The common explanation post-11/8/2016 includes some kind of combination of the terms “white,” “angry,” “xenophobic” and “racist” — the list is familiar, and not entirely unfair. White Americans did, quite factually, vote for Donald Trump in resounding numbers in the general election. According to an exit poll conducted by Edison Research for the National Election Pool, 58 percent of white non-hispanic voters cast ballots for Trump, in comparison to 37 percent for his opponent, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. This is a reality.
But there are many faces to that reality, even if they’re not always distinguished clearly in coverage. That’s a mistake easy to see on social media outlets like Twitter, where 62 percent of adults get their news, according to a recent survey by Pew Research millenials. When many-faceted political issues like the Trump election are simplified into 140 characters or highlighted videos, the result is rarely nuanced.
Match that with an ever-growing atmosphere of partisanship, and what we get is a this-or-that-side anger. There is no room for a middle; there is no conversation to be had. Right after the election, feeds were filled with variations of “fuck white people,” or some kind of derogatory meme of a poor white “hillbilly” or “redneck.” This anger is understandable given the rhetoric of the election. Many in our country feel explicitly targeted, and racism, xenophobia and white anger are all relevant contributing factors to this.
The problem is when our explanations refuse to accept another. On one side, there’s childish, haughty “I told you so” rhetoric from Trump’s supporters, which refuses to acknowledge those very real concerns of minorities in this country, equating it all to “whining,” a privileged term to use for many who have never felt targeted in the same way as minorities in this country do, especially now. The other, though, has created monolithic categories for where to direct its own anger: white Americans, the poor, the uneducated. When terms like “working-class” and “inequality” are introduced into the conversation, accusations of normalizing are thrown easily. Acknowledging one reality does not take away from another. We can understand that important social progress in our country — gay rights, racial equality, immigrant rights, etc. — is at risk, while still recognizing that there are issues beyond social discomfort at this progress that drove poor white Americans to the polls.
J.D. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” released in June, tackles these forgotten (or simply eschewed) realities. His story is a painful and relevant one.
Raised partly in Rust Belt Middletown, Ohio, and partly in Appalachian Jackson, Kentucky, Vance’s family is by nature a kind of representation for problems of those regions. He describes his family as “Hillbilly Royalty” — that is not on account of their wealth, which is hardly existent, but because of how Vance’s ancestors were known as some of the hardest, most loyal people in the area. These words require clarification: Loyalty, to this group, means attacking a man with an electric saw who insults his mother, or forcing another to eat a pair of underpants for making a lewd comment about his sister. This is what Vance calls “Hillbilly Justice,” and it’s just the first introduction to a world whose regularities are far different than many Americans’, especially the college-educated. His people are not part of some mythically comfortable “middle class.”
Vance understands that the romanticizing of this kind of violence is indicative of deeper problems in the community. It creates a culture that its children nearly inevitably fall into. While Vance himself has by most measures largely escaped the fate of so many of his peers, he discusses how this kind of internalized violence remains: Driving down the road with his wife, he nearly exited his car after someone honked their horn at him, ready to fight. This isn’t what might first come to mind as Yale Law School graduate behavior. But it’s normal for the people of his upbringing, and emphasizes how this kind of behavior doesn’t just immediately disappear when financial problems are less apparent.
Context here is everything, and Vance does not put forth these kinds of “cultural” problems without giving at least some background for their existence. For one, there is the overwhelming sense in these pages that these are a stuck people. His grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, grew up in rural Kentucky, where poor white families would feud and fight for survival. When they left for the Rust Belt for a better future, their assumption was that things would be different. Vance makes it clear from the start that they would not be.
Those problems, which plagued rural Kentucky, were just as present, if not more so, in rural Ohio. As the companies that were once the beaming hope for these towns — Armco Steel, Champion Paper and Fiber, Procter and Gamble, and National Cash Register — began to size down, outsource and lose money, their manufacturing jobs began to leave. The work that was there for parents would not be there for their kids. That dream of upward mobility for those who left one impoverished, rural area for another was just that: A dream.
The rut these families find themselves in leads to explicit expressions of anger, like violence, but also more inward ones, such as drug use and addiction. The latter has been a growing epidemic in towns like the one Vance grew up in, as heroin and other kinds of opioids in particular have taken hold. This past summer 27 West Virginians overdosed in the city of Huntington within a four-hour span. When Vance’s own mother succumbed to this addiction, though after much other previous drug use and alcoholism, Vance recognizes this drug differently: “‘Heroin’ just has a certain ring to it; it’s like the Kentucky Derby of drugs,” he writes. Its specter is very real over these communities, and elicits a justifiable fear and anguish.
A combination of fear, frustration and lack of mobility is at play in these communities, and it is not getting better. The cycle of poverty and devastation that many white Americans have been caught in is so large that it is affecting trends at a macro level. The New York Times, reporting on a study from 2015, found “The mortality rate for whites 45 to 54 years old with no more than a high school education increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014.” That is astonishing, given that “every other age group … every other racial and ethnic group” saw an increase in life expectancy. That fear and anguish may come, as some have termed, from a fear in the decline of their social standing, but that cannot encompass the entire span of this crisis. Poor white people are dying, quite literally.
Elections are won and lost almost always on economic lines. Though certainly not a perfect indicator of economic position, college education or lack thereof can be used as a rough outline of economic trends. Economic discrepancies between college graduates and those who did not attend college are obvious. And so was their voting in the 2016 election.
The Pew Research Center found “Trump’s margin among whites without a college degree is the largest among any candidate in exit polls since 1980. Two-thirds (67%) of non-college whites backed Trump, compared with just 28% who supported Clinton, resulting in a 39-point advantage for Trump among this group.” The New York Times’ breakdown of exit polls makes the economic distinction even clearer. Among those making less than $30,000 annually, there was a 16-percent increase in voting for the Republican Party candidate from 2012 — for Donald Trump. Among those making $30,000 to $49,999 a year, that shift was 6 percent. And though the shift was greatest among white Americans, there was actually a shift from 2012 among all minorities toward Donald Trump, rather than away from him. So while it’s certainly true that affluent white Americans helped to elect Trump in this election, as they have for most Republican candidates in recent history, that is not the entirety of the story.
The specter, the fear, that has led poor Americans in general to a totally inexperienced, once-reality-television-star candidate isn’t limited to just the Rust Belt and Appalachian regions. Driving home down Aris T Allen Boulevard in Annapolis, Md., with a friend about two years ago, a woman appeared in the middle of the highway on her hands and knees. We pulled over, called the police and waited as the woman pulled herself together and hobbled to our car. When she came knocking on our window, telling us everything was fine (her face showed that it was not) and that all she needed was a ride to the Kmart, the police showed up and took her in. While we were in shock, the police officer was not. This was a common occurrence, he told us, as drug addicts would commonly use behind the nearby Safeway and occasionally find themselves standing in the middle of the highway. The drug, of course, was heroin.
Just a month after that incident, five heroin overdose victims were found in Annapolis on a single day. Though Annapolis proper is relatively affluent — with a median household annual income of $75,320 dollars — the suburban areas around it are not necessarily, and Edgewater, where my high school is located, was known for intense drug use among the “white trash,” as they were often called. As kids, we loved to tell stories about how our neighboring middle school, Central Middle School — which I also attended — had frequent visits from the police, armed with dogs to sniff lockers for drugs. I didn’t think of the broader implications at the time, but as teachers became increasingly worried about the state of the school, my parents decided to send my younger brother to a private middle school far from our home.
They had that luxury, but most did not. Later in my high-school years, I went back to my middle school to tutor, and I got a glimpse at some of the realities J.D. Vance mentions. Kids were frequently distracted by what was going on in their home life, just as Vance described. He couldn’t study trigonometry knowing his mom was drugged out on the couch, or screaming at a new boyfriend. I worry the same was happening with these kids.
To be clear, my county, Anne Arundel County, voted for Hillary Clinton in this election, though by a thin margin of 116,074 votes to 114,509 votes. But through a highly unscientific survey of the town’s many Trump-Pence signs, and knowing the ideology of most of my friends from Edgewater, I’d be willing to bet Edgewater and the other poorer, largely white neighborhoods of Anne Arundel County went for Donald Trump. And these problems, which push the poor into protest votes, as with Donald Trump, are not getting better. According to The Baltimore Sun, in 2016 “The number of drug- and alcohol-related overdose deaths in Maryland in the first half of the year jumped more than 50 percent from the same period last year.” In Michigan, the problem is the same. Heroin and opioid deaths have multiplied 10 times since 1999.
Drug use is not the only problem that Vance highlights with broader implications.
Vance expresses childhood anger at his mother’s various boyfriends, coming and going through a revolving door. “I loathed living with these strangers,” he writes, and it affects him more than just emotionally. His grades suffer without a stable home, and years later he would come across the psychological term “adverse childhood events” to describe his upbringing.
The issue of fatherhood, which Vance speaks to in his own life, reveals another bias. The crisis of “Black fatherhood” is often written about and discussed, but the same is not always said about white fatherhood. The prevalence of bad, or simply non-existent fathers in Vance’s poor white community shows us that the issue is not limited to Black communities.
Subverting and affirming stereotypes is one of Vance’s strongest achievements in this memoir. While he only implies this about Black fatherhood, he tackles others with both bluntness and reserve. Though his grandmother Mamaw is by no means the pinnacle of gay activism, she is clear on the subject when speaking to Vance: “even if you did want to suck dicks, that would be okay. God would still love you.” This is not what we might typically expect from a poor, rural, Christian, white woman. It betrays a political complexity that defeats simple narrative. It also leads into another stereotype complication — their relationship with God. The general understanding is that poor white Americans love God just as much as they do processed foods. But while his family and others might always talk about Jesus, he cites studies showing that “active church attendance (in the Bible Belt) is actually quite low.” What that relationship to God means is also highly malleable. Mamaw uses Christianity as a reason for why Christians should love the LGBTQ community. Vance’s experience with his father’s church was far different, and he explains that at those services, he “heard more about the gay lobby and the war on Christmas than about any particular character trait a Christian should aspire to have.” These are hugely different relationships with God, and reveal poor white Christians are not a monolithic group with singular views.
To be sure, Vance does gloss over some of the ugliest faces of his community, and feels hypocritical about others. According to Vance, white voters in his region did not detest Barack Obama solely for his race, but because of what he represented as a rich, highly educated citizen in our society. While that might be true, and while that might be a reason Hillary Clinton failed to reach this group of people, he touches on evidence that makes that shoulder brush seem less credible. When his cousin Gail announced she was pregnant by a Black man as a teen, the family shunned her. Nearly everyone in this family had children in their teens. But none of them, it seems, were Black. Vance approaches this with just a half paragraph, and it feels like he could have given this a bit more weight, particularly in light of how briefly he touched on the racism toward Obama.
Further, when he focuses his lens to others in his own community and beyond his own personal experiences, he fails to give them the context that he gives his own family. We understand why he struggled and was distracted in school, and we know why those in his family might be inclined to violence or drug use. He even addresses why his family would go out of their way to get the most expensive Christmas gifts possible, simply putting on the guise of comfortableness to be happy. When those around him, though, use welfare for treats such as cigarettes or liquor, he is harsh, and likens it to a community-wide crisis of laziness.
Still, his observations are largely moving and eye-opening. One that feels especially relevant here on campus lies in the hypocrisy of wealthy liberals talking about equality, yet still looking down on those in a different class from them. When he goes out with a group of friends to a late-night chicken restaurant and they leave a huge mess for the workers, only one other student stays back to help him clean up, and that student also came from a poorer background. I’ve seen the same at restaurants all around Ann Arbor. There is the sense here that it is easy to talk about economic equality on a macro level, but equally easy to ignore it when it’s right in front of you, on a micro level. An investigation by the Daily in 2014 found that “In Fall 2011, 63 percent of incoming freshmen reported family incomes over $100,000,” nearly twice the median family income in the United States.
Taking that further, what does this mean for something like post-Trump vigils on campus? Though there were plenty of wealthy white men who voted for the morals of a misogynist, it’s also clear that many who voted for Trump will never experience a level of economic comfort that many of the most openly anti-Trump students on our own campus might. What does it mean, then, if a white student on campus with a family income of more than $250,000 attends such a vigil, and then tweets something derogatory about the poorer ones (coming back to those hillbilly memes) of their own race? Are these not in themselves expressions of privilege? These are hard questions which, as with all hard questions, do not have simple answers. There is without a doubt a reason for these kinds of protests. We on campus must remain allies for those who feel voiceless; we must protect our immigrant populations, be watchful for racism and homophobia, and condemn sexism. But we must also be cautious about criticizing entire demographics, and especially cautious that we do not fall into the mistake of unintentional classism. We can, for a start, read “Hillbilly Elegy.”