'dying of illusion' -- 5/11/21

Today's selection -- from Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. Death rates have been increasing significantly for white middle-aged Americans as well-paying middle-class jobs have shrunk. This has also led to a decrease in status among this cohort and an increase in dominant-group status threat:

"In late 2015, two economists at Princeton University announced the startling revelation that the death rates of middle-aged white Americans, especially less-educated white Americans at midlife, had risen for the first time since 1950. The perplexing re­sults of this study on mortality rates in the United States sounded alarms on the front pages of newspapers and at the top of news feeds across the nation.

"The surge in early deaths among middle-aged white people went counter to the trends of every other ethnic group in America. Even historically marginalized black and Latino Americans had seen their mortality rates fall during the time period studied, from 1998 to 2013. The rise in the white death rate was at odds with prevailing trends in the rest of the Western world.

"Americans had enjoyed increasing longevity the previous cen­tury, with each succeeding generation, due to healthier lifestyles and advancements in medicine. But starting just before the turn of the twenty-first century, the death rates among middle-aged white Americans, ages forty-five to fifty-four, began to rise, as the least educated, in particular, succumbed to suicide, drug overdoses, and liver disease from alcohol abuse, according to the authors of the seminal study, Anne Case and the Nobel laureate Angus Dea­ton. These 'deaths of despair,' as the economists called them, ac­counted for the loss of some half a million white Americans during that period, more than the number of American soldiers who died during World War II. These are people who might still be alive had this group kept to previous generational trends. ...

"For this group of Americans, mortality rates rose at a time when rates in other Western countries had not merely dipped but had plummeted. The rate for middle-aged white Americans rose from about 375 per 100,000 people in the late 1990s to about 415 per 100,000 in 2013, as against a fall in the United Kingdom, for ex­ample, from about 330 per 100,000 to 260 per 100,000 over the same period. A graphic of the mortality rates for leading Western nations shows an upward line for the death rates of middle-aged white Americans against the plunging lines for their counterparts in fellow Western countries.

"What could account for the worsening prospects of this group of Americans, unique in the Western world and singular even in the United States?

"The authors noted that, since the 1970s, real wages had stag­nated for blue-collar workers, leading to economic insecurity and to a generation less well off than previous ones. But they acknowl­edged that similar stagnation had occurred in other Western coun­tries. They noted that comparable Western countries had a more generous safety net that could offer protections not available in the United States. Yet white Americans would not be the only group affected by wage stagnation and a thin safety net. Blue­-collar workers of other backgrounds would be equally at risk from the uncertainties of the economy, if not more so. Black death rates have been historically higher than those of other groups, but even their mortality rates were falling, year by year. It was white Amer­icans at midlife who were dying of despair in rising numbers. ...

"In America, political scientists have given this malaise of inse­curities a name: dominant group status threat. This phenomenon 'is not the usual form of prejudice or stereotyping that involves looking down on outgroups who are perceived to be inferior,' writes Diana Mutz, a political scientist at the University of Penn­sylvania. 'Instead, it is born of a sense that the outgroup is doing too well and thus, is a viable threat to one's own dominant group status.'

"The victims of these deaths of despair are in the same category of people whom, centuries ago, the colonial elites elevated as they created the caste system. The planters bestowed higher status on European yeomen and those of the lower classes to create a new American category known as white. In earlier times, even those who owned no slaves, wrote the white southern author W. J. Cash, clung to the 'dear treasure of his superiority as a white man, which had been conferred on him by slavery; and so was deter­mined to keep the black man in chains.'

"By the middle of the twentieth century, the white working-class American, wrote the white southern author Lillian Smith, 'has not only been neglected and exploited, he has been fed little ex­cept the scraps of "skin color" and "white supremacy" as spiritual nourishment.'

"Working-class whites, the preeminent social economist Gunnar Myrdal wrote, 'need the demarcations of caste more than upper class whites. They are the people likely to stress aggressively that no Negro can ever attain the status of even the lowest white.'

"In a psychic way, the people dying of despair could be said to be dying of the end of an illusion, an awakening to the holes in an article of faith that an inherited, unspoken superiority, a natural deservedness over subordinated castes, would assure their place in the hierarchy. They had relied on this illusion, perhaps beyond the realm of consciousness and perhaps needed it more than any other group in a forbiddingly competitive society 'in which down­ward social mobility was a constant fear,' the historian David Roediger wrote. 'One might lose everything, but not whiteness.'

"In the midst of the Great Depression, the scholar W.E.B. Du Bois observed that working-class white Americans had bought into the compensation of a 'public and psychological wage,' as he put it. 'They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white.' They had accepted the rough uncertainties of laboring class life in exchange for the caste system's guarantee that, no matter what befell them, they would never be on the very bottom."

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Isabel Wilkerson


Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents


Random House


Copyright 2020 by Isabel Wilkerson


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