White Disdain for the White Underclass

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 reviews two new books for his essay “The Original Underclass”: 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. Both books center on long-standing stigmas directed at poor and working-class white Americans, their plight in an increasingly postindustrial U.S. economy, and their loss of cultural capital.

Many readers of MacGillis’s piece are venting their frustration over what they see as condescension from white elites toward downscale whites, especially that their skin color presumes a bigoted and thus immoral character unless proven otherwise. Here’s reader Matt, who is tired of poor whites being told to “check their privilege”:

There is so much racial resentment in the discussion of the white working class that is projected onto them. Critics of struggling whites who support Trump will say, “It isn’t that they are suffering economically; it’s that whites are no longer an all-powerful monolith”—even though these are poor whites who have never had power. It’s like you don’t want to hear them, and then instead of listening to their actual issues, you pretend they are racist to ignore their actual opinions.

Another reader—“a white man living paycheck to paycheck”—expands on the view shared by Matt:

There’s a feeling that no one actually cares about us. We get lumped in with “the man,” but we’re not Rockefellers nor Trumps. We’re struggling to make ends meet. Problems that used to be confined to minority communities are now in ours. Our traditional structures have been derided and destroyed by the elite and nothing is given to replace them. We feel helpless against a tide of cultural changes that don’t take our thoughts or considerations seriously.

I think that most of us would acknowledge that minorities have it rough, but at least someone seems to care about them.

They have special programs and are constantly given lip service, at least. I think lower- to middle-class whites are just considered the plebes. We feel that we’re being screwed over, and instead of at least saying “we’re sorry,” we get scorned heaped on our heads.

Look at the National Review article [by Kevin Williamson]. Imagine that article being written about a minority group. There’d be heads rolling.

Anyway, I do feel those economic pressures. I’m a white man living paycheck to paycheck. I get blamed for racism, war, hate—you name it; it’s my fault. Democrats don’t care about us and neither do Republicans. We’re the people being ignored, and sooner or later, you don’t want to be ignored anymore.

In my case though, I’m a “Never Trump,” but I see why lots of people in my position are for him. I get that Trump is willing to speak his mind. What I don’t get is why what he says has anything to do with me. What in the world does a billionaire married to a supermodel know about my struggles or about my life? What could he possibly say that would represent me in any way shape or form? When was the last time he had to worry about layoffs? When was the last time he had to worry about his electric bill? When did he ever wonder where his next car payment was coming from?

All Trump has to offer me is words and a propensity to shoot off his mouth. I can get those from anyone. He’s another elite pandering to the working class and he knows as much about fixing the problems in our lives as he does about fixing his own car: Zero.

One more reader for now:

This article from Alec MacGillis was a great read. I thoroughly enjoyed him speaking honestly about how Trump is not the result of racist poor whites, how poor white resentment is not entirely race driven, how liberal scorn for poor whites is explicitly racist … oh wait, he never quite got to that part. Oversimplifying and demonizing poor whites is so unbelievably racist and hypocritical it boggles the mind, especially when you compare liberal love for poor blacks specifically.

The best portion of MacGillis’s article is J.D. Vance’s retelling of his hometown’s problems in his new memoir Hillbilly Elegy. In it, you see what is very rare to see out of Ta-Nehisi Coates—especially in his memoir Between the World and Me—or any other black apologist; you see responsibility being place squarely on the community itself for its problems. You see a scorn for the obvious excuse making that people within the community who would rather blame/beg the government for their problems. It should go without saying that without taking responsibility for your own actions, your life will not change. If you think your drug addiction is someone else’s fault, it’s highly unlikely you intend to change.

This is not to advocate for no help whatsoever coming from the government, but it is a call for people to recognize the first step in fixing a broken community is for the community to admit it has a problem.

Disagree with any of these readers’ assessments, or have your own personal perspective to share? Please drop us a note and we’ll post.