“Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland,” by Jonathan M. Metzl, Basic Books, NY 2019. This 342-page hardback looks at racism in the US. The author especially focuses on midwestern states: Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Kansas. The book explores central GOP issues–loosening gun laws, repealing the Affordable Care Act, and tax cuts for the wealthy. Gun and health insurance policies affect health and mortality far more directly than taxation or education.
Liberal gun laws in Missouri are examined. Amendment 5 passed in 2014 allowed citizens to keep and bear arms for defense of one’s person, family, home and property. In 2016, Senate Bill 656 eliminated permits, training, education, or background checks to carry concealed weapons. A study found that repeal of Missouri’s permit to purchase handgun law in 2007 increased the homicide rate by 25%. Cape Girardeau in Southeastern Missouri is overwhelmingly white and Republican. In 2015 88.3% were white and voted heavily for Trump in 2016. Guns are part of culture in white rural Missouri and often proudly so. Guns mean protection, self-preservation, and patriotism. Freedom, liberty, and patriotism.
Gun rights are strongly protected in Congress. In 1996 Congress banned federal funding of gun research including gun violence prevention research. Firearms are major contributors to suicide. Roughly 85% of firearm suicide attempts are fatal. From 2009 to 2015, the gun suicide rate among non-Hispanic whites increased steadily by 17.6%. Non-Hispanic white men accounted for 80% of gun suicides in the US while they are 35% of the population. Women are three times more likely to attempt suicide but the pills or poisons they choose are less lethal. (In this era Jews and Italians were not recorded as whites.)
After the Sandy Hook shooting in 2014, the link between .223 rifles and masculinity became a liability. The privilege of white gun ownership emerged as a symbol of white male authority in the Southern US. White privilege allows one with a gun to distinguish themselves from the bad guys and to demonstrate masculinity. Real men own guns.
In England, gun ownership was restricted to the wealthy. In colonial America, poor white people were allowed firearms to quell rebellions. Slaves and free blacks were excluded from the original Second Amendment. After Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831, strict laws blocked blacks from owning guns. Slave Codes banned gun ownership by slaves and free blacks. K-K-K was originally organized to confiscate guns owned by blacks after the Civil War.
In the 1970s and 80s, the corporate gun lobby converted the NRA from a sporting and rifleman’s organization to a lobbyist organization that reinterpreted the Second Amendment. It gave the citizen the right to keep and bear arms to protect himself, his family and his freedoms. Concealed carry laws were passed in 44 states. Guns everywhere and stand your ground laws expanded those rights. The US gun industry grew exponentially. Gun ownership increased by 70MM in the US, by far the highest rate in the world. The US has 4.43% of the world population and 42% of the privately owned guns. Most guns are owned by white men.
In 1995, Connecticut passed PTP requirements. That reduced the firearm suicide rate. Missouri’s firearm suicide rate increased after repeal of its PTP handgun law.
Charts compare firearm suicide rates. A 1999 to 2015 chart shows New York and Connecticut with low steady rates; Florida, Texas and Missouri are more than twice as high. Missouri’s rate has increased steadily since 2007 and is five times that of New York. A chart comparing rates in Missouri shows white males increasing steadily from 2007. The black male rate fell steadily and is about one third the white male rate. The white female rate is steady and much lower. In Connecticut, white males have the highest rate; black males a steady decline; white females steady and lowest.
Whiteness is in crisis due to anomic suicide when people lose a feeling of usefulness. It’s attributed to a disconnect between personal lives and society perhaps from mass industrialization. One factor is the loss of good paying union jobs and the decline of manufacturing in the US.
The suicide rate for African Americans is much lower, but they are more likely to die by homicide. Blacks were 55% of shooting homicides vs 13% of the population; whites were 25% of victims vs 65% of the population. Homicide is the second largest cause of death for people aged 15 to 34 years and the leading cause for blacks in that age group. Metzl does not discuss urban crime, gangs, or drugs.
Trump campaigned to end Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Many Southern and Midwest states refused to expand Medicaid, resisted insurance market places, and relied on single insurers. In 2017, Trump claimed his tax reform bill repealed ACA, and he promised something better. Congress eliminated the penalty for failure to insure and canceled the tax on Cadillac plans. African American men favored ACA but white men did not support a law that provided care to minorities and immigrants.
Tennessee has no state income tax. Many in the state fell in the donut hole: could not afford insurance but made too much to qualify for Medicaid. ACA removed the cap on lifetime benefits. The Supreme Court reviewed ACA and ruled it ok in June, 2012, but the feds could not force states to expand Medicaid.
In the early 1990s, Tennessee enacted TennCare intended to expand access to health care and control rising costs. The state paid only 9% of the cost, the rest went to the feds. It provided care to the seriously ill and mentally ill. High registrations forced the state to limit eligibility. Costs ballooned. By 2012, the program was failing. The experience made Tennessee fearful of the cost of ACA. Missouri’s Proposition C blocked ACA participation.
Southern hospitals desegregated after passage of Medicare in 1965. Reagan called the program medical socialism. Gov. Haslam in Tennessee opposed Medicaid expansion due to cost but also felt that feds should not force people to buy a product. Concerns about cost were not justified. The federal government paid 93% until 2022 and no less than 90% thereafter.
In 2012, studies in Arizona, Maine, and New York found that Medicaid expansion resulted in lower mortality. Kentucky adopted Medicaid expansion. Charts show the number of uninsured dropped sharply from 17% to 10%. Expansion resulted in more use of the emergency room raising costs.
High premiums, under insurance, and high deductibles remain problems. Studies found Medicaid cost effective for low income people. Use of preventive medicine increased and health improved. Insured people go to doctors sooner rather than waiting for a crisis. Elizabeth Warren found that 62.1% of bankruptcies in 2007 were medical.
Kansas is compared to Missouri. For years Kansas was progressive. In Kansas City, crossing the state line revealed a difference. The Kansas side was cleaner. Missouri had a larger black population and black school districts were under resourced and overcrowded. Integration resulted in massive white and middle-class black flight giving a smaller tax base and chronic money shortages. In the 1990s Kansas routinely ranked in the top ten states high school diplomas, reading and writing proficiency, and college degrees. That changed when Kansas adopted austerity politics and cut taxes under Gov Sam Brownback in 2011. His program was supported by the Koch brothers of Wichita (sponsors of the Tea Party). The state income tax was cut from 6.45% to 3.9%. Taxes in top brackets were reduced by 25% and eliminated for 200,000 businesses and landowners. The goal was zero income taxes.
He eliminated many regulations. Corporations who donated to private school scholarship funds got tax breaks. Schools could hire unlicensed teachers. Experienced teachers were easier to fire. Property taxes were cut. Brownback thought lower taxes would grow the economy. Funds for infrastructure were cut. Reductions in public transit, housing, and police and fire protection followed. Road repairs fell from 1200 miles to 200 miles per year. Borrowing increased. The state bond rating was reduced. By 2016 the Kansas austerity experiment was a failure. Most of the cuts were repealed in 2017.
The Laffer idea that tax cuts grow the economy is discussed. In Kansas, the tax cuts went mostly to the wealthy; costs for lower income families increased. The Koch Brothers supported the John Birch Society which campaigned against civil rights. John Birch Society funded billboards calling for the impeachment of Earl Warren, chief justice of the Supreme Court after the Brown vs Education school desegregation decision. Brown vs Education was filed in Topeka. Brownback supported school choice, but the funds mostly went to schools connected to churches.
In the US adults without a high school diploma can expect to die nine years sooner than college graduates. Those with professional degrees live longer. College graduates have lower rates of diabetes. Charts show changes in math scores in Kansas after the cuts. All three groups–blacks, whites and Hispanics–had significant declines. Graduation rates slowed. Democrats continue to believe colleges have a positive effect; Republicans became decidedly more negative in 2016.
In a discussion of the castle doctrine and the Michael Brown shooting, St. Louis is described as one of the most segregated cities in America. Failure to expand Medicaid resulted in less health care for the disadvantaged.
This book is thought provoking. It trends in the liberal direction but points out how deeply racism is ingrained in our society. That impacts gun rights, health care, and education. He argues that gun rights are influenced by racism. References, charts, index.