The Current·Q&A

Many Americans 'shooting themselves in the foot' to maintain racial hierarchy: author

Author and professor of sociology and psychiatry wrote Dying of Whiteness which chronicles the decisions of many Americans to put their own health and safety on the line in order to deny treatment for minorities.

Jonathan Metzl wrote Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America's Heartland

Jonathan Metzl is a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University. He writes about racial hierarchies in the U.S. and the lengths many Americans are willing to go to maintaining the structure. (John Russell/Vanderbilt University)
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Jonathan Metzl says the point of his book about racial resentment in America was powerfully illustrated when white nationalists crashed his presentation at a Washington bookstore in late April.

"Ironically, at the moment in the talk that I was at, I was actually talking about the potential greatness of America," the author explained to Matt Galloway, guest host of The Current.

"And of course at that moment, from the back of the store, enters a very different narrative of America — one that's exactly the opposite of what I was talking about."

Metzel's book, Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America's Heartland, focuses on racial hierarchies in the U.S. and their side effects. His talk at Politics and Prose was interrupted by a group of self-proclaimed white nationalists chanting "this land is our land."

Metzel is a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He addressed the incident with Galloway and spoke about the book and the research behind it. Here is part of their conversation.

In the book when you write about "whiteness," what are you talking about?

In the book, I'm not talking about white extremism at all.

My book is really about the rise of a particular kind of politics in Midwestern states in the United States. And I call this the politics of racial resentment, but really what they are are the politics that are anti-government, anti-immigrant, pro-gun politics that came to power in a number of Midwestern and Southern states in the United States. And part of what I show is that there's a dichotomy between what those politics say they're going to do for white working class people and what they actually actually do.

You write in the book that whiteness, to you, is a political and an economic system. What do you mean by that?

Well it's basically that there are systems that are, you know, bent on maintaining racial hierarchies and they do so not because of some deep ideology — although that seems to be what it's about — but it's also about just who's getting tax breaks, who's getting benefits from the government ... So there's a lot of moves that are cloaked under this idea [that] it's about race and ideology, but end up dividing people to maintain power structures really for wealthy people and corporations.

Ultimately, the main beneficiaries from a material level are not these white working class people. What I show is that this is a trick to get people to play along but really the beneficiaries are people who are far higher up the hierarchy.

Obama Care, also known as the Affordable Care Act, is a nationwide statute that focuses on reforming the national health-care system. Former president Barack Obama signed it into law in March 2010. (Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo)

There's a quotation that you cite … "Why, with so many problems in poor white communities, was there such disdain for federal money that could alleviate those problems?" What's going on there?

I went around different states and talked to people about policies that might benefit them that ended up being ones that they rejected ... [including] health-care reform, the Affordable Care Act in the United States.

I would ask people, "How do you feel about the Affordable Care Act?" and they would tell me: "Well I certainly need medical attention but I'm not going to sign up for a program that's going to benefit immigrants and minorities."

And one of the lead quotes of the book was a man [named Trevor] who told me: "I'm not going to have my tax dollars go to a program that," as he said, "benefits Mexicans and welfare queens."

He was a very, very medically ill man. He'd had a series of chronic medical conditions, most notably liver failure. When I met him, he was living in a low income housing project outside of Nashville in Tennessee, a southern state. And he really needed medical attention. He was trying to hold down a menial job. He couldn't. He was on the cusp of medical bankruptcy.

So for me, that became the jumping off point of the book where I just said: "How powerful must an ideology be that somebody on death's doorstep is willing to give up a chance for treatment in order to deny treatment for other people?"

Supporter James Hughes of Louisville, Ky., holds a sign calling for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act during a rally for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. (Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)

You say that essentially people are putting their own bodies on the line for the things they believe in. 

There are two parts to this argument. One is about the ways that histories of race and racial anxiety are used to manipulate people into making decisions that are at odds with their own mortality.

The other part, to be fair, is that people like Trevor felt like they were part of a bigger ideal, right ...  It's not like people didn't know what the Affordable Care Act was. People were quite knowledgeable but they said, "I'm willing to make this trade-off in order for my team to win."

The fantasy here was, "we can block a system that might be benefiting people who aren't like us, immigrants or minorities," but it turns out health care is a great example of the ways in which we're all connected. So in blocking other people, people who are doing so were literally shooting themselves in the foot.

President Trump reignited the fight over Obamacare this spring when his administration supported a lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Why don't people connect the dots on these stories when they're unfolding right around them?

Politics has become an ideology; it's not just a rational policy decision about this policy or that policy. So part of the issue that I tell is a bigger story about how it is that our politics really become our identities, even in times where you think people might be irrational or not.

The other thing is that I feel like there's a lot of playing to people's fears right now, and so when you keep telling people [that] immigrants are streaming across the borders and they're rapists and they're going to take all your stuff and things like that, or [that] other people are gaming the system. I feel like even though people in their hearts would often want to do well, but when there's this constant drumbeat of playing to people's worst demons, it really pushes them into making decisions that might not seem quite rational.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Q&A edited for length and clarity. Written by Émilie Quesnel. Produced by Alison Masemann.