News & Politics

How Delusional Nostalgia Is Killing the White Working Class

Half of white Americans think the racial tables have turned against them.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / Lisa F. Young

It is always a good idea to be wary of those who wistfully long for the “good old days,” who yearn for “simpler times,” who traffic in whitewashed nostalgia. In America, that describes a sizeable portion of our population. 

new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute finds there are a few things you can count on about those who believe America’s best days are behind us. They are overwhelmingly white, and if you dig a bit deeper and examine the socioeconomics, often working class. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they stubbornly believe white people are subject to the same levels of racism as black and other people of color. They think the U.S. was a better place in the 1950s, when Jim Crow was law, immigrants were overwhelmingly European, women knew their place, and gay people were essentially invisible. 

In tandem with the findings of another recent study revealing middle-age, working-class white Americans are the only group in the country whose health and mortality rates are worsening, the survey offers more than just a look at the ideas and attitudes that characterize a slice of the population. It provides a possible diagnosis for what ails, and may very well be killing, an entire demographic.

There have been previous indications—scientific, sociological, and anecdotal—of some of PRRI’s findings. A 2011 Tufts University survey showed white Americans believe they actually experience more racism than African Americans, and a Pew survey from the same year found non-college-educated, working-class whites are the least hopeful group in the country about the future. The rightwing rallying cry to “Make America Great Again” (a recycled political slogan that is now the property of Donald Trump) is proof that a decent portion of white voters think America was at its best when fewer citizens had civil and political rights, at some arbitrary point in this country’s rich history of morally indefensible state-sanctioned injustice, violence and oppression. One cannot avoid noticing that the current culture wars, full of incoming attacks from the right on nearly every civil and human rights gain of the last 60 years, are being fought with renewed vigor by those who want to turn back the hands of time.

The 2015 American Values Survey reaffirms the myopic outlook of an astounding portion of the country. Researchers, who polled nearly 2,700 adults from every state and Washington, D.C., found that 43 percent of Americans overall believe racial bigotry against whites has become a problem on par with discrimination against black people and other people of color. Fifty-three percent of Americans think the country’s “way of life has mostly changed for the worse since the 1950s,” a tally it seems safe to regard as a referendum on progressive change since that decade. In general, it’s clear that Americans believe some objectively offensive, fantastical and easily disproved ideas. But the study goes beyond big-picture numbers to illuminate how they shake out along race, class and education lines.

On “reverse racism,” half of white Americans overall agree “discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” But the socioeconomic divide on this opinion is fairly vast. Among working-class whites, a solid majority, 60 percent, believe the tables have turned and anti-white discrimination equals that faced by other historically marginalized racial and ethnic groups. But just 36 percent of college-educated white Americans cosigned this idea. Blacks and Hispanics overwhelmingly reject the notion, by 75 and 71 percent, respectively.

Similar divides exist in regard to America’s previous greatness. Just under half of college-educated whites believe American culture has gotten worse since the 1950s—though at 49 percent, that’s still a fairly large slice of the white, degree-holding pie. That percentage climbs to a majority, 62 percent, when white blue-collar Americans are polled. Here again, most blacks and Hispanics disagree: 60 percent of African Americans and 54 percent of Hispanics say things are better now than they were in the 1950s, the last period before, it cannot be stated enough, civil and equal rights movements altered the cultural landscape.

These findings go hand-in-hand with feelings about America’s future. Most college-educated white Americans, 53 percent, say the country’s best days still lie ahead. A majority of African Americans, 60 percent, and Hispanics, 56 percent, anticipate good things down the metaphorical road. But white working-class Americans are far less optimistic: 56 percent think the country’s glory days are in its past, and just 42 percent say they are yet to come. Race, predictably, has a role to play:

While a majority of white Americans (55 percent) believe white men are facing a decline of cultural influence in American society, fewer than half of black (46 percent) and Hispanic Americans (42 percent) agree...Concerns about cultural changes since the 1950s are significantly related to perceptions of the declining influence of white men. Nearly six in ten (58 percent) Americans who believe that the American culture has changed for the worse since the 1950s also agree that white men are losing influence.

Beyond these highlighted figures, which are just a fraction of those that appear in the paper, PRRI’s study is impressively comprehensive. The short story, though, is that this trend carries out across multiple issues. Working-class whites are more likely than African Americans, Hispanics or college-educated whites to say they feel “bothered” when they encounter non-English speaking immigrants; that “Islam is incompatible with American values and way of life”; that “our country has made enough changes to give blacks equal rights with whites”; and that the Confederate flag is “more a symbol of Southern pride than racism.” There are, certainly, complexities amid these numbers; college-educated whites lean far less left than the right would have you believe, and there are a few, though not many, areas where there is greater consensus. But more generally, a picture emerges of a white working-class that is disaffected and pessimistic, which sees itself as increasingly disempowered, and is afraid it is slowly being rendered culturally irrelevant.

The grimness of that outlook, which might be interpreted as a sort of collective existentialism, seems likely related to recent reports that middle-aged, working-class white Americans are getting sick and dying at an unprecedented rate, mostly by their own hands, in ways both fast and slow. A much-covered Princeton study released the same week as the PRRI survey finds that poor health plagues this population, with an increase in reports of “neck pain, facial pain, chronic joint pain, and sciatica.”

But the biggest story is researchers’ discovery that between 1999 and 2014, the mortality rate for white Americans age 45 to 54 without a college degree soared by 22 percent. (Some statisticians find fault with the exact numbers, but agree researchers’ central thesis holds up.) This represents an abrupt turn of the tide not just for America’s white working-class, whose death rate has been on the decline for decades, but runs counter to trends for every other related group. Mortality rates for African Americans and Hispanics continue to fall, as do those of white working-class Americans’ peers in wealthy nations around the world. Even among American whites, the phenomenon is limited to blue-collar communities. White Americans with at least some college education saw their death rates flatline, while the mortality of those with at least a bachelor’s degree actually declined.

The usual culprits—heart disease and cancer, among others—are not to blame here. Researchers find this rise in deaths is instead largely attributable to substance abuse and other forms of self-harm. As the Guardian notes, Princeton researchers found that “deaths from drug overdoses and alcohol poisoning rose fourfold, suicides by 81 percent, and deaths from liver disease and cirrhosis by 50 percent. For this least-educated group, deaths from all causes rose more than a fifth.” In offering some context for the impact of the mortality increase, study authors write that the losses compare to the death rate at the “height of the AIDS epidemic, which took the lives of 650,000 Americans [between 1981 to mid-2015].”

The obvious and immediate questions these findings raise center on causality. The husband and wife research team behind the study, Angus Deaton, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in economics, and Anne Case, both Princeton economics professors, cite prescription drug access as key. The study pinpoints the “increased availability of opioid prescriptions” in the 1990s, followed by the tightening of restrictions, which resulted in a number of addicts turning to heroin. Others, writing in the numerous articles and think pieces published after the study, point to decades of manufacturing job losses to technological advances and foreign outsourcing. Case and Deaton also refer to “widening income inequality,” the ever-expanding gulf between America’s haves and have-nots.  

But that last point neglects to recognize that African American and Hispanic members of the working class are no less affected by income inequality, not to mention the financial difficulties resulting from the Great Recession. In fact, unemployment among black and Hispanic blue-collar workers is much higher than for their white peers. And while the loss of manufacturing jobs has had far-reaching repercussions for all of America’s blue-collar workers, whites still have a steady foothold on the jobs that remain. In a 2011 article in the Atlantic, Ronald Brownstein notes that even as their representation in the general population wanes, “whites without a four-year college degree remain the largest demographic bloc in the workforce.” As for the deadly impact of increased drug abuse, certainly, heroin as a proxy for prescription painkillers has led to an explosion in the drug’s use among white Americans, with one study finding more than 75 percent of recent heroin addicts were “introduced to opioids through prescription drugs.” The same study found that 90 percent of new heroin users over the last decade are white, the result of which has been a glut of suddenly “compassionate conservatives” touting more rehabilitative, less punitive, solutions.

It should be noted, and perhaps stressed, that on pretty much every front, outcomes for white Americans, regardless of class, are far better than for African Americans and Hispanics. As Janell Ross writes in a recent Washington Post article, “[t]hat’s true of housing and neighborhood quality and homeownership. That's true of overall health, health insurance coverage rates, quality of health care received, life expectancy and infant mortality. That's true when it comes to median household earnings, wealth (assets minus debt), retirement savings and even who has a bank account.” 

A 2014 Pew Research Center data analysis finds the wealth gap between white families, compared to black and Hispanic families, is the widest it has been in decades. And while the death rate among working-class whites is rising, leading numerous outlets to declare the Princeton findings the sign of an “epidemic,” mortality rates among African Americans are even higher, as they long have been. As Ross puts it, “White Americans are, as a group, born healthier and live longer and get better health care, jobs, education and housing in the years in between.”

So what, exactly, is demoralizing America’s white working-class? Deaton, of the Princeton study, ventures that this is a story of failed expectations. "An anthropologist friend here says that [white, middle-age Americans] have lost the narrative of their lives,” he says, speaking to Vox, “meaning something like a loss of hope, a loss of expectations of progress.”

Despite the fact that they are doing better than African Americans and Hispanics by nearly every measurable standard, blue-collar whites see their prospects more dimly. The Atlantic’s Brownstein points to a survey from the Pew Charitable Trusts' Economic Mobility Project which asked participants whether they expected their financial situation to be better in a decade than it is now. Fifty-five percent of college-educated whites and two thirds of African Americans and Hispanics said yes, but only 44 percent of working-class white respondents did. When asked if they expected their children to do better than they had, working-class whites were least likely to respond affirmatively, with only one third saying yes. Just over 30 percent said they don’t predict their children will even reach, much less surpass, their own level of success. Conversely, 63 percent of blacks and 54 percent of Hispanics were hopeful their kids would achieve greater heights than they have. Presumably, strides made in recent generations by blacks and Hispanics fuel these visions of expanded future opportunity and offer reason to believe in the potential for continued future success. Ironically, those are precisely the reasons working-class white Americans see their own futures more bleakly.

"The distinction is, these blue-collar whites see opportunities for people like them shrinking,” Democratic pollster Mark Pellman says, speaking to Brownstein, “whereas the African Americans [and Hispanics] feel there are a set of long-term opportunities that are opening to them that were previously closed on the basis of race or ethnicity."

And here, at last, is what lies at the heart of white-working class pessimism. We know that white Americans overall believe African American and Hispanic gains are their losses. A 2011 study from Harvard found that “white Americans see racism as a zero-sum game that they are now losing.” The study authors wrote that “[w]hites linked lower levels of anti-black bias with higher levels of anti-white bias...Perhaps most important, the change over time in perceived anti-white and anti-black bias from the 1950s to the 2000s was negatively correlated for white respondents...suggesting that whites also linked the decrease in anti-black bias over the last half century to an increase in anti-white bias over the same time period.”

That is, they perceived racism, and the limitations it sets on African Americans in every sphere of American life, as beneficial to whites. Equality, by white Americans’ curious logic, doesn’t serve us all: The more equal some of us become, the less equal others of us get. For blue-collar white Americans, who are more vulnerable than their more affluent and better educated peers, this fear is particularly pronounced. The terror of slipping down a rung on an already precarious ladder is transformed into a sort of paranoia.

Deaton and Case write that white working-class disillusionment is driven by slow “growth in real median earnings” and the dismay of finding “they will not be better off than their parents.” But what lurks beneath this deserves even greater historical context, because this is far bigger than a single-generation status change. If you believe, consciously or not, that not just your parents, but every generation of white people before you not only benefited from the systematic disenfranchisement of black folks and other people of color, and that the (painstakingly slow) dismantling of that system will necessarily hinder your own chances for success, you are not likely to support that kind of social change. If you believe you were promised a level of success that, at the very least, is beyond those who are “less American,” or somehow inherently “less than,” you will be angry when you feel that those people, however few they number, are passing you by. If you could derive no pride from class but only from race, believing a place at the bottom of the dominant culture hierarchy is still at the top of any other in this country, when the order of things changes you may place your blame and shame on those who do not deserve it. If you believe these things are your birthright—one passed down over time and deserved by virtue of the longevity of its existence—you’re likely to be resentful about what you perceive as the sudden end of everything you believe you’re entitled to.

By this warped and fear-driven logic, every black success necessarily means a white failure; every Hispanic employee costs a white career. Diversity, a milquetoast word that generally means the least effort at inclusiveness to achieve a presentable level of tokenism, can only seem threatening in this context. “Multiculturalism” is transformed into a sinister plan for white cultural erasure. Immigration, the changing face of the country, the looming specter of America as a “minority-majority” country in 2042, all of these, seen through the lens of racism and xenophobia, are interpreted as threats to white power and agency. And don’t even get me started on the election of a black president.

The dashed hopes of white Americans in general, and working-class white Americans in particular, were built on a crumbling foundation of white privilege and supremacy. Despite the fact that it remains a pretty solidly built structure with reinforcements throughout, here is evidence of real fear of its collapse. Politicians know this, they’ve capitalized on it forever, and today’s political aspirants make the architects of the Southern Strategy look like ardent communists. The PRRI study found that Tea Party identification has dropped by nearly half since 2010, falling from 11 percent to 6 percent. But who needs the Tea Party when extremism has gone so mainstream? Racist and xenophobic dog whistles from the right in the 2008 election seem almost polite judged by the yardstick of today’s conservative rhetoric. The Tea Party has nothing on Donald Trump.

Lyndon Johnson once said, "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you." The desperate fear of losing ground to the "other,” and politicians’ successful exploitation of that fear has created a white working-class that increasingly works against itself and eats its own. It votes to send its children to war and against its own pocketbook. It shouts that it wants to “Take back our country,” and leaves no question as to who it thinks has stolen it. (The irony here is positively rich!)

In a piece titled “Why Does the (White) Lower Middle Class Vote Republican?” Leon Friedman of Hofstra Law School notes that Republicans oppose efforts to raise the minimum wage, fight against healthcare for all and continuously push economic policies that have been proven to “suck up benefits for the rich.” “Based purely on self-interest,” Friedman writes, “such lower wage earners should vote for the party that would help them the most economically.” While acknowledging that there are social issues (guns, abortion, gay marriage) that nudge white working-class voters rightward, Friedman also takes apart the politics of division:

Rather than accurately explain the true economic issues facing the middle class, [Republicans] invent bogus tax plans that have no basis in reality—shrinking the tax code to three pages and reducing taxes to everyone (mostly those on top) which will somehow trim down the national debt and bring untold benefits to everyone. When these benefits do not emerge, Republican leaders barrage the lower middle class with attacks on the bad people (immigrants, Muslims) who do not look or talk like them and threaten their lives and jobs. They play on the lower middle class' impulse to believe themselves better than some other group which becomes the basis for their own self-esteem. The Republicans insist that the presence of Latino immigrants and Muslims are the reasons for the lower class' dissatisfaction with their life. Such arguments divert the middle class from insisting on higher wages and better programs that will adversely affect the rich supporters of the Party.

The anger the white working-class feels about income inequality and the selling of blue-collar jobs to the lowest bidder is unquestionably justified. But like so much else, that anger turns inward, manifesting either as votes for those who mimic their anger yet work against their needs, or in the use and abuse of pain-dulling substances. I’d like to say that these recent revelations will prompt some re-examination of how useless this blame game is and who really benefits, but it won’t. In fact, conservative publications have already used the Princeton findings to further demonize “liberalism.” But the truth is in the numbers, some of which represent lost lives. And the numbers are only growing bigger by the day. 

Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.

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