Why Is It So Difficult to Engage in a Sacred (or Even a Civil) Conversation on Race? Racism, Class, and the Psychological Wage of Whiteness

This post was originally published on the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog, on the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) website on April 16, 2018

In 1935, W. E. B. Du Bois coined the expression, “the psychological wage of whiteness” to refer to “the sense of entitlement” felt by rural and working-class Whites in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America. As University of Utah political scientist Ella Myers characterized Du Bois’s argument, “whiteness serve[d] as a ‘public and psychological wage,’ delivering to poor whites a valuable social status derived from their classification as ‘not-black.’ Du Bois’s account of compensatory whiteness” explained how exploitive owners and bosses, functioning [in a climate of] “racial capitalism,” appeased their white workers by assuring them that despite their destitution and misery, at least they were not black (W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward the History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 [New York: Harcourt Brace, 1935], and Ella Myers, “Beyond the Wages of Whiteness: Du Bois on the Irrationality of Antiblack Racism,” Items: Insights from the Social Sciences, The Social Science Research Council, March 21, 2017).

I thought of Du Bois’s “psychological wage of whiteness” after reading J. D. Vance’s poignant and revealing autobiography, Hillbilly Elegy, which chronicles his upbringing in Appalachian Kentucky and Ohio.

“I may be white,” Vance writes, “but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with millions of working-class white Americans” who live in and near the Appalachian Mountains. For hill people, “poverty is the family tradition.” We “do not like outsiders or people who look, act, or talk different[ly] from us.” Appalachian religion is heavy on emotion but light on helping impoverished children do well in school. Vance’s people react to adversity “in the worst way possible. From low social mobility to poverty to divorce and drug addiction,” this region is “a hub of misery” (pp. 3-4, 7).

What Vance disliked most about his childhood was “the revolving door of father figures. I hated how often [Mom’s] boyfriends would [abandon us] just as I’d begun to like them. Caught between various dad candidates, I never learned how a man should treat a woman. I learned little [of] what masculinity required of me” other than “getting drunk, and yelling at and hitting women” (pp. 88-89).

Today, many rural and working-class Whites live in Vance’s “irrational world: We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs,” financed by “high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for spending money, and declare bankruptcy, leaving them full of garbage. We [don’t] work when we should be looking for jobs”—or “we’ll get a job but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness, or stealing merchandise, or [drinking], or taking five thirty-minute restroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work” but make excuses “for why we’re not working” (pp. 146-147).

Family communication often takes the form of yelling. “At least one family member uses drugs.” Under stress, “we [physically assault] each other” in full view of other family members. “The neighbors call the police to stop the drama” and “our kids go to foster care.” Parents yell at their kids for performing poorly in school, “but never give them the tools—like peace and quiet at home—to succeed.” The elementary and high school students Vance recalls did not work hard, and were not challenged by their teachers. Most did not go to college. Many dropped out. “Failing [did not] bring shame or other bad consequences” (pp. 56, 147).

“American working-class families experience a [high] level of instability”—so their violent arguments are not surprising. When Vance’s sister was asked by her husband, “What’s wrong with you? Why do you fight with me like I’m your enemy?”—she replied: “In our home, it was difficult to tell friend from foe” (pp. 228-230).

I suspect that Vance’s story is foreign to many of us in United Church of Christ (UCC) congregations. It is not our lived experience, and we have no idea how chaotic and difficult life can be in some families.

Of course, it is a fool’s errand to stereotype white rural and working-class people; they are not all like the “hill people” in Vance’s autobiography just as they are not all tiki-torch-carrying White supremacists or gap-toothed “rednecks” living in trailer parks. Yet many are poor and under-educated; many feel economically “stuck” and find the American Dream unattainable; many blame the federal government for their problems; and many do not like people of color and religious minorities.

I come away from reading Hillbilly Elegy with two distinct and somewhat opposite impressions. First, Vance’s stories—and the problems that he writes about—are not unique to Appalachia or to white people; rather, they have to do with being poor. Spousal abandonment, bitter family conflicts, opioid addiction and alcoholism, unstable living conditions, unemployment, under-resourced schools, and unmotivated students are common maladies in poor rural and working-class communities.

Second, while these stories of social decay and deprivation have little to do with race, they have everything to do with racism and the psychological wage of whiteness . . . .

To read more of this post, go to the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog on the CARD website, at https://carducc.wordpress.com/2018/04/16/why-is-it-so-difficult-to-engage-in-a-sacred-or-even-a-civil-conversation-on-race/

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Chris Xenakis

Chris Xenakis is a pastor, an adjunct lecturer in political science, an old school black and white photographer, and a sometime amateur actor.