played within Trump’s electoral coalition, misrepresent the relationship between economic standing and support for Trump, and conflate race and class status. Yet fears of decline in economic status animated white voters across income levels, fears made meaningful through appeals to racism, nativism, and the power to exclude.
Like the champions of the 2016 Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the rise of nationalist, anti-immigrant parties and movements in Europe, Trump summons a racial populism to sustain the fantasy that economic inequality and the vulnerability it produces can be avenged through attacks on immigrants and people of color, a fortification of national borders (and more invasive policing within those borders), and an economic nationalism that disavows the dependence of the U.S. economy on the labor of workers and capital from across the globe. It is in many ways a demand for the state to reinvest and to protect the historic value of whiteness, to renew whiteness as a form of “treasured property” premised on the power to exclude. Trumpism itself is only legible as a viable political project through an understanding of the ways that whiteness has long been perceived to provide a basic protection to those racialized as white.
Several prominent opinion polls and focus groups conducted during the election demonstrate the complex links between Trumpism and a sense of the declining value of white racial identity. Notably, these studies report that direct experiences of economic crisis and hardship alone did not necessarily predict support for Trump. One of the largest studies based on Gallup polling data found that Trump supporters “earn relatively high household incomes and are no less likely to be unemployed or exposed to competition through trade or immigration.” A poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) suggested that “being in fair or poor financial shape actually predicted support for Hillary Clinton among white working-class Americans, rather than support for Donald Trump.” The PRRI poll also found that a voter’s “gender, age, region and religious affiliation” were not significant predictors of support for Trump, nor were “views about gender roles and attitudes about race.”
The measures that did predict support for Trump in the PRRI poll instead seem to capture anxieties about the declining value of whiteness and the protections it would afford. Agreement with statements such as “today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities” strongly predicted support for Trump, as did measures about the perceived “foreign influence” on the “American way of life,” measures of economic fatalism, and demand for heightened immigration restrictions. While these attitudes have been described as a feeling of being a “stranger in one’s own land,” that narrative must be placed in a particular context. Trump supporters are actually slightly more likely than other voters to live in racially segregated (white) communities. The feelings of estrangement registered by the study thus do not seem to describe or articulate demographic, social, or cultural transformations within the lived experiences of these respondents. Instead, they capture more abstract perceptions of deterioration, fatalism, and the declining remunerations of whiteness and its protections from vulnerability. The political scientists Justin Gest, Tyler Reny, and Jeremy Mayer have described such perceptions as grounded in “nostalgic deprivation—the discrepancy between individuals’ understandings of their current status and their perceptions about their past.”
Research by the public-policy scholars Shannon Monnat and David Brown immediately after the 2016 election found that Trump outperformed 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney the most in counties with the highest levels of economic distress and “deaths of despair.” While Monnat and Brown’s study suggests that these relationships are associative rather than causal, the findings intimate a link between the rising mortality rates among white, middle-aged, high-school-educated men and women and support for Trump. We want to highlight the enduring connection between perceptions of fatalism and decline and the embrace of a figure (Trump) and a political movement premised on the regeneration of whiteness and the power to exclude. If we read these developments through the framework of historian Carol Anderson’s account of the continued regeneration of “white rage” against perceptions of Black advancement and white decline, we can see them as likely to produce further episodes of crisis, violence, and upheaval.
The Silent Majority Unmoored
On April 10, 2018, in the midst of heightened attention to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s potential collusion with foreign agents, the Trump–Pence campaign sent a financial solicitation to its supporters. It began, “Let me be clear. Since Day One, this witch hunt has never been about me. Their target is you. The swamp doesn’t want you to take your country back, and they will fight to the bitter end to stop you.”
The solicitation’s gesture—what’s good for me is good for you—captures clearly the ways political leaders construct interests to bind the identification of supporters to themselves. In this case it also recapitulates and invokes a long-standing language of white cross-class identification, summoned to defend and naturalize white-supremacist political orders as representing the best interests of all those who think of themselves as white. But as Singh and Tu note, “the open secret that Trump’s politics conceals is that white privilege no longer provides much protection from economic insecurity.” Trump’s promise to “return to American greatness through a reinflation of the wages of whiteness” will not address the conditions of what they describe as “morbid capitalism.”
Trump’s unanticipated rise serves as confirmation that the white producerist order of the twentieth century is no longer dominant in U.S. politics. The political bloc that imagines itself as the Silent Majority has become unmoored, as at least some of its adherents no longer experience the same remunerations of whiteness. Unlike an earlier period, it no longer can constitute an electoral majority in U.S. politics. Republican strategists who have long secured the party’s fortunes through appeals to this bloc are rethinking these commitments, witnessed in growing (if still bungled) efforts to appeal to more voters of color. As narrated by Trump, the Silent Majority now invokes an increasingly unstable political identity, one that has at times been unapologetic about the use of violence and intimidation as ordinary practices of politics. As national GOP elites attempt to expand the base of the party by making multicultural appeals while also pursuing economic policies that further widen the gap between the very rich and everyone else, opportunities for the growth of powerfully racist and nativist politics abound. Singh and Tu observe that “terminal whiteness will not be restored to its past glories by reindustrialization, border walls, or the repeated invocation of racial enemies (old or new). That these ideas are now put forth as answers to economic distress merely reflects a deepening of morbid symptoms that have come to define America’s racial-capitalist order over the past several decades.”
The scholarship and political activism that has foregrounded race as a central dividing line helps us to recognize the many ways that the structural, institutional, and discursive settlements of the postwar era continue to have profound effects on political culture and life possibilities in the United States. The recurrent crisis of racist police and vigilante violence across the nation, the persistent use of racist invective by some political candidates, and the racialized disparities in health, education, housing, and many other realms of social and political life demand an analysis that attends to the historic continuities of racial domination. At the same time, undeniable shifts in material conditions and discursive frameworks require equally careful attention. As the Trump movement has already demonstrated, dangerous forms of white populism will likely develop both inside and outside the party system—although, as we argue in the next two chapters, this authoritarian nationalism based on appeals to a vulnerable whiteness is itself open to unlikely forms of racial transposition.