This little genre boom has created a narrative that it is only the white poor who deserve attention, for suffering the same hardships that black people and immigrants have been facing all the while.
This Thanksgiving, as one half of the US was rummaging through Black Friday sale bins and the other was ringing them up at registers, the New York Times ran a story titled A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland. The voice in question was Tony Hovater, a young welder from Huber Heights, Ohio – who also happened to be a member of the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party. But the Times story focused instead on how normal and ordinary Hovater was, what he puts in his pasta and what he and his fiancee have put on their wedding registry. Nowhere did it mention that Hovater and his party describe their mission as “fighting for the rights of white Americans”, tell followers to “hate migrant communities” and believe that “mass purging” of non-white citizens is a tenable idea.
The article produced a decent bit of outcry, prompting responses by the national editor and a reflection of sorts by the author, who had presented a neo-Nazi as just another member of America’s beleaguered and victimised white working class. But the American left should not have been so surprised at the Times’s decision to run the piece, for 2017 has been the year of complicity, with all aspects of the white working class – no matter how unforgivable – being treated with fascinated sympathy in the wake of Donald Trump’s election win.
The trend began before the election, in a book written by conservative author JD Vance. With a folksy mix of rollicking anecdote and patchy ethnography, his Hillbilly Elegy (2016) made a dent in the very idea of “white privilege” by presenting a vivid first-person account of how it had not accrued to Vance himself. Vance’s people are not the “Wasps of the Northeast” but those for whom “poverty is a family tradition”, he tells readers in the first pages of what became the go-to book for liberals seeking an explanation for Trump’s win. The problem is that Hillbilly Elegy pushes the logic of doubt: if white racial privilege doesn’t accrue to all whites, as it didn’t for Vance, then it must follow that black marginalisation and disenfranchisement is also questionable.
Post-election, a growing call for sympathy with disposessed white America began to pick up among liberals mourning their losses and eager to bash identity politics. In her mournfully titled Strangers in Their Own Land, sociologist Arlie Hochschild suggested had: “If the civil rights movement and the women’s movement pointed the finger of blame at the entitled white male, maybe it was time for people to see white men as victims too.” Political theorist Mark Lilla quickly penned The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, and, in an interview following publication, insisted that the Democratic party would not win votes in the south and midwest if they kept telling white people that they were privileged, racist or homophobic (regardless of whether they actually were). Understanding white America, not criticising it, became priority number one.
There were slightly more roundabout approaches from journalists in 2017. In her book Nomadland, author Jessica Bruder profiles ageing Americans who live in camper vans and travel from one seasonal job to another. Winter brings long shifts at Amazon, while summer means stints as “camp hosts” at one of the many campgrounds in California. The star of Bruder’s account is a scrappy woman named Linda, whose unerring positivity is truly endearing. Like every single person in the book, Linda is white – which is strange, because within 30 minutes’ drive of the retrofitted van communities of Nomadland’s seniors are more migrant workers: Latinos, who work seasonal berry-picking and grape-harvesting jobs in agricultural California. But the white seniors are of particular note because they, unlike brown or black workers, have lost the good life instead of never having been able to get to it.
Many of these books are elegiac for the now endangered company towns that gave so many whites comfortable suburban lives. One such town can be found in Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. Janesville is a very white town, facing the shutdown of its largest employer, a Chevrolet plant. Among those at risk of being booted from the middle class is Matt Wopat, who now has to commute from Wisconsin to Indiana to keep his $28 an hour pay. While driving through the decaying steel town of Gary, Indiana, Wopat thinks: “Here is a perfect specimen of what the Rust Belt looks like and what Janesville is striving not to become.” Gary is, unlike Janesville, majority black – and decayed decades ago.
The tragedy of post-industrial decline is undoubtedly worthy of analysis and study. The Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond did it well in last year’s Evicted, which exposed the heartrending struggle for housing among both the black and white urban poor in Wisconsin. Similarly, Steven Stoll’s recent Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia is just the sort of deep history of Appalachia and the serial disenfranchisement of its people that Vance avoids.
Like the coy treatment of the Traditionalist Worker Party in that New York Times article, so many of these books about white poverty are rife with glib omissions, tossing up words like “community” and “little guy” while only meaning certain communities, certain little guys. Regardless of whether Lilla’s solution would actually see off Trump and bring a victory for Democrats, white poverty is not deserving of special sympathy, only the same sympathy that all of America’s poor deserve. This is what Ta-Nehisi Coates zeroes in on when he notes: “The expectations are built upon being white … You want to talk about unmet expectations, black folks have been dealing with that since we got here.” But this little genre boom has created a narrative that it is only the white poor who deserve attention, for suffering the same hardships that black people and immigrants have been facing all the while.
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