Quite a statement huh? I heard a caller to a radio station say this and they made the case that while the issues of the Rust Belt and Midwest and general manufacturing base decline effected everybody in those regions, there’s a reason that you only hear about the angry white people who embraced Tea Party politics and Trump. You only hear of the white people gripped by the opioid crisis. The Appalachianing of the Midwest has been a decades long diminution of opportunities in the so-called Heartland, but it was the 2016 election and the overwhelmingly white male Trump base that brought pundit and political attention to it. There’s two reasons for this, one obvious, the other not so:
- White people are the ones that the system pays attention to. Poverty, drug addiction, unemployment and homelessness are constant inner city plagues, but when it happens in the so-called heartland, then it’s a scandal, of course; and also
- Black people, Latinos and immigrants move to seek opportunity while these white people think opportunity should come to them.
Eureka! Yes, of course. The caller stated that her family and friends have moved over and over again, as a family and as individuals to where opportunity is and to better their situations. That’s anecdotal, yes. But that one story fits the bigger story of the last 100 years. It’s the history of black people that they had the Great Migration north in the first half of the 20th century, seeking jobs in the big cities of Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis and also west to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Then more recently a great many black people moved back to the New South as jobs left the Northeast and Midwest. The caller asserted that black people, as you might expect, do not expect society to provide for them, they feel more responsible for their own destiny and act accordingly. Their movement from region to region may seem like a rootlessness to be bemoaned, but it’s really a more admirable hunter-gatherer instinct for survival in a society that they don’t expect anything from.
I thought of my Filippino friend who first came to America. But then after his family settled in North Carolina he went further and came to New York for a better job in his field, sacrificing time with his family for more opportunity. Immigrants of all stripes have done this and keep doing it. Sacrificing and building and mostly not complaining about it.
The 2016 election and ongoing despair and drug crisis in the most rural Midwest, Rust Belt and Northeast shone a light on the slow moving train wreck, an evolution caused by economics that left many behind. Trump echoed the anger that they feel at their embarrassingly low status in a society that passed them by. We can all feel empathy for people who had, and had it taken from them by circumstances not under their control. But it’s a symptom of their white privilege that these people didn’t long ago see the writing on the wall for their region and make alternative plans. Many of their children did, seeing no opportunity for them in these smaller rural backwaters, they left. Many of their neighbors did, selling their acreage to the burgeoning corporate agricultural industry that has laid low most family farms.
Deindustrialization and the consolidation of agriculture took their toll on a broad swath of the country. But we can make the case that for many it’s a true sense of entitlement that causes the remaining people in these areas to stay and wallow in their reverie for a bygone age, complaining loudly about what happened to them. As white people left the metropolises of the North, choosing nice green lawns in suburban idylls and leaving behind hollowed out cities with diminished tax bases and crumbing infrastructure, nobody left behind could expect any sympathy from the Heartland. Instead they were further demeaned and debased by a country that abandoned those cities to decay and death. They were literally ghettoized and forgotten by politics. Because of race and numerous negative inputs it’s not inaccurate to say they were left voiceless, bereft of opportunity, and to a large extent still are.
The white people of the Midwest and Rust Belt always had better options to address the devolution of their localities. But here they are sadly succumbing to despair and addiction. But also too embracing racism, nationalism and the idea that their problems are exacerbated by minorities and immigrants who have had nothing to do with their decline at all. They rallied to make America Great Again in a nostalgic and quixotic primal scream of rage.
The fact that they believe that they deserve the past restored to them screams of white privilege and shows how they’ve evolved from the people who came to America in the 16th-20th centuries looking for opportunity and found it in the Heartland. Those bold ancestors who braved oceans and crossed the plains in covered wagons would be ashamed of their progeny.