In “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland,” Metzl, a professor at Vanderbilt University, uses compelling data and focus-group interviews to show how white people are willing to die rather than be connected to or finance policies that they believe are giving resources to people they view as undeserving. Metzl opens the book recounting his conversation with a man he refers to as Trevor, a 41-year-old Tennessee man who was dying from liver damage and who was adamantly opposed to the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
“Ain’t no way I would ever support Obamacare or sign up for it. I would rather die.” Trevor tells Metzl in the book before explaining why. “We don’t need any more government in our lives. And in any case, no way I want my tax dollars paying for Mexicans or welfare queens.”
“That was a quote I heard a lot. … The idea was that even if this program might benefit me, I’m not gonna support a program that might also benefit by his estimation undeserving immigrants or minorities,” Metzl told me in the latest episode of “Cape Up.” “Part of the jumping-off point of the book is how powerful is this idea about what it means to be white in America and this idea that basically to be white means to have to block the advances of other groups.”
This was the thinking that motivated my question to Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang about his monthly $1,000 check to every American he calls the “Freedom Dividend.” Metzl’s book shows how difficult our nation’s fraught and ongoing history with race will make Yang’s policy goal difficult to achieve.
Metzl’s book focuses on health care in Tennessee, gun rights in Missouri and budget cuts in Kansas. With each example, he shows how white identity played a role in the tragedy that befell each state. In Tennessee, Metzl estimates in his book that between 2011 and 2015, as many as 12,000 “white lives might have been saved had Tennessee expanded Medicaid” under Obamacare.
In Missouri, where the state’s gun laws were relaxed, Metzl made a startling discovery. “I just started to look at the data and it turned out that as guns flooded into Missouri. … The real drivers of the dramatic rise in gun death in Missouri were white male suicides,” Metzl told me. Get a load of this stunning statistic in his book. “In 2015,” Metzl writes, “white men comprised roughly 40 percent of the population of Missouri but were victims of nearly 80 percent of gun suicides.”
In Kansas, then-Gov. Sam Brownback (R) cut taxes and spending with schools bearing the brunt of the fiscal axe. “The first effects were seen in minority and low-income districts, but then it just started to be system-wide,” Metzl said. “When the issue started to hit home, all of a sudden there was a massive mobilization and people who had been supporters of Brownback's policies started to turn.”
“The scary thing about all the examples in my book are that, in a different planet other than ours, you might think these are examples of what not to do,” Metzl said. “Tennessee blocked health-care reform with no backup plan and people started dying. Missouri started to give … everybody could get a gun and what happened, injury and death rates skyrocketed, all these kinds of suicide, partner violence, police shooting, etc. Kansas cut at schools, and people started to really suffer.”
Listen to the podcast to hear Metzl talk more fully about what happened in each state and the role race played there. And listen to what he has to say about white-identity politics, President Trump’s role in driving it and what can be done to push against it. “White America has not often had to define itself because it’s the invisible norm or the control group, but right now, if you don’t agree with the model of whiteness that President Trump is articulating it’s incumbent to articulate a different model of whiteness,” Metzl said. For him, that means taking a step back to create “a better formulation that’s more horizontal and distributive that works better for everybody, including white Americans.”