Is Whiteness Really Killing Our Country?

In my day job, I teach introductory biology at a community college.  Below is a multiple-choice question I wrote to test my students on the scientific method:

You are testing a new drug for lowering blood pressure. For your experiment, you chose two male patients who suffer from hypertension, ages 43 and 46.  You give the placebo to the 43-year old and the new drug to the 46-year old.  What must you do in order for your results to be taken seriously by other scientists?

a) Choose two men of the exact same age.

b) Include a positive control.

c) Include more patients in the experiment.

d) Give the placebo to the 46-year old and treatment to the 43-year old.

In a chapter from the book Dying of Whiteness, sociology professor Jonathan Metzl compares health parameters from two states for the purpose of contrasting "the price of Tennessee's refusal to embrace healthcare reform" with that of Kentucky's compliance.  Based on his charts, access to health care in Kentucky started to improve dramatically in 2014 and 2015 (pp. 177–181).  If you chose the correct answer on the scientific method question ("c"), you may understand why limiting your sample to only two states does not make much of a case.

In another chapter, Metzl compares Missouri and Connecticut for differences in white male firearm suicides (pp. 99–107).  This comparison is even more questionable because these two states have many differences that go far beyond the political differences noted by the author.  While it is true that the male firearm suicide rate in Missouri trended upward following the relaxation of some gun restrictions in 2007, this formed part of a nationwide trend of male suicides that coincided with the Great Recession. Connecticut was spared from this trend, probably because this state was minimally affected by the recession.

Dr. Metzl is on more solid ground when he cites a Forbes article that attributes a surge in the state deficit to Governor Sam Brownback's 2012 tax cuts (p. 204).  Nevertheless, Metzl overlooked a follow-up article posted by Forbes two days later that qualified this critique by indicating that "not all tax cuts are bad" and that the main problem with Brownback's tax cut was an unanticipated loophole that allowed many high-income employees to avoid paying state taxes.

Metzl reinforces his case against tax cuts by presenting a series of charts that show a 2015 decline in standardized test scores in Kansas public schools (pp. 246–249).  But like the suicide rates in Missouri, the 2015 dip in Kansas's NAEP scores formed part of a nationwide trend.  Many attributed this decline to the implementation of Common Core.

What does all this have to do with "whiteness"?  Based on conversations Metzl had with some middle- and lower-income whites, he concluded that mainstream conservative positions held by Trump voters originate from a desire to "restore white privilege" (pp. 147–155).  If you support the Second Amendment, it is because you want to reassert the "white supremacy" that gun ownership conveyed in the antebellum South (pp. 65–69).  If you oppose the Affordable Care Act, it is because you do not want to share resources with "irresponsible, lazy, and often racialized others" (pp. 123 and 149).  Blacks in contrast are depicted as more enlightened for describing the government safety net as an "investment" (p. 163).

What does all this have to do with "dying"?  Metzl believes that big government is indispensible for helping poor whites live longer and healthier lives.  He concludes that working-class whites often vote against their own "biological" and "economic" interests to pursue a "promise of greatness" (pp. 10 and 281) and that they deliberately "put their lives on the line" for these policies because of racism (p. 5).

According to Metzl, even talking points like "economic empowerment" and "parental choice" have racial implications (p. 216).  He is partly right, but not for the reasons he has in mind: black and Hispanic Democrats differ from white Democrats on school choice, probably because these minorities are more likely to attend charter schools.  White Democrats like Professor Metzl concur with their party's opposition to school choice because many of them live in affluent school districts where residents do not see the need for alternatives.

Metzl further displays his "anti-racist" credentials by depicting the House Freedom Caucus's opposition to DACA as part of a xenophobic trend (p. 216).  DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is an executive order from Obama that green-lighted the ongoing flood of unaccompanied minors arriving on the southern border.  This crisis played a major role in the election of Donald Trump.

As a former liberal who did not have to work his way through college, I cannot explain what motivates traditional conservatives who never heard of Montesquieu or John Locke, but there is nothing "xenophobic" about resenting open borders when you are competing with unskilled immigrants for the same jobs and social services or when many of these immigrants consistently vote for policies that are antithetical your values and beliefs.  Metzl makes no serious attempt to understand this perspective because to do so would utterly destroy all the sophistry that passes for deep thought in his gentrified social network.

Even though I am not inclined to cherry-pick states in order to make a point, Metzl's comparison of Tennessee and Kentucky deserves a follow-up.  Here is my contribution:


TN net relocation per 100K residents

KY net relocation per 100K residents

TN small business friendliness

KY small business friendliness




































Table: Relocation and Small Business Friendliness in Tennessee and Kentucky. Relocation data was compiled by Van Lines.  Small business friendliness grades were calculated by Thumbtack.

Screenshot from the U-Haul website. Note that the cost of the same one-way route between Kentucky and Tennessee more than doubles when the final destination is Tennessee.

Based on my table and U-Haul screenshot, I have three questions for Dr. Metzl.  First, why did small business friendliness decline so precipitously in Kentucky after 2014?  Second, why did relocation to Kentucky reach its lowest point during the same two years that access to health care made the largest gains?  Third, why do so many people on the move prefer Tennessee over a neighboring state with "better access" to health care?

To reinforce his case for progressive policies, Metzl cites a New York Times article showing how, on average, residents of blue states are more educated and have longer life expectancies and higher median household incomes (p. 243).  If life is so rosy for residents in these gentrified states, how might Professor Metzl explain the widespread pattern of Americans fleeing from them?

Metzl accuses Trump voters of "otherizing" people who are different, but "Dying of Whiteness" otherizes Trump voters.  What makes Dr. Metzl's projection particularly nauseating is his patronizing attitude toward people who resent having their lives managed by unelected bureaucrats.  Though the book includes numerous interviews of middle- and lower-class whites, there is no evidence that the author ever talked to any conservative intellectuals.  Did he avoid them?  Does he even know they exist?

American conservatism is based on the biblical principle that you cannot rely only on human nature for discerning right from wrong.  Constructive dialogue with leftists is often pointless because when you chip away at the façade of junk science and sloppy reasoning that makes up progressive thought, all you end up with is raw emotion.  Leftism is the fastest growing religion because following your heart is the path of least resistance.  Consequently, Dying of Whiteness will be celebrated widely along the Acela corridor and throughout the West Coast because it helps urban elites still hurting over the 2016 election feel better about themselves and their knee-jerk disdain for rural white conservatives.

Antonio Chaves teaches biology at a local community college.  His interest in economic and social issues stems from his experience teaching environmental science.