A Book for Our Times
The white working class – this demographic group claimed center stage in American political discourse over the past year. I often see them dismissed as backwards, uneducated conservatives. Alternatively, we offer trite solutions for their plight without fully comprehending the problem.
In trying to fix them, we reduce them into caricatures: victims of fleeing manufacturing jobs, poor education or their own intolerance. Tackling these issues in isolation does nothing to help us understand the people: their struggles, their desires and their lives.
In his timely memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance elucidates what it feels like to grow up in white, working class America by chronicling his life in Appalachia. Here, people revere America like a God, parents and children engage in a never ending cycle of abuse, neglect and abandonment, and the rational response to offhand slights against one’s mother is to “run a chainsaw up and down the body” until the offender nearly bleeds to death.
To millions, his stories probably feel achingly familiar, but to me they often read more as fiction than reality.
Although the community features prominently, Vance’s anecdotes center on his family: a drug-addicted mother, revolving door of father-figures, sister he idolizes and Mamaw, the grandmother who unequivocally saved him. They are simultaneously the best and the worst of people, loving and hating with equal fervor.
“Hill” people (as Vance affectionately call them) carry deep flaws, scorned by circumstance and their own decisions. They run from opportunities and relationships, only to turn around and blame the world for not chasing after them. Education, as vital to my upbringing as oxygen, hardly matters. After all, only the lucky and the brilliant triumph.
Vance himself critiques the pervasive lack of agency as he alternated between two identities: Appalachian hillbilly and Yale Law graduate. Neither money nor education distinguished the two as much as optimism.
Loyalty also runs deep in the community. The people breathe and bleed together, guarded against those who look, act, and most importantly, talk different. In place of money and status, they cling to their identities. However, the pride and honor that fuels their lives also drives them away from the rest of the world.
Despite their flaws, these people, like all people, deserve understanding, not pity or scorn; stories instead of statistics. Numbers may not lie, but they can’t always tell the whole truth either. Economics, surveys and data, though important, rarely foster cooperation, communication or compassion.
Similarly, Vance’s story should not serve as a diagnosis nor a prescription. It marks the beginning of a conversation.
I will never truly know what it means to grow up with poverty in my blood, to bear the scars of childhood trauma, to see success as an impossibility.
Vance – straight, white, male and Protestant – was not.
About the Author:
Vicky is a curious undergraduate student currently pursuing two degrees in economics and statistics at the University of Maryland. She tries to integrate knowledge from a wide variety of different fields to craft her understanding. Her goal is to encourage people to think critically.