The Problem of Power and “Strangers in their Own Land”

I didn’t like the book Strangers in their Own Land. I am not alone in this opinion. I found it infuriating, cavalier, and almost willfully ignorant.

However, the book has been overwhelmingly well-received by critics. It is a New York Times Bestseller among other accolades. Arlie Hochschild’s book is an ethnographic account of working and middle-class whites in Louisiana. Hochschild spent 5 years talking to residents and coincidentally happened upon the phenomenon of the rise of our current president. The premise is interesting, and I was intrigued by it initially. The psychology of people unlike myself fascinates me. Yet reading it was a course in disappointment.

There is a degree of what critical scholars call “the epistemology of ignorance” that informed this scholarship (See: Charles Mills 1997; Sullivan and Tuana 2007).

Simply put, the most significant weakness of the book it is that it all but ignores the fact that poor and disaffected whites have power in society. They have systemic and social power today and yesterday and since their arrival in a hierarchical system that denied enslaved Africans literal rights to humanity.

Poor whites had power over black people when they were overseers, slave catchers, and founding members of the Klan and its various offshoots. These angry and economically depressed whites have power when politicians use dog whistles over and over to denigrate and dehumanize people of color, Muslims, and immigrants (who are racialized as people of color). Their economic fates are worse off with right-wing Conservative policymakers, yet their social graces are favored by the array of representatives who spend hours daily finding ways to ban abortion, punish the poor, close public schools, further ghettoize the ghetto, beat the drum of war, terror, and fear from the “other”. These blue-collar Americans have power when their white skin protects them from having to live in the poorest, most destitute neighborhoods (see: Eviction by Matthew Desmond to learn more about poor whites whose biggest fear remains living amongst black people).

Poor whites have power when they are recruited to racial terrorist groups while people of color are the recipients of their terror.

Poor whites have power when their blue-collar unions hang on because they work hard to keep their social networks nepotistic and white (see: Race and the Invisible Hand: How White Networks Exclude Black Men from Blue Collar Jobs by Deirdre Royster).

Poor whites have power when they can cling to the fictive and audacious notion that “their” land is being taken away.

Poor whites have power when the outcome of the election blames Democrats for their corporatism and black and brown folk for “not turning out” rather than bigotry and racism that fueled the current president’s campaign trail. Or even the voter disenfranchisement that suppressed hundreds of thousands of votes.

Poor whites have power when they are taught that “social justice warriors”, so-called liberals and black activists, are to blame for the country’s problems and extreme dissension — and white journalists and politicos agree with them.

“Power” here means “white privilege” which really means “white supremacy”. Simply put, white supremacy means that a society is structured to provide access and opportunities to whites while simultaneously denying access to people of color. Further, whiteness is upheld as normal and superior while non-whites are naturalized as strange and inferior (see: Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, James Baldwin, and Michael K. Brown).

Therefore, a book written to evoke a “humanizing” story about people who lack full humanity (read: empathy) is cognitive-dissonance overload.

The theoretical contribution of the book is Hochschild’s concept of the “deep story”. It explains how and why our beliefs shape our actions. The deep story is: “a story that feels as if it were true. As though I were seeing through Alice’s looking glass, the deep story was to lead me to focus on a site of long-simmering social conflict, one ignored by both the “Occupy Wall Street” left — who were looking to the 1 and the 99 percent within the private realm as a site of class conflict — and by the anti-government right, who think of differences of class and race as matters of personal character. The deep story was to take me to the shoulds and shouldn’ts of feeling, to the management of feeling, and to the core feelings stirred by charismatic leaders. And, as we shall see, everyone has a deep story.” 16

The deep story of these folks is that they are anti-government, right-wing, conservative, and militantly so — even to the point of death.

Hochschild repeats that she did not intend to judge these good, nice Southern folks for their “deep story”. The deep story is filtered with racist, sexist, classist (and more) language which reflects larger structures far beyond these “good folks”. There may not be a monolith of a Trump voter, but there are strongholds that remain firmly embedded: Capitalism is good. Multiculturalism is bad. Black people are undeserving. Immigrants are criminal (and undeserving). The Obamas are not “real” Americans. The best kind of folks are hard working white folks — rich or poor. Social liberalism is bad. Yes, this is the story that each of her respondents affirmed was true for them. Here is the excerpt from the book written from the perspective of one of the working-class white person’s “deep story”. Hochschild states that each of her respondents read and approved of this example.

Primarily, this is not a book that forces the reader to think more deeply or critically about a sociological phenomenon. Her book reflects what scholars of inequality have written for literally centuries. Poor whites have paid the psychological wages of whiteness (see W.E.B Du Bois; Roediger 1991). Whiteness as a social construct is central here. Central to this is a “possessive investment” which relies upon broad discord: The distrust of people of color (especially black people), the obstinate refusal to co-operate with the “Other”, the resistance to education, the fervent commitment to upholding white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy.

These folks feel ‘betrayed’ by their country — but not wealthy millionaires. The true enemies are the takers, entitled young people, feminists, “socialists”. I would write black people, but you could guess that without me even saying it, right? This “deep story” is not limited to these Bayou folks.

The lack of novelty in the book is not why I disliked it. I disliked it so fervently because it demands of the reader something that Hochschild admits the respondents do not have — empathy. Understanding. Were she to present this information for what it is — white supremacy as a destructive force to humanity, I would have appreciated it. Yet the notion that there is a deep psychological programming that most liberals don’t “get”, and if we can “get it”, we can learn better how to connect to these people and bring the country together is downright abusive to the target groups of their animus.

You mistrust Michelle Obama because she has Ivy League degrees and doesn’t appear grateful enough? What is it that I, Ivy-League degree holding black woman who has “a lot to be mad about” (thanks, Solange), have to offer you? Empathy that you withhold from people like me?

Hochschild’s fatal flaw is that she conflates being a good person with not being a racist. Study after study shows us that whites say and do very different things in regards to their views about integration: in housing, schooling, employment, and social relationships. Further, “racists” do not necessarily need to be members of the Klan. This is racism 101. Rather, these good ol’ folks who were nice to you may have mistrust and animus toward people who look like me. Does it matter at this point, if they are good people or racists? Would the better question not be — how can we protect marginalized groups from these powerful, poor white folks? Or perhaps, why is it so important for liberal whites to impel empathy for folks like this? I suspect it is because every white person, regardless of their class or party affiliation, has a racist white person that they deeply care for. A more laudable goal would be to educate ourselves about white supremacy as a system and the pitfalls of liberal racism (see: Good White People by Shannon Sullivan). I sincerely hope Dr. Hochschild will read books by sociologists like Sullivan and Matthew Hughey and consider why she did not entitle this book about aggrieved white folks something more suitable. Maybe Waiting in Line: The Deep Story of Southern White Racism.

There is already an academic text called Strangers in their Own Land. It’s about the theft of Mexican land by the American colonialists. I suppose re-appropriating that story’s title was apropos for a book underscoring the perceived lack of power of poor whites.

What is strange about these “strangers” is how unaware they are of their own power.