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Dying for your political beliefs

Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment… by Jonathan M. Metzl, Basic Books, US $32.00, Pp 340, March 2019, ISBN 978-1541644984

President Trump won the presidential race by rallying white America behind him. Republican president promised that he would make their lives great again. Two years into the White House, President Trump’s policies are making his supporters’ lives sicker and shorter. Moreover, the rates of new graduates are falling. In Dying of Whiteness, Jonathan M. Metzl explores the effects of what became central GOP policy issues — loosening gun laws, repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA)  or enacting massive tax cuts that largely benefitted wealthy persons and corporations — on white population-level health. Jonathan M. Metzl argues that Trump supporters were willing to put their own lives on the line in support of their political beliefs. As a result, when viewed more broadly, actions that may have seemed from the outside to be crazy, uninformed or self-defeating served larger political aims. Had Southerners embraced the ACA and come to depend on its many benefits, it would have been much harder for politicians like Trump to block or overturn healthcare reform.

Metzl says that a host of conservative political movements emerged (or reemerged) in Southern and Midwestern states over the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries that brought into mainstream US politics once fringe agendas, such as starving the government of funding, dismantling social programs, or allowing free flow of most types of firearms. These movements, ranging from the Tea Party to iterations of libertarianism funded by the Koch brothers, to the Freedom Caucus — arose from the vastly different agendas and points of origins. However, their interest grew ever more aligned as they came to power in southern and Midwestern in ways that shaped state agendas, national GOP platforms, and policies of the Trump administration. As this played out, theories of backlash conservative gave way to something even more powerful: practices of backlash governance.

Metzl says that another consequence was that these agendas gained support by trumpeting connections to unspoken or overt claims that particular policies, issues, or decisions served also to defend or restore white privileges or quell threats to idealized notions of white authority represented by demographic or cultural shifts. Lower income communities were left behind by globalizing economies. Disenchantment with Democrats and the growing influence of corporate lobbies and mega-rich donors on party politics unquestionably played major roles.

Metzl argues that the policies that took shape when these once-fringe forms of conservative entered the mainstream GOP and assumed legislative power often negatively affected the health of middle- and the lower-income populations. While some of these policies and actions directly affected healthcare, others not expressly linked to health, such as the proliferation of civilian-owned firearms, nonetheless carried profound medical implications. White backlash politics gave certain white populations the sensation of winning, particularly by upending the gains of minorities and liberals; yet the victories came at a steep cost. Metzl says that a wide array of middle- and lower-income people experienced negative health consequences from these policy decisions. Minority and immigrant communities, often the targets of backlash’s ire, suffered greatly and needlessly.

Many lower and middle-income white Americans continued to support these policies and ideologies – with their inherent links to narratives of imagined victimhood and domination – even after their negative effects became apparent and promises made by politicians such as Trump unraveled. Metzl argues that white Americans in parts of the United States saw unprecedented drops in life expectancy over the time of my study. But instead of scrapping these state-level policies as examples of historically bad governance, they became the foundations for legislation at the national level, in the form of Trump-era tax bills, gun policies, healthcare strategies, and other ill-fated initiatives. As these policy agendas spread from Southern and Midwestern legislatures into the halls of Congress and the White House, ever-more white Americans are then, literally, dying of whiteness. This is because white America’s investment in maintaining an imagined place atop a racial hierarchy — an investment in a sense of whiteness — ironically harms the aggregate well-being of US whites as a demographic group, thereby making whiteness itself a negative health indicator.

Dying of Whiteness is an insightful study of the consequences of the Republican Administration’s policies. Jonathan M. Metzl goes to the American heartland to find out how the politics of white supremacy are hurting the white population as much — if not more — as they hurt others. With the help of statistical evidence, M. Metzl shows that Republican policies make all Americans sicker as healthcare system deteriorates and their lives shorter as the gun culture spreads. He argues that the graduation rates are falling as a result of these policies. This nuanced and meticulously researched book is packed with spine-chilling scientifically-collected data. M. Metzl argues that President Trump may have accelerated deterioration of health and increased the suicide rate, they preexisted his administration and will continue to exist after he leaves the White House. Dying of Whiteness is an indictment of the Republican racist politics and ideology.

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