Are You Racist Because Your Local Economy Sucks…

Chart of Poverty Statistics, US South

Or does your local economy suck because you’re racist?

About two months ago, Larry Summers wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post bemoaning that the US is moving in opposite directions economically, and he considers that the cause of the rise of nativist, racist beliefs in depressed areas: “The areas where distress is greatest and opportunity is least provide disproportionate support for candidates advocating populist nationalist policies that seek to close off the rest of the world, to demonize immigrants and to resist the inclusion of minority groups.”

In other words, when the local economy is bad, people to become racist, so it’s not their fault. Fix the economy, and you’ll fix the racism.

(His remedy? Get the federal government to invest more in education in economically depressed areas. Which would be an excellent suggestion if not for the fact that K-12 education is locally funded in the US, conservatives have for the past many years invested heavily in demonizing higher education and the people who acquire it, and Summers himself acknowledges, “Outmigration from troubled areas tends to disproportionately remove those area’s most able and catalytic residents.” In other words, even he admits that people who get educated leave.)

“Hm,” I thought after reading his article, “what if he has the causation backwards?”

Flash forward to yesterday, when I was reading the latest issue of The Atlantic, focused on the divides in US society, which includes an interview with Tara Westover, the writer of Educated, which details her childhood being raised by survivalists completely off the grid (no birth certificate, being home “schooled”) in Idaho.

In the article, she says: “When Trump first won the nomination, it was generally thought that his populism was fueled by economic disparities, but for some reason, after he was elected, that view went out of fashion. I don’t know why, because it is quite obviously the case…”

Yeah, except what if it’s not?

Again quoting Westover, “My own view is that economic distress activates prejudice.”

Why did “economic anxiety” fall “out of fashion” as an explanation for TrumPutin and his supporters?

That nice story that we TRIED to tell ourselves during the cataclysm that was the 2016 election and its aftermath worked great…until folks actually started looking at the data.

Because the data doesn’t support it.

Validated, post-election data clearly demonstrates that people who were “economically anxious” voted for Hillary Clinton. In fact, there’s clear evidence that the greatest predictor of support for TrumPutin wasn’t “economic anxiety” or income or education level – it was racism and racial resentment of black and brown people.

Which brought me back to my earlier question: What if a bad local economy doesn’t drive racism? What if it’s racism that drives a bad local economy?

In fact, Hillary won about 500 counties (and 3 million more votes) to TrumPutin’s over 2600 counties (and 3 million FEWER votes – land and cows don’t vote, y’all). But those counties, comprising roughly 15% of the area in the US, account for nearly 2/3 of US economic output.

What is going on?

Well, let’s consider two factors, one historical and one current.

Historically, it’s virtually impossible to build a middle class, have reasonable wages and benefits for working people, or generate a strong social safety net when the vast majority of local labor is stolen from enslaved people, one of the points Nancy Isenberg makes repeatedly in her book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

You might think: “Mrs Whatsit! Slavery ended 150 years ago! Come on now – it’s not still having an effect on the economy of the former slave states!”

Yes it is.

The states of the former Confederacy created a culture of a small number of aristocrats ruling over a large population of under- and un-paid workers, few social services and support, lack of public access to education, the entire system built on racial resentment and hatred (no, I am not saying racial resentment and hatred don’t exist elsewhere in the US – in fact, I wrote a lengthy post about the history of racism in the North for this very blog – but I think we can all agree that things were qualitatively different in the Confederate states).

That racism continues to show up in 2019 in the former Confederacy in the form of “right to work” (anti-union) laws, the lowest state minimum wages in the country (most at or barely above the federal $7.25 requirement), refusal of the Affordable Care Act Medicaid expansion, and lack of investment in public education.

Meanwhile, what creates a vibrant local economy?

  • An educated populace, and investments in primary, secondary, and higher education.
  • Immigrants starting small businesses (which they do at higher rates and more successfully than native-born US citizens).
  • Women of color starting small businesses (which they do at higher rates than white women).
  • Artists and support for the arts, including government support.
  • Tech companies, which while they’re still lagging in hiring women and black folks, do hire a lot of non-white men.
  • Investments in public space and public transportation.
  • Diversity – of race/ethnicity, gender, religion, country of origin, age, sexual orientation, and thought.

Are any of those kinds of people going to be willing to move to or live in a place largely populated by bigots?

Probably not.

We hear a lot of prescriptions for change in the US that start with: “Dems have to stop concentrating yourselves in the cities and along the coasts. Go buy a place in Alabama – or Wyoming – and create change on the local level town-by-town, county-by-county, and state-by-state.”

On the face of it, that seems reasonable. Plenty of us work in jobs that can be done anywhere – certainly the spouse and I do. And the money we bring in would not change if we moved to Missouri or West Virginia – I’d still charge my clients the same, his company would still pay him the same salary. We live financially comfortably in our pricey, deep-blue city. We could live like royalty in Kansas.

But why would we want to do that? Do those places have any of the above factors?

Of course not – their racism (and sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia) prevents immigrants and people of color and artists and educated people and techies and diverse thinkers (not, of course, that those groups are mutually exclusive) from wanting to live there, from being safe living there.

And so their local economies suffer. And until they fix those underlying bigoted attitudes, I’m afraid all the local tax incentives and abatements in the world aren’t going to help.

Image found here.

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Defenestration, Again


You’ve probably seen the news stories.  State legislators who want to make women who suffer ectopic pregnancies undergo a procedure (that is medically impossible and that would be painful, expensive, and dangerous) to re-implant the fetus.  Or who want funerals and death certificates for every fertilized egg that dies (despite those eggs being microscopic and undetectable when expelled).  Or to put women and doctors to death for abortions.

And it’s tempting to roll your eyes, remark that those who don’t understand biology probably shouldn’t attempt to legislate over it, and assume that no bill that ridiculous would be upheld, even if it does pass.

That would be a mistake and a misunderstanding of what the Right is up to.

What they are doing, and they’re very good at this, is moving the Overton Window.   If there are some people out there advocating the death penalty for abortion, well, all of a sudden just making it illegal and taking away the doctor’s license starts to sound positively moderate, doesn’t it?  Compared to having a dangerous and pointless operation, a transvaginal ultrasound doesn’t sound so bad, does it?  Want to monitor every woman’s periods and make her explain why she isn’t pregnant?  Gee, then how about government and church access to her medical records?  That sounds much less intrusive.

The Left isn’t as good at this game as the Right.  We run away from the people taking “extreme” stances.  Of course, we won’t take your gun.  Yes, abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.  No, no we won’t make you give up your gas guzzler.

But those kind of positions would, if we allowed them and didn’t rush to shut them down before the Right has a chance, move the Overton Window in our direction.

If there were states trying to pass laws to take away everyone’s guns, keeping guns from those on the Terrorist Watch List might be a good compromise.  Loud demands for abortion clinics on every corner and for abortion on demand would similarly move the discussion.   If we had people advocating seizing the means of production and giving to each according to their need — real socialism — MediCare for All would start to sound awfully moderate.

Meanwhile, yes, they are coming for abortion — and birth control.  As I’ve said before, if you have all the children you plan to have (which could well be zero), get sterilized.  Now.  While you still can.  And, speaking of things to do while you still can, buy condoms and Plan B now and store them somewhere safe.  Pay cash if you can.

Picture found here.

Words for Wednesday (No One in America Can Make a Baron).

Monday at the Movies

There’s a tinge of evo-psych here that makes me a bit uncomfortable, but if you accept that what is described may be as due to nurture/culture/etc. as to nature, this is a lovely little film.

What do you think?

What Rhyd Said


Rhyd’s discussion of Thanksgiving is thoughtful and good.   And his pictures are sumptuous.

Thanksgiving is an ancient rite, far older than the United States or any empire. Feasting in gratitude re-inscribes our health and well-being into the world of the gods, into the nature from which all wealth derives. In America, Thanksgiving is a pale shadow of that older way of being, unrooted from the earth and overlain with nationalist and colonialist myths. But the rite itself remains important, and many rites like it. Not for the renewal of nations and governments but for ourselves and the earth of which we are but one small part. If our feasts connected us again to the cycles of the earth in gratitude, and if our contrition took the form of caring for that earth rather than pillaging it for more products, perhaps we could finally have an unproblematic holiday.

I hope your day was wonderful and that gratitude lights up your winter.

Picture found here.

(Belated) Words for Wednesday


Happy Birthday to William Blake!  I love what this poem says about how everything in nature tends towards death, and then renewal.  I think it’s appropriate for this time of year.


Ah! Sun-flower

~ William Blake

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done.
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.
Picture found here.

Framing and a “Lost Way of Life”

Arts and Crafts Frames Detail View

One of the things that effective framing does is to slip presumptions in without you even noticing what’s happening.

Thus, “death taxes” sounds like a really bad thing.  After all, death is sad, right?  And uncontrollable.  And making a family pay taxes just because their beloved member has died — how cruel is that?  Great-grandpa died and now you want us to pay taxes?  Force us to sell the farm?  Penalize us just because old people die???

Of course, you don’t usually go through that thought process when you hear “death taxes.”  You just have a visceral, negative reaction.

Now, if we call those taxes what we used to call them (before the Republican framing machine went to work) — estate taxes — that sounds different.  Estates are where rich people live, right?  Or an estate is all the jewelry, and art, and other property that a rich person, via a will drawn up by a lawyer, passes on to heirs.  Taxing a big, expensive estate, or an art collection, or a safe deposit box full of jewelry sounds pretty reasonable.

Again, you probably don’t consider the presumptions behind the term, but, especially if you’re not a rich person, or the heir of one, you don’t have nearly as negative a reaction to “estate taxes” as you did to “death taxes,” even though they’re the same thing.

Or, what if we called those very same taxes “unearned wealth taxes”?  We can argue over whether great-great-grandpa “earned” all the money that he made on his mines — underpaying workers and taking dividends for years before his mining company declared bankruptcy and left the impoverished locals to clean up the polluted streams and denuded mountaintops.  But there’s no question that Muffy has done nothing to earn the trust fund passed down to her from great-great-grandpa’s dividends.  It’s “unearned wealth,” and, well, it kind of makes sense for us to tax that.  Why is Muffy, whom great-great-grandpa never even met, more entitled to all of that money than the people paying to clean up the polluted stream?  Doesn’t it make sense to leave Muffy with some of that money but to also return some of it to the common good?  (And, so, under this plan, great-great-grandpa’s wife got a lot of the money.  Her daughter got some, but maybe not as much.  By the time we’re several generations removed, and dealing with people who never even knew great-great-grandpa and who never even worked in the now-defunct mining corporation, it makes sense for more of the money to be returned to everyone else.)

That’s good framing.

It’s our job, as citizens of a democracy and as consumers of information, to stop, hold the framing up to the light, and ask ourselves what presumptions are being slipped through into our unconscious.

Lately, we’re seeing more and more stories about “Trump voters,” or “disaffected whites,” or, here in my state, “rural voters” who are reacting angrily to the fact that they are now in the minority.  In Virginia, following an election that placed state government squarely in the hands of Democrats for the first time in decades, those voters are filing into town halls to declare their counties “Second Amendment sanctuary cities.”  They know that gun safety legislation is coming and they’re declaring that they just don’t agree.*

And, I find the framing rather interesting.

I keep seeing stories that say that these people are upset at “a vanishing way of life.”

So let’s do our job, and stop, and ask exactly what we’re being asked to accept with that framing.  Because, at first, of course, it sounds rather compelling:  a vanishing way of life.  We all feel sympathy with endangered tribes, groups who are losing their language, families being forced to abandon their traditions.

But, let’s look.

I live in a largely white rural area.  It voted deeply red this past November.  I won’t be surprised at all to see it declare itself a “Second Amendment Sanctuary.”

Others may laugh at how “backwards” we are, but folks up here were quick to adapt to electricity when a cooperative brought it to the area.  Radio, satellite tv, CB radio, internet porn — they were all for it, early adapters.  Fast food replacing the greens and grits that granny cooked on the wood stove?  Definitely; there’s a fast food restaurant every few miles.  Walmart replacing the local cabin trading furs for flour and coffee?  Done deal; all those old general stores are gone and giant Walmarts with huge parking lots take in most of the locals’ grocery dollars.  Video games instead of hours spent reading by a candle or nights around the fireplace trading stories?  Of course; X-boxes sit inside every trailer and townhouse hereabouts.  Rap on a cell phone instead of learning to play a bluegrass fiddle is a no brainer.  Sexting instead of courting at a church social?  Yeah.

A disinterested observer might be forgiven for thinking that white, rural voters have been in a generations-long rush to replace their “vanishing way of life,” with modern conveniences.  So, exactly which bits of that vaunted “way of life” are these people so upset to see disappear?

It’s not hunting, often cited as a way for fathers to bond with sons.  No one is even vaguely suggesting any measures that would impinge on that “way of life.”  There’s no need for “Second Amendment sanctuary counties” to protect hunting.  Even the arugula-eaters moving out here from the city understand that the deer population is, absent wolves and other predators, out of control and needs to be hunted.  They eat our landscaping.  They bring ticks.  They run out into the road and damage our Prisuses.  Restaurants serving farm-to-table menus proudly feature venison, local rabbit, and pheasant.  I guran-damn-tee you that hunting, as a “way of life” is not under any danger.

So, if it’s not any of the things discussed above and if it’s not hunting, what IS the “vanishing way of life” that has these voters so upset?

Perhaps they think that the “vanishing way of life” that we should protect involves unregulated access to the kinds of automatic weapons that can kill dozens of schoolchildren within minutes?  Those weapons certainly weren’t a part of this “vanishing way of life” until quite recently.  Grandpa got by without them; he had, at most, a hunting rifle and a shotgun to kill rabbits.  And if their “way of life” actually depends upon allowing domestic abusers the ability to shoot up schools, churches, and movie theaters, well, I’m sorry, but your way of life DOES have to go in order to protect the lives of the rest of us.  Your “lost way of life” doesn’t get an override on the literal lives of the children sitting in school or the people at Wednesday bible study.

In the end, I suspect that, when we shine a bright light on the framing, the “vanishing way of life” being discussed is mostly to do with the beginning of the end of patriarchy, an end to evangelical control of government, and the worry that urban (read:  often black, often immigrant, often college-educated, way too often feminist ) voters may be as unsympathetic to rural voters as those rural voters were when they were in control.  I suspect that quite a lot of it has to do with declining white supremacy.

Always stop and ask what concepts/premises/conclusions are being slipped in via framing.  Be willing to call out the media on these tropes.

I’m upset about my “vanishing way of life” — the one that didn’t involve massive climate change.  Maybe someone would like to write an article about that.

*I’ll just note that in recent years, conservatives have stepped up efforts to stop more liberal urban areas from adopting measures — higher minimum wages, bans on plastic bags, protections for LGBTQ people — that differ from the rest of the state.  So it’s fascinating to see those same groups now demanding that rural counties can opt out of any statewide gun safety legislation.  See, e.g., Virginia’s Dillon Rule and its application.  You can have one, or the other, guys, but not both.  I know.  Adulting is difficult.

Picture found here.