Summary: White conservatives are willing to impoverish, sicken and kill themselves to prevent people of color from getting ahead.
Even as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps down on middle America, red states seem determined to make it worse on themselves. Armed mobs waving Confederate flags demand the reopening of bars and hair salons; right-wing churches argue that banning large gatherings infringes their freedom of religion; and refusal to wear a face mask has become a conservative rallying cry.
This has become a theme of the Trump administration: conservative white voters loudly demanding policies that will harm themselves worst of all. Jonathan Metzl’s book Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland is an exploration of why. Metzl, a professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University, profiles red states that have suffered badly from the laws their own voters wanted.
He starts with Missouri. As recently as the 1990s, it had some of the strictest gun restrictions in the country. But in the last few decades, NRA-backed conservative legislators repealed background-check laws, ended prohibitions on concealed and open carry, and expanded stand-your-ground laws. They asserted that having more deadly weapons everywhere would make society safer, but the opposite happened. As guns flooded the streets, “[b]etween 2008 and 2014, the Missouri gun homicide rate rose to 47 percent higher than the national average. Rates of gun death by suicide, partner violence, and accidental shooting soared as well” – leading pundits to rename Missouri the “Shoot Me State” [p.25].
The macho fantasy of “defending your castle” yields to the painfully mundane reality that gun owners more often use their guns to kill themselves. Metzl notes that, per capita, white men commit gun suicide at much higher rates than other ethnic groups. In Missouri, it’s become a leading cause of death, outpacing even opioid overdose [p.107]. He interviews members of a support group for families of suicide victims, many of whom discovered their loved ones’ bodies themselves. Understandably, they’re wracked with grief and guilt.
As Metzl documents, white gun culture has its roots in the era of slavery. Before the Civil War, an armed populace was believed to be essential, not because they feared government tyranny, but because they feared slave rebellions. Firearms were an essential tool of control to maintain the racial hierarchy. In fact, before the Civil War, slave states like Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina made it illegal for free black people to own or carry guns – Second Amendment be damned. This racial paranoia persists to the present day, as we saw vividly in Ferguson and other black communities where unrest is met with overwhelming force.
The next state Metzl covers is Tennessee. When the Affordable Care Act became law, there was a massive Republican temper tantrum. Red states refused to set up insurance exchanges and rejected the expansion of Medicaid even when it was essentially free. It’s fair to say that the backlash played a major role in Trump’s election. And conservatives haven’t come to accept Obamacare. Their resentment burns as hot as ever, even when it’s literally killing them. Tennessee, which ranks almost dead last in health outcomes and has “near epidemic” [p.135] rates of obesity, high blood pressure, strokes and heart disease, is a case in point.
Metzl interviews a Tennessean named Trevor, an unemployed former cab driver who was dying of hepatitis. At the time, he was yellow with jaundice and dependent on a walker at the age of 41. The Medicaid expansion that Tennessee turned down could have paid for a liver transplant or medication that could have helped him. But even on death’s doorstep, he maintained that he “would rather die” [p.3] than sign up for Obamacare. Another Tennessee voter with chronic emphysema declared “No government, no way” even as he says, “I would be dead without Medicaid or the VA” [p.149].
The conservatives that Metzl talks with frame their concerns as a matter of cost and individual responsibility. To hear them tell it, it’s simply too expensive to do anything to improve people’s health. But again, there are overtly racist undertones to their resistance. White voters, even those who live on government benefits themselves, expressed an all-consuming fear of their tax dollars going to benefit “Mexicans and welfare queens”. They cared about this more highly than the possibility of health care reform improving their own lives.
Last but not least, there’s Kansas. As recently as the 1990s, Kansas public schools were among the nation’s best. Kansas “consistently ranked in the top ten states” in the percentage of people with high-school diplomas [p.195].
But this changed after Barack Obama’s election, when the state became a hotbed of conservative backlash politics. Governor Sam Brownback campaigned on a platform of massive tax cuts, dangling assertions of reckless spending by (majority black and Hispanic) urban schools, promising huge savings to taxpayers and trickle-down job growth. After his election, he slashed $200 million in education spending, the largest reduction in the state’s history.
The cuts forced schools to eliminate extracurriculars and the arts, to increase class sizes and to shorten school years [p.205]. Test scores plummeted and dropout rates increased, and Kansas “began to actually lose jobs” after the tax cuts [p.204], despite the extravagant promises of the trickle-downers. In one dramatic example, Amazon passed up Kansas City as a site for its new headquarters because “the region had too few skilled workers in science and math” [p.262].
Unlike with gun violence and health care, the harm of poor education is more abstract. However, it’s no less real. Statistically, better education leads to longer life: because people are more in tune with their own health, because they earn more and can afford to make better choices.
But Kansas also provides a rare spark of hope. When the cuts they supported began to rebound on them, middle-class white conservatives were aghast. One parent complained, “We’re being forced to hold a bake sale every month” [p.225]. Simultaneously, the state’s economy stagnated and the deficit ballooned. Eventually, a rebellion among state legislators restored the funding, overriding Brownback’s veto [p.231].
The Kansas success story notwithstanding, this book has a pessimistic moral for progressives. The great paradox of American history is that conservative white voters, most of whom are rural and poor, have a lot in common with people of color, mostly poor city dwellers, on opposite sides of the partisan divide. Both would benefit enormously from a stronger social safety net and a fairer distribution of wealth and resources. Yet over the decades, activists who’ve tried to bridge the divide by appealing to what should be a natural class solidarity have repeatedly met with failure.
The standard liberal explanation is that Republican voters are being hoodwinked by conservative rhetoric or are too ignorant to understand their own interests. But in Metzl’s argument, this isn’t a choice made out of ignorance. Conservative whites are wedded to a zero-sum politics of resentment and division, where they’re “winning” if they perceive themselves as doing better than people of color, regardless of how badly off they are in an absolute sense. It’s a deliberate, self-sacrificial decision to offer their own lives to preserve a system that benefits and privileges white people over others.
The famous quote from President Lyndon Johnson, who understood racist thinking very well, encapsulates this mindset:
“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
There’s also an apt quote from Booker T. Washington: “You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him.” [p.254]
The one thing this book doesn’t offer is a solution. As atheists should know well, people are incredibly stubborn about giving up anything they perceive as part of their identity, even when it’s demonstrably harming them. If basic self-interest doesn’t motivate conservative voters, it’s hard to imagine what could.
On the other hand, we may not have to go through them if we can just go around them. Their electoral power is shrinking, not least because they’re willingly killing themselves off, and the younger voters who are replacing them are more diverse and less religious. The backlash politics that Republicans have championed have been a scourge on American politics for decades. But in the long run, their suicidal ideology may be its own undoing.