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!”
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?
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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