Home > WHITES DYING YOUNGER: A Sign of the White Middle Class Implosion

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A Sign of the White Middle Class Implosion


“…We cling to the comfort of the middle class, forgetting that there can’t be a middle class without a lower.  …most colonizing schemes that took root in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British America were built on privilege and subordination, not any kind of prototypical democracy...”  (Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: the 440-Year Untold History of Class in America, 2106)


               As Nancy Isenberg reminds us, the ugly truth is that the “founding of America” was to a large extent a “cure” the English aristocracy used to rid itself of unwanted poor people who inhabited London’s slums (p.22).  Bluntly, it was a matter of “taking out the trash” (p. 17), getting rid of the poorest of poor, vagabonds, and other undesirables whose American descendants eventually “acquired the most enduring insult of all, ‘poor white trash.’” (p. 135). 

From the founding of the 1607 Jamestown, Virginia colony onward, the White ruling class derived much of its privileged position from the blood-sucking roots it sank deeply into [1] indigenous people; [2] the bodies of those deemed “poor white trash” and the poor, middle-class aspiring, Whites who dwelled an inch up the economic ladder; [3] slaves and their descendants; [4] other oppressed minorities; and [6] the masses chasing the “middle class dream.” 

Racism, sexism, and patriarchy always were integral to the dominant hegemony headed by the “One Percenters.”  Their gross imbalance of power was also sustained by catalysts such as the industrial revolution and the GI Bill which helped many aspiring Whites build wealth but, at the same time, left out most African Americans.  Nevertheless, the basis for a populist revolt was created when lower-class, less-educated Whites increasingly realized they could no more achieve middle class status than the greyhound dogs could catch the fake rabbit they chase at dog racing tracks.   Disillusioned, many of them often engage in self-destructive behavior and act out in other ways.   

In their March 2017 paper, Mortality and morbidity in the 21st century, Princeton professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton noted that working class Whites, especially those with lower levels of education, are dying younger.  The authors posited that these alienated citizens were experiencing cumulative disadvantage whereby a combination of factors such as the loss of jobs, declines in marriage, the quality of family life, and other poor quality of life factors contributed to the abuse of alcohol and opiates as well as some individuals committing suicide.  

The dynamics of what happens when the middle-class myth implodes for Whites can be seen across Pennsylvania in communities such as Aliquippa, Braddock, Johnstown, Monessen, and Reading where the disillusioned masses yearn to at least have the freedom of days gone by.   As described by David Montgomery, for example, Monessen was once the place where “You had to walk in the street because the sidewalks were so jammed with people, flush with cash, out to stroll, shop, eat, and party.  Furniture stores, bars, grocery stores, clothing shops graced every block.  Above the storefronts, hung balconies where residents tended oregano and parsley and waved to the crowds below.  Then the steel mill closed in 1986…”  (The Washington Post Magazine, March 26, 2017, p. 32).  

Lynn Nottage’s play, Sweat, which is set in a Reading bar where frustrated steelworkers gather, provides another glimpse of the desperate circumstances driving lower-class Whites and others into cumulative disadvantage.  The play’s characters experience a downward spiral in their life circumstances when jobs are exported to other countries.  The workers are especially frustrated by having given so much of their lives to the steel mill and the community, only to find themselves among the dregs of the current social order and without hope of bettering themselves.  (For details regarding the play and the author, see The New Yorker, March 27, 2017, pp. 30-33.)

NPR journalist Steve Inskeep wrote about Johnstown as follows: “…Along the edge of the Conemaugh River sits a vast, mostly abandoned, steel mill called Gautier. At one point, decades ago, Gautier employed 11,000 people. Today it has just about one hundred employees. Back then, operations at the mill were so consistent the lights were always on. There were no switches to turn them off…” (February 3, 2017).   

As wonderful as the “good old days” were, lost on many is the fact that African Americans did not share equally in that prosperity.  In the Johnstown that I knew, African American men were the last hired and first fired.  Aside from one “mom and pop” store, Whites owned and operated all grocery stores, gas stations, and clothing stores.  Only White men drove buses, streetcars and taxis; served as police officers, postal workers, and mayors; practiced law and medicine; and it was primarily White women and a few White men who taught public school.  The African American professional class of my Johnstown was limited to several ministers, one dentist, and one mortician.  The vast majority of African Americans seldom used banks, where all Whites worked, because the vast majority of African Americans lived from “paycheck-to-paycheck.”

During Johnstown’s “good old days,” African Americans had to be resilient, “make a way out of no way.”  No scholars wrote about their cumulative disadvantage but we did hear about welfare moms and irresponsible fathers as many African Americans suffered worse than the newly disenfranchised Whites.  Today, significantly more Whites are “walking around in the shoes” African Americans wore for decades.  Now, they too know what Langston Hughes meant when he wrote the following:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

               It is unfortunate that many of the oppressed Whites don’t understand that earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and middle class implosions are “equal opportunity disasters.”  It is also unfortunate that they wrongly blame immigrants, Muslims, people of color, GLBT people, and other scapegoats instead of the “One Percenters” who feed on their economic plight.  It is sad to read things such as what was reported in an interview with Johnstown’s Alan Cashaw, “A couple of weeks ago, on Martin Luther King Jr. day, someone drove around town in a pickup truck with an effigy of the civil rights leader wearing a noose around his neck and the words, ‘In Loving Memory of James Earl Ray’ – King’s assassinator on the back of the vehicle.” (http://www.opb.org/news/article/npr-hows-the-new-president-doing-voters-from-a-pennsylvania-county-trump-won-respond/).

Rather than engage in the “crabs in the barrel mentality” when the callous “powers that be” say “let them eat cake,” it is essential that we the people engage in regime change.  Fortunately, we will have an orderly way to begin doing so by participating fully in the next local, state, and national elections.  Otherwise, as was the case in Hitler’s Germany, unrighteous leaders will engage in the worst forms of scapegoating and, in turn, add to the predicament in which the oppressed find themselves.


Jack L. Daniel (Pictured above)

Co-Founder, Freed Panther Society

Pittsburgh Urban Media Contributor


March 30, 2017

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