America’s White Hands of Death
The phrase “political polarization” seems to be everywhere these days. Regardless of the topic, as the poles of political debates shift increasingly farther apart, the concept of a “common ground” on a diversity of issues continues to evaporate. This pileup of political opinions, polarized voting behaviors, and resulting “us vs. them” discourse produces support for policies that make some American’s lives objectively more difficult. In Dying of Whiteness, Metzl examines three state-level narratives illustrating how “politics that claimed on face value to bolster white America ended up making even white lives sicker, harder, and shorter” (p. 11). With case studies in Missouri, Tennessee, and Kansas, Metzl examines the health effects of disparate issues: gun control, health care, and how tax cuts impact schools. Race and place in America provide the connective tissue, illustrating how each is part of a much larger politics of resentment and ideology of whiteness among white Americans.
Metzl begins his analysis in Missouri, with perhaps the clearest example of the deadly consequences of an investment in an ideology of whiteness. Since 2007, Missouri lawmakers have annulled most city and regional gun regulations, expanded “stand your ground” laws, and widened access to concealed carry permits — all of which was pitched to voters using a thinly veiled appeal to white male supremacy. Politician Eric Greitens won a 2016 gubernatorial race by, among other strategies, passing out “ISIS hunting cards” (p. 76). White working and middle-class communities responded with overwhelming support of gun regulation rollbacks. In 2007, white men already dramatically dominated death-per-suicide-attempt data due to firearms suicide. However, as access to guns became both less regulated and more aggressively advertised as a symbolic defense of white masculinity, firearm suicides among white men increased, accounting for just shy of 8 in 10 gun suicides nationwide (p. 47).
Metzl also explored how the increasing prevalence of white men committing suicide by gun was understood by Missouri gun owners, some of whom lost loved ones as a result of gun legislation, access, and reform. One woman interviewed lost her nephew to suicide by gun. In describing her sister’s home, she related:
“There were four semi rifles under their bed that were not loaded, a Bushmaster and some others, but there was a 9mm Sig Sauer under the pillow that was fully loaded with a full clip and then an extra clip laying on the bedside nightstand. Then on his mother’s side of the bed, there was a .38 Special fully loaded. The kids had access to all of it.” (p. 92)
Metzl asked whether the suicide had changed her views about guns. Promptly, she claimed: “It absolutely has not changed my view about guns. This does not make me anti-gun.” By blaming the parents for gun safety issues, she defended her pro-gun identity and dodged the role that a gun culture that puts multiple firearms in a single home might play in producing more suicide deaths.
Metzl found that anything that might smell like compromise was “coded as treason” among those studied in this project, challenges to this logic did emerge, but only in one-on-one interviews — not in the focus groups. For instance, a daughter of a gun suicide victim began her interview with the company line — “I don’t blame the firearm” — echoing the NRA’s stance. However, later she shared, “I do believe… there should be some kind of background check done” (p. 93). Many survivors of victims of gun violence were critical of gun culture, but strategic about how and when they communicated these perspectives. Part of the brilliance and importance of this book is that Metzl carefully examines these trends from a macrosocial perspective while also analyzing the contradictions inherent in the identity politics giving rise to these trends by foregrounding the “gap [between] individual and collective narrative[s]” of gun suicide (p. 31) as told by people left behind.
Metzl moves next to Tennessee, where conservative state lawmakers stymied the Affordable Care Act with no alternative health care plan. Despite the fact that white Americans desperately need affordable health care, government support of health care remains taboo for the white working and middle class. Across U.S. history, public welfare spending, especially as it relates to health care, has been imbued with race and class politics. The dogma preached by conservative politicians is: your tax dollars are being taken by the government to support lazy racial and ethnic “others.” Consider Tom’s statement at a focus group Metzl assembled in Tennessee:
“I’m fifty-three, and I already had two heart attacks; I have a chronic cough… I’m fat, I smoke, my diet sucks. I work twelve hours a day flipping burgers, then I come back to my room, eat junk food, and watch TV and fall asleep. I’m a ticking time bomb, health-wise—I’ve got high blood pressure bad, just like my dad did, and he died young.” (p. 129)
Despite this, Tom opposed socialized health care solutions that would have provided him affordable care. “I ain’t supporting Obamacare,” he shared. “No way, no how… the dang thing costs too much” (p. 129). When pressed, “cost” emerged as a euphemism for racial tensions. Republican politicians had consistently drawn on deep-rooted racial animus as ammunition in their fight to demolish the ACA. White men overwhelmingly took up the mantle. Metzl refers to this discovery as “the health effects of ideology”—the racialized commitment among some whites to policies that worked to their disadvantage.
Through state-level comparisons, Metzl shows that if Tennessee had similarly adopted the ACA, between 6,365 and 12,013 white lives might have been saved. From the outset of Trump’s fight to repeal Obamacare, media outlets consistently reported how “Trumpcare” was particularly harmful in “Trump country.” In the end, media coverage of practical consequences didn’t matter. Trump’s base, whose focus (and voting record) on ideological white racial commitments proved stronger than what might have seemed a logical interest in self-care and preservation as Metzl’s work shows.
Metzl’s final case study takes him to Kansas. From 2011 through 2017, Kansas had become a case study in the effects of what Metzl terms “backlash conservatism,” resentment fueled conservative ideology that demands voters put aside self-interests in the name of ideological purity. In 2011, politician Sam Brownback based a successful campaign for governor on appealing to historic resentment toward the government, which flared after the election of President Obama. At the root of his administration’s policies was the popular delusion that eliminating government regulation on corporations and the wealthy was the best thing one could do for society; wealth would “trickle down.” Even compared with other trickle-down economists and politicians, Brownback was extreme. He tightened welfare requirements, nearly eliminated income taxes, sent back a $31.5 million in federal funds for the Affordable Care Act, allowed Kansans to carry concealed guns without permits, and slashed infrastructure and education budgets.
By the end of Brownback’s first term, among other consequences, historically renowned Kansas public schools were in steep decline. Minority school districts, without the buoy of parental donations, suffered the initial brunt of the budget cuts. It was not long, however, before white school districts were hit as well. As one legislator from Kansas told Metzl, “The fire that we set in the fields burned all the way up to the home” (p. 13).
Even as Kansas’ infrastructure deteriorated, Brownback described his administration’s enactments as “a choice between dependence and self-reliance, between intrusion and freedom” (p. 202). The language of racialized “intrusion” and “dependence” mirrored political rhetoric in Missouri and Tennessee. However, the consequences of such governance, viewed from above and in a comparative perspective, showed white racial resentment-fueled policies gave rise to political commitments that harmed white Americans, too. Metzl found that even whites who claimed to see the widespread damage these policies were producing for everyone were hesitant to speak out.
The state-level comparisons in Dying of Whiteness are a powerful method of gaining some analytical purchase on the complex ideological commitments (and the consequences of those commitments) Metzl sought to explain. These are deeply divisive issues. Metzl examines state-level policies surrounding access to firearms (in Missouri), health care (in Tennessee), and education (in Kansas) and is able to decipher, comparatively, the health effects of these policies.
What Metzl does so brilliantly in this book is point out these contradictions with demographic precision whilst also taking you inside the communities and lived experiences of those who hold such contradictory commitments enabling them to — quite literally — harm themselves to preserve their ideological commitments to whiteness. As Metzl concludes, “the construction of whiteness as a castle under siege, and the politics that sustain it, comes with certain benefits — such as the ability to carry guns in public without automatically being seen as suspect. However, this construction works over time to obscure the plagues that arise from within the castle walls” (p. 283).
Dying of Whiteness is a book that seriously considers the conservative white working and middle class of the “flyover states.” The book critically interrogates their investments in gendered and racialized ideologies of whiteness that harm white Americans in diverse ways while also discriminating against and harming so many others. It is a sobering and crucial work relevant to policymakers, journalists, researchers, health officials, and community members alike as each navigates and attempts to better understand and help an increasingly polarized nation.
Tristan Bridges is in the sociology department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He studies gender, sexuality, culture, and identity. Julia Maya Chatterjee is a graduate student in the sociology department at Oxford University. She studies race, ethnicity, and racial and ethnic identity formation.