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?

Cultures and Determinism

Culture isn’t deterministic in an absolutely predictable way. We can measure certain factors within a culture that can probabilistically predict outcomes, but a culture as a whole is constantly shifting even as patterns of collective identity are maintained. Cultures aren’t just limits, but also potentialities. A cultural worldview is a reality tunnel that, while closing down particular possibilities, opens up other possibilities.

This became clear to me in reading Colin Woodards American Nations. He described the development of California. It seemed like a perfect example of how cultures interact to with unforeseen consequences.

California (and the Ecotopia Northwest) is a unique area, very different from the Eastern part of the country. Americans normally identify the Scots-Irish with the Appalachian South, but Scots-Irish are concentrated in many different areas. Scots-Irish immigrants mostly entered through Pennsylvania where there still are many and they have assimilated to the Quaker Midlands culture there. Extending from Pennsylvania, there are many Scots-Irish in the Lower Midwest border area, although interestingly there are fewer Scots-Irish in the Upper Midwest than in New England. The largest concentration of Scots-Irish is actually in the region around the Northwest, including Northern California and the Northern Far West.

It’s equally interesting to consider all the areas the Scots-Irish have intentionally or unintentionally avoided for the most part. As I pointed out, the Upper Midwest is almost entirely devoid of Scots-Irish. The population of the Upper Midwest is a combination of Germans and Scandinavians, and it is the area of the US known for having one of the strongest traditions of socialism and communitarianism, certainly the only area that had a city run by a socialist majority political leadership for about a half century. The only other areas with comparatively low percentage of Scots-Irish are Florida and the Lower Southwest, both Hispanic areas of the former Spanish Empire and once part of Mexico.

California, specifically Northern California, has a connection to New England Yankeedom. It seems strange to see how many Scots-Irish chose to move to both of these areas heavily influenced by Yankee culture and politics. I’m not sure if the Scots-Irish assimilated in New England, but in Northern California it wasn’t a perfect assimilation for anyone involved. Mexicans had settled in Southern California more and they maintained their culture there while New Englanders came after to Northern California where they had a majority in government while also operating the first churches, schools, and newspapers. Following the New Englanders settling the mostly coastal areas which became urbanized, the Scots-Irish spread out mostly in the rural areas. Yankee dominance was never complete for New Englanders were outnumbered by those of other ethnicities.

This created a weird amalgam in California not found anywhere else. The New Englanders brought the Puritan tradition of industriousness and utopian social reform. The Scots-Irish brought their love of independence and grassroots populism. The two cultures conflicted at first which lessened certain aspects of both cultures while magnifying other aspects. Strangely, the Scots-Irish undermined the Puritan religious impulses and helped secularize California which is completely the opposite of how the Scots-Irish embraced evangelical fundamentalism in Appalachia. Also, the Scots-Irish population in the Northwest shows less gun violence than in Appalachia.

Different social conditions lead to entirely different results.