The Original Underclass, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Alec MacGillis’s essay “The Original Underclass” absorbs two new books—White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg, and Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance. This reader can relate to Vance:

I have relatives who live in conditions very close to the ones described here. I live in the heart of Appalachia, and not much has changed since the 1960s. Clothing factories and knitting mills were “good” employers that paid a decent wage. But then NAFTA and other incentives to move jobs to Mexico and China shut them all down. Now it’s fast food or retail for these folks, or welfare, drug dealing and the like. Even the scholarship programs for poor white kids disappeared. They’re just trying to survive in a world that doesn’t recognize them.

Gina also appreciates the “insightful article” from MacGillis:

Having grown up in rural Pennsylvania myself, I can say that things seemed to take a turn from bad to much worse when heroin and meth started coming in. That was a factor of poverty and also of criminal justice strategies that imported hard criminals from the cities to rural areas in an attempt to rehabilitate them. They just set up shop in the new areas and recruited the locals. All along the bus routes from New York City to upstate New York and Pennsylvania, those little towns that used to be leafy and peaceful now look like the worst dregs of New Jersey. The only hope these areas have seen in recent years is from fracking.

The Drug War and zero tolerance on sex offender crimes (like teenagers sleeping with teenagers) leave people with criminal records and no way to get out from under. It’s the same process as the inner city. It is also well noted that in many parts of the country, resentment of working people towards social programs isn’t as racial as it might be in the South. Where I come from, the welfare queens are all white. I think part of the despair we’re seeing is shame at the loss of self-reliance, and there is no way forward.

This next reader has mixed feelings—between his sympathy for struggling white Southerners and his resentment over their pockets of racism:

I grew up in a small town in Texas. I’m an immigrant (and brown) and in the technical professions. But I went to high school with these folks. They’re my compatriots. And country means something to me. U.S. citizen means something to me. It is with that in mind that I write the following.

I saw both the cultural mores and habits that led to boys and girls graduating high school for only manual labor jobs. I went to a high school where the “smart ones” went to Texas Tech, flunked out, and got a community college degree at the two-year school south of town. There were good jobs 30 years ago—at least, jobs that allowed someone to raise a family, even on blue-collar wages.

Back then, in 1981, the butchery outside of town paid $12/hour—a good wage, given inflation, and the fact that you lived in a small town. Lots of other jobs were like that. There were very few Latino immigrants, and I remember distinctly that most of the fast-food workers were white (there weren’t many black people in this town, though of the few, some did work fast-food, too). I knew this because I worked full-time in fast food for 2.5 years, so I got to see cohort after cohort of people, both high school kids and graduates, coming through. And of course, there was the oil patch.

In short, it was possible to have a decent life.

That’s all changed. What self-respecting white person would work in butchery? Would you do outside yard work for a living? It doesn’t pay enough to live up to the standards they’ve come to expect—if nothing else, that their parents expected and obtained.

Even here in California, I never see a white (or for that matter, black) person doing the manual labor at a home renovation. At most, there’ll be a white person supervising. It’s all changed, and the manual labor jobs that afforded at least a decent life, are all gone. Or the wage has stagnated or fallen in the face of inflation to the point where only (undocumented) immigrants will take those jobs.

And yet. And yet.

This is the South, the deep countryside—violently against unions, voting Republican all the way. Each and every one of you was willing to hire undocumented workers for your business, or your yard, or your house renovation, and none of you fought for laws penalizing employers of undocumented workers, even though that was the only way to keep the wages for those jobs up. You were short-sighted and racist. Growing up, the racism was so thick, even I found myself uttering the most reprehensible racist epithets at black people, in order to “fit in.” I learned these epithets from the “nice” white friends I had—not from the really, really racist ones. Racism was everywhere. And yes, black people had it a lot worse than white people.

And so, I find myself torn: On the one hand, these are my countrymen, and they deserve the first concern, before people from other countries. That’s what it means, to take that citizenship oath, after all. And they’re hurting.

But on the other hand, I feel like WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?

You spent all those years (since the Civil Rights era) kicking black people, kicking Hispanics, kicking unions, and doing the rich man’s bidding, taking his scraps, and forever and ever believing that you were better than the black and the brown; and now, when you find out that the rich man has just as little need for you as he has for the black and the brown, NOW, NOW you scream!  Really?

I don’t know how to balance these books, how to square this circle.

But I do know that even while I have enormous sympathy for my former high school classmates, just now passing 50 years of age, and seeing that “it’s all downhill from here, and a rapidly-steepening slope,” my sympathy is tempered by the realization that they're asking for all the rest of us to give to them the things that they successfully denied to black Americans for decades. It’s very, very difficult for me to reconcile these thoughts.

Do you have any strong thoughts on the subject? Tell us about it.

This next reader brings us back to our previous note, “White Disdain for the White Underclass,” where readers directly discussed the intraracial prejudice within white America:

Everybody has a need to feel superior to somebody else. In current white culture, it is unacceptable to denigrate people of non-white skin tone. It used to be acceptable to denigrate the Irish, Italians, and Poles.

Speaking of the latter:

Back to our reader:

Germans have negative views of Czechs. Swedes look down on the Finns, etc. Currently, the stereotype of the poor, uneducated Southern Protestant white male as the root of all social evil is in vogue. Yet the most segregated cities and neighborhoods are in wealthy, white liberal enclaves. Reading about the conflicts in Marin County, CA, between neighborhood preservationists and plans for low-income housing is very illuminating of the “cognitive dissonance” involved. (This young black woman’s thesis is a fascinating read.)

Update from another reader, Zayne:

For a more comedic treatment of some of the themes you’ve been exploring here, I’d recommend watching The Accountant, a short film starring Ray McKinnon (the preacher from Deadwood) and Walter Goggins (of Justified and Vice Principals fame). Here’s a short clip that explains an essential distinction as seen by white working-class folks (especially those from the South):

Having been raised in rural Central North Carolina and Southwest Virginia, it rings true to me.