Lately, I have noticed a palpable sensation that white people around me are increasingly talking about race.
Sometimes, it is palaver about racial disparities in criminal sentencing, the reality of institutional racism, or the vagaries of white privilege. Often, these topics come up in private, one-on-one dialogues, but—just as frequently—I eavesdrop into others’ conversations and hear more frank talk than ever before.
I hadn’t given it much thought. After all, my work focuses on race and public policy, and I am surrounded by extremely progressive and socially aware white people who aren’t shy about engaging in challenging issues and debates. Still, the preponderance of race talk has seemed oddly noteworthy—like the incessant buzzing of a bee that gets louder the more I ignore it.
Then, last week, I read a social science white paper that casts a fresh, albeit theoretical, light on the underlying concerns lurking in the shadows of the conversations I experience. Could it be that white Americans are becoming conscious that racism’s insidious effects are not limited to people of color but also cripple their lives as well? Perhaps the conversations I hear are exclamations of the confusion they feel about society’s preoccupation with race.
Research by a pair of Princeton University economics professors—the wife and husband team of Anne Case and Angus Deaton—adds credence to this theory. Case and Deaton observed that non-Hispanic white Americans ages 45 to 54 are unique among most U.S. demographic groups—and at odds with similar figures from other affluent, Western nations—in that this group possesses unusually high death rates.
Case and Deaton’s scholarship shows that the mortality rate for most Americans and citizens of developed nations such as Sweden, France, Australia, Korea, and Japan declined during the period studied. But for white Americans—notably the poor and less educated—the spike in mortality accounts for about a half million preventable deaths. Comparing the current rise in white morbidity and mortality to the AIDS epidemic of a generation ago, they write:
This increase for whites was largely accounted for by increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis. Although all education groups saw increases in mortality from suicide and poisonings, and an overall increase in external cause mortality, those with less education saw the most marked increases.
As news of this report spread, I observed and heard still more race conversations as white people scratched their collective heads trying to make sense of these alarming findings.
Writing for The Week, Ryan Cooper tosses out an interesting argument. “Poor white Americans are dying of despair,” he writes. “And racism is to blame.”
In a similar vein, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argues that white people are killing themselves as a result of “dispossession”—a feeling that they are being denied the promised American dream.
As Douthat sees it:
For obvious historical reasons, though, Hispanic and (especially) black communities have cultivated a different set of expectations, a different model of community and family (more extended and matriarchal), a different view of success and the American story writ large.
These distinctives come with their own set of problems, particularly where family structure and fatherhood are concerned. But they may create a kind of resilience, a capacity for dealing with stagnation and disappointment (and elite indifference or hostility), which many working-class white Americans did not necessarily expect to ever need.
In other words, Douthat argues that an omnipresent shield of white privilege is not protecting poor, middle-age, white Americans. Seemingly, Douthat claims, they are ill-equipped to deal with the consequences of a dog-eat-dog society, where elites have shredded social safety nets and stigmatized those who depend most upon its tattered shards. For some, it is just too much to bear, and they seek solace in pills, alcohol, or, worse, suicide.
Based upon my own research and reporting, I’m inclined to believe this why so many white Americans are talking to me about race nowadays. The air around them has changed, and they are anxious to understand why. Maybe they believe a friendly black person can shed some light from learned or personal experience. But, for the most part, I can’t. I don’t understand racism any better than they do and certainly don’t hold the answer to what ails or is killing them.
What little I do know is that one fundamental mistaken belief about racism is that it only disadvantages people of color. While some of us may be the canaries in the coal mine, people of color are not the only ones to suffer racism’s vile effects. Consider, for example, the erroneous belief that cuts in publicly financed social programs will make lazy black people act more responsibly, or, at the very least, save hard-working white Americans more of their tax dollars. Such are the lies that some politicians tell their constituents, ignoring the fact that the very people swallowing this foolishness are underemployed poor and white Americans who are more dependent on federal aid programs—such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps—than African Americans, Latinos, and Asians combined.
After a lifetime of being fed mistaken facts by disingenuous officials and radio personalities, white Americans sense a dawning awareness that the privilege and expectations of the good life many assumed was a birthright is not to be for them. Their disappointment—or dispossession, to use Douthat’s term—proves the damnable power of racism reaches far beyond people of color.
Indeed, racism is like gravity: It is invisible, encompassing, and pushes us—all of us—toward the center of the earth. No one—even those who cling to a false belief in colorblind American-bootstrapping myths—can escape its mortal pressure. And, so it seems, in private conversations and social science studies, white Americans are feeling the painful reality that black Americans have long known: Racism kills.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.