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Monday, September 19, 2022

Review: Dying of Whiteness

 Dying of Whiteness is a difficult book to read. At a deep level, it's about the recent reversal of life expectancy  in the white working class population in the United States in recent years, which is an unprecedented in the developed world. But it's clearly also a particularly political book because of the author's dedication to pursuing root causes down to the deep level.

The book's primary point is that by blocking progressive reforms, the white population in the US doesn't just hurt those minorities, but end up hurting the white population. Because the white population outnumbers the minorities (still) by large amounts those same  policies end up hurting more white people in aggregate than the minorities that are much hated by those who voted for those policies.

When I began to sift through the statistics for gun injury and death in Missouri, I quickly realized that the primary victims of gun mortality were not criminals or inner-city gang members, as the NRA and some politicians implied. Rather, as gun laws were liberalized, gun deaths spiked… among white people. This was because white Missourians dominated injuries and deaths via gun-related suicides, partner violence, and accidental shootings—and in ways that outpaced African American gun deaths from homicides. (page 12)

When politics demands that people resist available health care, amass arsenals, cut funding for schools that their own kids attend, or make other decisions that might feel emotionally correct but are biologically perilous, these politics are literally asking people to die for their whiteness. Living in a state or a county or a nation dominated by a politics of racial resentment then becomes a diagnosable, quantifiable, and increasingly mortal preexisting condition  (pg. 18)

The book then goes on to provide chapter after chapter of statistics, information, and cross-state comparisons between various red states with different policies as well as comparing red states with blue states.  The numbers are compelling and irrefutable. The book also contains many interviews with the very same people who've lost loved ones to gun suicides for instance, but nevertheless because of their social context, cannot bring themselves to vote for more gun regulation or gun control. The same would go for healthcare.

Here were men who depended on assistance for stents, antibiotics, operations, or oxygen tanks decrying the very networks that potentially provided lifesaving help. Their expressions of whiteness and white anxiety seemed in so many ways to work against their own self-interests; to live free and die sooner. Importantly, though, these lower-income men were not the only groups I led that linked a rejection of the price of health care expansion with ideological concerns about losing racial privilege or having to pay for racial or national others. To a degree, similar concerns arose in every single group of white men. (pg. 152)

 What's amazing to me is that those same people completely lack self-awareness, voting for policies that deprived not just them, but their children of reasonable care:

we’ve been lifelong Kansas Republicans. My great-grandfather on down. Didn’t matter how qualified the Democrat was, we could not vote for a Democrat, just wouldn’t do it. But then working in the schools has changed what I think. I’ve been to public school board meetings and seen a parent who was actually on oxygen screaming out against Medicaid expansion or money to the schools. One very wealthy family really believed that there should be no public education, that each child ought to receive what the state is going to apply toward education, and then the free market will take care of it. At the same time, they had a significant high-needs child that we were educating that no one else in that type of model would have ever educated, and they were really upset because that child aged out, was going to turn twenty-two, and no longer receive any of the services provided by our school, and they just couldn’t understand why we would not continue, (pg. 230)

The book tries its best to end on an optimistic note, but it fails. While Kansas did pull back from completely defunding public education, and human beings are notoriously bad at weighing long term benefits vs short term costs:

 Were the causes of the subsequent health effects anything but politically induced, they would have been the subject of any number of public health campaigns. Beware Budget Cuts: The Silent Killer. But because austerity tied to political ideologies, its pernicious effects were far harder to discern for people on the ground. All the while, the amount of money people saved on their taxes was rendered moot by all kinds of hidden costs. Tax cuts provided moderately lower bills at the end of the year, but at the expense of underfunding key elements of the state’s infrastructure—and at the expense of long-term well-being (pg. 258)

This was a depressingly hard book to read, but explains a lot of political behavior. The cold comfort is that the population voting this way is killing themselves slowly, but that's not good news for those of us who may end up living in the Republic of Gilead. 

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