April 14, 2020

Review: Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America's Heartland

Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America's Heartland Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America's Heartland by Jonathan M. Metzl
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Whenever I read a non-fiction book, I look first and foremost for (a) expertise on the subject; and (b) facts and figures to back up the assertions in the book. This is a given, obviously. However, next in line is (c) writing style, because with non-fiction, if the author isn't careful, they will wander into the weeds of their facts and figures and never come out again. It's good to be careful and meticulous about your subject, but you also need a clear, accessible writing style, and a sense of humor never hurts. One of my favorite non-fiction books is Dinosaurs Without Bones: Dinosaur Lives as Revealed By Their Trace Fossils, by Anthony J. Martin, which takes a complex and odd subset of dinosaur study (trace fossils, which includes such things as fossilized feces, urine and vomit) and makes it funny.

In one way, I suppose, that's comparing apples and oranges. Martin's book dealt with the far distant past, and Metzl's book deals with the here and now; and more importantly, with the white Americans who are, as he says, literally killing themselves with their racial resentment. Metzl certainly does his subject justice, breaking it down into three categories with accompanying examples: Missouri for gun injuries and deaths, Tennessee for health care, and Kansas for schools and a disastrous conservative-fueled economic "experiment." These larger categories have overlapping and interlocking subsets, and many of those, as Metzl demonstrates, trace back to "particular histories of race and place in America." From page 14:

For nearly two centuries, gun ownership was a privilege afforded mainly to white citizens in states such as Missouri, and guns became particular symbols as a result. Health insurance similarly represented a privilege afforded only to whites in many Southern states: through the antebellum period, insurers covered black bodies as property. Kansas became a national flashpoint for the limits of "separate but equal" public education, leading to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision in 1954.

(As with so many things in this country, peel away the thin, hard-won veneer of civilization and the original sin of white supremacy is right there, clamoring to be heard once again.)

The author lays out his research and conclusions in great detail, including many graphs and charts to make his points. All well and good, and no doubt necessary, given the conservatives who will inevitably pooh-pooh his conclusions. Still, I wish he could have taken a little bit lighter tone in the overall writing. Not to make fun of the subject or the people he's talking about--and I grant it would be a perilous tightrope to walk, trying to introduce a bit of humor without coming across as condescending--but the serious, almost stodgy writing style made for some hard going at times.

(Also, I don't know how the author kept his mouth shut during some of the interviews. He must have been biting his tongue the entire time. In a couple of them, I wanted to jump up and yell, "Are you even LISTENING to yourself?" My eyes would surely have popped out of my head, I would have been rolling them so hard. Especially the quote on page 264, from a Kansas City parent [after acknowledging that Trump's proposed policies were the very things this person called Kansas governor Sam Brownback a "total disaster" for implementing]: "My husband and his brother, and my nephew and all of his friends, are gonna support Trump no matter what he does. It's not all that much about his policies or anything. They just feel like, as white men in America, their voice wasn't being heard. Trump gave them their voice back." Gawd Almighty.)

This is an important book, no doubt. And given its subject matter, it had to be impeccably researched and documented. I just prefer a bit of lightness to my non-fiction, and while I can't blame the author for taking the tone he did, that lightness was nowhere to be found here.

View all my reviews

No comments: