Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Culture and Values

Although American society today features a lot of talk about race and racial issues, it seems to lack much attention paid to economic and class issues except where they connect to race. This can leave a significant portion of folks -- who probably need just as much help in many areas as do racial minorities -- overlooked when it comes to the search for solutions for our nation's underclass.

Lawyer and writer J. D. Vance knows this culture firsthand, growing up in an Ohio rust belt town but remaining deeply connected to the Kentucky "hillbilly" culture of his family's roots. Vance outlines the problems he faced in this environment -- average or mediocre schools, parental drug use, low expectations and frequent home violence. His maternal grandparents gave him some level of stability as his mother's drug addictions removed her as any kind of steadying influence. But even they carried some of the same baggage that might have saddled Vance too had he not joined the Marines and then been given wise guidance from faculty and advisors at law school.

Elegy is both a part of and a spark for much of the current discussion of the "white working class" that we see a lot in the news these days, mostly as the subject of questions about why they voted for Donald Trump. Vance is clear that he loves both his family and his heritage while being equally clear about their flaws and pitfalls. The same individualism, self-reliance and stubborn honor that allowed these families to survive the rugged life of 19th century Appalachia creates no end of problems for them when they try to move out of both area and era into the 20th and 21st centuries. Pride in hard work -- the kind that allowed the men of the family to hold good-paying jobs even with little more and sometimes less than a high school education -- transforms into disdain for the kinds of jobs available once manufacturing moves on and into a perverse pride in not working.

Vance connects his own story to the cultural issues he discusses -- he marvels when he meets families who disagree and say so without screaming and swearing. When confronted with situations outside his comfort zone, he sometimes still struggles to deal with them in a calmer and more reasoned way than he saw as he grew up.

Elegy leaves some gaps. Vance mentions the problems that cheap home lending can cause families when factories leave and they are stuck with homes they can't sell to follow the work, but he does not follow through very often with specifics about how programs intended to help the working class sometimes have the opposite effect, And he's clear he has little idea of what kind of project or program would solve the cultural issue. But as someone who works daily with the hillbillies of the area where I live, it offers some good food for thought and chances for understanding the people I'm hoping to help.
Stanford University professor Thomas Sowell addressed some of the same issues of culture in essays included in his 2005 book Black  Rednecks and White Liberals. Sowell says that traits which prejudiced people have assigned to African-Americans -- antipathy to work, promiscuity, improvidence and several others -- are not really a part of "African" culture as those people had claimed (He also notes that since it is a continent with several nations on it, the idea of a monolithic "African" culture is not very useful).

Instead, Sowell says, African-Americans brought to the southern part of the United States were socialized into what he calls the "cracker culture" of the northern Britons and Scotch-Irish immigrants to that part of the nation -- in large part the same culture that Vance describes as being a drag on his family and community. African-Americans who settled in other parts of the U.S., either as freeborn immigrants or as the descendants of slaves freed when their territories outlawed slavery, were often socialized into quite different cultures. Descendants of Africans brought into the Caribbean area were also socialized by a different culture and so have their own unique heritage today. Sowell says both of the latter two groups usually do not feature those same supposedly racial tendencies described above.

Some of the book's other essays also touch on racial and racial history matters, while others discuss anti-semitism and the problems created by misunderstanding multiculturalism. Sowell is usually thought of as conservative, so folks of liberal persuasions often dismiss him. But he is a careful writer and bases conclusions on where he believes evidence leads him. He may not be on his most natural ground in discussing historical and cultural issues -- his Ph.D. is in economics -- so sometimes he outkicks his coverage a little. But even when one of his judgments is perhaps not as strongly supported by evidence as some of the others are, they are still worth considering to see where the evidence he has collected might go instead.


fillyjonk said...

I vacillate on Hillbilly Elegy. Part of me wants to read it because of curiosity (and also, I almost was a West Virginian, though I would have been of a different SES than the people he talks about in Kentucky, with a father who was a professor). But I also worry that I'll find it horribly depressing; that kind of commentary has a way of coloring my outlook to the negative for weeks after reading it.

Friar said...

It's a double-edged sword -- he and his siblings do wind up "out" of some of the worst of their environment, which is a definite uplift. But it's all too easy to see the same people as he describes on our streets and in our own towns, and wonder what might get done for them.