'We’re All Dying of Whiteness': Race, Fear and Resentment Can Be Fatal
On this episode, democracy-ish hosts Danielle and Toure are joined by special guest Jonathan Metzl, author of “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America's Heartland.”
It’s the eternal question: What’s the matter with white people?
Jonathan argues that right-wing messages are designed to stoke fear –– and that conservative policies can kill.
Trump doesn’t have much to offer his base –– except affirmation of their sense of white entitlement
We’ve asked it before and we ask it again this week: What’s the matter with white people?
53% of white women voted for Trump. And among white men, he has a significant lead over Biden in the latest polls.
So, when the question is what the actual fuck is up with that, who better to ask than an actual white guy?
Toure and Danielle called on Jonathan Metzl –– physician, sociologist, Vanderbilt professor and Woke AF Wednesday stalwart, who explains why such a large swath of our citizenry still buys into Trump’s bullshit.
His book argues that anti-immigrant, anti-government, pro-gun policies in the Midwest are backfiring. Instead of making America great again, they’re making “lifespans harder, sicker and shorter for a variety of people,” he says.
The Republican agenda has been dangerous for communities of color for a long time. But in his research, he discovered that white folks are dying because of them, too.
“It’s a wake-up call. We should –– quickly –– understand the importance of diversity and a more horizontal society,” he says.
This was the case before the pandemic. But the Trump administration is working to expand them across the nation. Now, everybody is at risk –– not just from COVID-19 but from the “policies of racial resentment” that harm us all.
Episode Highlights –– What’s the Matter with Wypipo?
When guns kill, it’s usually close to home
We've known since the ‘90s that the biggest risk of getting shot is –– wait for it –– having a gun in your house.
“Most shootings are not homicides,” he points out. “They're not, to use the NRA terminology, gangbangers or carjackers … or other racialized things” –– like the idea that somebody will break into your home and steal your big-screen TV.
In fact, two-thirds of gun deaths are the result of suicide and partner violence. But the NRA has sold gun ownership “as a symbol of white protection and white authority,” says Jonathan.
That’s led to unprecedented rates of gun death, especially by suicide, among the very demographic to which the gun lobby aims to appeal.
The ‘invincible’ white body
Meanwhile, white protesters, flagrantly mask-free and armed with AR-15s, are storming the Capitol gates in places like Madison, Wisconsin and Detroit, rallying against Democratic governors’ lockdown orders.
“The minute you code something as a Black and Brown problem, there's this understanding: It's happening to them, it's not happening to us,” Jonathan says. “The white body, because it has an AR-15, is invincible and unsusceptible.”
Take that to an extreme, he adds, and the notion arises that the white body is protected from the coronavirus. But, as COVID-19 hotspots break out in nearly every state, “we're seeing how dangerous that attitude is.”
As protesters –– or churchgoers, or any number of people gather in large numbers right now, they don’t just spread the virus among the crowd. They pass it on to their family, or the person who delivers their pizza, or their Uber driver.
“It's a network of dying of whiteness,” says Jonathan.
Whiteness as Teflon
Danielle is mystified by the psychology of white supremacy, especially in the age of COVID.
As she sees it, there are a fuck-ton of white people whose idea of liberty is tied to their perceived inherent privilege –– what last week’s guest ___ would call out as the “racial contract.”
“I'm going to generalize, and I don't care: we see that the white folks who are protesting are protesting their ability to oppress other people.”
“I think they believe that their whiteness is not only currency. It’s Teflon. That this virus, while it is killing Black and Brown communities –– right now –– will somehow just go around their whiteness.”
It seems that the Don of Teflon himself, our commander-in-chief, is suffering under the same delusion, as he tours factories sans masque and insists that he hasn’t been exposed to COVID even though it’s clearly penetrated the presidential bubble.
(Dis)connection is Trump’s edge
In the midst of this crisis, a new Quinnipiac poll gives Joe Biden an 11-point lead over Trump –– 50 to 39. But when we break those numbers down, it exposes a disturbing divide. Among white men, Trump is winning 56 to 35.
Despite nearly 100,000 dead and 35 million unemployed in the U.S. alone –– heartbreaking statistics that point clearly to a massive failure by the Trump administration, considering we’re 5% of the world’s population and nearly 30% of global fatalities –– white men still support Trump by a 20-plus point margin.
Which brings us to the question of the week. What's the matter with white men?
Jonathan’s answer begins with another question.
“What would those numbers look like if Trump, at the beginning of [the outbreak], did what most responsible leaders would? Which would be to say: This is a new pathogen. We're all vulnerable … and connected in ways we don’t know. What we're going to do is create a more horizontal society, where we take care of everybody.”
Jonathan thinks Trump’s poll numbers would actually be lower if he responded like that –– “even though it would have been a more effective public health response,” he says.
Why is that?
It’s because Trump offers something intangible but powerful to his (overwhelmingly white) supporters, Jonathan explains.
“He's not giving them life,” Jonathan says. “He's not giving them longevity. But he's giving them this particular wage of whiteness … There have been multiple examples over this horrible pandemic. The one that comes to my mind is: when it started hitting red states, why didn't he immediately expand Medicaid? That would have been easy. It's already on the books. It would have saved people's lives.”
And it could have stimulated the economies of those states, too.
“But would it have made him money?” Danielle asks. “We all know that he is deeply invested in hydroxychloroquine, when he should be invested in –– whatever the weight loss thing is. Hydroxycut. He's confusing them.”
The unbearable fragility of whiteness
“I get very upset with white conservative men,” Danielle says. “Actually, that's a euphemism. I can't stand them. This belief that ... they’re owed something, that we need policies to move everyone else out of the way.”
Trump’s MAGA policies seem meant to turn back the clock to at least the ‘50s, when women didn’t have any reproductive autonomy.
“We're rolling back abortion rights,” she says, “and we don't pay them equally in the workforce. If you are forced into [a lack of] family planning, women have to stay home because it makes more economic sense.”
That’s just one example of how white men seem to “need everyone else to be sidelined in order for them to actually be great,” Danielle adds. “It's like showing up to play a football game, but everybody else has to be sidelined with one arm tied behind their back and one leg tied to the other.”
But white guys, unencumbered by literal or metaphorical restraints, are free to play: “Look at me –– I'm the champion,” she says. “But you literally need everyone else to be disadvantaged in some way.”
Toure sums it up quite tidily: “Whiteness is powerful and fragile.”
Cold white comfort
What’s at the heart of that paradox? Hierarchy, Jonathan says.
“But let me be clear: I'm not talking about all white people. I'm not talking about white as a biological category. I'm talking about ‘whiteness’ as a category of hierarchy: the idea that your white comfort is defined only if there are other people beneath you.”
He points out that in the post-Reconstruction era, W.E. Dubois wrote about white men who had nothing –– but capitalism sold them the idea “that they were better than free Black slaves who had even less.”
Since then, the concept of white privilege as mollification even in the worst situations –– might be “epigenetically transmitted over time,” Jonathan says –– to a point that seems incredibly illogical unless one understands how structural racism works.
But it’s sad to think, he adds, “about how much better we'd all be if this hierarchy wasn't the thing our country was holding onto. If we had equal access to health care and food. I can give you countless historical examples of societies that go from being overly hierarchical to overly horizontal, and it works out better for everybody.”
Black conservatives ‘Stockholm Syndrome’
Like Danielle, Toure is triggered by the arrogance and ignorance of conservative white men.
“But at least they’re espousing a philosophy that is built for and works for them. The people who really piss me off are Black conservatives who believe in an ideology that is not constructed to uplift them –– or people like them. It's Stockholm Syndrome: believing in your captor's philosophy.”
That makes Toure curious about “private white spaces, where there are no Black and Brown people around,” he says, pointing to social science that suggests white people, when they hear racist language, tend to either say nothing –– or you shouldn't say that. The underlying message is that verbalizing racist ideas is bad –– but believing them is tacitly approved.
“Is that your experience?” he asks Jonathan.
Jonathan says even though he was transparent about his thesis in interviews, he heard “some pretty bad things” in the process.
“It's hard. I challenged everything. I told people what my book was about. But I did feel like people probably opened up to me more, because I was in the in-group in a particular way.”
And yet, he also met people who “were just honestly opening up about how they were struggling,” says Jonathan. “This ideology is the only thing they have to hold on to. Because they’re really, really falling through the safety net.”
Stephen Miller’s dusty-ass playbook
Touré asks Jonathan if he thinks there’s a core philosophy underneath those racist comments.
There tend to be two ways of thinking. One is an “old playbook that just keeps getting kind of dusted off,” he says. Any attempt to change the social order, from desegregation to universal healthcare, is met with a racially charged, dog-whistle message pumping up fear that white people will lose their privilege.
“There’s a Stephen Miller in every era,” Jonathan says.
The other is desperation— the sense that there’s no other choice but Trumpism, especially among libertarians and second-amendment diehards.
The counter-narrative thread
Danielle wonders whether the pandemic’s impact –– lost loved ones, layoffs, food pantry lines around the block –– will sour voters on Trump. Or will they double down on their support and the president’s ‘blame the Black guy’ mentality?
“It's not like … people are blind zombies who are just running into a meat grinder or something like that,” Jonathan laughs.
People tend to make informed decisions based on the ideologies placed in front of them, he adds, pointing to a few heartening pre-pandemic victories on the left. In the gubernatorial races in Louisiana and Kentucky, Democrats presented a compelling centrist argument that was true to the party’s ideals and appealed to voters’ real-life needs through “really simple things … [like] I'm gonna get your health care back.
“It's a challenge for Democrats,” says Jonathan. “I do think there's an openness, if you can present a counter-narrative to bring people over.”
Does that sound a bit like … hope?
As always: Pray about it.`
Get your weekly rundown of the presidential election from a Black progressive point of view on democracy-ish. Consider Danielle Moodie and Toure as your tour guides, flight attendants and/or therapists as we move through this dumpster fire of an election cycle — together!