De­fend­ing white­ness, even while dy­ing of it

The Tribune (SLO) - - Opinion - BY LEONARD PITTS JR.

This is a col­umn about sav­ing white­ness. It’s pre­cip­i­tated by an in­ci­dent last Satur­day at a book­store in Wash­ing­ton.

Seems that au­thor Jonathan M. Metzl was giv­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion when a group of white na­tion­al­ists barged in. They formed a pha­lanx be­tween him and the au­di­ence, and one of them ha­rangued the crowd with an elec­tric bull­horn, some­thing about the white work­ing class be­ing asked to “trade their home­land for hand­outs.” The group chanted, “This land is our land.” They filed out, to a cho­rus of boos.

We will pass lightly over the irony of Woody Guthrie’s words of har­mony and in­clu­sion (“This land is your land, this land is my land. From Cal­i­for­nia to the New York is­land …”) be­ing re­pur­posed as a white su­prem­a­cist man­i­festo. Let’s deal in­stead with Metzl’s book.

It’s called “Dy­ing of White­ness” and it is a deep dive – lots of sta­tis­tics, charts and graphs – into a provoca­tive the­sis: that white con­ser­va­tive vot­ers, driven by fear of, and an­tipa­thy to­ward, black and brown “oth­ers,” sup­port poli­cies against their own self­in­ter­est, poli­cies that di­min­ish their lives and even kill them. White­ness, ar­gues Metzl, a white psy­chi­a­trist and physi­cian, thus emerges as a risk fac­tor for death not un­like smok­ing, de­pres­sion or fast food.

One of his more com­pelling il­lus­tra­tions in­volves “Trevor,” a 41year-old white former cab­bie in Ten­nessee whom Metzl de­scribes as “yel­low with jaun­dice,” hob­bling on a walker, with hep­ati­tis C and an in­flamed liver, dy­ing, yet res­o­lutely op­posed to the Af­ford­able Care Act, even though it might pro­vide med­i­cal treat­ment he des­per­ately needs and can­not oth­er­wise af­ford. “Ain’t no way I would ever sup­port Oba­macare or sign up for it,” he told Metzl. “I would rather die. We don’t need any more govern­ment in our lives. And in any case, no way I want my tax dol­lars pay­ing for Mex­i­cans or wel­fare queens.”

You might wish to let that sim­mer for a few min­utes. With his health as shaky as a Jenga tower, with his very life ebbing away, Trevor’s greater fear was of un­de­serv­ing “Mex­i­cans or wel­fare queens” ben­e­fit­ing from his taxes, how­ever much that might be on the wages of a used-to-be cab driver ek­ing out his last days in a low-in­come hous­ing fa­cil­ity.

Trevor is just a link in an un­bro­ken line that binds Lin­coln fret­ting about ret­ri­bu­tion from newly freed slaves, to Roo­sevelt wor­ry­ing about treach­ery from Amer­i­cans of Ja­panese her­itage, to Trump see­ing ter­ror­ism in brown­skinned tod­dlers on the south­ern bor­der.

Decade af­ter decade, elec­tion af­ter elec­tion, so much of the white con­ser­va­tive ap­peal is an im­plicit prom­ise to de­fend white­ness from blacks and browns. Metzl ar­gues that white peo­ple them­selves have borne and are bear­ing a ter­rific cost for this “de­fense,” that they are, in ef­fect, killing them­selves.

It’s an in­ter­est­ing the­sis, but peo­ple who came out to hear him ex­plain it were forced to first sit through bull­horn guy and his backup singers who fear the loss of a “home­land” stolen from the Semi­noles, the Shawnee and the Paiutes. We will pass lightly over this irony as well.

Be­cause Metzl raises an im­por­tant ques­tion, one we have never an­swered nor even truly asked. So many peo­ple are so ready to save white­ness from the face­less “other.”

Who will save it from it­self?

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