Op-Ed

What ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ reveals about race in 21st-century America

Lisa R. Pruitt
Lisa R. Pruitt

Editor’s Note: This excerpt appears in Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy, published earlier this year by West Virginia University Press.

My initial response to the publication of Hillbilly Elegy and the media hubbub that ensued was something akin to pride. I was pleased that so many readers were engaged by a tale of my people, a community so alien to the milieu in which I now live and work. Like Vance, I’m from hillbilly stock, albeit the Ozarks rather than Appalachia. Reading the early chapters, I laughed out loud—and sometimes cried—at the antics of Vance’s grandparents, not least because they reminded me of my childhood and extended, working-class family back in Arkansas.

I appreciated Vance’s attention not only to place and culture, but to class and some of the cognitive and emotional complications of class migration. I’m a first-generation college graduate, too, and elite academic settings and posh law firms have taken some getting used to. Vance’s journey to an intellectual understanding of his family instability and his experience grappling with the resulting demons were familiar territory for me. In short, I empathize with Vance on many fronts.

Yet as I read deeper into Hillbilly Elegy, my early enthusiasm for it was seriously dampened by Vance’s use of what was ostensibly a memoir to support ill-informed policy prescriptions. Once I got to the part where Vance harshly judges the food stamp recipients he observed while bagging groceries as a high school student, I was annoyed by his highly selective dalliances into the social sciences and public policy. A few more chapters in, Vance was advocating against the regulation of payday lenders, and I began to realize that Hillbilly Elegy was a net loss for my people.

The chattering classes’ “shock and awe” response to Hillbilly Elegy—(white) people actually live like that?!?—demonstrates apparent widespread ignorance of white socioeconomic disadvantage and the dysfunction it frequently spawns, a feedback loop that, in recent years, has taken on the character of a death spiral. One reason for such ignorance is that the public face of poverty in America today is almost exclusively Black or Brown. Only in the aftermath of the 2016 election has the media renewed attention to white socioeconomic disadvantage. Also, the widespread praise of Hillbilly Elegy suggests that elites across the political spectrum are willing to make scapegoats of poor whites. Progressive folks (among whom I count myself) would vigorously protest Vance’s tough-love stance if he were writing about poor people of color, calling them lazy and criticizing them for “bad choices.” Most progressives seem unfazed, however, that Vance’s assessments and policy proposals throw low-income whites under the proverbial bus.

One very poignant vignette in J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy comes in the book’s conclusion. Vance holds up fifteen-year-old Brian, whom Vance is mentoring, as an illustration for what our country—and “hillbillies”—are getting and doing wrong. Vance writes of taking Brian to a fast-food restaurant and noticing “little quirks that few others would,” such as the fact that Brian didn’t want to share his milkshake and that the young man “finished his food quickly and then looked nervously from person to person. I could tell that he wanted to ask a question, so I wrapped my arm around his shoulder and asked if he needed anything. ‘Y-Yeah,’ he started, refusing to make eye contact. And then, almost in a whisper: ‘I wonder if I could get a few more french fries?’ He was hungry. In 2014, in the richest country on earth, he wanted a little extra to eat but felt uncomfortable asking. Lord help us.”

Vance’s outrage is palpable, and justifiably so. I share that outrage. I have often wondered what people who fail to support food programs (e.g., SNAP/food stamps, free and reduced-price school lunches) think they are accomplishing by keeping kids hungry. I tend to conclude that this stance is explained by a desire to visit the sins of the parents (perceived or real) on their children. Never mind that hungry kids don’t perform well in school, are more likely to have disciplinary problems, and—as a result—further aggravate parental stress. Never mind that when kids go hungry, their potential is thwarted, and their future—as well as that of our nation—is put at risk. Childhood hunger is a pipeline to adult dysfunction.

Yet Vance is apparently among those who see no role for food programs that could alleviate Brian’s hunger. His solution to hungry kids like Brian is for their parents to get and stay married and go to church. His solution is for Brian’s parents not to be white trash. But marriage and church don’t feed the kids, regardless of the kids’ skin color. Why, then, are liberals not outraged at Vance’s policy prescription for a hungry white teenager in Appalachian Kentucky? Progressives would be apoplectic if Vance were saying this about a hungry Black teenager in Detroit?

This acceptance of Vance’s message by elite whites across the political spectrum is bad news for people of color as well as for poor whites because it is one more way in which affluent whites prevent cross-racial coalition building among the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Indeed, it reminds me of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed about white elites during Reconstruction, about the genesis of the Jim Crow era: that elite whites used Jim Crow to segregate the races, to thwart coalition building, to prevent poor whites from seeing what they had in common with Blacks.

Elite whites are still driving wedges between poor whites and Blacks, though I would like to think progressive elites are doing so unwittingly. But vilifying poor whites while expressing concern for the interests of poor Blacks only drives deeper that wedge between two constituencies who desperately need to be in coalition with each other. The acceptance of Hillbilly Elegy’s politics—a politics inflected with race as much as with class—is yet more evidence of that unfortunate phenomenon.

Lisa R. Pruitt is Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Law at the University of California, Davis. She has written extensively about rurality, whiteness, and class, including “Welfare Queens and White Trash” (2016), “ False Choice between Race and Class” (2015), “ Geography of the Class Culture Wars” (2011), and “Rural Rhetoric”

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