The “Shock and Awe” Response to Hillbilly Elegy: Pondering the Role of Race

In my prior posts about Hillbilly Elegy (here and here), I’ve noted some reasons for my struggle to understand the overwhelmingly positive response to J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir.  Actually, positive is too general a descriptor.  There is often what I call a “shock and awe” character to the response, a “there are actually people like Vance and his family out there in America” response.  Who knew?  And who knew male seahorses gestate the offspring?  Who knew the Okavango River flows inland?  Who knew the Dutch are the tallest people in the world, excepting some small African tribes?  But I digress …

It’s not clear if this initial incredulity regards (1) the white socioeconomic disadvantage and dysfunction from whence Vance comes or (2) his meteoric rise from Appalachia to Yale Law School and on to Peter Thiel’s Mithril Capital.  I’ve already opined on why we should not be surprised by the former, so in this post I’ll say more about the latter.

First, however, to illustrate just how over the top the media response to Hillbilly Elegy has been, let me quote a few reviews.  Bloomberg identified the book as “the most popular choice for best book of 2016.”  Ok, well, popularity doesn’t necessarily equate to quality, but the venerable New York Times, my own media polestar, called the book a “a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass.”  I’ve already explained why I don’t see it as discerning.  As for compassionate?  Maybe in the vein of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” but that doesn’t seem to be a thing any more–if ever it was.  I assume that The Economist reviewer would agree with me on the (lack of) compassion point because he concludes that Vance is a “conservative in the oldest and best sense.”  It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that this reviewer opines that “you will not read a more important book this year.”  In short, the reviewer falls hook, line and sinker for Vance’s tough love, personal responsibility prescription, calling it a “bracing tonic.”

One reason I am surprised by the glowing reviews (especially among left-leaning outlets) and the “millions sold” is that I would not have expected 21C Americans–particularly among the chattering classes (and I know a shocking number of law professors who have read this book)–to be so interested in a story of white class migration.  I thought Horatio Alger characters were a creature of history, that American dream, up-by-your-bootstraps narratives were yesterday’s news.  Didn’t our attraction to such delusional thinking fade once we discovered/identified/named white privilege?

In the world in which I live and work, white privilege is often referenced as if a magic bullet, a miraculous cure-all that permits people with white skin to achieve any and all that their hearts desire.  I often hear phrases like “white people’s problems” and “you’re white, you’ll be alright” tossed about casually.  At a minimum, whiteness greases the proverbial skids on the road to success, though we often treat it as much more potent than that.

Broadly speaking, the academy is highly attuned to structural racism and bias based on race/ethnicity–and appropriately so, in my opinion.  Peggy McIntosh tells us that the invisible knapsack of white privilege means that whites “can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which [they] can afford and in which [they] would want to live.”  (“[W]hich they can afford” is a rather important qualifier, no?)  Bernie Sanders told us during the 2016 primary:

When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto.  You don’t know what it’s like to be poor.

But this isn’t accurate, and surely–somewhere in the deep recesses of our memories and minds–we are aware of this inaccuracy, this failure to see or acknowledge white poverty.  Yet it seems to have taken Hillbilly Elegy‘s publication to surface that reality, however opaquely.  Still, how many of you have made the connection between what (I hope) you know about the existence of white poverty and the economic landscape depicted in this bestseller?

A majority of those experiencing poverty self-identify as white.  Yet like the academy, the media very often conflate our racism problem with our poverty/inequality problem.  See here and here.  The suggestion is often that black people are poor because they’re black, and of course there’s truth to that.  Trina Jones expresses the phenomenon eloquently:

Somehow . . . race and class become mutually reinforcing. Blacks are poor because they are Black and Blackness gets constructed as poor. That is, poverty becomes a constitutive element of Blackness. Blacks are not only lazy [and] intellectually and morally inferior, they are also poor.

So if we have conflated blackness with dependency, have we conflated whiteness with affluence, well-being, and independence/agency?  Arguably, yes.  And if we have done that, where does that leave low-income, low-education whites?  (This is a H/YUUUGE topic, of which I barely scratch the surface in this post).  If they slump or find themselves downwardly mobile or otherwise fail, we look away, ignoring or “forgetting” them (consider the headlines here and here).  If, like Vance, they ultimately succeed–if they become like “us”–we often discount that success by attributing it to their white privilege.

Given that tendency, isn’t it interesting that we’re so captivated by Vance’s story?  (Further illustrating that intrigue, did you know the movie rights to Hillbilly Elegy have been purchased and Ron Howard will be involved in making the film.  I can’t help wonder/worry what combination of “Beverly Hillbillies,” “Dukes of Hazard,” “Honey Boo Boo” “Duck Dynasty” “Deliverance” and ???? will get depicted.  Plus, who’s going to play J.D.?  Sorry, digressing again).

Furthermore, would we feel the same about Hillbilly Elegy if Vance were our colleague?  (Btw, even friends and acquaintances who liked the book are telling me they are tired of seeing and hearing Vance on CNN; guessing it’s a good thing I don’t watch TV.)  What would it be like to have Vance on your law faculty?  Would that just be too awkward given how different he is from “us”?  What if he showed up, fresh out of Ohio State, as our law student?  (that’s a topic for a future post).  Maybe we relish Vance’s story, his success as a token and at a distance, but we can probably imagine what it would feel like to have him around in the flesh, too close for comfort.  We know he wouldn’t really fit in.  And maybe part of the reason legal academics (of all people) and other elites seem to savor the story is that Yale Law School is the ultimate icing on the educational cake.  Maybe we are attached to that “up by the bootstraps” narrative after all.  Maybe Vance affirms our desire to be engaged in–and to be the products of–a meritocratic enterprise.

And that brings me to another “race” question:  Would the Black/African American equivalent of Hillbilly Elegy have spent so many weeks on the New York Times bestseller list?   Or could/would such a hypothetical book–in an era when the Obamas’ autobiographies have been valued much more highly than prior U.S. presidents–leave Hillbilly Elegy in the dust?  Maybe so.  In fact, we may already have our answer to that question in Dreams from my Father:  A Story of Race and Inheritance.   

Oh, and for the record, I love that book.  Really love it, as reflected in some of my ponderings about it in 2009.  Barack Obama is not only a much finer writer than Vance, I found his reflections more thoughtful, mature, nuanced (and maybe he had a better editor because I don’t recall him going on and on and on).  But I admit that familiarity breeds contempt, and Obama told me a story and introduced me to a world I didn’t already know.  Sadly, I can’t say the same about Vance.

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