What's Tony Thinking

Dying of Whiteness


Clearly those most adversely impacted by racism in America are people of color, and in particular African-Americans. But the costs of racism don’t end there. They effect all of us, all of American society. They have contributed to a costly but inadequate health care system, to diminished community and civic life, and to the disparities of wealth that threaten to undermine us.

Attempts to strengthen the social safety net as well as to provide adequate health care for all Americans were consistently stigmatized as being “hand-outs for black people.” So issues that weren’t really racial were made so, in particular by Republican politicians, who blew the racial dog whistles whenever it served them. Trump may be the worst in this respect, but it’s a long line.

The result was white people, often the most marginalized saying in effect, “I’d rather be dead than see things get better for those goddamn black people.” Hence, “dying of whiteness.”

Nick Kristof laid it out in a recent column.

‘The United States faces at least three simultaneous crises: more coronavirus deaths than any other country, the worst economic slump since the Great Depression and overflowing outrage over racial inequity. Yet these crises are all interlinked, all facets of the same core failure of our country, one that has its roots in President Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” of 1968 and in the racialization of social safety net programs thereafter.

“Why is the United States just about the only advanced country to lack universal health care? Without universal paid sick leave?

“Many scholars, in particular the late Alberto Alesina, a Harvard economist, have argued that one reason for America’s outlier status is race. Investing in safety nets and human capital became stigmatized because of a perception that African-Americans would benefit. So instead of investing in children, we invested in a personal responsibility narrative holding that Americans just need to lift themselves up by their bootstraps to get ahead.

“This experiment proved catastrophic for all Americans, especially the working class. Marginalized groups, including African-Americans and Native Americans, suffered the worst, but the underinvestment in health and the lack of safety nets meant that American children today are 57 percent more likely to die by age 19 than European children are.

“This boomerang effect of obdurate white racism — what Dr. Jonathan M. Metzl calls “dying of whiteness” — means that Americans now are less likely to graduate from high school than children in many peer countries. Meanwhile, people die in the United States from drug overdoses at a rate of one every seven minutes.”

Again, a lot of this can be laid at the door of Republican politicians from Nixon on who were willing to play the race card to rally people to their support. But not only Republicans. As the attached video with economist Richard Rothstein makes painfully evident, post-World War II housing policy and the development of the suburbs was racist in ways that now account for the huge disparity between black and white family wealth.

In the post World War II era, white people aided by federal programs had the opportunity to build equity in their homes, while blacks were forbidden from owning homes in the burgeoning suburbs. Moreover, ownership deeds required homeowners who sold homes to not sell to African-Americans. The Rothstein video runs less than 10 minutes and is really worthwhile. I recommend viewing it.

We often think that housing segregation just, well, kind of happened. Or it happened because people would rather live with people of their own race. Nope. It was U.S. policy.

Just imagine how much healthier a society we would be if African-Americans and other people of color had enjoyed the same opportunity to build equity and establish family wealth sufficient to protect themselves against periodic recessions and employment downturns.

But my main point is that racism has hurt all Americans. In conclusion, then, back to Nick Kristof and his recent book Tightrope on the kids with whom he grew up in Yamhilll, Oregon.

“This is deeply personal to me. As I’ve written in a recent book, “Tightrope,” a quarter of the children on my old No. 6 school bus in rural Yamhill, Ore., are dead from drugs, alcohol and suicide — deaths of despair. Others are homeless or in prison. Although they were white, they perished because of policy choices, partly rooted in racism, that the United States has pursued for 50 years.

“Gaps in safety nets left us in turn particularly vulnerable to a pandemic, for underinsurance and lack of paid sick leave helped spread the coronavirus. The pandemic then caused people to lose their jobs, which in the United States meant that they lost health insurance just when it was most needed. Trump bungled the pandemic, as did some local leaders, but the failure was also 50 years in the making.”

Racism has hurt us all. It’s time challenge it and leave it behind. Way past time.

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