Friday, June 28, 2019

Thoughts on Metzl's Dying of Whiteness

I just finished Jonathan Metzl's Dying of Whiteness, a book I had been excited about from the time of its release. In case you don't know, he is a psychiatrist who uses case studies in Tennessee, Kansas, and Missouri to show how Republican policies in those states have severely damaged the health and well-being of the people who there. Furthermore, he connects the political popularity of those policies among the very people they harm to white identity formation of the people who vote for them. According to Metzl, these people vote for gun proliferation, limiting Medicaid, and defunding public schools do so because they want to defend the "castle" of whiteness by "protecting" themselves against others and making sure those others are not allowed to share resources with them.

I found it to be very persuasive, and not just because this is something I have observed in my own personal life. Metzl incorporates both quantitative and qualitative data and approaches both with sophistication and sensitivity.

While the end of the book offers some optimism in the form of the defeat of Kris Kobach in Kansas and that state's rejection of educational austerity, I came away from it horribly depressed. Metzl lays out a prescription for a politics that can overcome white backlash, but I am more and more convinced that the future will only get worse.

Just take yesterday's Supreme Court decision on gerrymandering. With this ruling states that already cut up districts to amplify the votes of white reactionaries in the suburbs and small towns will act with greater impunity. This will make it even easier for backlash politicians to get by while only appealing to their base. You can add this to voter suppression, the filibuster, the reactionaries dominating the courts, and the structure of the Senate. And on top of all this political structure you have Fox News and Facebook constituting the most effective propaganda tools this country has ever seen. The only way forward is a mass movement willing to fundamentally transform the system. Any look at the current situation -and especially the Democratic Party- tells us that's not happening anytime soon.

Metzl's book can't touch on everything, so I would to add a couple of wrinkles to his analysis that I think both confirm his thesis but also undercut optimism for the future. I think there needs to be more about religion in his analysis, and I do not mean how certain modes of religion directly reinforce whiteness. I am thinking more about what I would call a religious frame of mind. Certain forms of Christianity, especially evangelicalism and conservative Catholicism, encourage their adherents to take a dogmatic, all or nothing approach to their faith. If any one thing the believe is wrong, then it is all a lie, so every attempt to question even the most absurd aspects of their faith must be fiercely opposed. In fact, it's the most absurd provisions, like saying the earth is 6000 years old, that must be the most fervently defended because they are the ones most assaulted.

This helps explain some of the respondents in Metzl's focus groups. For instance, those who lost close family members to gun suicide refused to believe that easy access to guns was a contributing factor. In order for their worldview to hold together, guns could never be questioned. The same goes for those in Tennessee who were suffering horrible health ailments and had limited care options but still decried Obamacare. If they had to admit that they were wrong about their need for health care, then in their minds their entire way of understanding the world was false. That religious mindset makes changing someone's mind incredibly difficult to do.

One of the most compelling things about Dying of Whiteness is Metzl's use of the "castle" metaphor. A lot of gun proliferation is justified by the "castle doctrine" that a person's home is their fortress, meaning they can do what they want there (leave loaded guns unlocked) and defend it how they please (by shooting suspected intruders.) The white people Metzl talks to are constantly afraid that "those people" will breach their homes or the more metaphorical castle of whiteness.

He could have talked even more about how white communities writ large are literal fortresses built with whites only home loans and policed in ways to keep people of color out to this day. While the country at large is becoming less white, many rural, small town, and suburban communities are still overwhelmingly white today. Those suburbs were constructed in an explicitly exclusionary fashion, and many of those towns were "sundown towns" a century ago. In these places the locals fight tooth and nail to resist school consolidation, affordable housing, and anything else that might mean sharing space and resources with black and brown people. That sense of living in a fortress is written in the DNA of the very places most white people in America live and breathe. It is hardly a wonder that a majority of white people voted for Trump.

I guess this is a way of saying that Metzl's thesis is so clearly true that you could easily list far more examples of the salience of whiteness to America's current political mess. Sadly I think whiteness will go on killing, at the border, at the hands of the police, and in the homes of the very white people voting to destroy their own health, education, and safety to maintain their relative position.

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