LGM Review of Books: Jonathan M. Metzl: Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland
Most of us are probably going to be infected with coronavirus. All these attempts to protect yourself by not touching people or your own face or whatever are almost 100% certain to fail. It is what it is. We’ve had a lot of short-term disease epidemics in the last 25 years, some of which do more damage than others. It’s possible this is on the high end. One of these days, there’s going to be another Spanish flu. Maybe this is it, though it doesn’t seem to be.
Donald Trump is absolutely incapable of managing any crisis. We all know this. But a lot of people are wondering whether this will finally be the disaster that undermines his support among the base. Reading Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness is a good way to cure yourself of this delusion. Metzl, a doctor at Vanderbilt, has received a lot of publicity for his book and for good reason. It’s a straightforward exploration into the heart of Trump’s America, where people know that guns kill, where they know that they have terrible medical care, and where it simply doesn’t matter to them because at least the Mexicans and welfare queens aren’t getting any benefits either.
It’s really this straightforward. Metzl goes to hospitals where people simply tell him they would rather die than have Obamacare go to the undeserving. For these people, very much working class whites, race simply means far, far more to them than class. Moreover, it means more to them than their own lives. They are comfortable with their own death. They are not comfortable with Guatemalan migrants receiving health care. And it’s certainly no better with guns. Metzl visits one of the leading areas of gun suicides in the country–southeast Missouri. Even though people are dying left and right from guns–suicide for sure, but accidental shootings and intentional shooting too–these people just won’t see the guns as the problem. Or even if they secretly do, they know they can’t say so publicly for the stigma that would come of it.
Moreover, Metzl’s not just talking to random people. He’s going to support group meetings of family members who discovered their loved one had blown his head of with a gun. And even with that extremely horrible event, that physical manifestation of the evils of guns right in front of them in a way I cannot personally imagine, the power of whiteness and fears of scary outside people threatening them makes them simply refuse to consider guns a problem. Moreover, they claim they come from “gun” families going back for a long time, even though we know that modern gun culture is less than a half-century ago. Guns are so central to these people’s identity that they cannot imagine being without them, despite the cost.
Metzl’s last example–the Sam Brownback-led decimation of Kansas schools, is intended to provide a slightly more optimistic view, in that a lot of even conservative Kansans did finally reject this after he destroyed their schools. The only problem with this section is that is slightly an outlier, both in that schools are less life and death than healthcare and guns and because there really aren’t other examples yet of right-wing voters finally realizing there’s something too crazy for them.
The overall structure of the book though is brutally effective. Metzl keeps himself “neutral” with some hints at bipartisanship, even if they aren’t strongly felt. But it gives him some cover. He then talks to people, prints some interviews in full, goes over the issue in full with lots of input from the affected communities, and then closes each section with a data-driven study of the cost of these issues in these communities. And it demonstrates that white people are more than happy to hurt themselves rather than work toward solutions that include people of color.
I’ve long stated that “class not race” analysis is inherently racist, which makes me something of an outlier among labor historians. And I honestly don’t see how anyone can really argue that the white working class is dying for a socialist who will unite all people by class. These people may indeed have some class consciousness, so long as it is white-only. But even if they support unions or higher taxes on the rich or whatever, they aren’t voting that way. They are voting to kill themselves through rejecting decent health care, by freaking out that anyone will take their guns even as those guns kill their parents and spouses and children, and by decimating the social safety net even if it means their own children get a poor education.
Dying of Whiteness is an extremely sobering book. It’s a necessary read for all. You should read it. Until whites stop preferring to kill themselves rather than admit non-whites as full citizens of the nation, fascism will continue to be a serious threat to the rest of us. And to themselves too, but they will be A-OK with that.
To conclude, all the coronavirus in the world isn’t going to turn Trump’s base away from him. They are already dying of whiteness and will be happy to continue to do so.