“It’s That Sense of Hopefulness…There is an Optimism There That is Amazing…”
In Part 1, Professors Deaton and Case were introduced as authors of a study which indicated that ‘deaths of despair’ in socioeconomically challenged white people is due directly to their socioeconomic status. Since they pointedly decline to include the concept of race in their study, they appear to disregard the centrality of race in the US. Deaton shows this ‘ignorance,’ when he states that ‘being black has nothing to do with it,’ since he frames the context as if the TransAtlantic Slave Trade and its deleterious and persistent current consequences are an aside. This conveys, in the gestalt, the ‘slavery is over’ narrative which comprises color-blind racism.
In this part, insights are revealed through a range of opinions.
In a telling interview with Politico (“What Is Going On With America’s White People?”) some hints are revealed. This interview included several writers: Carol Anderson, who authored a landmark book titled White Rage about the continuous backlash in which many white people as a group participate each time African-Americans make progress; Nancy Isenberg, author of 400 Years of White Trash; and J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy; and Drs. Deaton and Case. At the outset, we can see that Dr. Anderson, an African-American female, is attended by four white people, all of whom believe that economics are central.
A careful analysis of this interview indicates that, despite the fact that Anderson repeatedly emphasizes the centrality of race and slavery, Deaton, Case, Isenberg, and Vance continually channel-shift the conversation to economics as if slavery is either an aside or an item of the past. This is a persistent feature of the interview, a kind of microcosm for the way in which the larger population of white people behaves as a group: ignore slavery and its ongoing disruption of African-American lives (and those of other POC’s to some extent) in the interest of pulling the focus (and ultimately, the economic benefits) to white people as a group even though as a group they still have the most resources. The full-court press nature of this interview can be better appreciated by reading it in full.
One exchange between Anderson and Isenberg illustrates this well, as Anderson’s quotation, which has been previously underlined but bears repetition, shows:
“I would say two things. One, you know, if you’ve always been privileged, equality begins to look like oppression. That’s part of what you’re seeing in terms of the pessimism, particularly when the system gets defined as a zero-sum game, that you can only gain at somebody else’s loss. The second thing is that when you really think about it — and I think about my father who fought in two wars but couldn’t vote legally — it’s that sense of hopefulness, that sense of what America could be, that has been driving black folk for centuries. There is an optimism there that is amazing and astounding.”
Here, Anderson reminds that white supremacy is a binary: ‘whiteness’ and its status as superior required ‘blackness’ as its necessary ‘inferior’ corollary. This binary — white supremacy — was not invented by African-Americans, nor by anybody non-white for that matter (90% of the human race). Human beings do not construct the means to their own oppression; this is done by the dominating group. ‘Whiteness’ and white supremacy were invented by Europeans for Europeans, and this is the group which has, by far, most benefited to this day. Specifically, this group benefits most at the expense of African-Americans, who have been, by far, most damaged. The basic thrust of white supremacy was the conquest of the entire black and brown planet by the continent of Europe by using a deceptive inventive lie called ‘race,’ and Africans have fared worst.
This binary problem, native and necessary to the concept of white supremacy and which was invented by Europeans, is always dropped into the laps of African-Americans and has been for 400 years. The despair of one group of whites is suddenly visible to Dr. Deaton after one generation or so, and that comprises a crisis. Yet, twenty generations of African-American despair were attributed, during the drug crisis of the Reagan era, to the presumptive poor moral fiber of individual African-American, thus reinforcing the centuries-long myth that they are ‘lazy’ and ‘immoral.’
The assumption is that African-American despair x400 years is the fault of the individual African-American AND more tolerable to our society. White despair, x20 years, is by contrast due to uncontrollable circumstances extrinsic to their characters AND immediately intolerable, a crisis. Of course, all of these people are in some crisis; again, all are worthy of help and aid, regardless of race, gender, or any other parameter.
But as a person in neither of these racial categories, I find the stance which focuses on one group’s desperation lacking basic human morality in its continued disregard of African-American peoples, and the representation of ‘white ignorance’ it conveys less and less plausible. It is obvious to me that this is an economical psychological stance which depletes the ability to apportion money to the African-American communities which have never gotten it despite centuries of desperation. The implication that ‘desperation’ for poor whites is more critical — their bodies more important — than the desperation of African-Americans for a much longer period. This conveys a psychological stance towards white people as a group which reveals priority: white bodies matter more.
Again, any problem having to do with poverty, including drug use — whether it affects white, black, or other peoples — can fairly be called a crisis, and all people in these situations deserve help. That is, African-Americans who have been in crisis for centuries and white people who have been in crisis for several decades are all individual people deserving of support. But the disparity in history as profound as the binary reality which slavery engendered cannot be ignored; slavery is not on a continuum, it is qualitatively different from being poor, no matter how poor.
White ‘Ignorance,’ Again
During the interview, Isenberg conveys this ignorance through her use of a pseudoscientist’s quotations: she refers to Charles Murray to illustrate her point re: class systems in the US. Murray, the author of The Bell Curve, wrote about the ‘inferior’ IQ’s of African-Americans and revived that tired canard, thus re-elevating the basis of white supremacy, and is listed as a White Nationalist on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s site. He still believes in biologically-distinct ‘races’ on the basis of genetic differences that subscribe superior qualities to white peoples, thus re-upholstering an old lie to maintain white supremacy. Mr. Murray reminded (white) people that they musn’t forget how to maintain their supremacy: when people of color have gained a shred of ‘equality,’ toss yet another lie into the public arena. If there have been so many lies that you can’t fathom a new one, simply repurpose a previous lie and toss that one out!
Charles Murray, as quoted in an interview with NPR in 2018, stated that “I think that a great deal of what made America special is lost beyond recall,” illustrating his general MAGA philosophy: hmmm, who’s the special group? For African-Americans, ‘back then’ was a time of extreme subordination, even after the official end of slavery, and this ‘lost’ dominance is thus favorable for them. When ‘special’ means ‘white,’ then ‘not special’ means ‘not white’ and ‘least special of all’ means ‘black.’ There isn’t any subtlety to his statements: he prefers to maintain white supremacy, refusing to see that its elimination is a gain for society as a whole so that he can maintain his unearned advantage.
As Dr. Anderson points out, this ‘deterioration,’ –as perceived by one racist scientist — is attended by a sense of hope in African-Americans. The fact that Isenberg chooses to quote Murray illustrates her lack of ability to see that a ‘fact’ from a racist pseudo-scientist will be highly biased by definition, even if it doesn’t refer directly to race. It begs the question of her own stance towards white nationalism. It is doubtful that any person who understands the roots and history of white supremacy would quote Murray under any circumstances. Isenberg’s decision to do so comprises what some might call ‘white ignorance.’ It is an embarrassing ‘tell’ that Isenberg quotes Murray at all, and it indicates the deep investment in ‘whiteness’ that these authors have.
Drs. Deaton and Case, despite their reputations, are similarly involved in emphasizing economics at the expense of minimizing the impact of race.