A few things conspired to produce the premise of this blog post.
In one of my classes recently I talked about rising opioid rates in a county in Indiana (Porter County). The problem had gotten so severe that the local police department produced a video about the epidemic in 2015:
The problem got worse, and so they produced another one in 2017. The opioid epidemic is not a wholly new issue, but it still is a bit striking to see white youths as the face of a drug problem.
I read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Like the opioid crisis, the experiences of poor Whites in Appalachia is not new. But this was a great book for those who want a personalized account, and don’t want to plow through a series of data points.
A few years ago, I read Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. So this was a series of data points that I had to plow through. But Murray’s book put some empirical, macro-level meat on the bones of Vance’s work. Murray’s argument put simply, is that uneducated Whites are living vastly different lives than educated whites. For example, they have higher divorce rates, higher levels of obesity, and are less likely to be steadily employed.
Finally, there is this NPR piece on the rising death by despair rates of white Americans:
I don’t know what changes in economic, health, and educational policy are needed to get at the root of the issues that poor and working-class whites face. But until these changes are made (or should I say “if” there are changes) there may be some palliative measures that can be taken. It turns out that Black Americans have been dealing with these issues for decades. They have honed, in the crucible of hardship, ways of dealing with adversity. I don’t think they’d mind it if their white working class and poor brethren adopted these practices.
They’ve Figured Some of this Stuff Out Already
Let me give the logic underlying this idea in bullet points:
- Black Americans have lived in an environment qualitatively distinct from White Americans. There is no need to go through the sociological research underpinning that claim. We know that black people competed in different labor markets, have different experiences with the legal system, live in segregated neighborhoods, and so on.
- People develop a set of practices to navigate the environments in which they live. People are quite knowledgeable and purposeful in their immediate contexts. They engineer ways to achieve their goals and make their lives meaningful.
- Black people developed a set of practices organized around their world. I am conspicuously avoiding the word “culture” because it is so politically loaded. Plus, practices places more emphasis on the discrete actions of people, as opposed to the more ambiguous and amorphous idea of culture.
- White Americans are increasingly navigating similar environmental conditions of Black Americans. As I’ve said above, whites are increasingly facing economic hardships and uncertainties, low social mobility, and a political system that ignores their concerns. There is a growing divide amongst whites between college-educated whites and whites with a high school diploma or less. This is something that both Charles Murray and Robert Putnam pointed out at an Aspen ideas festival a few years ago. These two guys have diametrically opposed political beliefs, and yet they both agree that America, especially white America, is coming apart. The have-nots in this divide are operating in a similar environment to the one that black Americans have navigated for decades.
OK, so here are some of the practices:
Talk to your Grandmother
Atomized, nuclear families work well in contexts where money is not an issue. One parent can earn an income that is large to allow the other parent to de-emphasize their career and focus on homemaking and parenting. Or, two parents earn enough money where they can pay for someone to perform those homemaking and parenting functions (e.g. they hire a maid or AuPair). In situations where this is not the case, my observations have been that it is much better to incorporate other family members into the unit. These family members can provide extra funds and perform homemaking and parenting duties. Immigrant families and black Americans use this family arrangement to maintain a sense of stability in a capitalist economy.
I am reminded here of Vance’s accounts of his grandmother in Hillbilly Elegy. She was his foundation as he tried to navigate a world where his mother was addicted to drugs and worked her way through several potential baby-daddies.
Water Your Faith (If You’ve Got Any)
It’s not cool to be a booster for Christianity as an academic. But any survey will show that people who attend religious services regularly are happier. A study from Britain shows that people without religion are the most miserable people. A study from the Pew Research Center gives the headline: “[American] people who are highly religious are more engaged with their extended families, more likely to volunteer, more involved in their communities and generally happier with the way things are going in their lives”.
There are several reasons why people who have faith are happier or more content with their lives. As Nietzsche said, “if you know the why you can live any how”. Religion gives people the power of a purpose driven life. When you feel slighted at work you can put it in perspective because salvation does not lie in the good will of your boss. Another reason is that religion provides an instant community. When people are alone, they are unhappy. Apparently, loneliness is as bad for you as smoking as 15 cigarettes a day. What?!
It is somewhat of a stereotype that black people are religious. In reality, black Americans are becoming more secular just like all other groups. But clearly, black people take their faith more seriously than whites, as a recent report from Pew shows. Two figures below illustrate this, as black respondents, more than any other race or ethnicity believe in God and attend religious services.
There is a clear link between happiness and faith. Black people’s happiness levels have always been lower than whites (and for good reason). But over the past several decades the gap has lowered to the point where both groups are equally happy.
If you have faith in a higher power, nurturing that faith and involving yourself in the religious activities commiserate with that faith, can help buttress you from the inevitable suffering of life.
This is not an easy section to write given the recent #metoo movement, so I tread lightly.
For decades, black men have had a difficult time in the United States labor market. I have read on several historical accounts arguing that black women tended to get better jobs than black men. Before the second world war, the jobs available were not well paying, unionized factory jobs. What often happened was that black women, as less threatening, ended up getting jobs working as nannies in white homes. The wages were still low, but it was a “clean” job, and some degree of social and cultural capital could be gleaned from the proximity to white middle-class families. Moreover, black men have always, even now, been treated more harshly for real or perceived transgressions and are sent to prison more often and longer on average. Currently, black women are graduating college at higher rates than their male counterparts.
What this means is that black communities are keenly aware of what it is like to not have the presence of upwardly mobile, socially confident men in families. As a result, there are many organizations that have as their goal the empowerment of black men. 100 black men is an organization that comes to mind.
This idea of empowering white men is unheard of. Indeed, the general trend seems to be that white men should be disempowered – they are the archetypal antagonist in a morality play about racism, sexism, or homophobia.
This is not the 1960’s, where almost every white man could walk out of his home, stroll down to the local factory, look the boss in the eye and clasp his hand, smirk, and begin work the next day (often supervising low-level black employees who’ve been there for years). Those days are over. Now, young white men from poor and working-class families find themselves in the same boat as many of the black men in my extended family – underemployed, adrift, and feeling inadequate.
It might be time for white families to recognize this and focus on these young men.
This is Not Twelve Rules for Life
As I write this, I am waiting on Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life to be delivered. It is a self-help book written by a working academic in psychology. I always get a kick out of reading these kinds of books.
Most self-help books promise milk and honey if you follow these X number of steps. Well, these black practices are more like ways of managing a difficult situation and providing room to breathe so that real change can be pursued. The analogy would be to black non-violent protesters finding strength in a church before they then went out and marched.