Review: Jonathan Metzl, Dying of Whiteness (2019)

Dying of Whiteness, by Jonathan Metzl, a psychiatrist and sociologist who directs the Center for Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, has received a good deal of attention in the mainstream media but, unfortunately, that attention has often oversimplified many of the book’s findings and arguments. Metzl’s provocative analysis of whiteness bears no resemblance to the all but ever present chatter, in the media and higher education, about white privilege that is preoccupied with making people feel guilty for supposed racism in the smallest incidents of everyday life.

His argument is based on field research (consisting of observations and interviews), media accounts of the changes over time in state laws and policies, substantial works of history and statistical evidence from epidemiological databases of the impact of those changes on people’s lives. The focal points of his investigations were Franklin, Tennessee; Olathe, Kansas, and Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and the larger politics of the three states. Metzl grew up in Kansas City and is therefore familiar with that part of the country as well as Tennessee.

I believe that Metzl’s argument can be summarized as follows. Voters electing politicians whose policies will hurt them is nothing new. However, the most recent incarnations of that history reflect the “toxic effects” of what he refers to as a “dogma,” which consists of beliefs about governmental assistance being evil, the legitimacy of a racial hierarchy, and the problem of handouts to minorities. He ascribes a great deal of power and effectiveness to the role of right-wing politicians setting an agenda for the crystallization of that dogma—an agenda that was first tested in southern and Midwestern states and then made national in scope. In that effort, he ascribes an important role to the Tea Party politics that emerged in the wake of the Obama victory in 2008. He acknowledges its complex origins but insists that notions of white supremacy were central (citing, by way of example, posters at anti-aca rallies depicting Obama as an African witch doctor with a feather headdress and a bone though his nose).

As an example of the power of dogma, he tells the story of Trevor, a Tennessee man dying of liver disease, who lives 40 miles from Kentucky where he could get the care that he needs, but instead lives (and dies) in Tennessee, which refuses to adopt Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. Trevor insists that he wants no more government in our lives and no tax dollars for Mexicans or welfare queens. What Trevor is choosing is no easy death—Metzl provides excruciating details about the progression of liver disease. Trevor’s views are not just the result of his own thoughts. Instead, they are his politics. I’d suggest that they might also be understood as a reflection of a worldview that he shares with many others.

Worldviews explain how the world works and/or how it should work. Most of the time, they take the world as it is and assume that it pretty much has to remain that way. They are seldom grounded in deep and consistent theories (and, in that regard, are a lot like common sense) although they often enough have more than enough “facts” to back them up. What is certain is that worldviews, like the loyalties of sports fans to particular teams, are not easily changed.

Metzl argues that white folks’ support for damaging policies, even after negative effects become apparent, is grounded in the lasting power of “imagined narratives of victimhood and domination.” The perception of pervasive white victimhood has led people to accept a high probability of dying for whiteness. But it’s not always the death of a kamikaze pilot; instead, it’s often slow and excruciating.1

As a result, voting against “their own biological interests as well as their own economic priorities” was a reflection of the depths of their commitments. This distinction between “biological interests” and “economic priorities” is a helpful one because, in most instances, there is little debate about biological interests (health, well-being, longevity) but individuals’ notions of their economic interests all too often fail to correspond to what’s expected by others. Indeed, economic priorities might well be quite different from what the idea of interests might suggest.

He convincingly insists that he has no intention to expose anyone as duped or misinformed. As he conducted his research, he kept thinking that the drive for self-preservation might trump political ideology but he discovered that the deep convictions that people held made it ever more difficult for them to imagine alternatives. For them, compromise was treason. In a powerful phrase regarding Trump’s presidency, he highlights the cruel irony of “platforms of American greatness embodied in forms of demise.”

But the problem is not a disorder in people’s brains or attitudes and will not be addressed by sensitivity trainings or better arguments; it’s a matter of politics and policies.

As I mentioned above, his field research focused on three states where white people seemed willing to die from and for whiteness. Here’s what happened in each state over the recent past:

  • Missouri passed laws to permit concealed carry at schools, annulled local restrictions, allowed just about anyone over the age of 18 to have a gun—all policies grounded in an exploitation of racial tensions and the need for white citizen protection.
  • Tennessee decided to block the Affordable Care Act and opposed Medicaid expansion, thereby denying many hundreds of thousands of people with all but free healthcare insurance.
  • Under the regime of the hard to believe right-winger, Sam Brownback, Kansas began starving its public schools, leading rather predictably to their precipitous decline.

All of these measures had serious adverse effects. Prior to the emergence of the Tea Party and other right-wing projects, the three states had relatively moderate approaches to gun ownership, health insurance and public schooling and, in Metzl’s opinion, had achieved significant progress.

In the rest of this review, I’ll focus on Missouri and neglect the other two state studies because I believe that the gun suicide story in Missouri is the most compelling one. But the other two sections on Tennessee and Kansas deserve attention and I urge people to read the whole book.

Voting to Kill Ourselves

Metzl begins his analysis of gun violence and whiteness in Missouri with an account of a suicide survivors’ support group meeting in Cape Girardeau (referred to by most locals as Cape), a small city on the Mississippi River 115 miles southeast of St. Louis. According to Billie, one of the group’s co-leaders and the person who had invited Metzl to attend, over 90 percent of the participants are there because of suicide by gun. Pain, empathy and guilt (about not having seen the suicide coming) pervade the conversation.

Missouri had a “long history of gun use for hunting, warfare and dueling.” But until the early ’90s, it also had very strong handgun controls, especially regarding background checks for gun permits. Over the course of about twenty years, the state legislature upended that pattern and passed law after law making gun ownership and use easier. In 2014, the state adopted an amendment to its constitution which proclaimed citizens’ “unalienable right” to own guns for the “purpose of defense of one’s person, family, home and property.” Then in 2016, the legislature passed “the guns everywhere bill,” effectively ending all restrictions, earning the state an accolade from Guns and Ammo magazine as the “top state for gun owners.”

If the goal had been to enhance individuals’ capacity for self-protection, it was a fatal miscalculation. Metzl tells what happened: “Between 2008 and 2014, the gun homicide rate rose to 47 percent higher than the national average. Rates of gun death by suicide, partner violence, and accidental shooting soared as well. In 2014, gun deaths topped deaths by motor vehicle accident for the first time in the state. News outlets referred to Missouri as the ‘Shoot Me State.’ ”2

The more or less horrifying statistics and the intense personal loss inflicted by the death of someone close have not made a dent in white people’s extreme commitment to guns. Metzl records that when he first flew into the Cape Girardeau airport at the end of 2016, just about everyone at the airport was wearing camouflage. When he asked his cab driver about guns and camouflage, the driver responded: “I’m sure it might seem strange coming in from the outside, but for us it’s what we’ve grown up with. Freedom. Liberty. Patriotism. That’s why we just voted Trump. No way we were going to let ‘Crooked Hillary’ take those things away from us.”3

The commitment of Cape Girardeau’s residents to those values is clearly able to “trump” just about any other considerations. In one of the most wrenching passages in his book, Metzl recounts what Rick and June, two of the support group’s participants, had to say about their son’s death:

“There’s nothing prepares you for being first on the scene, finding your son after he shot his self,” he begins. “That memory’s seared into my mind and always will be. It was like … he’d exploded. It was just … everywhere.”

Rick later tells me more about his son, Kyle, who he describes as a sensitive soul trapped inside the body of a linebacker. Kyle was good with his hands and found work restoring old cars at a local body shop. Like many young people in southern Missouri, Kyle also struggled with opiate addiction but seemed to have kicked the habit, only to fall into heavy drinking.

Rick reveals only a small part of the story to the group but his words have a profound effect on everyone. He then falls silent, and June speaks up, “We are grieving parents,” she says. “But Rick has another level of trauma that I can’t even imagine what he’s going through, having found Kyle’s body. How can you prepare for that? How can you ever forget it?”

“And don’t forget the funeral,” Rick adds.

“The funeral?” asks Billie.

“Where we come from, you say goodbye with an open casket. That’s how it’s done,” Rick answers. “Kyle was … gone. There was nothing left that looked like our son. I worked so hard with the undertakers, there was hardly anything left.” He begins to weep. “We got the left arm. In the end, we got the left arm.”

“They did a good job getting the left arm to a place where it looked like part of Kyle,” June says stoically. “We held … they, they covered what was left of the body, but we held an open casket showing the left arm. It felt like enough. We got to say goodbye to him.”

Another participant, Kelly who’s in her late twenties, says: “We’ve had four suicides in our family—no, wait, five if you count my cousin. All done by gun.”4

No one during the meeting mentions anything about guns as a cause of suicides. In response to a question from Metzl, Billie insists, “I don’t think that any of us blame the gun.” Instead, they focus on individual issues. As the meeting ends and people get ready to leave, another member, Kim, stops to tell him, “Thank you so much for coming and listening to us,” she says. “And just wanted you to know that what she said is right. We don’t blame the gun. It’s never the gun—it’s the person. Besides if they say it’s the gun’s fault—well they might come take away our guns, too.”5

In light of the pervasive gun culture in southern Missouri, Metzl worried about how his question might have sounded: “[P]erhaps phrasing the question in the way I do and the fact of my being an outsider implies on some level that I ascribed culpability to the culture itself and to its inhabitants even though this is not my intention. Perhaps as someone who grew up without guns, it’s impossible for me to even ask this question in the right way.” He concludes that, in Missouri, guns are “connective tissue” and that they “are a part of us that helps us identify each other when we’re all dressed in camouflage, seeking to blend in.”6 It’s quite striking that he uses “we” when he writes about this. I can’t emphasize enough the heartfelt respect that he conveys about the people he meets. That’s why Kim thanked him.

Because of his medical experience, Metzl is quite knowledgeable about risk and risk factors. He knows that research into suicide has resulted in the identification of risk factors and warning signs which, when made well known, have achieved measurable decreases in the incidence of suicide in various communities. (At the same time, suicide rates have climbed—suggesting that, whatever the personal causes involved in individual suicides, the social causes of those personal causes continue to become more significant.) Nonetheless, the research findings are relied upon by suicide survivor groups and, indeed, were relied upon by the leaders of the Cape Girardeau group. But what the Cape group had available to it in their discussions was not enough—because there is very little research into the specific realities of gun suicide. The use of federal funds for research into gun violence is prohibited by legislation, passed during the first Clinton administration and continually re-approved since then. Its passage and re-approval are testimony to the lobbying power of the nra and its allies. Since federal funds are the primary source for health and public health related research, the absence of funds results in a severe restriction in the number of studies and in very limited databases that could be used for analyses.

And it’s not as if gun suicides are a small problem. They are the “method of suicide that kills more Americans than all other intentional means combined, including hanging, poisoning, overdosing, jumping, suffocating, or cutting. The method that kills more Americans than all of the murderers, robbers, terrorists, and attackers put together as well.”7

Gun suicide is impulsive, as are other forms of suicide. But even more so—the time between decision and execution in gun suicides is very short. However, gun suicide is not only impulsive; it’s also effective. Most attempts at suicide by gun, unlike other methods, are successful. In many ways, the biggest risk factor in gun suicides is the gun. No loaded gun in the house could very well mean that a despondent young person would pass out drunk before he could do anything—after all, you only need to pull the trigger once.

He expresses some skepticism about the popular reliance on notions of white and masculinity crises in regard to suicide and sees them as ways of “making automatic assumptions without thinking them through.” In the case of the supposed crisis in masculinity, he’s quite sharp: “Such framing of crises is also often based more in an imagined sense of nostalgia than in any lived reality, inasmuch as many men fought to maintain what they held to be their natural authority even though every man was not a king, a boss, a plantation owner or a ceo. By definition, the majority of men needed to be underlings for the system to survive.”8

In a very interesting and convincing turn, Metzl then invokes history as a powerful explanatory framework for why guns came to have the meanings they do and why people might fight so hard against efforts to take away the historic privileges associated with gun ownership.

In late-seventeenth-century America, white men were authorized to carry guns with the purpose of defeating black slave rebellions or attacks by Indians or pirates. At the same time, laws forbade slaves and Native Americans from having guns. Later on, at the moment of the founding of the nation, the Second Amendment enshrined the right of armed citizens as potential members of a militia. Only whites had such rights. Furthermore, Metzl cites researchers into what he calls “the hidden history of the Second Amendment,” which found that “the militia remained the principal means of protecting the social order and preserving white control over an enormous black population.”9

In the nineteenth century, as the fear of slave revolts increased, the relationship between gun possession and black oppression became ever more explicit. Although Metzl doesn’t mention this, it may very well be the case that the only time when black men carried guns in the South was during the last period of the Civil War when Lincoln finally armed the slaves in his effort to win the war. Alas, the moment of armed black men, able to act in the cause of their own freedom, did not last. It was ended in the infamous Hayes-Tilden Compromise which withdrew federal troops from the South and ended the Reconstruction era. Even during Reconstruction (1865–1877), whites began campaigns to take guns away from black people. He cites the historian Adam Winkler: “few people realize it, but the Ku Klux Klan began as a gun control organization” that aimed to confiscate any guns that free blacks may have obtained during and after the Civil War and thereby “achieve complete black disarmament.”10

The absence of weapons in the black community meant that it really had little defense against the denial of its rights for almost seventy years—until the eruption of the modern Civil Rights movement in the mid-’50s. It’s been pointed out to me that there is a fairly significant history of black gun ownership, especially for hunting in rural areas; perhaps those who Metzl cite have overstated their case.

The Klan and other hostile groups never ceased their efforts to deny blacks the right to self-defense. Metzl notes the remarkable case of Robert Williams:

…. African-Americans who attempted to take up arms in self-defense against white supremacist intimidation met with violent resistance. Robert F. Williams, president of the Monroe, North Carolina, chapter of the naacp in the 1950s and early 1960s, became a vocal proponent of “the right of Negroes to meet the violence of the Ku Klux Klan by armed self-defense.” With no protection from law enforcement, Williams advised African-Americans to arm themselves as a group to defend their homes, their wives, their children because, as he contended, the Constitution bestowed the right to own a gun was in defense of a person’s home or property on all Americans. “If the United States Constitution cannot be enforced in the social jungle called Dixie,” he famously proclaimed, “then it is time that Negroes must defend themselves even if it is necessary to resort to violence.” Violent white protests ensued after the Freedom Ride passed through Monroe, and Williams and his family fled to Cuba after being pursued by the fbi on fabricated kidnapping charges.11

Later on in the Civil Rights era, the black Deacons for Defense more surreptitiously took up arms to defend activists from white violence. This is not a topic that Metzl addresses.

The contemporary character of gun ownership and gun rights began to take shape in the ’70s and ’80s when the nra was transformed from a sporting and rifleman’s association into a progressively wealthier gun lobby. At the same time, the defense of gun rights, although still grounded in the Second Amendment, became more and more linked to rights of individual self-defense and less to the need for an armed militia. The nra was greatly assisted in these efforts by the phenomenal growth of the gun industry. Guns in private hands increased by 70 million between 1994 and 2014. Metzl claims that in 2016, Americans had 255 million guns but I’ve seen estimates that place the total closer to 400 million. A 2015 survey found that white men were the majority of gun owners and the majority of “gun super-owners”—individuals who own between 8 and 140 guns.

Metzl connects the dots to explain the high rates of gun ownership among white men—it was a matter of continuing and defending several hundred years of the privilege of carrying guns and using them to intimidate black people. As an illustration of that sensibility in Missouri, Metzl writes that in 2014, white open-carry advocates paraded through the African-American areas of downtown St. Louis with their handguns, long guns and assault rifles. The contrast between the deferential treatment accorded to white men with guns and the all too frequent incidents of police shooting and killing black men with or without guns speaks volumes. Metzl challenges the frequently invoked use of “implicit bias” as an explanation for profoundly unequal treatments: “[T]he implicit bias framework often overlooked different historical narratives embedded in American racial assumptions about guns. From before the birth of the nation, American laws, mores, and traditions coded armed white men as defenders and armed black men as threats.”12

The contemporary defense of gun rights of course takes place in the larger context of the last fifty years. Metzl cites the analysis of Leonard Steinhorn in a 2014 Huffington Post article titled: “White Men and Their Guns”:

According to Steinhorn, working class white men long benefited from racial and gender discrimination that gave them a monopoly over manufacturing and construction jobs. Starting in the 1960s, the civil rights and women’s movements brought increased competition into these marketplaces while at the same time wages and the availability of manufacturing jobs declined precipitously. These changes in the economic and social order left working-class white men feeling bypassed, humiliated and “victimized” by “usurpers” such as women and people of color. “So how do these white men restore the strength and prestige of their idealized past?” Steinhorn asks. “Through guns which instill fear particularly among the urban and educated elites who hold the levers of power and status in society today.”13

This yearning for restoration was encouraged and cultivated by gun manufacturers in advertisements in the nra’s American Rifleman and other publications. These messages went well with the new emphasis of guns for self-defense—often on the basis of imaginary hostile racial encounters with blacks.

In Missouri, the desperate efforts to restore what white men believed had been lost mostly led to the loss of their own lives. What those white men thought was needed in the fight for gun rights was exactly not what was needed for the ability on the part of all too many white men to overcome their pain or anger or sense of abandonment when they were alone with their guns. Few white men appeared to be aware of the risks they were facing because of the “knowledge vacuum” produced by the ban on gun violence research. If people don’t actually have access to findings based on evidence, “risk becomes an abstraction onto which people project anxieties, biases, and fears.”14

What makes matters worse is the manipulation of the absence of knowledge by politicians and lobbyists to produce deeply divided communities about “matters of life and death, and mundane daily routine—matters about which, if left to their own devices, people could probably forge consensus.” Such “polarization then leads to an often-absurd state of affairs. Calculations of risk produce ever-safer cars, medications, bike lanes, and building codes.”15 But not safer guns or safer gun practices. There are gun suicide prevention programs, many of which are funded by gun companies. But the terms of the funding prohibit any mention of the risks posed by firearms.

But there’s more to it than that. What if risk emerged not just from the presence or absence of guns? What if the guns in a context of easy availability made whiteness itself a risk? Is risk not merely individual and psychological but collective as well? Metzl tried to answer those questions by engaging in a comparison of Missouri with Connecticut.

Missouri and Connecticut?

Why Connecticut? Metzl and his colleagues chose to compare Missouri with Connecticut because researchers at Johns Hopkins University had already compared patterns of gun violence in the two states and provided a bit of a head start. Those researchers picked the two states (which normally wouldn’t be seen as comparable) because, at the same time that Missouri was loosening its gun laws, Connecticut had tightened its laws.

Connecticut had a largely uneven history of gun control legislation during more or less the same time period. In 1995, however, the legislature passed Permit to Purchase (ptp) legislation requiring background checks and safety courses. In 1999, the state went much further when it authorized police to temporarily remove guns from individuals when there was “probable cause” that a person posed a risk to himself or others. Finally, after the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012, the state passed gun laws considered to be among the toughest in the country.

The group published two studies; the first in 2014 looked at homicide; the second in 2015 examined suicide. The second research paper involved the compilation of data on all recorded suicides in Connecticut and Missouri over 30 years. They statistically controlled for state level factors such as unemployment, poverty, demographics, and the presence or absence of strong mental health treatment systems.

Connecticut experienced a drop in its gun suicide rate with the adoption of a ptp handgun law that was greater than nearly all of the 39 of the states that did not have such a law at that time and Missouri experienced an increase in its firearm suicide rate following the repeal of its ptp law larger than all states that retained their ptp laws. The analysis ultimately estimated a 15.4 percent reduction in firearm suicide rates associated with the implementation of Connecticut’s ptp law and a 16.1 percent increase in firearm suicide rates associated with Missouri’s ptp repeal. They found no such trends in suicide methods other than by gun.

When the researchers reported their findings, they emphasized that their results needed to be taken as tentative ones since there was much that they could not know. Nonetheless, prominent gun advocates attacked their work. Metzl notes that the criticisms were often times simply restatements of the concerns that the researchers themselves had expressed.

Metzl is himself critical of one aspect of the 2015 study. Race had functioned as a central component of the earlier 2014 homicide paper—“Homicide is the second leading cause of death for people age 15 to 34 years in the usa and the leading cause of death for black males in this age group,” was the very first sentence in the authors’ analysis.16 But the 2015 study did not focus on race. Metzl believes that the change in the focus on race “subtly conveyed the notion that homicide was a race problem but suicide was a policy one. Intended or not, race meant black homicide in Missouri but not white suicide in Missouri, Connecticut and all of the states where white men made up the majority of self-inflicted gun deaths.”17

They first looked at overall firearm suicide numbers in the two states and adjusted them by what is called the crude rate, obtained by dividing the total number of deaths among residents in a geographic area by the total population for the area in a time period and then multiplying the result by 100,000. This standardization of rates allowed them to compare the two places in spite of the fact that Missouri has about 3 million more people than Connecticut.

The years they looked at differed slightly from the years for the Hopkins studies. But the data for gun suicides between 1985 and 2015 followed the same trends as those for the years between 1980 and 2012. Crude gun suicide rates in Missouri generally declined until 2007 and then increased; by 2015, the state’s gun suicides rose to an all-time high of 10 per 100,000 people. Meanwhile, crude gun suicide rates in Connecticut went down slowly from the mid-1990s and eventually stabilized at rates between 2 and 3 per 100,000 in the last years of analysis.

In Missouri, white male suicide rates trended downward from the mid-’90s until 2007 and then rose steadily until they hit their highest point in 2014 and 2015 at over 20 deaths for 100,000 white men. Meanwhile, suicide by persons of every other demographic group showed what is called random variability, spiking occasionally but otherwise demonstrating relatively lower levels and no consistent increases or decreases over time.

In Connecticut, white male suicides peaked at 9 for 100,000 people in 1994, and then jumped up and down for the next 20 years but followed an overall decreasing trend. Gun suicides by other groups of men fell considerably over the same period. Gun suicides by women, and particularly women of color, remained very low.

In 2015, white men were about 40 percent of Missouri’s population but were the victims of nearly 80 percent of gun suicides. White men committed gun suicide at rates that were higher than those for men from all other backgrounds combined—over 20 percent as compared to about 5 percent.

There were certainly factors other than gun policies affecting white male gun suicide rates in the two states and the studies cited above tried to take those factors into account. All things considered, Metzl writes: “[I]t is hard to dismiss the suggestion that different gun policies catalyzed different white male suicide rates between Connecticut and Missouri.”18 (101)

Metzl argues that most suicide risk analyses focus almost entirely on individual psychological factors. However, he argues that risk factor analyses for gun suicide should assess risk “based on who a person is, what they are, or where they live.” Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that white men are not any more likely to suffer from severe psychological problems than others. Nonetheless, white men in Missouri were 2.60 times more likely to die by gun suicide than nonwhite men in Connecticut and 2.38 times more likely to die by gun suicide than nonwhite men in Missouri.19 “Put another way, the data hints at the possibility that white male gun suicide may be a side effect of both loose gun policies and conceptions of white masculinity, in addition to the effects of troubled individual minds.”20

Complex Relationships

Metzl does not oversimplify and I hope that I haven’t oversimplified his findings and arguments:

My experience in Cape opened windows into the complex relationships between the people, the place, their histories, and their guns. Guns mark forms of family and privilege that the white Missourians with whom I’ve spoken cling to as an inheritance. Guns also represent trauma multipliers that turn passing moments of desperation into agonizing and permanent loss for individuals and communities. Joined together, guns come to embody, truly, double-edged swords, inasmuch as the same people and communities who benefit from imagined privileges represented by their guns also live closest to suicide enablers in moments of desperation.21

Metzl is especially forthright in presenting his views both in his book and in his frequent public speaking engagements. In addition, he is active in a number of projects intended to develop responses to the terrible pain and suffering he has seen and described. He is also quite aware of the enemies he might be making—as became evident on the last weekend of April when he was speaking at a bookstore in Washington, dc. A small group composed of members of the American Identity Movement, a white nationalist group, disrupted the talk and denounced Metzl. We owe him a debt of gratitude for what he has done and continues to do in spite of that kind of opposition.

Metzl retains a good deal of confidence in the possibilities of electoral politics and advocates for a variety of progressive causes within that arena. I don’t share that optimism. Let me try to explain why.

The Peril of Voting?

The worldviews that underlie the stories and convictions of the people that Metzl talks about is, of course, one that is grounded in a notion of whiteness as being something worth preserving and restoring. How might that worldview be challenged? We need to appreciate the importance of white social blocs whose members imagine that they have much in common. Those blocs are quite powerful enforcers of common ways of thinking and acting. One task then should be to break up those blocs. In most instances, words will not do much. Deeds would probably do much more.

Last year, I wrote an article, published in Hard Crackers titled “The Peril of Voting and the Promise of Action” about breaking up the Trump bloc. The following paragraphs were my conclusion.

I suggest that we need to focus our attention on the virtuous opponents of the Trump policy—the liberal politicians and advocates who dominate the liberal cable tv talk shows. As they insist that “we” have to do something, they also make sure to urge viewers of the importance of registering and voting to run what they now routinely describe as supporters of the “Trump cult” out of office come November. They may or may not be successful in those efforts. But, succeed or fail, they will all but certainly strengthen the determination of what is more or less accurately referred to as the “Trump base.” The members of that “base” will not be driven into the woods by votes.

I think it helps to look at voting as a form of symbolic speech. It is not especially about doing anything. Indeed, talking seldom convinces anyone of anything. On the other hand, activity has a way of confronting individuals and either scaring them off (as apparently has happened with the various elements of the alt-right in the wake of the Charlottesville demonstrations a year ago) or startling them into doing something they never thought possible. As has been said often enough, it’s easier to imagine someone changing his mind after he starts acting differently than to imagine that he’ll start acting differently after he changes his mind.

The campaign against the reactionary character of the Trump phenomenon has to be taken into the communities from where it draws its strongest support. Such a campaign should be intentionally provocative and confrontational and make every effort to split apart family members, friends and neighbors by the force of direct action. That’s what happened in the case of the opposition to the war in Vietnam—parents and children stopped talking to each other; church members switched their congregations; construction workers in New York attacked protesters. But not too many years later, the parents and kids found their tongues again and even some construction workers changed sides.

Something of even greater potential would be undertaking such a campaign in workplaces with efforts to initiate strikes against one or more of Trump’s misdeeds. Imagine what might happen—in many workplaces, there will of course be Trump supporters and they will find themselves faced with a direct challenge from people they work side by side with everyday. What might they do? Will they join the strike? This argument is grounded in a conviction that what people say does not represent a full accounting of who they are and who they might become. What they think is often different from what they say and what they do is often enough different from what they think.

In at least one instance, however, I have to acknowledge where my argument didn’t hold water. During the course of the Southern civil rights movement, the scenes of protesters being arrested, beaten and, in some cases, murdered broadcast on the nightly news had the effect of partially breaking up the block of white folks who had previously been prepared to go along with Jim Crow segregation—but those white folks mostly lived outside the South. Inside the old Confederate states, broad support for white supremacy remained intact. Very few white Southerners were willing to cross the race line. People, including many young people were more than willing to taunt, curse at and spit upon black children as they walked into schools. And truth be known, some of the same kinds of scenes were reenacted on the streets of Boston in the mid-1970s.

In the years since, much has changed. Within the past couple of years, for example, protests against police murders in places like Baton Rouge, Louisiana, have drawn significant support from local white folks. This suggests that we can start from a different place and that we can expect to find people ready to break with the prevailing “Trump is right” sentiment inside Trump territories if they have an opportunity to do so.

For them, simply voting against legislators who support Trump in the privacy of a voting booth will represent a very dim protest indeed. Furthermore, given the inevitable pressures in campaigns, the great majority of Trump-opposing candidates will urge their supporters to refrain from any actions considered to be too extreme—lest they jeopardize the possibility of electoral victory. Just when we need more to be done, we will be advised to do less.

That is a great peril, for as one principled thinker once proclaimed: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice and moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

I believe that what I wrote then provides good advice to those who want to stop white people from dying of whiteness.


  1. While he argues that notions of whiteness threaten white well-being, he insists that the negative effects of harmful social policies affect non-white communities much more severely.
  2. Metzl, Dying of Whiteness, p. 25.
  3. Ibid., p. 29.
  4. Ibid., pp. 29–30.
  5. Ibid., p. 33.
  6. Ibid., p. 32.
  7. Ibid., p. 38.
  8. Ibid., p. 53.
  9. Ibid., p. 65.
  10. Ibid., p. 66.
  11. Ibid., p. 67.
  12. Ibid., p. 72.
  13. Ibid., p. 74.
  14. Ibid., p. 84.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., p. 90.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid., p. 101.
  19. Metzl writes: “Much has been made about opioid addiction in rural America and its impact on white men. But the aggregate death rate for white males by unintentional drug poison in Missouri between 2008 and 2015 was 17.51 for 100,000 people, while the rate for self-inflicted gunshot was 17.82.”
  20. Ibid., p. 109.
  21. Ibid., p. 117.

Comments

2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Jim Katz,

    Look forward to the day that Whiteness is universally understood as a reference to social class not spurious notions of race.

    For black liberation from the yoke of White oppression: uhuru and ubuntu.

  2. Just saw the video of the white nationalists crashing his book event. Very frightening stuff.

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