Wednesday, December 24, 2014

This Christmas, ask yourself: What's the matter with white people?

This Christmas, ask yourself: What's the matter with white people?

 

Have you ever wondered to yourself, what's the matter with white people? Some days it's hard not to. Like today, when South Carolina senator and Tea Party hero Jim DeMint abruptly resigned from the Senate to take a ridiculously well-paying job running the Heritage Foundation. and talk of his replacement immediately turned to Rep. Tim Scott. He's almost too perfect, an up-and-coming Christian conservative in that very Christian and very conservative state, who happens to be an African-American, right when the Republican Party is eager to show it can sell its message to blacks, Latinos and other minorities.

So, of course reports say that Gov, Nikki Haley, who names a replacement to serve until the 2014 election, is thinking about naming...some guy who runs a chain of barbecue restaurants (seriously), or maybe even former Gov. Mark "Appalachian Trail" Sanford. It's classic "what's the matter with white people" moment, just like that time that white people voted against an international pact for the handicapped (oh yeah, that happened yesterday).

Anyway, one of the best books of 2012 tries to answer these questions. It's called, appropriately, "What's the Matter With White People," and even more appropriately the tome was authored by a white person, Joan Walsh, the editor-at-large of Salon.com and a frequent talking head on MSNBC.

In fact, the book was so good I read it on the beach this summer as soon as I got a review copy, but I thought I'd wait until the book was for sale to blog about it -- and then the election pushed things around and now here it is, a bit past beach season, even with global warming. No matter, because the book is even more relevant now that we know who won the 2012 election. (Spoiler alert: It was Obama.)

Clearly, 2012 was the year that decades of demographics-meets-politics trends in America finally came together. The conservatiive coalition of working-class whites seems to have had one last hurrah in the 2010 mid-terms, but the Obama coalition remains ther ascendent one. Some of this story of how our political divisions of race and class came to be has been told elsewhere (including my 2010 book "The Backlash" which is quoted here and acknowledged, for which I am most grateful). But it's told better here because Walsh infuses her tale with the story of her extended family, Irish-Americans from New York who rode the New Deal into the middle class -- only to divide into factions with the soclal unrest of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Indeed, the book starts with a fascinating tale of what is now recalled as an epic turning point, and rightfully so: The so-called Hard Hat Riot in Lower Manhattan in May 1970, when blue collar workers wailed on hippies protesting the Vietnam War and the shooting at Kent State. Walsh's fairly liberal dad happened upon the scene and saw his brother -- Walsh's uncle -- who was a steamfitter, in the center of the fray. It was an apt metaphor for what was to come over the next four decades.

One interesting digression is Walsh's discussion of how Irish immigrants, before the mid-19th Century, nearly found common cause with blacks, until the Man helped plant the seeds of division that would come to full bloom a century later. Writes Walsh: "The fact is, colliding at the bottom of industrializing American society in the mid-1800s, the Irish and African Americans had different enemies and different friends. The poorly understood legacy of being pitted against one another persists to this day."

Walsh then uses her family history to illustrate her broader point: That over time middle-class white families (not just Irish ones) came to forget the roll that government aid in the era of the New Deal helped them get to where they were, and how that forgetfulness emboldened the racial and class tensions that exist today. It's a story I'll be thinking of a lot as we watch a re-energized Obama and a new Congress try to find a way out of our current multiple messes. And so Walsh's book would make a great holiday stocking stuffer. But what better conversation ice-breaker around the family turkey this Christmas than, "What's the matter with white people?"

On that note, have a great weekend.

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Will Bunch
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