Thu, Nov 09, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Travels in white America — a land of anxiety, division and pockets of pain

Gary Younge traveled from Maine to Mississippi to find out why some white Americans feel that whiteness is all they have left and why the far right is finding fertile ground

By Gary Younge  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

Jeff Baxter’s enduring memory, from childhood, is the glow. Coming down over the hill overlooking the coke plant in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the molten iron would make itself known — both as a vision and an aspiration.

“It’s like the sun landed there,” said Baxter, a burly, bearded retiree, who achieved his boyhood dream of becoming a steelworker.

Today, the plant, like the one Baxter worked in for 30 years, stands derelict — a shell that represents a hollowing out not just of the local economy but of culture and hope — as though someone extinguished Baxter’s sun and left the place in darkness.

Buildings in the center of town that were once testament to the industrial wealth produced here stand abandoned. More than 40 percent of the population now lives below the poverty line; 9.1 percent are unemployed.

Cambria County, where Johnstown sits, was once a swing county. Then US-vice president Al Gore won it [as the Democratic candidate] in the 2000 presidential election; [Republican and former Texas governor] George W Bush took it in 2004; it went to [Democrat then-US senator] Barack Obama in 2008 and [Republican former Massachusetts governor] Mitt Romney in 2012 — each time by fairly narrow margins.

Last year, [Republican candidate] Donald Trump won it in a landslide.

Baxter, who once backed Obama, voted for Trump, the first time he had ever voted Republican.

“I liked [Obama’s] message of hope, but he didn’t bring any jobs in... Trump said he was going to make America great. And I figured: ‘That’s what we need. We need somebody like that to change it,’” Baxter said.

Over at the century-old Coney Island Lunch, this once-bustling institution famous for its chili dogs and Sundowners is virtually empty.

“A lot of people have left town,” said Peggy, who has been serving at the diner for nine years. “There are no jobs. If you’re going to have a life or a steady income, you know, you need to get out of here, because there’s nothing here. I expect a lot of towns go this way. You know, when the steel mills died and the coal died. It’s sad, it’s very sad.”

Across from the counter, Ted sits in a T-shirt emblazoned with a Native American in full headdress. He thinks white America is getting a rough deal and will soon be extinct.

“There’s not many white Americans left. They’re a dying breed. It’s going to be yellow-white Americans, African-American white Americans, you know what I’m saying? The cultures are coming together,” he said, with more than a hint of melancholy. “Blending and blending, and pretty soon we’ll just be one color.”

Ted also voted for Trump.

“I liked him on TV. I voted for him, alright, but it was because he was supposedly going to make America great, and what’s he done so far? He hasn’t done anything,” Ted said.

Two days after I spoke to Ted and Peggy, Coney Island Lunch closed down.

In the 12 years I reported from the US I saw no end of white journalists opine on black America. This summer, I took a trip through white America, driving from Maine (the whitest state) to Mississippi (the blackest), to flip the script.

Talking only to white people, I attended a white supremacist conference, accompanied an emergency health worker who sought to revive people who had overdosed, and went to a comedy club in the French Quarter of New Orleans to see the “Liberal Redneck” perform.

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