The United States has never been entirely sure what to do about race. Alone among the countries in the world, it has attempted to construct not just a state of different tribes, but a nation of them — white and black, Christian and Muslim, and many others, too. Its sense of nationalism has evolved unevenly, slowly incorporating an ever growing chunk of the people within its borders, and it has made steady progress.
Yet 2016 offers reasons for unique alarm. The progress of recent decades, both political and social, appears to have evaporated in the past few years. And the problems, as so often, are focused on the two oldest classes of our poor.
These two underclasses pre-date the United States as a political union. The black underclass, brought here in chains, toiled for centuries in the hopes of earning freedom — first physical, then political. They found themselves concentrated in the South — the home of King Cotton. The white underclass, many of whom descended from Scots-Irish peasants of the motherland, came here freely. They tended to concentrate in the rural parts of the eastern United States, especially along the Appalachian Mountains.
The paths of these tribes have sometimes intersected. When recently freed slaves began to marry the white indentured servants of Virginia planters, their children took on a color that entitled them to all of the burdens of their darker-skinned parent. So they moved to eastern Kentucky and eastern Tennessee, called themselves Cherokee Indians, and attempted to live in peace. The locals, unsure what to do with their new neighbors, derisively called them “Melungeons.”
A century later, as the industrial economies of the North created millions of new jobs, the white and black underclasses went hunting for opportunities. The black folks encountered a spate of indignities and a government housing policy that forced them into artificial urban ghettos. And the white establishment, confronted for the first time with people who looked like them but possessed none of their sensibilities, treated these seemingly foreign whites with scorn. As anthropologist John Hartigan Jr., commenting on the rapid industrialization of Detroit, has observed:
It was not simply that the Appalachian migrants, as rural strangers “out of place” in the city, were upsetting to Midwestern, urban whites. Rather, these migrants disrupted a broad set of assumptions held by northern whites about how white people appeared, spoke, and behaved. . . . The disturbing aspect of hillbillies was their racialness. Ostensibly, they were of the same racial order (whites) as those who dominated economic, political, and social power in local and national arenas. But hillbillies shared many regional characteristics with the southern blacks arriving in Detroit.
In the face of these pressures, the two groups took different approaches to politics. The white poor, unencumbered by legal discrimination, focused on a politics of class. From Jackson to Truman, they voted their pocketbook, taught their children to mistrust the rich man, and hated the elites who looked down on them. As Martin Luther King Jr. observed shortly before his death, they benefited psychologically from the caste system in the South. Black people, meanwhile, understandably voted the color of their skin, putting their trust in whoever promised to tear down the most legal barriers. Sometimes, as with Lyndon Baines Johnson, these interests aligned, delivering supermajorities in the process. But those moments were largely the product of chance.
The civil-rights successes of the 1960s were supposed to change that. In 1978, the eminent sociologist William Julius Wilson argued confidently that class would soon displace race as the most important social variable in American life. As explicit legal barriers to minority advancement receded farther into the past, the fates of the working classes of different races would converge. By the mid 2000s, Wilson’s thesis looked pretty good: The black middle class was vibrant and growing as the average black wealth nearly doubled from 1995 to 2005. Race appeared to lose its salience as a political predictor: More and more blacks were voting Republican, reversing a decades-long trend, and in 2004 George W. Bush collected the highest share of the Latino (44 percent) and Asian (43 percent) vote of any Republican ever. Our politics grew increasingly ideological and less racial: Progressives and the beneficiaries of a generous social-welfare state generally supported the Democratic party, while more prosperous voters were more likely to support Republicans. Stable majorities expressed satisfaction with the state of race relations. It wasn’t quite a post-racial politics, but it was certainly headed in that direction.
But in the midst of the financial crisis of 2007, something happened. Both the white poor and the black poor began to struggle mightily, though for different reasons. And our politics changed dramatically in response.
It’s ironic that the election of the first black president marked the end of our brief flirtation with a post-racial politics. By 2011, William Julius Wilson had published a slight revision of his earlier thesis, noting the continued importance of race. The black wealth of the 1990s, it turned out, was built on the mirage of house values. Inner-city murder rates, which had fallen for decades, began to tick upward in 2015. In one of the deadliest mass shootings in recent memory, a white supremacist murdered nine black people in a South Carolina church. And the ever-present antagonism between the police and black Americans — especially poor blacks whose neighborhoods are the most heavily policed — erupted into nationwide protests.
Meanwhile, the white working class descended into an intense cultural malaise. Prescription-opioid abuse skyrocketed, and deaths from heroin overdoses clogged the obituaries of local papers. In the small, heavily white Ohio county where I grew up, overdoses overtook nature as the leading cause of death. A drug that for so long was associated with inner-city ghettos became the cultural inheritance of the southern and Appalachian white: White youths died from heroin significantly more often than their peers of other ethnicities. Incarceration and divorce rates increased steadily. Perhaps most strikingly, while the white working class continued to earn more than the working poor of other races, only 24 percent of white voters believed that the next generation would be “better off.” No other ethnic group expressed such alarming pessimism about its economic future.
And even as each group struggled in its own way, common forces also influenced them. Rising automation in blue-collar industries deprived both groups of high-paying, low-skill jobs. Neighborhoods grew increasingly segregated — both by income and by race — ensuring that poor whites lived among poor whites while poor blacks lived among poor blacks. As a friend recently told me about San Francisco, Bull Connor himself couldn’t have designed a city with fewer black residents.
Predictably, our politics began to match this new social reality. In 2012, Mitt Romney collected only 27 percent of the Latino vote. Asian Americans, a solid Republican constituency even in the days of Bob Dole, went for Obama by a three-to-one margin — a shocking demographic turn of events over two decades. Meanwhile, the black Republican became an endangered species.
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.
By the time Republicans officially nominated Donald Trump as their presidential candidate, he polled even lower among Latinos than Romney had. Asian Americans, arguably the most financially successful minority group in the United States, have abandoned the party in droves. Current polls suggest that only a statistically shocking 1 percent of black Americans will vote to “make America great again” this November. In nominating Trump, Republicans have come full circle: The party of Lincoln has become the party of the white man. And that man has become extremely cynical.
In 2016, the way Republicans talk about race reflects the changed composition of their party. During the Republican National Convention, on an MSNBC show, a commentator suggested that “dissatisfied white people” drove the convention agenda. One of the show’s guests, Republican representative Steve King of Iowa, immediately grew defensive, questioning the historical contributions of “non-white” groups to our shared civilization. It was an astonishingly candid and troubling display of racial resentment, the sort of thing that would have ended a career in a more diverse party. But it was also revealing: The commentator offered a straightforward, if intemperate, remark about the composition of the RNC delegation, and King viewed it as an attack on the white race.
King expressed a sentiment with relatively broad currency: that white people are discriminated against in some way. Though there have always been people worried about “reverse racism” — consider, for instance, the continued uproar over race-based affirmative action — recent data indicate that this sentiment has reached population scale. Research by Samuel Sommers and Michael Norton suggests that the average white person now feels that anti-white bias is a bigger problem than other forms of racial discrimination.
For many progressives, the Sommers and Norton research confirms the worst stereotypes of American whites. Yet it also reflects, in some ways, the natural conclusions of an increasingly segregated white poor. In this era of rising residential segregation, conversations about race happen in more-insular environments — especially online. And in the face of a social crisis unmatched in their recent memory, poor whites have been confronted with a confusing and alarming idea: that they are the privileged ones.
Imagine a high-school senior in West Virginia. His father managed to find one of the ever scarcer jobs in the coal mines, and though it has allowed him to put food on the family table, it has destroyed his body in the process. His mother died a decade ago, the victim of a few too many Percocets. The bright kids in his class will head to Marshall or West Virginia University, and he’d like to join them. But the tuition bill, and the debt he’d incur to pay it, would bankrupt his father. So he tries to figure out financial aid — Stafford loans and unsubsidized loans and grants and scholarships, whatever in the hell that all means — before concluding that he could make a down payment on a nice home if he put college off for a decade.
One day, he stumbles across an article from Breitbart. The gist is that the elites maintain that there’s a thing in the world called “white privilege” and that he’s benefiting from it. The article says that this privilege supposedly gives its owner “societal superpowers,” which he possessed from the moment of birth, “like thetans in Scientology.” This discovery begins a deep dive into the literature on white privilege, all filtered through the social networks — in person and online — that he’s depended on for years. When he’s finished, he knows only that there are progressive activists who dislike people like him and demand that he recognize the advantages of his life.
The reality is not that black Americans enjoy special privileges. In fact, the overwhelming weight of the evidence suggests that the opposite is true. Last month, for instance, the brilliant Harvard economist Roland Fryer published an exhaustive study of police uses of force. He found that even after controlling for crime rates and police presence in a given neighborhood, black youths were far likelier to be pushed, thrown to the ground, or harassed by police. (Notably, he also found no racial disparity in the use of lethal force.) No other study of comparable rigor exists on the subject, and its conclusion is clear: that black youth derive their fear of police from experience. The injury done to our black citizens is important and no respectable party can ignore it. In law school, the police regularly harassed one of my best friends, who is black, even though he attended Yale just as I did. Republican senator Tim Scott (S.C.) recently recounted with beautiful candor the many times Capitol police officers treated him with disrespect despite his high office.
Getting whipped into a frenzy on conspiracy websites, or feeling that distant, faceless elites dislike you because of your white skin, doesn’t compare. But the great advantages of whiteness in America are invisible to the white poor, or are completely swallowed by the disadvantages of their class. The young man from West Virginia may be less likely to get questioned by Yale University police, but making it to Yale in the first place still requires a remarkable combination of luck and skill.
In building a dialogue around “checking privilege,” the modern progressive elite is implicitly asking white America — especially the segregated white poor — for a level of social awareness unmatched in the history of the country. White failure to empathize with blacks is sometimes a failure of character, but it is increasingly a failure of geography and socialization. Poor whites in West Virginia don’t have the time or the inclination to read Harvard economics studies. And the privileges that matter — that is, the ones they see — are vanishing because of destitution: the privilege to pay for college without bankruptcy, the privilege to work a decent job, the privilege to put food on the table without the aid of food stamps, the privilege not to learn of yet another classmate’s premature death.
That working-class whites have failed to rise to the challenge is perhaps regrettable. But in a world where many poor whites know very few blacks of any class, it is not especially surprising.
Because of this polarization, the racial conversation we’re having today is tribalistic. On one side are primarily white people, increasingly represented by the Republican party and the institutions of conservative media. On the other is a collection of different minority groups and a cosmopolitan — and usually wealthier — class of whites. These sides don’t even speak the same language: One side sees white privilege while the other sees anti-white racism. There is no room for agreement or even understanding.
The institutional offshoots of this peculiar moment have monopolized the conversation. Donald Trump is the voice of poor white America. The Black Lives Matter movement is the voice of dispossessed blacks and their sympathizers. Yet if these voices have monopolized the conversation, they certainly haven’t monopolized the good ideas. Trump’s policies, such as they are, offer little substance to those suffering from addiction, joblessness, and downward mobility. And the Black Lives Matter movement, focused primarily on police violence, cannot alone address the full spectrum of problems faced by the black underclass.
It is tempting to suggest that we change the way we talk about these issues. Perhaps rhetoric on the right that accepted the legitimate black complaints about inequality, paired with a less combative tone on the left, would allow for some progress. But it’s a fool’s hope: No tribe will change its tactics just so the other tribe will understand it better. That’s not how tribes work. As volumes of social science attest, understanding requires empathy, and empathy requires exposure. The only way out of this morass is to integrate the tribes.
This would require a conservative agenda that appealed to black Americans. Recent Pew polls suggest that black Americans care especially about residential segregation and access to good schools. Conservatives have potential answers for each of these problems. Urban ghettos, created by racist housing policy and sustained by bizarre administration of federal housing programs, constitute one of the few entrenched problems amenable to policy interventions. The administration of the federal Section 8 program, for instance, often ignores the importance of eradicating government-created concentrated poverty. Conservative ideas on vouchers and charter schools have delivered better, if still imperfect, schools — often with active participation from local (and progressive) school leaders.
Unfortunately, the Republican National Convention offered four days of messaging tailored to the Republicans’ new base. On issues of special concern to black voters, both the party platform and the speeches were largely silent. Ironically, Trump’s invocation of “law and order” came closest: Though black voters overwhelmingly cite police violence as a significant problem, they also care deeply about violent crime in their neighborhoods. The convention devoted an entire evening to violence committed by illegal immigrants but spent no time on family dissolution, a concern of all poor people but especially the black poor.
Donald Trump is fond of claiming that “the blacks” — just like “the Hispanics” — love him. Like so much of what he says, this is utterly unsupported by the evidence. But the Republican party’s problem is bigger than Trump, and will outlast him: It is increasingly the party of a white population cut off from its fellow citizens.
It’s easy to sympathize with these voters as they are confronted for the first time with challenges to a privilege they cannot see. But their hope of better government depends on the development of a better political party. And that party cannot develop in a demographic vacuum.
– Mr. Vance is the author of the recently published book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.