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

I was told the Ku Klux Klan were liberals (they were not), that Confederate general Robert E Lee did not own slaves (he did) and that I could not be British because I am black (I am).

It was a few weeks before the disturbances in Charlottesville, when a mob of white supremacists, including neo-Nazis and Klansmen, converged on a college town in Virginia, terrorizing protesters and leaving one dead and many injured.

Just seven months after the US had bid farewell to its first black president, his successor said there were “some very fine people” marching with the neo-Nazis who chanted: “Jews will not replace us.”

A poll shortly afterwards showed that almost half of white Americans thought they were “under attack” and one in three thought the nation needs to do more to preserve its white European heritage.

Any reckoning with how the US got to this point, politically, demands some interrogation of how white America got to this place economically and culturally; that takes into account both their relative privilege and their huge pockets of pain.

White Americans make up a majority of the country. Compared with other races, they might enjoy an immense concentration of wealth and power, but these privileges are nonetheless underpinned by considerable anxiety.

Their health is failing (white people’s life expectancy has stalled or dipped in recent years), their wages are stagnating (adjusting for inflation, they are just 10 percent higher now than they were 44 years ago) and class fluidity is drying up (the prospects of poor white Americans breaking through class barriers is worse now than it has been for a long time).

Out-traded by China (last year the trade deficit with the country was US$347 billion); soon to be outnumbered at home (within a generation white people will be a minority); and outmaneuvered on the battlefields of the Arab world and beyond (neither of the wars launched in response to Sept. 11, 2011, have ended in victory), these vulnerabilities are felt at home and abroad.

Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter protesters are in the streets over police brutality, football players are taking a knee and the movement to bring legal status to large numbers of undocumented people grows. White Americans feel more pessimistic about their future than any other group.

Almost two-thirds of white working-class people think the country has changed for the worse since the 1950s.

I covered the last presidential election from Muncie, Indiana, once seen as the archetypal US town thanks to the “Middletown” project, a sociological study first published in the 1920s.

Many of the white working-class areas on the south side of Muncie were similar to Johnstown.

The head of Middletown Studies at the city’s Ball State University, James Connolly, told me this was the area he had found most difficult when it came to finding contacts.

Whereas African Americans in the northeast of the city had strong churches and campaigning organizations, he said, the poorer white areas had few champions.

“Nobody speaks up for the poor,” said Jamie Walsh, a white working-class woman who grew up in Muncie, explaining Trump’s appeal to those she grew up with on Muncie’s Southside.

“There is systemic racism, but black people have advocates. Poor white people don’t. They’re afraid. They’re afraid that they’re stupid. They don’t feel racist, they don’t feel sexist, they don’t want to offend people or say the wrong thing. But white privilege is like a blessing and a curse if you’re poor. The whole idea pisses poor white people off because they’ve never experienced it on a level that they understand,” she said.

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