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Privilege and the idea of myth

<p>Special to the Chronicle</p>

Special to the Chronicle

I read and appreciated Quinn Edwards’ (Pratt '22) excellent response to the Editorial Board’s spiteful, unproductive, and inconclusive March 29 rant about something-or-other pertaining to the unfortunate state of the Democratic primary. Quinn’s letter, which I encourage all to read, identifies the elusive and hypocritical nature of the Board’s argument.

I’m writing, however, to highlight one line in the piece that ought to disqualify the Board from commenting on any election. The Board rightly points out that President Donald Trump’s racially-coded rhetoric is the key strategy of his campaign and an obstacle to any challenger, but they claim that this ideology is based in “the myth of the declining white, working class male.”

The profound tone-deafness of this comment likely results from the vast overrepresentation of wealthy suburbs at Duke, and the resulting disinterest in rural—often meaning white—issues. From the vantage points of Alpharetta or Orange County or Weston or Greenwich, where white people tend to make it out all right, I imagine it would really seem that poverty is only a black and brown problem, and that white conservatives are primarily well-endowed, self-deceiving racists.

But spend a few days at the home of one of Duke’s handful of rural students, or drive 50 miles outside any Southern or Midwestern city, and the poverty you’ll see is nondiscriminatory. Think about the yearly drive to Beach Week, through rural North and South Carolina. Every year, I hear people at Myrtle joke gleefully about the junky and destitute towns along the way. Yet some sort of disconnect—perhaps the unsightly Confederate flags and “HELL IS REAL” billboards—prevents people from truly seeing the clear evidence of white poverty and government failure dotting the route to the beach.

I’m here to tell you that there is no myth, that the decline of every part of the working class is quite real, politically explosive, and only getting worse as incomes decline, costs of living rise, and an insidious insecurity sets in among blue-collar Americans.

I believe that Duke students’ hearts are usually in the right place. But having grown up in small-town Kentucky, amid the heroin crisis, declining education funding, vanishing state pensions, and the last gasp of the once-mighty coal industry, it hurts me deeply to see the daily struggles of friends and family members ignored and relegated to the status of a racist myth.

The Board fails to see that the real “myth” is not the decline of the so-called white working class; it’s the Right’s insistence that this decline is due to immigrants, climate protection, and taxes on the rich. Democratic candidates should not be scolded for reaching out to voters, including many of my high-school classmates, who are consistently ignored by the left and deceived by the right.

By doubling down on progressive purity tests and poking fun at candidates like O’Rourke or Biden or Booker or Klobuchar who preach unity, the Editorial Board is choosing to learn nothing from the 2016 election, the “basket of deplorables” fiasco, and the Clinton campaign’s colossal failure in the Midwest. It is also unintentionally showcasing its privilege. It’s incontestable that poverty is tied to race in America, but to think, as do the Board and many other progressives at Duke, of inequality in a purely abstract sense—as an academic metaphor for generations of racism rather than a policy-mediated calamity affecting the most vulnerable among every identity—is privilege incarnate.

The decline of the working class, white or otherwise, puts real lives at risk and poses an existential threat to democracy, as the past few turbulent years have shown us. Talk of a “myth of the decline of the white working class” frequently comes from the same mouths that lament rising inequality, environmental injustice, and weak education funding. This is all but an acknowledgement that for elite college students, and certainly for the Editorial Board, some people’s problems matter more than others’. I can only hope that the next time the Editorial Board considers the 2020 election, their attitude toward the crisis of the working class will be less cavalier. But I’m not counting on it.

Andrew B. Bates is a Trinity senior studying Public Policy and French.

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