Millions of White Americans Are Dealing With Economic Pain They Haven't Seen for Decades


The following is an excerpt from the bookUnder the Affluenceby Tim Wise (City Lights Books, 2015): 

For millions of Americans the downturn of the past several years and its effects in terms of wage stagnation, persistent unemployment, and struggles with affordable health care, housing and higher education, are nothing particularly new. For millions of people of color, such economic insecurity has been distressingly normal, generation in and generation out, for all of American history. Regardless of the health of the economy, it is virtually a truism that African American unemployment and poverty levels continually hover around or beyond recession levels.

In fact, it could be argued that part of why so many have taken notice of the crisis in recent years, and why it has become such a topic of concern, is precisely due to the way that normatively black and brown economic conditions have bled over into the white community. So long as economic pain was localized in subgroups with less power and influence—especially when those subgroups have long faced a history of discrimination and stigma—it failed to register on the radar screens of the larger citizenry. But once the insecurity began to be shared a bit—even then not equitably, but more so than white Americans had been used to—the magnitude of the problem suddenly appeared more obvious. Double-digit unemployment in the white community, even for a brief time, was truly new for many. White Americans on the whole had not experienced that kind of insecurity in the job market for three generations, since the Great Depression.

While people of color fared far worse during the recent collapse than whites—they were still the first to lose their jobs and the last to be hired back, and saw the vast majority of their already minimal wealth levels wiped out, particularly in terms of home value—the downturn seems to have had a greater psychological impact on whites. Precisely because of the relative advantage most white Americans have long taken for granted, we were less prepared for the kind of setback to which we were subjected in recent years. This is no doubt part of the reason why recent surveys have found that despite ongoing relative advantages over persons of color in the job market, housing market, educational system and elsewhere, white Americans are more pessimistic about the future than ever, and whites are far more pessimistic than members of other racial groups who are doing quite a bit worse.

For a graphic and telling consideration of just how distressing the downturn seems to have been, especially for whites, one need look no further than the lead story in Newsweek from mid-April 2011 concerning what the cover referred to as “Beached White Males.” Therein, the author suggested that now the economic meltdown was really a crisis, because whites—even whites in the managerial class—were feeling the pinch, with some even experiencing the long-term unemployment that had previously been seen as the purview of only the lesser classes. There is a distressing and even heart-breaking irony to the article once one sifts through the self-loathing of corporate executives who can’t seem to cope with having to pound the pavement looking for work like mere mortals. Reading the piece, it becomes obvious just how dangerous it can be to have blind faith in the system, as apparently many of the men in the article long had. Once they came to realize that hard work and playing by the rules was not enough—something people of color and even poor whites have long understood—they were ill prepared for it.

None of this is to dismiss the real stresses faced by white Americans because of current economic conditions; rather, it is to say that part of our current predicament may indeed be worse precisely because we paid so little attention to the crisis when it was only affecting those other people. In fact, not only did we pay insufficient attention, but in many cases, the government helped facilitate the crisis directly by way of its actions. So, for instance, in 1999 North Carolina passed a law prohibiting banks from offering predatory and deceptive loans to homeowners, in large measure because lenders were targeting the poor and people of color with these instruments. Rather than applaud the ruling and seek to extend it nationwide or with comparable national legislation, the federal government overrode the new law, paving the way for several more years of these kinds of loans, which ultimately became the fulcrum of the economic meltdown. Had we cared more, attended to the warning signs, and resisted the growing culture of cruelty with regard to the needy, perhaps we wouldn’t be in the predicament we’re in at all.

Excerpt from Under the Affluence © 2015 by Tim Wise reprinted with permission of City Lights Books

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