When I saw that J.D. Vance, the author of the widely (and justly) acclaimed Hillbilly Elegy, had written an essay examining why racial relations in America have deteriorated, I thought: “Ah, now we are getting somewhere. This will have some important insights.”
I had good reason for thinking so. As I read Vance’s memoir in the wake of Donald Trump’s recent speeches touching on the question of race, I thought Vance might be capable of making a good argument in a similar vein. I thought he might show how the problems that plague poor black communities are not too dissimilar from those that plague poor white communities. And I thought he might further explain how those problems are exacerbated by a left wing racialist ideology that blames white oppression for black failures, since the existence of places like the mainly white Breathitt County, Kentucky, gives reason to doubt that explanation. In Breathitt and countless other communities like it, the failures are of a piece with those in poor black communities and can be found in equal measure. I thought I might see some discussion of the way the policies of a well-meaning but ultimately destructive welfare and administrative state, especially when combined with the ubiquitous cultural rot of our age, have worsened the odds the poor of all races have of escaping these problems.
Although Vance does not engage in an explicit discussion of race in his book, as I read it, I could not help but notice the compelling similarities between the problems faced by the white working class/Appalachian descendants Vance describes (and, hailing from the same general vicinity as Vance, people I know) and the struggles of urban minorities. These problems are not black versus white problems. They are the problems of poor and lower middle-class people everywhere in America. Lower class whites and blacks alike, yes. But they are also characteristic among lower class Hispanics, Pacific Islanders and, even, Native Americans living on reservations.
Everywhere one goes in this country, the problems and pathologies of lower middle and working class families—the “working poor” in the parlance of our politicians—are the same. Poverty, drug dependency, family chaos, poor education (combined with little tradition of cultural respect for education), and a lack of jobs above all. Though our economy still rewards hard work and ingenuity in some sectors, it has transformed more and more into one that places a premium on knowledge and credentials over (and sometimes against) the virtues of good character and hard work in other sectors.
I was not wrong to expect a compelling read in Vance’s article. But I was disappointed by his analysis. Vance fails to see that the connections these groups of poor Americans share are the way forward in overcoming, at long last, the identity politics behind our ongoing but now burgeoning race problem. Poor blacks are not poor because they are black any more than poor whites are poor because they are white.
This is not to deny that racism exists and remains a real problem. It does. And it is. Human beings, being flawed and imperfect creatures, do tend to flock together with people who are like themselves and to be suspicious of (and sometimes cruel toward) those who are different. By itself, this doesn’t make a person racist. But the more insular people are, the less likely they are to temper those inclinations with reason or to see that the overwhelming similarities between human beings dwarf our dissimilarities. In such cases, that very human tendency can harden into uninformed and negative opinions, attitudes and behaviors. Indeed, this kind of personal racism may be to blame, in part, for the apparent lack of realization among poor minorities and whites that they have a common enemy in the welfare and administrative state. It may be that neither wants to admit that they have much in common with the other. In a rational world, they would be unified against this thing that is hurting them and holding them back. But as a matter of systemic institutional structure that encourages real discrimination and harm to individuals, racism is largely irrelevant today and easily—probably too easily—prosecuted.
Yet, while liberals have swallowed the notion that “white privilege” makes the victimization of poor whites an impossibility or a problem of relatively small consequence, conservatives have so fetishized the idea of “individualism” that they have little sympathy for people who claim to be victimized by anything.
This is most evident in the following reflection from Vance about the sad inability of Republicans to attract black voters.
Republican failures to attract black voters fly in the face of Republican history. This was the party of Lincoln and Douglass. Eisenhower integrated the school in Little Rock at a time when the Dixiecrats were the defenders of the racial caste system. Republicans, rightfully proud of this history, constructed a narrative to explain their modern failures: Black people had permanently changed, become addicted to the free stuff of the 1960s social-welfare state; the Democratic party was little more than a new plantation, offering goodies in exchange for permanent dependence. There was no allowance for the obvious: that the black vote drifted away from Republicans en masse only after Goldwater became the last major presidential candidate to oppose the 1960s civil-rights agenda. Besides, Republicans told themselves, the party didn’t actually need the black vote anyway. It would win where others had lost, by re-engaging the “missing white voter,” a phantom whose absence allegedly cost Romney the 2012 election.
Vance offers some legitimate and astute criticism of Republicans here. And I join him in criticizing Republicans who seemed callously to blame black voters for not liking them. Everyone knows that the cliché used in breakups, “It’s me, it’s not you,” is a cliché. It’s always you and something that the other dislikes about you. Sometimes it is worth reflecting on it. Other times it is not. But it is always worth knowing why you are disliked and it is especially worth knowing if you are a political party trying to garner votes and you are disliked by a vast swath of people sharing one trait in common.
But there is also something off in Vance’s critique. The narrative he alleges Republicans “created” about large numbers of blacks having become addicted to the free stuff of the 1960s welfare state isn’t simply false. It was and remains largely true. But it’s also true among the hillbillies for which Vance wrote his elegy. Probably not coincidentally, these are also votes Republicans have always had a hard time securing. But Vance is right that there is something obtuse in the rhetoric that black voters (or hillbilly ones, for that matter) have “permanently changed” and become willing volunteers on the Democrat plantation. It’s not hard to see why voters (black, white, and everything in between) might find such language offensive or, even, fighting words.
But I don’t think Vance is correct in understanding why this rhetoric is obtuse. It is not obtuse because it misses what he describes as the “obvious” hiatus of black voters from the Republican Party when Goldwater voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and subsequently was chosen as the party’s nominee for President. Though that may have been the origin of Democrats using race as a cudgel against Republicans, the painting of Republicans as secret racists by crafty Democrats (and, today, their enablers on the right) is not an insurmountable problem. The true Republican history on the question of racial equality is not an embarrassing one and, if more Republican politicians knew it, understood it, could tell it, and defend it we’d be a long way toward de-weaponizing that tiresome trope of the Democrats.
No. Republicans have been obtuse vis a vis black and minority voters in exactly the same way they have been obtuse in relation to poor, working-class whites.
Take, for example, the smug and self-satisfied judgment that came along with denouncing the dependence on government of so many welfare recipients. Talk of welfare queens may have been entertaining and a way to release justified anger over stupid policies that encourage the abuse of our welfare system, but the emphasis should have been on the poverty pimps: those who were happy to promote policies that kept people poor and desperate so as to exploit them for their votes. Aren’t they far more contemptible?
Mitt Romney was the perfect culmination of this reflexive and unthinking rhetorical style of Republicans. His comments about the 47 percent, the “makers versus takers” of society, and other victim blaming rhetoric encapsulate the Republican tendency to make a fetish out of the concept of individual agency. Of course individuals bear the ultimate responsibility for their own welfare, safety, and happiness. But governments are instituted among men in order to effect that pursuit of happiness in the way that seems most likely to them to secure it, consistent with their rights to life and liberty. When it fails in this mission and when it fails, moreover, in ways that are inconsistent with the liberty of the people (i.e., when laws and regulations about these matters are not clearly connected to the consent of the people), these people are victims of an overbearing and incompetent government. And it is the responsibility of politicians who wish to have their support to denounce it.
Conservatives were happy to point out the condescension of progressives and of the welfare state in a general way. But that is where their thinking stopped. Was it pride in their own ability to resist the pull of the moral hazards associated with being “on the dole” that stopped them from going further? Or was it a fear of admitting the role that chance and luck play when it comes to talent and success in a person’s life?
For the ideological conservative, the combination of these two things present a challenge to their orthodoxy, perhaps. Aaron Renn in his excellent review of Vance’s book speculates that this may explain much of Vance’s own inclination to gloss over the role that talent and and luck played in his escape from the moral hazards of his Appalachian upbringing. He does not neglect to mention these things, but Vance repeatedly emphasizes his hard work (no doubt real) and indignantly calls suggestions that something more than hard work is to be credited with his success, “bullshit.” Renn closes his review with the following:
At the heart of the matter, Vance is right. It’s not a question of either circumstances or culture, but “both-and.” The poor and working class do face challenging, sometimes horrific circumstances. They also have agency in choosing how to respond. Too often, their culture produces bad responses, even when the opportunity exists to choose otherwise. This culture itself may be an inheritance that individuals did not choose. But people can have disabilities for which they are not to blame. That doesn’t change their real-world effect. Unless both the external circumstances and the culture of the working class, of all races, are ameliorated, broad-based change is unlikely.
As a working principle in a young person’s life, Vance’s attitude toward the role his own agency played in his success is probably a good one. He definitely built that! It reminds me of Lincoln’s admonitions against jealousy and envy—not to mention Christ’s. But as a working principle for those who wish to do and understand politics, this bootstrap ideology isn’t really very helpful. It necessarily papers over real difficulties and challenges. Even worse, as we see in our current American example, it is preventing us from seeing the ways in which our own government has become an obstacle to instead of a protector of our freedom.