In 1935, W. E. B. Du Bois coined the expression, “the psychological wage of whiteness” to refer to “the sense of entitlement” felt by rural and working-class Whites in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America. As University of Utah political scientist Ella Myers characterized Du Bois’s argument, “whiteness serve[d] as a ‘public and psychological wage,’ delivering to poor whites a valuable social status derived from their classification as ‘not-black.’ Du Bois’s account of compensatory whiteness” explained how exploitive owners and bosses, functioning [in a climate of] “racial capitalism,” appeased their white workers by assuring them that despite their destitution and misery, at least they were not black (W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward the History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 [New York: Harcourt Brace, 1935], and Ella Myers, “Beyond the Wages of Whiteness: Du Bois on the Irrationality of Antiblack Racism,” Items: Insights from the Social Sciences, The Social Science Research Council, March 21, 2017).
I thought of Du Bois’s “psychological wage of whiteness” after reading J. D. Vance’s poignant and revealing autobiography, Hillbilly Elegy, which chronicles his upbringing in Appalachian Kentucky and Ohio.
“I may be white,” Vance writes, “but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with millions of working-class white Americans” who live in and near the Appalachian Mountains. For hill people, “poverty is the family tradition.” We “do not like outsiders or people who look, act, or talk different[ly] from us.” Appalachian religion is heavy on emotion but light on helping impoverished children do well in school. Vance’s people react to adversity “in the worst way possible. From low social mobility to poverty to divorce and drug addiction,” this region is “a hub of misery” (pp. 3-4, 7).
What Vance disliked most about his childhood was “the revolving door of father figures. I hated how often [Mom’s] boyfriends would [abandon us] just as I’d begun to like them. Caught between various dad candidates, I never learned how a man should treat a woman. I learned little [of] what masculinity required of me” other than “getting drunk, and yelling at and hitting women” (pp. 88-89).
Today, many rural and working-class Whites live in Vance’s “irrational world: We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs,” financed by “high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for spending money, and declare bankruptcy, leaving them full of garbage. We [don’t] work when we should be looking for jobs”—or “we’ll get a job but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness, or stealing merchandise, or [drinking], or taking five thirty-minute restroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work” but make excuses “for why we’re not working” (pp. 146-147).
Family communication often takes the form of yelling. “At least one family member uses drugs.” Under stress, “we [physically assault] each other” in full view of other family members. “The neighbors call the police to stop the drama” and “our kids go to foster care.” Parents yell at their kids for performing poorly in school, “but never give them the tools—like peace and quiet at home—to succeed.” The elementary and high school students Vance recalls did not work hard, and were not challenged by their teachers. Most did not go to college. Many dropped out. “Failing [did not] bring shame or other bad consequences” (pp. 56, 147).
“American working-class families experience a [high] level of instability”—so their violent arguments are not surprising. When Vance’s sister was asked by her husband, “What’s wrong with you? Why do you fight with me like I’m your enemy?”—she replied: “In our home, it was difficult to tell friend from foe” (pp. 228-230).
I suspect that Vance’s story is foreign to many of us in United Church of Christ (UCC) congregations. It is not our lived experience, and we have no idea how chaotic and difficult life can be in some families.
Of course, it is a fool’s errand to stereotype white rural and working-class people; they are not all like the “hill people” in Vance’s autobiography just as they are not all tiki-torch-carrying White supremacists or gap-toothed “rednecks” living in trailer parks. Yet many are poor and under-educated; many feel economically “stuck” and find the American Dream unattainable; many blame the federal government for their problems; and many do not like people of color and religious minorities.
I come away from reading Hillbilly Elegy with two distinct and somewhat opposite impressions. First, Vance’s stories—and the problems that he writes about—are not unique to Appalachia or to white people; rather, they have to do with being poor. Spousal abandonment, bitter family conflicts, opioid addiction and alcoholism, unstable living conditions, unemployment, under-resourced schools, and unmotivated students are common maladies in poor rural and working-class communities.
Second, while these stories of social decay and deprivation have little to do with race, they have everything to do with racism and the psychological wage of whiteness. According to a September 2016 CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation survey, “working class Whites say it’s gotten harder for them to get ahead financially and find good jobs.” Indeed, they “are more apt than college-educated” Whites to resent America’s “shifting demographics,” to believe that “racial and ethnic diversity is harmful,” and to view immigrants as “a burden on the United States (Jennifer Agiesta, “2016: Last Call for Working Class Whites?,” CNN.com, September 20, 2016).
Vox journalist Amanda Taub explained this data by noting that “economic and social transformations [prompt] many people to anchor themselves in their whiteness.” A person of “lower income or lower class [may] get more self-esteem out of a communal identity such as ethnicity” than from personal achievement. Little wonder that nationalist sentiment is often most pronounced among the working classes and the poorly-educated (“Behind 2016’s Turmoil, a Crisis of White Identity,” New York Times, November 1, 2016).
In an important article in The Atlantic, journalist Adam Serwer cast doubt on the idea that economic distress and inequality are the salient characteristics of rural and working-class Whites. Examining the 2016 election, Serwer noted that most of the poorest Americans of all ethnicities and races—those with an annual income of less than $50,000—voted for Hilary Clinton. “Among higher earners, the two candidates ran roughly even.” But among “white voters alone, Trump defeated Clinton in every income category. He won workers, managers, [and] owners. This is not a working-class coalition; it is a [white] nationalist one” (Adam Serwer, “The Nationalists’ Delusion,” The Atlantic, November 20, 2017).
Indeed, the psychological wage of whiteness explains how so many whites—“who would never read the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer or [attend] a Klan rally,” and who do not think of themselves as racist, but rather, say they are “antiracist” and hold “no hostility toward religious and ethnic minorities”—could nevertheless vote for someone “whose vision of America excludes millions of fellow citizens because of their race or religion.”
Serwer’s argument is worth emphasizing: “One hundred [and] thirty-nine years since Reconstruction, and half-a-century [after] the civil-rights movement, a majority of white voters backed a candidate who demonized religious and ethnic minorities” and “explicitly pledged to use the power of the state against people of color.”
All this has bracing implications for us in the UCC. Rural and working class people live in our communities, attend our churches, and are the “unchurched” neighbors we want to reach—so it behooves us to get to know them. Even so, I am dumbfounded when I see a UCC church leader wearing a red “Make America Great Again” ball cap while serving meatballs at a church spaghetti supper, or when pastor friends who are women and men of color openly admits that they are concerned for their safety when they drive through some of the white rural communities in our Association, or when good church people, attending “sacred conversation on race” events throughout our Conference say things and reacting in ways that are neither sacred nor civil.
In the UCC, we like to say that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here—and I believe that wholeheartedly. I tell it to my congregation every Sunday. And I believe that God has called me to welcome all folks—and that means everyone—to our church’s worship and social gatherings. But I’m in a moral quandary—because I’ll be damned if I’m going to welcome a White supremacist or a racist into the church.
Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.