It came out before Trump became president, but the New York Times best-seller Hillbilly Elegy has become a Bible of sorts for trying to understand the plight of poor, white people and their choice for president. I’m one of the perplexed liberals who looked to it for answers, too, even though I’m white and I grew up poor myself.
Former marine and against-all-odds Yale Law grad J.D. Vance, who was raised by his grandparents when his mother failed him, spills his guts. He writes with a sharp but tender honesty that doesn’t allow judgment without sympathy toward the people of his Appalachian and Rust Bell hometowns.
It’s a heart-and-mind-wide-open kind of book, so I feel a little bad that I found myself annoyed and disappointed by the way he went about answering this question: How is it that so many people continue to believe Obama is a Muslim in the face of clear evidence to the contrary?
Now that Donald Trump is actually president and has emboldened white supremacists, and riots over this are breaking out in our town squares, it’s an even more important question than it was when the book was written. The ‘Obama is a Muslim’ myth is emblematic of our festering differences that have boiled up again in recent months.
And it’s a question of special interest to me. I’ve struggled in my relationship with my newly discovered birth sister, who, within about an hour of meeting me, referred in disgust to Obama, then still in office, as ‘our Muslim president.’ We have a good relationship but the comment has rumbled in my mind like mental indigestion. The antacid is to discuss our political differences and views on race, but we both feel it’s too risky. I wrote an essay that ran in The Times last year about this.
Here’s what Vance writes about the ‘Obama is a Muslim’ myth:
Many of my new friends blame racism for this perception of the president. But the president feels like an alien to many Middletonians for reasons that have nothing to do with skin color. Recall that not a single one of my high school classmates attended an Ivy League school. Barack Obama attended two of them and excelled at both. He is brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor — which, of course, he is. Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the people I admired growing up: His accent — clean, perfect, neutral — is foreign; his credentials are so impressive that they’re frightening; he made his life in Chicago, a dense metropolis; and he conducts himself with a confidence that comes from knowing that the modern American meritocracy was built for him. Of course, Obama overcame adversity in his own right — adversity familiar to many of us — but that was long before any of us knew him…..
President Obama came on the scene right as so many people in my community began to believe that the modern American meritocracy was not built for them. We know we’re not doing well….. Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it — not because we think she’s wrong, but because we know she’s right.
He goes on to discuss the mistrust of the media, which of course plays a role.
Does this bother anyone else? Am I the only one who thinks this is a soft-pedal? That he is going out of his way not to talk about race here?
Obama’s race plays a part, Vance seems to be saying, but looming almost as large, if not larger, are that Obama 1) went to an Ivy League college 2) is smart 3) is wealthy 4) is articulate 5) has a crisp way of speaking 6) is from a big city 7) is confident 8) is a good father 9) wears suits and 10) has a wife who says we should eat healthy food.
A third of all U.S. presidents went to an Ivy League college, including Donald Trump, who got more than twice as many votes as Hillary Clinton in Breathitt County, Kentucky and Butler and Warren Counties in Ohio, the three counties where Vance grew up.
Most presidents were already rich by the time they ran for president, including Donald Trump.
Some came from a ‘dense metropolis,’ too, none more dense and metropolitan than New York, where Donald Trump is from.
All presidents have carried themselves in a confident manner. And, yes, they all wore suits and were probably pretty good dads.
Yet none but Obama has been the subject of such a vicious, false belief that has lingered for so long.
Why? Obviously because they were white, and Obama is black.
I know Vance’s point is that all of these things — race, education, swagger, big-city guy — blended together to create the upswell of contempt for Obama. But he seems to go out of his way not to talk about racism. That seems a little strange to me, given the forthrightness of the rest of the book.
Maybe he thinks talking about race is too cheap and simplistic, and is trying to ‘transcend’ race in the book, to go deeper, to point out the economic roots and the cultural, self-destructive causes of the problems and political beliefs and persuasions of his hometown folk.
But I don’t think it’s wise to try to ‘transcend’ something that we’re still assaulting each other over. Maybe if he’d written it after the Charlottesville horrors, he’d have gone about this passage differently.
Maybe he shied away because the word ‘racist’ has such a fierce judgment attached to it: The belief that if you’re a racist, you’re evil.
But I like to think that racism is more a reflection of the luck of our experience than of our heart. It’s more a matter of chance than an evil that’s baked into us at birth. It’s brought about by a lack of exposure to, or a lack of understanding of, people who are different than we are. And, very often, that’s not our own fault. It’s largely a product of the people we happen to find ourselves around after we’re born, and of our opportunities.
My mom — who was as selfless as they come but in her worst moments used the N-word — was not a woman of the world by any means, but she was fanatical about my education. She understood it was my ticket out. And it was when I got to college that I finally emerged from an ethnically homogenous school in a black vs. white city, Baltimore, and found myself immersed in a melting pot of races and cultures where our similarities were discovered and our differences accepted. I now have a job that lets me travel to medical conferences around the world and meet researchers from Japan who are working toward cures for diseases that could one day save my own life or the life of someone in Uganda, or Vladimir Putin’s life. That’s not to say I’d be a raging racist if I hadn’t gotten a decent education, but I’d certainly view race differently if I hadn’t had those experiences.
My sister, who by most measures is more generous than I am, got pregnant when she was 17. She could have had an abortion, of course, but didn’t. Instead, she plunged into motherhood before she was a grown-up. This was the main reason, I think, that she didn’t go to college. This has shaped her world view, and her views on race, and led to her belief in a totally debunked and despicable myth about Obama.
Hillbilly Elegy is worth reading. But glossing over the racist tendencies of his hometowns is a lost opportunity. He could have used his wildly high-profile platform to, at least briefly, discuss the nature of racism. What is it, really? How do we get past it? The book could have done more to promote understanding and healing in an environment in which the current president promotes division, and in which we’re bludgeoning each other with clubs in the streets.
Vance repeatedly credits the grandmother who raised him with giving him the foundation to have the experiences that widened his world view. But in the context of lingering racism in his hometowns, he fails to underscore the point enough.
I’m disappointed by his handling of the issue mainly because otherwise the book is a brave work of soul-searching and, above all, even helps lead liberals like me to the kind of understanding that can help us piece together a middle ground with the ‘other side,’ which had started to seem more distant all the time.