Poor Whites and Donald Trump

I just posted “Poor Whites and Donald Trump” to Wade’s WeeklyIt begins:

Since 1990, earnings for men without a college degree have fallen 13 percent. During the same time period, median household income increased by 2 percent.

Middle-aged American whites without a college education are the only age-and-ethnic group that is dying at higher rates than they were 15 years ago.

White men without a college degree are more likely to say the country’s best days are over and hard work no longer guarantees success.

Whites with a high-school education or less are reporting more pain, taking more opioid painkillers, abusing alcohol more, and killing themselves more.

So it’s not surprising that non-college-educated whites favor Trump over Clinton by a margin of 65% to 25%. Their condition has not improved under eight years of President Obama. Why should they trust Clinton to do better?

Progressive activists often take a symbolic stand, engage in moral witness, or cast a protest vote against the rigged system? Why shouldn’t poor whites do the same?

Granted, Trump is not proposing measures that will benefit the poor directly and immediately. But when white liberals support progressive taxation, they vote against their economic self-interest. Why shouldn’t poor whites take a stand on principle and try to shake up Washington?

Those thoughts have prompted me to look more closely at the divide between those with and those without a college degree. I recently took note, for example, of a public radio report about resentful female prison inmates without a college degree attacking inmates who have a degree. And I’ve reflected on my own “white trash” roots and my experiences living and working with low-income communities.

This nation’s prospects for fundamental social transformation will be enhanced if we build a broad coalition that includes poor white people (most of whom have no college degree). But middle-class attitudes of superiority and their disparaging opinions about poor whites aggravate the class divide.

In her poignant, personal essay, “Fences: A Brexit Diary,” in the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith wrote:
One useful consequence [of the Trump campaign is] to finally and openly reveal a deep fracture in [American] society that has been [decades] in the making. [Those gaps] are real and need to be confronted by all of us….The left is thoroughly ashamed of [the poor]…. We have a history of ridiculing the poor… for “shafting themselves,” for “voting against their interests [or not voting at all]” …The majority of those [“uneducated” voters] who [support Trump do] so out of anger and hurt and disappointment…. [They are not] in any way exceptional in having low motives…. We might…ask ourselves what kind of attitudes have allowed a different class of people to discreetly maneuver, behind the scenes, to ensure that “them” and “us” never actually meet anywhere but in symbol. Wealthy [America], whether red or blue, has always been able to pick and choose the nature of its multicultural and cross-class relations, to lecture the rest of the country on its narrow-mindedness while simultaneously fencing off its own discreet advantages.
With those thoughts in mind, I’ve recently posted to Wade’s Wire:
To read more, click here.


Against Rankism: Dignity for All

rankThe term “rankism” was coined by physicist, educator, and citizen diplomat Robert W. Fuller, author of Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank (2003).

Fuller defines rankism as “abusive, discriminatory, or exploitative behavior towards people because of their rank in a particular hierarchy,” and argues that rank-based abuse underlies many other phenomena such as bullying, racism, hazing, ageism, sexism, and homophobia.

To my mind, irankism helps to fuel “the system” and may in fact be the system’s primary driving force.

In the following talk, Fuller considers rankism’s evolutionary roots and asserts that we can overcome it by affirming “dignity for all.”

National Organizing: Lessons from the Founders?

constituionAs I reflect on the possibility of a new national coalition forming, I read “The Revolution: Treason and Rescue,” a review of The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783–1789 by Pulitzer winner Joseph J. Ellis, written by Susan Dunn for The New York Review of Books.

I was struck by certain parallels between the fragmentation of the post-revolutionary government under the Articles of Confederation and the current fragmentation of the progressive movement. It also seems that some of the principles the Founders employed to forge a united government might help unify progressives.

As Ellis and Dunn tell the story, after winning the war against Britain, the thirteen new states were fiercely independent and resisted a strong, consolidated union. In response Alexander Hamilton, aide-de-camp for General George Washington, drafted in 1783 “‘a generic blueprint’ for what would become the Constitution.” By 1786, Washington, John Jay, and James Madison had endorsed Hamilton’s proposal.

Hamilton then got the Continental Congress to endorse a “‘future Convention’ that would forgo incremental adjustments and instead tackle at once all the problems plaguing the confederation.”

Hamilton, Jay, and Madison then persuaded Washington to “retract his promise ‘never more to meddle in public matters.’ and attend the convention,” thereby giving the Convention credibility.

The four were determined to “replace, and not just revise, the Articles of Confederation.”

After almost four months of intense negotiations, the Constitution was drafted and signed, later to be ratified by the states.

The question of state’s sovereignty was left ambiguous, “based on two principles: ‘that any legitimate government must rest on a popular foundation and that popular majorities cannot be trusted to act responsibly’—’a paradox,’ Ellis judges, ‘that has aged remarkably well.’”

Thus, the Constitution established representative democracy, not direct democracy, and included “checks-and-balances” to assure stability.

Whether a new national coalition might learn from that experience is an intriguing question.

“Hillbilly Elegy” Author Discusses Trump

hillbillyToday Terri Gross, “Fresh Air” host, conducted a 36-minute interview with J.D. Vance, author of the best-seller, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

Though Vance is no fan of Donald Trump and will never vote for him, having been born and raised in rural Ohio and Kentucky and still very much involved with his white friends and family there, Vance has an interesting take on the source of Trump’s support.

One story in particular is revealing. Concerning his grandmother, he reported:

She loved Tiger Woods. And the reason she liked Tiger Woods is because she saw him as an outsider that was shaking up a rich man’s game. And there was this really interesting moment where after he won – and the Masters always has this ceremonial winner’s dinner to celebrate the victor. One of the golfers said something to the effect of, what are we going to have at the winner’s dinner – fried chicken and watermelon, which, of course, was this extraordinarily nasty racist comment.

But it struck me at that moment, one, that that fried chicken and watermelon was almost the cultural food of my people, and my grandma just got so viscerally angry. And she said, those a-holes, they’re never going to let people like us be part of their crowd. And the sense that she had was they both looked down on the black people who were outsiders and the poor, white people who are outsiders. And she really saw the similarities. And that was the first real exposure that she felt some sort of kinship to people who looked very different from her but ultimately were similar in a lot of ways.

That story reminds me of how when I’d visit my father in Texas, the only political conversation we could have was about our shared anger at “the Rockefellers” and other “Yankee” elitists.

As Vance wrote, “I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty’s the family tradition.”

In the interview, Vance said:

They’ve grown up with a certain resentment at rich people. But it also means that, for them, the upward mobility that a lot of folks experienced right after World War II was their first real taste of economic optimism, and I think that’s something that really gave them a lot of hope. And ultimately, as I write later in the book, that hope didn’t really materialize.

In describing an encounter with the courts, Vance said:

The honest truth is that I didn’t care at all about lying because I remember sitting in that courtroom and feeling in some ways that I was on the wrong side of an invisible line because the lawyers and the judge – they all talked a certain way. They all wore certain clothes. And I felt like they were outsiders.

They were the people that I was taught, in some way, to mistrust and to fear. They were rich people – whether they were actually rich – they seemed rich to me. And I noticed that in this little courtroom, all of the people who were subjected to the court system were like me. They were white people. They didn’t wear that nice of clothes.

They were obviously very poor, both in the way that they talked and the way that they conducted themselves. And when I was asked to lie to that judge, frankly, I didn’t feel bad at all because I knew that it was something that was necessary to protect my family and to protect myself.

And it’s really interesting, looking back, that I didn’t, you know – I’m a member of the bar now – that I didn’t feel at all guilty about lying to a judge. And a big part of it is just because I felt like – look, my people are here. And they’re being subjected to this system. These people are over there. And they’re administering this system. And it’s fine to tell a little white lie to them. And that’s, of course, a little ironic because I was there, theoretically, because of my own protection.

But it was pretty clear to me, both in my exposure to the courthouse and my exposure to the child welfare bureaucracy, that the folks who were involved in our lives were outsiders. And what was most important was to push them out as quickly as possible.

As Gross led the interview toward a discussion of the Presidential election, Vance said, “I saw a statistic a few weeks ago that in the Ohio county where I grew up, Butler County, deaths from drug overdoses actually outnumber deaths from natural causes…. And it’s just an extraordinarily terrible thing that’s happened to these communities.”

Vance argues that white poor people and working-class whites share a belief that the country is headed in the wrong direction, which breeds frustration at political elites. So Trump:

is in some ways a pain reliever. He’s someone who makes people feel a little bit better about their problems [because he] is recognizing some legitimate problems….

They don’t think that this guy is going to solve all their problems. They just think he’s at least trying and he’s saying things, primarily to the elites, that they wish they could say themselves. So it’s really interesting. There’s a recognition that Trump isn’t going to solve a lot of these problems, but he’s, at the end of the day, the only person really trying to tap into this frustration….

I certainly understand why a lot of folks are surprised [that an ostentatious billionaire can relate to those people]. I think a big part of it is just the way that Donald Trump conducts himself. A lot of people feel that you can’t trust anything Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama say, not because they necessarily lied a lot but because they sound so filtered and they sound so rehearsed. Donald Trump, if nothing else, is relatable to the average working-class American because he speaks off the cuff. He’s clearly unfiltered and unrehearsed.

And there is something relatable about that, even if, you know, half of the things that he says don’t make any sense or a quarter of the things that he says are offensive. There’s something to be said about relatability. And it’s not, you know – there’s been a lot written about how elite political conversation is not emotionally relatable to big chunks of the country. I think that in a lot of ways, Trump is just the first person to tap into that sense of disconnect in the way that he conducts himself with politics….

So I think that there are obviously a lot of things that are relatable about Hillary and Bill Clinton. But fundamentally, they’ve surrounded themselves by very elite people who went to very elite universities. And because of that, both in the way they conduct themselves and the things they seem to care about – they just seem very different from the people that I grew up around. And that makes it very hard for me to feel that Clinton – Hillary or Bill Clinton are very relatable.

That interview and yesterday’s with the author of White Trash strike me as incredibly important. If we are to build a powerful popular movement, our chances will be enhanced if we learn to set aside our harsh judgments.  Trump supporters are neither “ignorant” nor “indoctrinated.” In fact, we share with them a conviction that “the system is rigged” and an impatience with the incredibly slow pace of incremental progress envisioned by Obama, Clinton, and the Democrats.

Surely we can aim higher than that. If we do, we could find many more allies in rural America.

Newshour Interviews “White Trash” Author

isenbergOn the August 16 PBS Newshour, Jeffrey Brown interviewed Nancy Isenberg, author of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

Isenberg argues that “upward mobility” in America has largely been a myth. During the colonial period, the Founders advocated “horizontal mobility” by allowing the poor to migrate westward to the frontier. And in recent decades, we have more “class-zoned neighborhoods” than upward mobility.

When Brown asked her how we could lessen class divisions, she recommended setting aside the myths, confront the reality of class oppression, and think more deeply about how it affects who we are and how “we judge people by the way they’re dressed, by the way they talk, by the unwritten codes of class behavior.”

To see the video, listen to the audio, or read the transcript, click here.


Poverty: Facts and Opinions

povertyOn August 14, the Los Angeles Times reported on a recent survey of American attitudes about the poor and poverty. I found the results revealing.

Of particular interest, the report challenged the official definition of poverty:

Asked to estimate the poverty line for a family of four, those polled, on average, put it at just over $32,000, which is about a third higher than the actual figure of just over $24,000. The public’s figure may be more realistic, however; many poverty experts think the official level is far too low.

Those polled also estimated that about 40% of Americans live below the poverty line – far more than the actual figure of 15%. Again, though, the public may have the clearer view.

In terms of attitudes toward poor people, the article curiously said:

Criticism of the poor – a belief that there are “plenty of jobs available for poor people,” that government programs breed dependency and that most poor people would “prefer to stay on welfare” – is especially common among the blue-collar, white Americans….

But when asked if poor people “prefer to stay on welfare” or would “rather earn their own living,” Americans by a large majority, 61%-36%, said they believed the poor would rather earn their own way. And a majority of whites, 52%, without a college degree agree with that proposition.

So though non-college whites are more likely to voice criticism of the poor, it seems misleading to say it is “especially common.”

It was also interesting that only a third of self-described conservatives say that the poor do not work very hard.

And less than one in five Americans said the poor themselves bear the greatest responsibility for “taking care of the poor.” Sources of support that were affirmed, to varying degrees, were the government, family, churches and charities.

So all in all, it seems Americans may be less prone to blame the poor for being poor that I had thought. They may be more compassionate and understanding than that. And if one-third or more of Americans live in poverty, compassion and understanding are in order.

Connecting with Poor Whites

poor whitesHow many white people without a college degree did you see speak at the Democratic Convention? I don’t remember any.

One-third of voters are whites without a college degree. That’s a lot of votes. If Democrats had wanted to appeal to those voters, it would have made sense to highlight poor white speakers. Doing so would have communicated respect and a commitment to listen to their concerns.

According to FiveThirtyEight, non-college voters supported Mitt Romney 62 percent to 36 percent, which makes them “the bedrock of the Republican coalition.” According to The Atlantic, “The single best predictor of Trump support in the GOP primary is the absence of a college degree.”

According to Federal Safety Net, 86% of Americans over 25 years of age who in poverty do not have a college degree. Poor people tend to be without a college degree and people without a degree tend to be poor.

Compared to 1990, non-college, working-age whites are less likely to be fully employed and they earn much less when they do work, according to the Hamilton Project.

Inequality is worsening not only because the top are taking more. In addition, those on the bottom are getting less.

One consequence is an explosion of substance abuse in rural America. Other than income, that may be the number one problem in poor communities. But the Democratic Convention had little to say about that issue.

They could have presented a multi-racial group of recovering addicts and called for an increase in federal funding for drug treatment, as did President Obama in his Dallas speech, when he said:

We ask the police to do too much and we ask too little of ourselves. As a society, we choose to underinvest in decent schools.  We allow poverty to fester so that entire neighborhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment.  We refuse to fund drug treatment and mental health programs….  then we tell the police “you’re a social worker, you’re the parent, you’re the teacher, you’re the drug counselor.”

As governor of Indiana, following massive, intense pressure, Mike Pence finally approved a needle-exchange program to reduce the spread of H.I.V.. Shortly thereafter, a health worker

was soon traveling the streets of Austin, in Scott County, in an S.U.V., distributing needles to those who did not feel comfortable coming in to get them. At first, the drug users were skeptical. Then, one day, she and a colleague pulled up in front of a house, and a girl rose from her seat on the front porch and walked down to accept a clean syringe.

“When we looked up, there were people coming from every house on the street,” Ms. Combs said. “They swarmed the van.”

The flood of new H.I.V. cases slowed to a trickle, as has happened elsewhere.

Substance abuse is only one example of the pressing need for more human services. In-home caregivers, nursing home aides, child care workers, after-school recreation, environmental cleanup, teacher’s assistants, and mental health counselors are other examples of work that does not require a college degree that needs to be done. And we have enough money to pay people a living wage to do it.

By developing the human-service economy, we could assure everyone a living-wage job opportunity. Yet, when it comes to direct job creation most of what we hear concerns the physical infrastructure, not our social infrastructure.

Both Clinton and Sanders have talked mostly about the middle class and said little about building a cross-class, multi-racial alliance that reverses the dominant divide-and-conquer strategy. The reasons are unclear.

They may fear that supporting poor whites would alienate middle-class Americans who look down on “white trash,” a term that “has been adopted for people living on the fringes of the social order, who are seen as dangerous because they may be criminal, unpredictable, and without respect for authority.”

For the same reason — a focus on winning the next election — they may want to avoid promoting their “brand,” the Democratic Party and its platform (as I discussed in “The Convention: What Was Missing“).

If either is the case, they’re like corporations that concentrate on short-term profits and neglect the long-term.

This year, the Democrats need to win by a landslide, declare a progressive mandate, and come close to taking back the House, or do so. Winning the next election is not sufficient. We also need massive, grassroots pressure to transform this nation into a compassionate community. It’s not either/or. Rather, it’s both the near term and the long term. To do that, Democrats need to gain more support poor white people.

The Democrats can win even if they continue to fail to appeal to white poor people. But if they take that approach, that decision will be morally unjustifiable and will undermine the unity we need.

The Candidates and the Poor

From The New York Times

“The Millions of Americans Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Barely Mention: The Poor”

By Binyamin Appelbaum

AUGUST 11, 2016

WASHINGTON — The United States, the wealthiest nation on Earth, also abides the deepest poverty of any developed nation, but you would not know it by listening to Hillary Clinton or Donald J. Trump, the major parties’ presidential nominees…..

To read more, click here.

A Tribe Called Red

tribeDJ Collective Fuses Native Beats, Electronica and Hip-Hop

On The Takeaway, a co-production of WNYC Radio and Public Radio International, in collaboration with The New York Times and WGBH Boston.

Hill says that indigenous people around the world have many of the same struggles. For example, A Tribe Called Red has addressed the issue of environmental destruction in their music, and at the same time, Hill says that the Sami people in northern Norway are struggling with pipelines going through traditional reindeer herding lands.

“It’s a shared experience among all indigenous people,” he says. “With the cultural genocide, with residential schools, they tried to kill the indian within the indian and tried to turn us into them. Because of that, we still have that connection with land and we feel that there is a duty to protect it.”

To listen to the program or read the transcript, click here.

“The Original Underclass”

atlanticAs I work on a forthcoming post titled “Connecting with Poor Whites,” Yahya Abdal-Aziz, an Australian correspondent, sent me an excellent article from the September 2016 issue of The Atlantic,The Original Underclass.” By Alex MacGillis and ProPublica with a subtitle, “Poor white Americans’ current crisis shouldn’t have caught the rest of the country as off guard as it has,” the piece extensively reviews White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg and Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

The essay addresses the pernicious widespread condescension and “barely suppressed contempt” toward poor whites, .

Most telling for me was a quote from John Adams, the Founding Father, who believed the “passion for distinction” was a powerful human force and said, “There must be one, indeed, who is the last and lowest of the human species.” That belief reinforces my conclusion that the driving force that fuels “the system” is the urge to climb the social ladder to a position of superiority over those of lower rank. Most of us buttress that dynamic.

Here are some excerpts from the Atlantic article:

Analysis on the left has been less gratuitously nasty but similarly harsh in its insinuation. Several prominent liberals have theorized that what’s driving rising mortality and drug and alcohol abuse among white Americans is, quite simply, despair over the loss of their perch in the country’s pecking order. “So what is happening?” asked Josh Marshall on his “Talking Points Memo” blog in December. “Let’s put this clearly,” he said in wrapping up his analysis of the dismal health data. “The stressor at work here is the perceived and real loss of the social and economic advantages of being white.”

One of America’s founding myths, of course, is that the simple act of leaving England and boldly starting new lives in the colonies had an equalizing effect on the colonists, swiftly narrowing the distance between indentured servant and merchant, landowner and clerk—all except the African slave. Nonsense, Isenberg says: “Independence did not magically erase the British class system.”


Class distinctions were maintained above all in the apportionment of land.


Thomas Jefferson envisioned his public schools educating talented students “raked from the rubbish” of the lower class, and argued that ranking humans like animal breeds was perfectly natural. “The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs and other domestic animals,” he wrote. “Why not that of man?”


As George Weston warned in his widely circulated 1856 pamphlet “The Poor Whites of the South,” they were “sinking deeper and more hopelessly into barbarism with every succeeding generation.”


In reality, many poor whites in Appalachia avoided what they saw as the war of the slaveholding planters of the Deep South and the cavaliers of the Tidewater region of Virginia—and even created a new state, West Virginia, in their resistance.


A focus on the South also eclipses places where low-income whites consist mainly of descendants of later European immigrants. (Think of the South Boston Irish, or Baltimore’s Polish American dockworkers depicted in the second season of The Wire.)


In Vance’s book, those “below” are mostly fellow whites and the resentment is not primarily racially motivated, as many liberals would have one believe of all anti-welfare sentiment.


The government and corporations each did their part to weaken organized labor,…


Even at the edges, solutions lie within the purview of the powers that be—such as allowing Medicaid expansion to proceed in the South and expanding access to medication-assisted treatment to help people like Vance’s mother get off heroin. Yes, aid should be tailored to avoid the sort of resentment that Vance felt at the grocery store.


One of the most compelling parts of Isenberg’s history is her account of the help delivered to struggling rural whites as part of the New Deal. Projects like the Resettlement Administration, led by Rexford Tugwell, which moved tenants to better land and provided loans for farm improvements, brought real progress. So did the Tennessee Valley Authority, which not only spurred development of much of the South but created training centers and entire planned towns—towns where hill children went to school with engineers’ kids. The New Deal had its flops. But men like Tugwell recognized that citizens in some places were slipping badly behind, and that their plight represented a powerful threat to the country’s founding ideals of individual self-determination and advancement.


Except they are now further out of sight than ever. As Isenberg documents, the lower classes have been disregarded and shunted off for as long as the United States has existed. But the separation has grown considerably in recent years. The elite economy is more concentrated than ever in a handful of winner-take-all cities


The clustering is intensifying within regions, too. Since 1980, the share of upper-income households living in census tracts that are majority upper-income, rather than scattered throughout more mixed-income neighborhoods, has doubled.


So why are white Americans in downwardly mobile areas feeling a despair that appears to be driving stark increases in substance abuse and suicide? In my own reporting in Vance’s home ground of southwestern Ohio and ancestral territory of eastern Kentucky, I have encountered racial anxiety and antagonism, for sure. But far more striking is the general aura of decline that hangs over towns in which medical-supply stores and pawn shops dominate decrepit main streets, and Victorians stand crumbling, unoccupied. Talk with those still sticking it out, the body-shop worker and the dollar-store clerk and the unemployed miner, and the fatalism is clear: Things were much better in an earlier time, and no future awaits in places that have been left behind by polished people in gleaming cities. The most painful comparison is not with supposedly ascendant minorities—it’s with the fortunes of one’s own parents or, by now, grandparents. The demoralizing effect of decay enveloping the place you live cannot be underestimated. And the bitterness—the “primal scorn”—that Donald Trump has tapped into among white Americans in struggling areas is aimed not just at those of foreign extraction. It is directed toward fellow countrymen who have become foreigners of a different sort, looking down on the natives, if they bother to look at all.