On Ree Dolly, J.D. Vance and Empathy for Low-Income Whites (or, What Hillbilly Elegy is Good for)

This is my fourth and final installment about J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy:  A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

One striking aspect of the wide-spread kudos heaped on Hillbilly Elegy is that readers do not seem put off by J.D. Vance.  That is, many (most?) readers appear to sympathize (for lack of a better word) with him, even if they cannot empathize with the circumstances of his upbringing and his struggle socially to transition to Yale Law.  When you consider how many outlets exist for poking fun at low-income, low-education whites, sometimes referred to as “white trash” (think:  Wal-Mart shoppers,  lots of reality television shows poking fun at the white working class, lots of hateful Tweets demeaning this group, the presumptive Trump voter), this attraction to Vance is surprising.  Is it really possible to “clean up” so well, so quickly?  I knew Yale law degrees were valuable, but Vance’s seems to be working miracles.

This generally positive response to Vance reminds me of a similar response to Ree Dolly, the 17-year-old heroine of the movie “Winter’s Bone,” which won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance in 2010.  If you saw the film and remember it, that is likely because Jennifer Lawrence starred as Ree.  Indeed, for this her breakout role,  Lawrence was nominated for the Academy Award for best actress. (The film was nominated for best picture).  Ree is the daughter of what would widely be considered a “white trash” family.  Yet she is nothing short of heroic as she courageously rises above the meth-making and hillbilly-version-of-organized-crime circumstances of her extended family.  She takes plenty of hard knocks–literally as well as psychologically–in the quest to prove her father’s death so that she can prevent loss of the (very modest and “trashy”) family home to the bail bond company that secured her father’s release after his last foray into the illicit drug scene.  Along the way, however, it is clear that Ree prioritizes the well-being of her younger siblings–and keeping her nuclear family together in the face of her mother’s mental incapacity and father’s death.  I recorded some of my thoughts about “Winter’s Bone,” Ree and our reaction to her and her milieu back in 2010 here and here.   The most salient quote from one of those posts follows:

Film critics have touted Ree as brilliant, a feminist heroine, a modern-day Antigone.  Like many film goers to whom I have spoken, they look past her trappings and her kin, and they see her value.  This is progress—but then, Ree’s character and courageous acts are exceptional.

So Ree is brilliant, and J.D. is compassionate and discerning.  (And if Ree is Antigone, what figure from Greek tragedy might J.D. be?)  I guess I’m surprised by these assessments because I grew up a little too close to where both of these “characters” come from.  As I have suggested elsewhere in this series of posts, maybe my response, my skepticism is a case of familiarity breeding contempt.  (And to be clear, I feel contempt for neither Ree nor J.D., but my relationship to both is complicated by considerable familiarity with their milieu.)

Or maybe I’ve just heard so much denigration of low-income whites in my years as an academic that I expect the worst (at least in this regard) from liberal elites.  A number of scholars of socioeconomic class have observed that hillbillies, rednecks and such are the only “identity” group not protected by political correctness (see here, here and here, collecting sources; plus herehere, and here).  Given that it’s ok to engage in micro-aggressions (and worse!) against low-income, low-education whites, what gives for Ree and J.D.?  How can they be heroes?  Presumably because  both rise above their circumstances.  (Interestingly, both also remain loyal to parts of their families, despite those family members’ anti-social practices).

If we coastal elites have this capacity to respond with compassion to Hillbilly Elegy despite the provenance of its protagonist, maybe the book has some redeeming value after all.  Maybe it’s good for something besides satisfying our voyeuristic curiosity about the enigmatic Trump voter (and, of course, making J.D. Vance a very rich man).  Maybe, in fact, it’s particularly useful for educators– including legal educators.

In January, I participated in an AALS 2017 panel on “Cultivating Empathy.” I spoke about how the use of film excerpts in both my Law and Rural Livelihoods and Feminist Legal Theory courses helped to foster student empathy for low-income, low-education whites.  My law school, UC Davis, features an overwhelmingly left-leaning student body, and as a community we were nearly universally flummoxed by the outcome of the 2016 Election.  In a sense, our law school is its own echo chamber.  Yet I noticed that when I showed even brief excerpts from films such as “The Accused,” “North Country,” and “Winter’s Bone,” students responded with great empathy to characters like Sarah Tobias, Josey Aimes, and Ree Dolly–all low-income, low-education, working-class white women.   If we see these socioeconomically disadvantaged whites first as human beings and only secondarily as  (presumptive) Trump voters,  it’s not so hard to empathize with them, to process the stories of their lives, to “get into their heads” in some small way and to imagine having to make the very difficult choices they must make to survive, never mind thrive.

After that AALS panel, a  law professor who teaches at a state university law school in the midwest approached me and said he thought my plea for a more empathic approach to low-education whites could help him and his colleagues better understand their students, most of whom are conservative to one degree or another, and many who are Trump supporters.  Of course, not all conservative white voters are low-income and/or low-education (an angle on the 2016 election often lost on the media; see more here and here) but some overlap exists.  So, wouldn’t it be great if law profs could take their generally positive reaction to J.D. Vance and Hillbilly Elegy and use it to inform how they engage their own students who may be similarly situated to J.D. before he got that fancy schmancy Yale Law degree.  In this regard, we should credit Yale Law’s Amy Chua, who saw value in Vance as a student and mentored him while we was at Yale.  (One can’t help wonder the extent to which the sensationalism of Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother inspired similar sensationalism in Hillbilly Elegy, but I digress).

UC Davis Undergraduate Education has just launched a #firstgen initiative.  In its initial phase, the program encourages professors who are the first generation in their family to get a college degree to “out” themselves (as by wearing to class these cool T-shirts they have supplied to us) so that first gen students can find us, seek us out for mentoring.  The program also aims to educate faculty about first gen student perspectives, encouraging us to be transparent about expectations and grading, reminding us that not all of our students will have parents who can coach them toward success, who will understand the significance of opportunities on offer, let alone how to actively seek out those opportunities.  Among the startling figures that have come to the fore with this new UC Davis initiative:  42% of our undergrads are first gen, a number that no doubt reflects the enormous racial and ethnic diversity of California and our student body.  Further, more than 300 faculty members from across campus have self identified as first gen by joining an online faculty directory.  At an initial gathering, I noticed that many of them/us appeared to be non-Hispanic white, though perhaps that is a generational thing.  Our law school also has a #firstgen program in the works.  A few other law schools already boast these, and numerous undergraduate programs do, too (see more here, here, herehere, and here).

These “#firstgen” initiatives are important in that they remind us to see and assist  not only racial and ethnic minority students, but also would-be class migrants who are white.  We must be mindful of what all of these students need to succeed in a very different world than the one from whence they come.  White skin is not a magic tonic.  And as much as Hillbilly Elegy annoys me (see prior posts here, here and here for elaboration), if the book is good for something , that something may be cultivating empathy among those who can help aspiring class migrants–whatever their race or ethnicity, remembering that white people “have race,” too–to achieve the increasingly elusive “American Dream” via access to higher education.

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