What Hillbilly Elegy Reveals About Race in 21st Century America
Forthcoming 2019 in Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy (Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll, eds) West Virginia University Press.
Posted: 12 Jul 2018
Date Written: May 6, 2018
This essay appears in a collection of responses to Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis, J.D. Vance’s 2016 bestseller. This chapter focuses on what the book — and perhaps more significantly, responses to it — reveal about race and race relations in 21st century America. Pruitt observes that the attention Hillbilly Elegy draws to low-income, low-education whites does not foster understanding or empathy for them; instead, it cultivates judgment. Never mind neoliberal trade policies and the decimation of unions; the rise of Wal-Mart and contingent employment; crummy public education and spatial inequalities with respect to a wide range of services and infrastructure. Never mind the demise of the safety net. According to Vance, “hillbillies” — his label for working-class whites — just need to pull themselves together, keep their families intact, go to church, work a little harder, and stop blaming the government for their woes.
In spite of this message — or perhaps because of it — Hillbilly Elegy has made J.D. Vance a very rich and famous man. Pruitt argues that elites and our nation more broadly have embraced Hillbilly Elegy and given Vance a national platform because, on some level, he confirms a story we tell ourselves. As Vance acknowledges, he is the American Dream personified. His tale — as he curates it — is one of industry and (apparent) meritocracy, a tale that affirms our nation’s core values and aspirations.
What Vance does not talk about is his privilege — male, white-ish (acknowledging that those of the milieu from which Vance came are often at the fringe of whiteness) and urban-ish (or at least not rural). Vance also does not talk about the role of the state as a positive force that facilitated his upward trajectory to the Ivy League and beyond. He also does not appear to see that he is actually an outlier, the exception to the rule. Upward mobility in the United States has been declining for decades and, indeed, many who were previously “middle class” by some definition (demarcations of socioeconomic class categories are notoriously ill-defined) are now facing downward mobility, along with attendant despair.
While the widespread fascination with Vance and his story in national public discourse is a function of many phenomena, Pruitt highlights three that shed light on race, race relations, and racial politics in 21st century America. First, the chattering classes’ “shock and awe” response to Hillbilly Elegy — “(white) people actually live like that?” — suggests widespread ignorance of white socioeconomic disadvantage and the dysfunction it frequently spawns. One reason for such ignorance is that the public face of socioeconomic distress in America is almost exclusively Black or Brown.
Second, the widespread praise of Hillbilly Elegy suggests that elites across the political spectrum are willing to make scapegoats of poor whites. Progressives would vigorously protest Vance’s tough-love stance if he were writing about poor Black and/or Brown people, calling them lazy and criticizing their “bad choices.” Most progressives seem unfazed, however, that Vance’s assessments and policy proposals throw low-income whites under the proverbial bus.
The third revelation about race is closely related to the second. Vance’s tale confirms the way in which white elites — including those on the left — see themselves: as products of a meritocracy that levels the playing field for all, or at least for those with white skin. Further, Hillbilly Elegy confirms the way elite and middle-class whites typically see low-income, low-education whites — as defilements of whiteness.
Keywords: Race, Racial Politics, Socioeconomic Class, Whiteness, White Trash, Class Migration, American Dream, Higher Education
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