My Harrowing Journey Through White America
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,” says 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 centre of town that were once testament to the industrial wealth produced here stand abandoned. More than 40% of the population now live below the poverty line; 9.1% are unemployed.
Cambria County, where Johnstown sits, was once a swing county. Al Gore won it in 2000; George W Bush took it in 2004; it went to Barack Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 – each time by fairly narrow margins. Last year, 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.’”
Over at the century-old Coney Island Lunch, this once-bustling institution famous for its chilli dogs and sundowners is virtually empty. “A lot of people have left town,” explains 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 says, with more than a hint of melancholy. “Blending and blending, and pretty soon we’ll just be one colour.”
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.”
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. I was told the Ku Klux Klan were liberals (they weren’t), that Confederate general Robert E Lee didn’t own slaves (he did) and that I could not be British because I’m 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, terrorising 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 country 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 may 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% 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 (in 2016 the trade deficit with the country was $347bn); soon to be outnumbered at home (within a generation white people will be a minority); and outmanoeuvred on the battlefields of the Arab world and beyond (neither of the wars launched in response to 9/11 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 50s.
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 20s. 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 north-east of the city had strong churches and campaigning organisations, he explained, 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.
“You hear privilege, and you think ‘money and opportunity’, and they don’t have it. I understand how it works but I don’t think most people do. So when Trump says stuff, they can understand what he’s saying and he speaks to them in a way other people don’t. And then you’ve got people calling them stupid and deplorable. Well, how long do you think you can call people stupid and deplorable before they get mad?”
Increasingly, for many white Americans, their racial privilege resides not in positive benefits of work and security but in the sole fact that it could be worse – they could be black or Latino. In other words, their whiteness is all they have left. In few areas is this clearer than the opioid epidemic, which is disproportionately affecting white America. Wander down Oxford Street, home to one of the main shelters in Portland, Maine, and you can see people, distraught, disoriented and desperate, openly struggling with their addiction long into the night.
“In the past, we might go months and not have an overdose call,” said paramedic Andrea Calvo, as we drove around Portland, Maine. “And we had a day, not too long ago, when I think we did 14 overdoses … the majority of people, certainly in this area in this state, probably in the country, are somehow affected by addiction issues.” A member of her family struggles with addiction. She constantly worried that one day she would be called to assist her.
Andrew Kieszulas was a 22-year-old sports star from a middle-class family when his doctor first prescribed opioids for a back injury. With his thick neck perched on top of mountainous shoulders, he had the air of an all-American boy from an all-American family. But, behind the facade, things had started to go wrong. “Very quickly, the prescription drugs were removed and I was left with an emotional addiction, a mental addiction and a very physical addiction to the opiates – and, very quickly, I transitioned over to street drugs,” he explained.
Kieszulas has had to struggle hard to remain sober these last five years. His achievements are his own. But he would be the first to tell you that being white helped. When black America was blighted by the crack epidemic, it was understood as a crisis of culture and treated as a problem of crime. African Americans were locked up in unprecedented numbers, leaving more Americans in prison than had been incarcerated in the Soviet gulags at its height and more African Americans in prison than had been enslaved in 1850.
“If you are white and middle class, it’s much easier to remove the negative consequences of a use disorder,” Kieszulas explained. “You’re less likely to go to jail, less likely to have any kind of negative criminal consequence. I myself don’t have a criminal record. I did some very interesting things to support my habit and to find relief. And transitioning out of that without a criminal record at all? I think it speaks for itself.”
Thanks to contamination through needle sharing, the opioid epidemic is also turning into an HIV crisis, which is particularly acute in rural white areas. Of the most vulnerable 5% of counties at risk of an HIV outbreak, almost all voted for Trump.
In late October, Trump called it a “public health emergency”, while offering little in the way of new funding. When your privilege amounts to this amount of pain, no wonder you can’t see it. But just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.
If there’s one thing that 200 years of slavery and 100 years of segregation did for African Americans, it was to temper their investment in the myth that the US is a meritocracy. The notion that if you worked hard and kept your nose clean, you would get on was always stymied by the grim realities of racial barriers. “America was never America to me,” wrote the Harlem renaissance poet Langston Hughes in 1935’s Let America Be America Again. “There’s never been equality for me / Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free’.”
But, for many white Americans, the expectation that each year would be better than the next and each generation healthier and wealthier provided the core for optimism. However, with those assumptions being eroded, the mood is now more reminiscent of a post-colonial country. People are looking back for a sense of hope. Ask Trump voters when they would like to go back to if they wanted to make America great again and they will give you a date. Jeff Baxter wants to go back to the glow of the 60s, Ted to the 80s, others to the 50s and beyond.
There are, of course, many white Americans looking forward, fighting for their place in a more equal and just, multiracial future. Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, was killed while protesting against the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville when a car, allegedly driven by a neo-Nazi sympathiser, ploughed into the crowd. “She wanted equality,” her father, Mark Heyer, said. “And in this issue of the day of her passing, she wanted to put down hate.”
Her mother, Susan Bro, refused to take the president’s condolence call. “I’ve heard it said that the murder of my daughter was part of making America great,” Bro added. “The blood on the streets … is that what made America great? Attacking innocent people with a vehicle … is that what made America great?”
When American Renaissance, a white supremacist group straining to put a veneer of intellectualism and respectability on its bigotry, came to Montgomery Bell state park near Nashville in the summer, they were met by a crowd of mostly white protesters, chanting: “No Klan, no hate, no racists in our state.”
One told me that Trump’s election had shaken some white people out of their complacency. “We were asleep at the wheel,” she said. “We can no longer find comfort in silence. We have to dig up all the courage we have, to take a stand for what’s morally right.” On the journey back to Nashville I stopped at a secondhand shop on the roadside, selling Confederate paraphernalia, owned by Nikki who had a complicated relationship to the stars and bars. “I’m a proud southerner,” she said. “But you and I both know the [American] civil war’s basically about slavery,” she told me. “Thank God we lost, thank God … but it doesn’t mean that we still don’t wanna honour our dead.”
Trump did not create this anxiety nor this division. References to the civil war and the Klan illustrate for just how long white America has been riven by its sense of moral purpose and material privilege. What is new is that Trump has emboldened the bigots and channelled their thinking in a fashion not seen in modern times. A president who draws a moral equivalent between neo-Nazis and anti-fascist protesters, who baits black athletes and black journalists, brands Mexicans rapists and Muslims terrorists.
One of those to whom he has given confidence is Richard Spencer, the intellectually unimpressive, historically illiterate huckster who rallied the far right in Charlottesville. Spencer, who wants to create an “ethno-state” for white people, claims to have coined the term “alt-right” – a sanitised word for the extreme right. In July last year, Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, boasted that his website Breitbart News was a “platform for the alt-right”.
When I encountered Spencer at Montgomery Bell park, he emerged carrying a glass of what smelled like bourbon and an entourage of adoring bigots soon surrounded me in the car park. More odious troll than eloquent polemicist, he claimed, among other things, that Africans had benefited from white supremacy and that, despite having been banned from 26 European countries, Europe would always be more his home than mine. “If Africans had never existed, world history would be almost exactly the same as it is today,” he claimed. “Because we are the genius that drives it.” Like a vulture preying on the anxiety, and with few alternatives on offer – as much as people cited Trump as the problem, few offered Democrats as the solution – he felt confident.
“People are now aware of the term ‘alt-right’ … I don’t think Trump shares the ideal of the ethno-state … But he wouldn’t have run the campaign that he ran if he didn’t feel some sense of loss, that America has lost something,” he said.
He felt he was gaining influence. This was one of the few accurate things he actually said. And by far the most chilling.