The Privilege of Even Poor Whites

I just don’t get the belief in genetic and cultural determinism. It doesn’t really explain anything.

As an example, “whites” used to have much lower IQs on average than do “non-white” minorities now. The first IQ tests were done in the early 20th century. It was a time of many social problems, not unlike these past decades. It was a time when ethnic Americans of European ancestry were targeted and scapegoated by WASPs not unlike how minorities are still treated.

Along with testing as low IQ, those ethnic Americans had higher rates of violence than have been seen since, much of it related to substance abuse, youth gangs, and organized crime. It was the highest rates of violent crime ever recorded in US history and, because of mass immigration from Europe, probably was the largest “white” majority in US history (or rather perceived “white” majority as those included and excluded is always changing).

That was the largest influx of “white” genetics and culture ever to happen on American soil. If “whites” are inherently superior, why didn’t that even larger “white” majority immediately drive down the violence and push up the IQ? It took decades before those early 20th century social problems improved with the help of public education, Progressive policies, the GI Bill, etc… not to mention oppressive Cold War tactics of cultural genocide and forced assimilation of hyphenated Americans into proper “white” mainstream culture, a part of the original purpose of such things as public education which is why the KKK supported it.

So, if even lower IQ and more violent “whites” were able to see vast improvements over such a short period of time, why is it assumed that “non-white” minorities today are different? Why wouldn’t the same improved environmental condtions that improved the lives of ethnic “whites”, if implemented universally, also improve the lives of all other Americans? Why is genetic and cultural determinism only applied to rationalize the social problems impacting some groups and not others?

This is a personal issue for me, as a descendant of ethnic immigrants, some who likely identified as hyphenated Americans.

My non-English ancestors experienced oppression and prejudice. They worked hard, and through generations of struggle they were allowed to move up in society.

My mother’s family a few generations ago were poor whites: distillers, farmers, clam diggers, manual laborers, etc; when they were lucky enough to find work. They definitely knew poverty and unemployment during the early 20th century. They were under-educated and uneducated, often illiterate and unable to write until recent generations. They wouldn’t have tested as high IQ. They also had many of the problems associated with ethnic Americans, such as alcoholism and bootlegging during Prohibition. They were simple people, just getting by in life, whatever that took.

It was only with my mother’s generation that most of her family began graduating from high school and, in some cases, getting college degrees. Within a single generation, many members of my mom’s family went from poor to middle class. Their perceived “whiteness” gave them privileges and advantages of social and economic mobility.

It wasn’t genetic and cultural determinism that had kept them poor and disadvantaged for centuries upon centuries. It was the social conditions that initially kept them at the bottom of society and that then allowed them to rise. Their perceived “whiteness”, after they had been either willingly or forcefully assimilated, doesn’t explain this change. Rather, their perceived “whiteness” was the change or an expression of that change. Before being “white” or fully “white”, they were treated as second class citizens and so they suffered the fate of second class citizens. The twentieth century, however, gave them new opportunities with a new racial and social identity. They were now “white” and hence “real Americans”.

Many whites take this kind of cross-generational upward mobility as a point of pride. Their family did it. So, it is no one else’s fault for those who are seen as failures. But this ignores the reality of our society, the remaining forms of classism and racism. It was also only a brief respite for many families, as new generations find themselves falling back down into poverty once again, no better off than the rest of the poor who have been stuck there. The American Dream has been a mirage because it never was built on a strong foundation, never was integrated into a functioning democracy.

The racial myth of superiority has been shown to be the lie it always was. Poor whites have always been the majority of the poor and those on welfare. A temporary respite from poverty for some white Americans didn’t change this fact.

Why do we want to use social categories to choose who will be allowed to succeed and who will continue to be punished with prejudice and oppression? Instead, why not treat all Americans equally and give them all equal opportunities and assistance? Making excuses of determinism helps no one and harms everyone as it undermines the very values and ideals that justify our country’s existence. If American isn’t about an actual American Dream accessible to all Americans, then what is it about? Do we really want to cynically embrace Apartheid? Why not live up to the hopes and aspirations our country was founded upon?

23 thoughts on “The Privilege of Even Poor Whites

  1. I have made the point several times, that just because I object to use of privilege as a theory, I do think it is useful as a pedagogical tool. Your essay is why. The benefits from accumulated material wealth is far beyond money and effects groups linked to it for whatever arbitrary reason even we don’t don’t have the wealth themselves.

    • I wrote this a while ago. I’m not sure why I didn’t post it earlier. I figured I might as well post it now. There isn’t much to the post, but I think it is an important if simple point.

      It fascinates me how social identities can have such power. To become white is a strange process of assimilation. Certainly, that is the pathway before Hispanics, and many of them will choose it.

      It makes me wonder when my own family began to think of themselves as whites, rather than as German Americans or whatever.

      • IT is interesting because that is also almost unique to the US and UK. It’s a pan-ethnic identity that gets subsumed into a racial category, which is really pernicious.

  2. It’s known as the poverty trap.

    The problem is that often for the poor, there are various problems that self-reinforce each other.

    These include the combination of lack of access to education, quality food, healthcare, infrastructure, and what might be described as middle class values (ex: putting a high premium on getting a good education). Even independent of race, that’s the case.

    With working class whites, I think one very big reason why they believe themselves superior is even absent of any empirical evidence, it is the lie that they WANT to believe in.

    The other is that racism is at times so entrenched that people do not think about it. They just see certain things as “normal”.

    • My mom is now upper middle class. She was born working class. And her father came out of poverty. Heck, her grandfather was born on abandoned property that they were squatting on. In just a few generations of familiar upward mobility and now my mother is living a life more comfortable than her grandfather could ever have imagined for his family.

      But of course two of my mom’s children have simply returned back to working class (myself being one of those class regressives). Only one of her children has remained middle class and even he is lower middle class. Who knows how her grandchildren (my nieces and nephews) will fare.

      BTW my maternal grandfather was a racist. He was also a union-hating factory worker. He was an old school Democrat who never voted Republican in his life. But he died in the late 1980s. His mind would have been blown by a black Democratic president.

      My mom’s family did come from the poor whites of the Upper South. That is a region that is known for its poverty trap. Her family escaped, though. Many white families escaped poverty, and yet many have found themselves returning back to that same poverty with growing unemployment and inequality. Generations of white privilege upward mobility are now shifting into downward mobility.

      So many Americans thought being white made them special and would save them from the horrible fate of minorities. But it turns out that our economy knows little loyalty to any group.

  3. My gut feeling here is that the middle class was always a temporary concession of sorts from the rich to ward off perhaps fears of a more socialist society.

    It is interesting to note that the Reagan Revolution happened as the USSR began its terminal decline.

  4. The other issue is that I don’t think most Americans realize the history of labor and how vulnerable they really were to losing their middle class status.

    It’s been argued that voter apathy is one very serious problem in American society, perhaps much more so than the other Western nations. Perhaps that combined with anti-intellectual beliefs, Calvanism, and a high tolerance for inequality helped doom the middle class on its own.

    It has been said that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. I don’t think that people anywhere are that vigilant. Arguably there was never true liberty, but that would require a certain degree of civic duty to notice it.

    • It requires vigilance to maintain liberty. But more importantly it requires vigilance to realize you lack liberty, so as you might seek it out and demand it. Only after you get liberty should you worry about the price of having and keeping it.

      As for spouting rhetoric about liberty, no vigilance is required at all. Rhetoric comes cheap.

  5. Perhaps people wanted to believe the lies? Willful ignorance is the bane it seems of American society, much more so than other Western nations.

    • Ignorance is a fascinating subject. There is a whole field of study dedicated to it. It is called agnotology. I have a few books about it. Much of my study of racism has involved trying to make sense of that. But my interest goes back to Derrick Jensen’s writins on dissociation. Jensen’s insights blew my mind wide open, back when I was a younger man. It is heart-wrenching material.

  6. Especially with the older generation, it is especially bad.

    I do not believe that most people have come to terms with how self inflicted this problem is. I suppose that the reaction to telling people who are voting against their own interests was inevitably going to arouse a hostile reaction.

    I do find that overall things are going in a better direction with my generation, Y. On average people seem to be more tolerant. That being said, it is not a panacea.

    But I get the impression that the Boomers and the generations before them are going to have to exit the scene before things radically change.

    • I just would like to think that when they finallly ‘exit’ that they go off to a better place. They’ve done a lot of hard work here on earth. It’s now time for them to receive their just reward in heaven. It’s what they deserve, after all. I think we should throw them a going away party. We won’t forget them when they are gone.

    • Realistically, I do not think that this is going to happen, not in the US, and perhaps not Canada either.

      There is nothing quite like the superannuation in Australia. The Swiss, the Dutch, and the Nordic nations generally have their own elaborate systems.

      I suspect many cannot afford to retire. What truly scares me is that many seem to be willing to vote for political leaders who would privatize social security. Others are involuntarily jobless and may find themselves unable to work again due to the job market.

      I’d like to be proven wrong here, but the numbers say something else.

    • One hopes that even the madness of Boomers can only go so far. It would be nice if they woke up from their self-induced nightmare before they die. Many older conservatives like my parents have turned away from Fox News. That is a start.

      • Probably not.

        Nader and the Greens are not powerful enough to affect much.

        On the right, Ross Perot and a few of the traditional conservatives can gain some of the vote, but not enough to challenge politics.

        I think this is terrible – it’s the result of campaign financing, the media, and some other problems.

      • I realize they aren’t powerful enough now. But they used to be so powerful for much of American history, all the way through the early 20th century. There wasn’t always a two-party stranglehold. Third parties used to be so powerful that they could challenge and even replace previous main parties. It’s a major loss that the political process has become so controlled and manipulated.

      • Brian – That quote was originally attributed to Josef Stalin. But that has been questioned.

        The apparent source of it does link it back to someone who personally knew Stalin. So, maybe he did actually say it.

        A historical source has been found for one variant of this quote. The source is Boris Bazhanov’s Memoirs of Stalin’s Former Secretary, published in 1992 and only available, so far as I know, in Russian. The pertinent passage, which appears near the end of chapter five, reads as follows (loosely translated with the help of Google):

        “You know, comrades,” says Stalin, “that I think in regard to this: I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this — who will count the votes, and how.”

  7. The decline of the Republican Party might open up a window. If they alienate my generation and generation X enough to be unelectable, that might be the only chance.

    Otherwise there isn’t much reason for hope.

    Corporate money has a stranglehold on the system in the US.

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