Quick Review: White Trash and Hillbilly Elegy

I recently read both White Trash by Nancy Isenberg and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. These two books address the same topic – the white lower class in America – yet have several notable differences. Here is my quick review:

  1. The topic may be the same but the method and genre are quite different. Isenberg covers 400+ years of history while Vance tells the story of his own life. This difference in genre matters: Isenberg has a lot to cover and has difficulty providing details at points. The early history of poor white settlers is particularly interesting as convicts and lower-class residents of England were sent to the colonies. At the same time, there is little depth for the most recent decades and the narrative tends to solely follow presidential politics. On the other hand, Vance is writing a memoir. While he hints at broader trends, occasionally speaks for all hillbillies, and cites some academic studies, he primarily focuses on his own journey in a geographic area including southeastern Ohio, West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky. Together, these two books provide an outsider and insider perspective.
  2. Their political approaches differ. Isenberg provides some of this in the introduction as well as in the most recent history as she does not think the Republican party has much to offer working-class whites. In contrast, Vance does not think government is the answer to improving the lives of hillbillies and consistently affirms their agency and need to make good choices. Vance’s book is blurbed by prominent conservatives and he leans toward Republican or libertarian approaches. It would be interesting to consider the alternative approaches: an academic history that promotes a conservative approach and a memoir that pushes a liberal perspective.
  3. What they attribute the causes of the poor white or hillbilly life varies and hints at the complexity of this issue. Isenberg shows that the need for cheap labor has always been at the root of American social and economic life. Poor whites have been treated poorly from the beginning of the country. In particular, Isenberg highlights the interaction between poor white labor and slavery which foments resentment between blacks and poor whites even though both were exploited for centuries. On the flip side, Vance focuses more on the passing down of values within families and communities. In other words, hillbillies become hillbillies because this is the life they know and experience from their families and neighbors. Breaking this cycle is very difficult, even for someone who spends four years in the Marines and graduates from Yale Law School.

Even with (or even because of) these differences, I would recommend reading these two books together. There are clearly patterns in American history regarding poor whites (Isenberg) even as individual stories can differ with the influence of notable family members and contexts (Vance). While we do not have to go so far as Vance does in suggesting these problems cannot be solved, these two approaches do display the complexity of the situation. Those looking for a quick political fix in terms of helping Democrats appeal to poor whites again or looking for people to find family values and pull themselves up by their bootstraps will likely to be disappointed. This is a long-standing issue rooted in centuries of oppression and it still brings about much personal pain.

The seven American counties where there is no black-white income gap

Pew looks at the seven places in the United States where black residents have higher median incomes than whites:

Yet, a tiny number of places exist where black household income is greater than that of whites. Of the 364 large U.S. counties whose populations are at least 5 percent black, there are seven, according to a Stateline analysis of U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey data for 2010-14…

The greatest similarities may be their proximity to core urban areas and high-paying corporate or government jobs, as well as their supply of affordable, albeit expensive, homes and good schools.

Valerie Wilson of EPI said affluent black families may have had to move farther from cities to find the good housing and schools they seek because the black middle class, with less net worth, cannot afford rising housing prices in the cities or private schools.

The article stresses that there are no lessons to be learned here even as there might be some patterns. The seven places do raise a number of interesting questions worth exploring:

  1. The emphasis here is on the movement of black households to these counties. At the same time, what traits do the white residents of these counties have (that they are not living in areas with more inequality)?
  2. Did the counties or local governments do anything to help promote these trends? I’m guessing these are largely the result of the “free market.” Yet, just because it happened in seven counties suggests this is a pretty rare outcome of the this free market.
  3. What are the levels of residential segregation in these counties? Simply suggesting that blacks and whites have similar incomes doesn’t necessarily mean that the two groups regularly interact.
  4. That this kind of equality can only be found in suburban areas likely would not please many suburban critics. However, many large cities and closer suburbs have a range of issues – from concentrated poverty to a lack of affordable housing – that can limit the opportunities for non-whites to succeed.

These places would be worth watching in the coming years.

Push continues to add Middle Eastern race/ethnicity to Census

This project has been in the works for at least a few years and now the White House is joining the effort to add a Middle Eastern race/ethnicity to government forms:

Under current law, people from the Middle East are considered white, the legacy of century-old court rulings in which Syrian Americans argued that they should not be considered Asian — because that designation would deny them citizenship under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. But scholars and community leaders say more and more people with their roots in the Middle East find themselves caught between white, black and Asian classifications that don’t fully reflect their identities…

On Friday, the White House Office of Management and Budget advanced the proposal with a notice in the Federal Register, seeking comments on whether to add Middle Eastern and North African as a separate racial or ethnic category, which groups would be included, and what it should be called.

Under the proposal, the new Middle East and North African designation — or MENA, as it’s called by population scholars — is broader in concept than Arab (an ethnicity) or Muslim (a religion). It would include anyone from a region of the world stretching from Morocco to Iran, and including Syrian and Coptic Christians, Israeli Jews and other religious minorities.

But the Census Bureau, which has been quietly studying the issue for two years, also has gotten caught up in debates about some groups — such as Turkish, Sudanese and Somali Americans — who aren’t included in that category. Those are issues the White House is trying to resolve before adding the box on 2020 census forms.

This is a good reminder of how social science categories can develop: through a lot of effort. There are social changes to account for here: how groups understand themselves changes over time. In this particular context, immigrating to the United States and facing particular challenges and opportunities leads to groups that wouldn’t necessarily group themselves together to now desire such a thing. Does the Middle East as Americans often understand it line up with how the region is understood elsewhere (let alone in that part of the world)? There are politics involved: who gets to define such groups? How is the data used? There are measurement issues: who would count in such a category? What are the boundaries? Is it a racial category or ethnicity? How many racial/ethnic categories are needed to understand the world?

All that said, the category of white – typically based on skin color – is very broad and often not very useful considering the social changes in the United States in the last few decades.

Claim: white Americans unwilling to sacrifice for poor African Americans

A review of Mitch Duneier’s new book Ghetto ends with one of the book’s claims:

Despite the program’s vaunted successes, Mr. Duneier concludes that its limitations reveal a cognitive and moral dissonance at the heart of American life: No project to end the ghettos can work if it requires the white community to make tangible sacrifices on behalf of black people.

It is one thing to not intentionally commit racist acts and another to make certain sacrifices.

Summarizing “How the Federal Government Built White Suburbia”

Richard Rothstein discusses how white suburbia was promoted by the federal government. Here are some of the ways in which white neighborhoods were promoted:

  • Federally funded public housing got its start in the New Deal. From the very beginning, public housing was segregated by race. Harold L. Ickes, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and the most liberal member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s brain trust, proposed the “neighborhood composition rule,” which said that segregated public housing would preserve the segregated character of neighborhoods. (This was the liberal position. Conservatives preferred to build no public housing for black people at all.)
  • After World War II, the Federal Housing Administration (a precursor to HUD) and the Veterans Administration hired builders to mass-produce American suburbs—from Levittown near New York to Daly City in the Bay Area—in order to ease the post-war housing shortage. Builders received federal loans on the explicit condition that homes would not be sold to black homebuyers.
  • The Housing Act of 1949, a tentpole of President Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, greatly expanded the reach of the public housing program, which was then producing the most popular form of housing (!) in the country. In an effort to kill the bill, conservatives tried to tack on a “poison pill” to the legislation: an amendment that would have required public housing to be integrated.

Read on for more of the influential policies and decisions. In other words, that the American suburbs were dominated by whites was not a mistake or accident; it was the intent. And even though suburbs today are increasingly diverse, these earlier government actions still have significant consequences that can’t be ignored simply because they occurred in the past.

Viewing a neighborhood differently with white vs. black residents

A recent study asked people to look at the same neighborhood but with differences in the race of the residents:

In a study led by sociologist Maria Krysan at the University of Illinois at Chicago, people were asked to assess short video clips of neighborhoods with black and white actors posing as residents. Whites rated more positively the places that appeared to be white neighborhoods, compared to when the very same neighborhoods were shown with blacks. These two clips used in the study capture the same middle-class neighborhood in Detroit.

An interesting twist to use videos with similar scenes. But, the findings follow in a long line of studies that suggest whites and blacks are treated differently in mortgage applications, searches for rental housing, applying for jobs, buying a car, and other areas. Just having a different skin color provokes people to different perceptions and actions. Whites generally don’t want to live in neighborhoods with blacks though the opposite is not true. And just seeing blacks on the street might be enough to push whites away…

“The Myth of a White Minority”

Sociologist Richard Alba wrote a NYT op-ed in June about the fluidity of being white in the United States amidst a growing multiracial population:

But the forecast of an imminent white minority, which some take as a given, is wrong. We will seem like a majority-white society for much longer than is believed…

Some of the mixed children now classified as minorities surely will think of themselves mainly as whites when they grow up; researchers have already found a significant group of American adults who declare themselves as non-Hispanic whites to the census, but acknowledge having some Mexican ancestry. Others may have mixed or even minority identities, but will be “sociologically white,” integrated into white communities and family networks and seen as essentially no different from anyone else.

According to the new Pew report, adults from mixed white and Asian backgrounds feel they have more in common with whites than they do with Asians; almost half have friendship circles that are mostly made up of whites; and two-thirds live in mostly white neighborhoods. Two-thirds of the multiracial Americans in the report who have some white ancestry are themselves married to whites.

We can grasp these emerging social realities by remembering our history of assimilation. At midcentury, religious boundaries were highly salient in white America. Catholics, Jews and Protestants were distinct populations, whose social lives were largely confined within their own group. Yet in only a few decades, the differences faded, and interaction across the boundaries proliferated. It was not that people ceased being Catholic or Jewish. But the public faces of those identities became much more muted and rarely intruded on everyday life. The Jewish intermarriage rate, around 10 percent in 1950, climbed to 58 percent by 2013.

What racial and ethnic categories mean are not static. And if white continues to be a privileged status, some will want to identify with it among their options and other might not. And, of course, existing whites might contest these dynamic boundaries. For example, would southern whites accept as white a growing number of Latinos who have both Latino and white heritage?

This all makes measuring race and ethnicity more interesting moving forward. The Census Bureau is already thinking of changes for the 2020 decennial census.