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Dead, White, and Blue: The Great Die-Off of America's Blue Collar Whites


#1

Dead, White, and Blue: The Great Die-Off of America's Blue Collar Whites

Barbara Ehrenreich

The white working class, which usually inspires liberal concern only for its paradoxical, Republican-leaning voting habits, has recently become newsworthy for something else: according to economist Anne Case and Angus Deaton, the winner of the latest Nobel Prize in economics, its members in the 45- to 54-year-old age group are dying at an immoderate rate. While the lifespan of affluent whites continues to lengthen, the lifespan of poor whites has been shrinking.


#7

I think Ms. Ehrenreich is good at examining social conditions from a microscopic level. In other words, she seeks and finds singular cause for her analyses. And I would not be surprised if her rendering gender invisible (in her account of poor whites and the violence that erupts from this demographic), along with her indictment of the "liberal intelligentsia" does not in part explain the preponderance of her published credits.

I contest the narrative that says that white people are dying earlier due to suicides... and drug use.

I had a Cuban friend, a brilliant lecturer, who didn't smoke or drink. He dropped dead at age 54 while giving a lecture in Puerto Rico.

I had an American male Caucasian friend, an artist, who died from a heart attack at age 59.

I had a very dear American Caucasian female friend, who died from complications to intestinal surgery at the age of 62.

I had another very dear American Caucasian female friend who died of a brain tumor at age 60.

I had a former boyfriend, a Latin man who died at age 56 from a brain tumor.

I had another Latin female friend who died at age 59 from Cancer.

I had another male client (Latin) who was shot dead in Mexico before he turned 53.

This is a partial list.

Before I began to see news stories relaying these new numbers, I brought this matter up in this forum by suggesting that Social Security predictions (for baby boomer payouts) should be adjusted. The argument being that if 6 people in my personal circle died before collecting benefits, what were the national averages?

Another Caucasian man I befriended in the Florida Keys died at age 62 from Cancer; and another, at age 58 from complications brought on by alcoholism. I know another man that fit that description, too.

In other words, alcohol POISONING factored into 2 deaths on the list of about 10 people that I knew well... who died WAY before "their times" according to established life expectancy averages.


#9

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#10

But note that for the white working class the study did not find the higher mortality rates from these causes - which all working class people face - but specifically from alcoholic liver disease, opiates, and suicide. One interesting finding of the study was that middle-aged Latinos of similar economic class had lower than average mortality rates. One thing I notice about white USAns, especially males, is their social isolation compared to Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and to some extent women of all races, who have more close friends and have tighter communities of support.


#11

I suspect Ehrenreich expects us to interpret "suicide and drug use" a bit symbolically, or even metaphorically, if you will. The sense of vulnerability and alienation, that Ehrenreich claims white males are increasingly victims of, will kill you in a wide assortment of ways.


#12

SR,

What you report may be significant and maybe not. What sample size are you talking about?


#13

Yes, Tom Johnson, she makes it too much of a racial issue. Unions are dead and dying, and these helped both and all races.


#14

Tom,

Then why no corresponding middle-age mortality increases in Black and Latino male USAns - whose mortality rates are decreasing - Latinos to a level far below Anglos? And yes, they ARE generally more economically disadvantages than middle-aged whites. The data shows differences between race/ethnicity, so race and ethnicity is clearly a factor that cannot be ignored.

This nonsense about how race doesn't matter is frankly the highest form of racism right now - racism-denialism. White Anglo blue-collar males have been used to being in a position of privilege - much of it racism-leveraged I've seen the open racism in the high-wage construction trade unions (even the Laborers International!) and the USW and UMWA here in Pittsburgh. Now they are in a less-so privileged position. Ms. Ehrenreich, who if you have read "Nickled and Dimed" has walked the walk, is offering one reasonable explanation tying this phenomenon to the high mortality from depression and it comorbid disorders.


#16

Unions rarely helped black people - where I live, the USW, the UMWA and the construction trade unions are all pure European-descended white men. Yeah, some industrial unions like the UAW in the upper Midwest have a better record of racial integration, but they are more the exception.


#17

I do recall a news story that indicated in something like 45 of the States in the USA the number one job for males was "truck driver" in sheer numbers. They spend hours each day sitting behind a wheel and driving oftimes taking stimulants just to stay awake and they are forced to make ever longer hauls in order to earn enough money.

States pass laws that are intended to provide ever less regulation of that industry as they claim it makes the Country more "Competitive" . They can work 14 hours straight and oftimes all they eat is fast food at some roadside diner. The yearly hours worked on average is some 4400 hours which equates to a wage of 8.70 per hour.

Something like 80 percent of all truck drivers are overweight or obese and few have health care.


#18

You can add one more to that group Sioux rose - that 65ish guy whom you killed by driving him to distraction about the use of the rhetorical we!!!
Also with your false accusations (you don't seem to need or care about proof which tells us all just how progressive you aren't by the way you do not support our innocent until proven otherwise rights).

And you are so unbelievably sexist as if you think being that way is a good thing as a progressive too.

Murder by the literal use of the word WE to the absolute exclusion of the rhetorical WE as if you think people who use it are engaging in some secret agenda or a psyop technique designed to include you when they don't actually mean you.

We who are about to use we salute you.


#19

Te study specifically found that almost all the excess mortality was from suicide, alcohol-related liver disease, and opiate addiction. Other causes of death did not increase.


#20

Those may be true, but the scientific study (not just Ms. Erenreich) specifically stated that the excess mortality was due to alcohol-related liver disease, suicide, and opiate addiction. All other causes were the same across race and age group.


#21

Yes, Ms. Erenreich even links to the New York Times article about the study in question. As the Dylan song went " When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose." It was that white demographic that had something to lose, and they did.


#22

I think that your point hits the coffin nail right on the head. Much is made of a mid life crisis where a man begins to feel middle aged but what about when he (or she) gets old? No one talks of the last year's of life crisis. You are way past the mid life crisis and now what?
What no yacht? No estate? Same apartment and social security? That's it?

"Aches and pains and doctors and five different pills every day?
Hard to breathe, hard to do everything? No respect for your elders these days huh ? What did I come into the kitchen for? There never were any WMDs. What happened to this country? The Patriot Act robbed us of the constitution and nobody did anything. Corporations taking over bribing Congress. No pensions no more neither. What can you believe in?" - the old guy's bar stool prayer.


#23

This is a thoughtful, poignant article that gets a lot of things right. I agree with Barbara Enrenreich that white racism no longers works for the white working class, as a badge of status and privilege; but that doesn't mean that people will be ready to give it up. Quite the contrary. We can expect to see a ferocious resurgence of racism as it loses its utility as a principle of "divide and rule." In fact, we are already experiencing the return of open racism in the toxic candidacy of Donald Trump and in the sinister machinations of the Tea Party and other right-wing groups.

The unraveling of "white privilege" for the white working class does not mean that we are on the verge of a race-free society. This is the liberal fantasy incited by Obama's ascent to the White House and by the general Whiggish notion that the United States is always about progressing towards the democratic ideal. The question of ongoing racial progress for people of color is a very fraught issue; indeed, there is even evidence that we are going backwards in certain respects: the police murders of African American males, the high incarceration rate for inner city folk, the joblessness and poverty among minority communities, are dread social facts reminiscent of JIm Crow times. I was very much persuaded by Michelle Alexander in her study of the social consequences of the drug war, that we are living in a "new Jim Crow" society.

Racial formation in the United States today has blacks as superfluous to the American economy. The position of Latino's is more complex: some are in and some are out, depending on the demands of the local regional economy. Mexican Americans in the Valleys of California are still wanted for farm labor. Puerto Ricans in New York City are unwanted and can go to hell. But now the cudgel of capitalist rationality is being wielded against the white working class.

In so many areas of the country, the white working class have become as irrelevant as blacks and Latinos. Once people thought of Appalachia as the kingdom of dire white poverty, but now you can find it everywhere--in Eastern Connecticut, Western Massachusetts, Central Pennsylvania, Southern California, etc, etc. The "wage of whiteness" is no longer being paid to the "mean whites" (as they were described in the 19th century), for the simple reason that such people are no longer needed to control "the blacks." Another way of putting it, is that so many in the white working class have been made into "American blacks"--that is, a degraded, inferior people on the far side of middle class civility and social honor. These people are good for the military or for menial jobs, or for filling up prisons, but they are not good for much else. And that is exactly how American society treats them.

No wonder life expectancy is collapsing among a certain cohort of the white working class. It's a mark of the deep racism in the United States that what is taken to be the normal death rate for blacks occasions no surprise and hardly any interest. But when white men begin to die in unusual numbers before their time is supposedly up, we have a situation that causes discussion. Of course, the ruthless capitalist character of American society will ensure that nothing much will be done about the growing number of suicidal white men. In a neo-liberal universe, the individual is on his or her own. Society owes you nothing. There is no right to life and no right to a life with dignity.

As the white racial formation fragments along class lines, leaving the poorest American whites as de facto "blacks," we have to see in this an opportunity for political organization. Working class whites who went over to the Devil (namely, the Republican Party) will be presented with the chance to let go of their racism, and make common cause with fellow workers of all colors and backgrounds. If they hang onto their whiteness, these people might well become the foot-soldiers of a scary American fascism (pace Donald Trump). But if they agree to renounce their whiteness and become full human beings, perhaps the day is coming when the heavens will shake and our ruling classes will start thinking of emigrating to Mars, to escape the justice they ought to face. No doubt it will be hard tor many "good old boys" to give up whiteness, but how can it be harder than holding onto it when racism is poisoning and killing the world? Whiteness--like any "idol of the tribe--is fool's gold. Do enough people in the United States have eyes to see this?


#26

"But now the cudgel of capitalist rationality is being wielded against the white working class."

And to activists in the "anti-corporate globalization" movement, it has been crystal clear for decades that this is where that process is heading.

i appreciate your call to whites to confront and reject the social construction and social privileges of their whiteness.


#27

"I contest the narrative that says that white people are dying earlier due to suicides... and drug use."

Follow the link and read the study. It's hard statistical and epidemiological facts. Why would you say "But i know these ten people..." against the rigorous work of these authors?


#29

Well yes but things like long work hours away from home, back and leg pain due to hours of sitting , and the stress that comes with long hours little sleep and low pay all lead to abuse of alcohol and drugs.


#30

"... in the '70s and '80s there WAS LITTLE RACISM compared to today."

My ass. You are delusional.