Politics & Policy

The Privileged vs. the White Working Class

(Photo Illustration: NRO)
Truck drivers, trappers, farmers don’t rate in the eyes of our elites.

A recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences, co-authored by a Nobel laureate, revealed a spiraling death rate since 1999 of Americans described as middle-aged (45 to 54), middle/working-class (without a college degree) whites (apparently self-identified as such).

That is not supposed to happen to sizable demographic groups in our postmodern societies. The regression to shortened lifespans is more akin to the trend in the old Soviet Union than in the United States. The supposed culprits are inordinate use of alcohol and drugs (both legal and illegal), psycho-social maladies leading to increased suicide, and legal and financial problems. In search of root causes, are we to think that the white working class eats less healthy foods than, say, blacks and Hispanics of the same class? Do whites visit the doctor less? Or are they more prone by nature to disease and culturally induced illnesses? The answer seems probably not.

The study’s findings belie conventional wisdom, which has focused almost exclusively on the plight of minorities, who in many areas have proven unable to achieve parity, ostensibly because of endemic and lethal white racism.

Indeed, the authors, Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton and his wife, Anne Case, found their study rejected by several prestigious medical journals. Again, their conclusions are explosive — given that they raise questions about the conventional wisdom that “white privilege” trumps class considerations and is the key driver of minority despair and the inability to ensure equality of result.

Deaton and Case’s conclusions are explosive — given that they raise questions about the conventional wisdom that “white privilege” trumps class.

We know whom Deaton and Case are studying by simply watching reality television. An entire genre has arisen of filming in mediis rebus poor, overweight, working-class loggers, truck drivers, fishermen, hunters, trappers, and the underemployed, who seem to win audiences by their now ossified muscular jobs and screw-you autonomy, and who apparently provide vicarious amusement through their anti-metrosexual appearance, their drawls, and their supposedly oafish working-class culture. Pajama Boys and the subjects of Esquire articles, these vanishing Alaskans, Montanans, and Alabamians are not.

When Hollywood seeks its generic villains — terrorists, crime-syndicate members, non-American bogeymen — they are increasingly of three types: working-class racist whites with Southern accents, Russian émigrés, and South African racists. Only that way do directors safely avoid the thought police.

Most commentators on the Deaton–Case article quickly pointed to obvious hypotheses for the disappearance of well-paying muscular jobs and the consequences to the white working class. After a lifetime of residence in the impoverished Central Valley of California, I can offer anecdotal agreement. The vast majority of so-called working-class whites with whom I graduated from high school did not go to college. Yet they started off their working lives in 1971 with good prospects at the nearby trailer-manufacturing plant, the fruit processor, the man-lift factory, and an array of high-paying welding and fabrication jobs. All such employment has now disappeared through globalization. Most of my classmates did not return to school. The ones whom I still keep up with are not enjoying the livelihoods that their parents took for granted. Instead, government and the protocols of government hiring were the new ways to upward mobility in California.

RELATED: Working-Class White Deaths Are a Cultural Problem

The same negative trajectory was the case for family farms. I wrote about the destruction of the small-farming class in Fields without Dreams (1996) and The Land Was Everything (2000). After 1970, our local agrarian mosaic was insidiously eroded by globalization, crashing commodity prices, vast increases in state and federal regulation, bureaucratic busybodies, increasing litigation and the consequent need for ever more expensive insurance, and corporate vertical integration from farm to consumer. I used to know dozens of families who farmed in my general vicinity. All are gone; the land, to the degree there was still equity, was sold to large conglomerates. In my own family, my two siblings make far less than did our parents and grandparents, and most of my nieces and nephews found it difficult to find well-paying blue-collar work once our family farm was liquidated.

#share#But is there more to the despair that drives people to drugs, drink, and a culture of nihilism than just the disappearance of well-paying jobs?

Some conservatives have more controversially pointed to the constant drumbeat of racial polarization, summed up best by the sloganeering of “white privilege.” Academics and activists like Elizabeth Warren, Ward Churchill, Rachel Dolezal, and Shaun King, who all successfully invented and profited from minority identities, are emblematic of the trend that being white is now less advantageous in careerist terms than is minority status. Eric Holder’s children will be more likely to be admitted to Stanford than a straight-A, high-test-score white male from an impoverished family in Great Falls, on the argument that racial and gender identity renders class irrelevant.

As a professor at California State University, Fresno, over some 21 years, I had hundreds of conversations with working-class white kids from Merced to Bakersfield, who had stellar academic records in the humanities and who wished to go to top law schools or Ph.D. programs. I ended up offering them roughly the following caveat: “I’m afraid the chances of you as a white male from Fresno State being admitted to a top program are almost nil.” I was being neither alarmist nor nihilist, but simply reflecting the experience of my own lobbying efforts for brilliant students to gain admittance to top-ranked graduate programs.

Hillary Clinton is now aiming at the “hands up, don’t shoot,” Jorge Ramos, Sandra Fluke, Lena Dunham set, not the Duck Dynasty bunch or a dazed Jim Webb.

In fact, over those 21 years, we sent dozens of bright students to schools such as Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Berkeley. In almost every case, however, they were women or classified as minorities. So blatant was the discrimination, it became a running joke along the following lines: “Professor Hanson, I’m a white guy from Tulare. Can you at least help me get into UC Riverside?” One of the most gifted classics students I ever taught once came to my office, anguished that he had been admitted only to Penn State (which has a fine classics Ph.D. program), while someone quite talented but perhaps with a less stellar record had been offered a five-year mega-package of free tuition and expenses to a Princeton Ph.D. program. I could only shrug to my student, “Well, yes, your record and test scores may be somewhat more impressive, but he too is bright and he is an illegal alien. You are a white working-class statistic.” In ethical terms I thought such cynicism was more helpful than promulgating the lie that the elites who run graduate admissions evaluate only on the basis of merit.

It is often said that the Obama administration hit on a successful formula when it won two presidential elections by energizing blacks and Latinos to register and turn out in record numbers — to such a degree that the new majorities more than made up for lost working-class white Democratic voters.

Clearly the sloganeering and slurs of President Obama and his subordinates (typical white person, clingers, punish our enemies, my people, nation of cowards, get in their face, etc.) have been useful over the last eight years in ginning up racial solidarity, just as quite improper presidential commentary on ongoing hot-button legal cases (Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, etc.) reinforced racial polarization and grievance. Hillary Clinton’s campaign — in its embrace of illegal immigration, sanctuary cities, Black Lives Matter, the fable of one in four campus women being sexually assaulted, etc. — is desperate to ensure that Obama’s community-organizing, separatist formula can be transferred to a mature white lady. Hillary is now aiming at the “hands up, don’t shoot,” Jorge Ramos, Sandra Fluke, Lena Dunham set, not the Duck Dynasty bunch or a dazed Jim Webb.

#share#Still, white working-class psychological despair is not alone attributable to lack of good jobs, or affirmative action, or the constant slur of so-called white privilege. There is a class element at the heart of the nihilism — or, rather, the furor at the prevailing hypocrisy.

Whites who really do enjoy privilege, whether defined by income, capital, tony Ivy League degrees, or family connections and influence, are the worst purveyors of ridicule of the white working class. The elite media despised Sarah Palin for her gaffes, while it ignored Washington insider Joe Biden’s fantasies about FDR delivering a TV address as president in 1929. When Cornel West, or Eric Holder, or Melissa Harris-Perry, or Van Jones starts in on cable news whining about white privilege, whom are they addressing? The unemployed welder in South Carolina? The tractor driver outside Merced? The out-of-work coal miner in the Appalachians? Or is it all rather in-house scapegoating between black and white elites of the same class over the allotment of academic, media, and government privilege?

There is a class element at the heart of the nihilism — or, rather, the furor at the prevailing hypocrisy.

Or perhaps it is worse still. Does Chris Matthews blast “whites” to ensure exemption for his own largely segregated existence? Do Cornel West and Jeremiah Wright drone on about white privilege because they suspect that there is more class disparity in the black community than in the white, as evidenced by their own opportunistic careers as self-appointed auditors of fellow elites? Does Mark Zuckerberg attack his country’s supposedly illiberal immigration policies at the Mexican estate of Carlos Slim so that he can better rationalize why he has bought up the houses surrounding his own to ensure the right kind of neighbors? Did Bill Gates slam the evils of capitalism only after he made billions by ruthlessly eliminating Microsoft’s competition in the 1980s? To the white working class, the verbiage about privilege and race is an incestuous spat among the ridiculous winners of the contemporary rat race, better turned off and drowned out.

In the last ten years I have frequently heard working-class whites use terms such as “stupid white people” or “wealthy white people” — a ridiculed class that defends its privilege and perks by loudly proclaiming ideologies whose consequences it has the money and power to navigate around, whether it be illegal immigration, affirmative action, or inner-city crime. A careerist middle-class product like Ta-Nehisi Coates has created an entire lucrative industry based on racial disparagement, having cultivated a love–hate relationship with fawning white urban elites rather than interacting with working-class rural whites. It is ironic that Coates would likely be treated more as an individual if he were working at a lumber mill in rural Georgia with poor whites, whereas he is regarded as a totem by condescending and guilt-plagued Ivy League grandees.

#related#The white working class is not blameless. Drug use, illegitimacy, alcoholism, and violence are choices, not preordained fates. But what drives this endangered class to fury is the constant refrain on television, in Hollywood, on campus, and in politics and government — in our culture at large — of those who are privileged and who hope to maintain and expand that privilege in our racially polarized society by damning white people who are not privileged. The subtext of illegal immigration, government expansion, and political activism is now race and gender, not class. A poor white kid of 18 who came of age in the era of diversity set-asides, not Jim Crow, can expect to gain no edge in hiring and admissions owing to his race or gender. But he will find himself a target for racist allegations by those who seek either profit or penance.

When Quentin Tarantino cites “white supremacy” as the driver for his crude accusations against police, the con becomes laughable: He seeks buffoonish atonement for his own films’ gratuitous n-word vulgarities and the fact that he is worth $100 million and can buy exemption with cheap liberal sloganeering for the enjoyment of his security-guaranteed privilege.

It is all enough to drive one to drink.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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