By Javier Peña, Democracy & Governance M.A. Program alumnus
This post is the first in our Summer Reading Group series discussing recent books on the current state of American democracy.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Harper, 2016.
One of the threats our republic faces today is the growing distance between so many of us. For a democratic republic to work, its citizens, with their elected representatives, must be able to share their beliefs and preferences, listen to one another, and then get on with the hard and necessary work of governing to advance the national interest. Yet it is becoming increasingly difficult, in no small part because we make it difficult, to truly listen to those on the other side.
Books can help, for they can transport us to new worlds and help us see things through the eyes of someone else. Two recent books that offer this are Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Coates gives the reader a window into the experience of a black man in America, while Vance offers a front-row seat to the social dissolution of economically disaffected whites, or “hillbillies,” as he calls them (he applies the term to himself). In many ways, these books deal with different worlds. Yet the phenomena and experiences they speak of connect at numerous points. They point to social ills that insulate, weaken, and threaten entire communities. Left unchecked, these ills would grow into a cancer that would rend our social fabric and possibly kill our republic.
Between the World and Me, which Coates addresses to his son, is a raw meditation on what it means to be black in America. Coates employs powerful and often beautiful prose to tell of a precarious existence, one in which your body is not safe—not from police, nor from teachers, nor from one’s own black parents, who would rather it be they, and not the police, who beat you. Coates asserts that America was “built on looting and violence” (6) and that its history is the history of the violent subjugation of the black body. (Coates, who rejects belief in the religious or supernatural, repeatedly refers to the “body.”) The problem, he maintains, does not stop at police departments and the political class; it extends to the American public. He writes:
The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies…are the product of democratic will (79).
In Coates’s view, America is not nor ever was that noble land where the “Dream” was within the reach of all. He forcefully rejects the “fairy tales of irrepressible justice” that have flowed from the pens and lips of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Coates’s is an unflinching vision of American history and present reality—one that is contested, to be sure, but which nevertheless challenges us at our core, shattering the popular notion of America is a righteous, even innocent, nation.
J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy became a runaway bestseller in large part because so many Americans wanted to better understand the appeal of Donald Trump. (Trump’s victory caused even more to flock to Vance’s book.) Vance offers an unvarnished, though compassionate, portrayal of working class whites, who made up one of Trump’s strongest bases of support. Vance seeks to understand how he, a poor hillbilly coming from a down-and-out family, ended up with a Yale University law degree, in a happy marriage, and with a job at an investment firm in San Francisco. He credits the role and influence of his grandmother and sister, and the Marines, which taught him discipline and helped him mature. Vance’s book is an invitation to readers to see, as if first-hand, the blights—substance abuse, unstable families and communities, and adverse economic shifts that have hollowed out entire towns—affecting communities of poor whites, specifically the “hill people” of Appalachia.
The accounts of these two books deal with different worlds, but they share some themes, including the roles of family and education, home, and coping and survival. Another theme is identity politics, which is concerned not with economic and class issues but with the perceived grievances of a particular social group, such as women, racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities, and whites (for example, white nationalists, who speak of an erstwhile dominant culture besieged by immigrants and non-whites). For Coates, the group in question is African-Americans, and for Vance it is the working class whites of Scots-Irish descent who make their home in Appalachia.
Some of the attitudes and behaviors of these groups as described by Coates and Vance, such as fear and distrust of outsiders, and further insulation or retrenchment into one’s own group and community, may be the manifestation of a reinforcing and intensifying identity. Political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Pipa Norris recently wrote a paper seeking to answer the question, “Why are populist xenophobic parties [in developed democracies] more popular today than 30 years ago?”[i] They find the answer in “declining economic and physical insecurity” (447), much of it the result of stagnant wages, rising inequality, and other adverse effects of globalization. Inglehart and Norris write of declining existential security giving way to fear—of pervasive change, of immigrants, of the forces outside of your control that would wreck livelihoods. We see this fear and distrust in the experiences recounted by Coates and Vance. For example, addressing his son, Coates remarks, “When I was your age, the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid” (14). Vance explains: “I may be white, but I do not identify with WASPs of the Northeast” (3). At Yale Law School, he remains a hill person. He is not like his white peers; he is distant from them: “Sometimes I view members of the elite with an almost primal scorn.”
Such attitudes push one into oneself and into the group that one knows—“my tribe, my kinsmen, my people.” And this may be accompanied by a sense of total self-reliance: the belief that it is on you to make your way in an unforgiving and unkind world. Coates passes onto his son what his grandparents taught him, “That this is your country…this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it” (12). Later he writes, “The struggle…is the only portion of this world under your control” (107). And Vance, with a knowing, familiar scold: “We hillbillies need to wake the hell up.” And: “These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them” (256). These are calls to personal responsibility, or, if you will, tough love. Such lines of appeal are often criticized for blaming the victim and downplaying, if it not ignoring, the role of larger forces that are impersonal but no less damaging, such as structural discrimination and self-perpetuating inequalities. (Of course, this description hardly applies to Coates, whose central claim is that blacks in America have been violently subjugated in ways, systemic and structural, that continue to be seen and felt.)
The call to personal responsibility may well have a place, however. Another man who faced steep odds but became extraordinarily successful, earning the admiration of millions, made the same kind of appeal in recent years. He came from a broken home, the color of his skin meant he had higher chances of becoming another crime or violence statistic, and he had a strange and very foreign-sounding name. As president, Barack Obama exhorted black men to take responsibility for themselves and their families on numerous occasions. Many in the black community, including Coates, criticized the president for doing this, saying he “ought to know better.”[ii]
But Obama is not a simple-minded scold who does not appreciate the complex social forces that have afflicted and continue to afflict blacks and other traditionally disadvantaged groups. His personal appeals point to at least one possible constructive response to identity politics: that of a respected member of a group addressing the group so as to challenge deep-seated beliefs, attitudes, prejudices, and resentments. This is clearly what Vance is doing in Elegy; after all, no one who did not grow up among the “hill people” could intelligently say that hillbillies need to “wake the hell up.” In a way, Coates is doing this, too, believing that the sooner blacks shake off the illusions, myths, and false hopes that are used by the dominant group in America to perpetuate its own superiority, the sooner they will live free and be able take their part in the “struggle.”
What influential persons such as Coates, Vance, and Obama must not do is encourage the members of their groups to shutter themselves from those who are not like them. We may disagree with and we may not even like those of a different group, but we must be willing to hear them out. As we learn to empathetically listen to and begin to understand the dreams, fears, and hopes of those who are not like us, we begin to close the distance between us. The shorter the distance, the more likely we are to keep our republic.
Some questions for discussion and reflection:
- What do these two authors’ formative experiences have in common?
- Why do the authors come to such divergent explanations for the conditions of their communities? Does this offer any insight into racial politics today?
- What similarities are there between the communities described by these authors?
- Are the struggles of the communities recounted by these authors’ unique to the United States? To what extent have they been created or shaped by U.S. history and features unique to this country?
- What implications do the observations and arguments made by these authors have for African-American and working class white communities? What implications do they have for society at large? What public policy implications do they have, if any?
2 Ta-Nehisi Coates, “How the Obama Administration Talks to Black America,” The Atlantic (May 20, 2013), https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/05/how-the-obama-administration-talks-to-black-america/276015/.