Woe is Us: ‘What’s the Matter with White People?’

“There they were again, those elite do-gooders, trying to help blacks at the expense of white workers, with remedies that didn’t touch their own privilege. At the same time, it was getting hard to ignore that blacks and Latinos were having a hard time grabbing a rung of the ladder of middle-class opportunity that blue-collar unionized work provided to generations of white ethnics. And when they did get ahold of a rung, a workboot often came down on their fingers to kick them off.

— Joan Walsh, What’s the Matter with White People?

It’s a truism of the punditocracy that the Republican Party is now a party solely of white people. Although, like all generalizations, this “fact” can be Swiss-cheesed by reality, that doesn’t stop the commentating class from talking politics in a spectacularly tribal fashion. After listening to enough of this guff, it’s easy to imagine elections as some kind of battle royale, where conservative white retirees in Florida are arrayed against, say, Hispanic middle-class professionals in the West. Most shocking is how normal this is meant to be taken, as though every election and every issue is nothing but a zero-sum death match, with a limited amount of resources to be divvied up between clans.

The best parts of Salon editor-at-large and MSNBC analyst Joan Walsh’s (accurately self-described) “sprawling and eccentric” What’s the Matter with White People? study exactly that kind of thinking and how it came to poison the electorate in the aftermath of the great ’60s civil rights battles. In those sections, she writes with honesty, humor, insight, bravery, and pain, without trying to make it all go down easier by offering her readers ad hominem platitudes. The worst parts of the book, and there are many, come later as Walsh tries to follow her study of racial and political fault lines into the present day. There, she falls victim to many of the same tribal instincts that she more cogently dissected earlier on.

Walsh grew up a working-class Irish Catholic on Long Island in the ’60s, with plenty of cops and firemen and construction workers in her extended family. It was a good vantage point to study what she terms the “destruction” of that decade. Walsh was perched on the verge of a rapidly imploding city, surrounded by relatives who fled the boroughs’ increasing crime. She uses her relatives as examples of what were once termed “white ethnics”, taking shelter from the societal chaos in the assurance of something that felt more concrete and protecting than the wispy liberalism that they blamed for it all. In other words: Nixon.

Before she digs into that analysis, though, Walsh takes time to demolish one fairly recent bit of historical whitewashing. She takes on the theory advanced by some writers that earlier in American history Irish immigrants were just as low on the sociological ladder as enslaved blacks and so had suffered proportionally. Ultimately, though, no matter how shamefully Irish Catholics were treated by the Protestant elites, they were still not another person’s chattel. Instead of just dismissing this belief as simply “me too” identity politics used to deny another ethnic group’s claim to oppression (which is certainly part of the appeal to some Americans), Walsh uses it as a way to imagine a more positive and unified vision of the country, one that she was raised to believe in.

Black Irish Rage

A touchstone throughout the book is the story Walsh’s devoutly liberal father told her about how the so-called “black Irish” were actually descended in part from Spaniards and Moors. While calling this a historical “fairytale” (which most scholarship agrees with), she sees the possibilities inherent in a worldview that didn’t allow political forces to divide and conquer the American working class as the Republican Party so adroitly did in the early ’70s. Walsh’s narrative offers a bracing take on this period, which seems increasingly like the primary fulcrum of 20th century American history, perhaps even more than World War II.

Just as Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was grinding into action during the mid-’60s, other forces were gathering that would spell its doom in the eyes of many white Americans. Civil rights were expanding for American minorities at precisely the moment when the country as a whole was buffeted first by an apocalyptic wave of crime that seems unimaginable today:

“All grievances were becoming racial. My uncles came home from their jobs as cops and firefighters and steamfitters, in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, with endless stories of crime and arson… Though robbery rates had been stable up to that point in the twentieth century, they jumped fivefold between 1962 and 1967 and doubled again between 1967 and 1972.”

Later would come the rapid decline in manufacturing and other steadily-paying low-skilled jobs. The loss of those kind of jobs in the ’70s, which was not just when manufacturing and union jobs went into decline but also when Americans’ wages (as measured in today’s dollars) stopped their steady year-after-year increase. That one-two punch of crime and unemployment, all against a backdrop of increasing civil rights that were somehow blamed for it all, created a flammable environment that the GOP was all too happy to put a match to in the early ’70s.

Walsh describes how her fellow Irish Catholic writer Pat Buchanan outlined this race-based strategy for President Nixon in a 1971 memo:

“Put simply: Nixon’s operatives would look for ways to make the white working class think the Democrats were slavishly serving black people, while making black people think the Democrats were ignoring their rights and concerns… Buchanan advised that “bumper stickers calling for black Presidential and especially Vice Presidential candidates should be spread out in the ghettoes of the country.” A successful racial strategy could ‘cut the Democratic Party and country in half.'”

Another of Walsh’s touchstones stands in diametric opposition to her father’s story of melting-pot ethnic unity: Pete Hamill’s 1969 New York article “The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class”. Besides causing whiplash in readers familiar only with the magazine’s current incarnation as a gelato-soft organ of cosseted urban consumerism, the piece lays out the conflict of the time with burning-bush prose. Hamill pens a concerned lament for a group that he thinks felt stuck between “abject, swinish poverty” and “safe, remote suburban comfort”, viewed with contempt by cocktail party elites, who saw them as a loutish and racist mass: “Here comes the murderous rabble: fat, well-fed, bigoted, ignorant, an army of beer-soaked Irishmen, violence-loving Italians, hate-filled Poles.”

This was the city’s aggrieved white working class, who felt as though it was only minorities who were getting the breaks and felt a sense of bubbling rage exacerbated by the images fed to them by the media of poverty-stricken or rioting blacks. (Hamill acerbically notes, in snapshot-sharp prose that Walsh doesn’t even try to emulate: “Television never bothers reporting about the black man who gets up in the morning, eats a fast breakfast, says goodbye to his wife and children, and rushes out to work. That is not news.”) It’s this resentment, often correct but just as frequently an assumption made about a phantom, the idea that somebody, somewhere is looking down on you, that Walsh starts to tease apart in her taut, Technicolor early chapters.

She writes about how Al Smith, the half-Irish Lower East Side Catholic father of the New Deal, was a staunch New York progressive for years until he lost the Democratic nomination to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose old money and Harvard education made him the definition of elite. According to Walsh, resentment about the striking anti-Catholic bigotry witnessed in Smith’s defeat, plus the onset of the Depression, took the bloom off of Progressivism for many city Irish, who “fell prey” to the rabid anti-Semitic populism of Father Charles Coughlin.

There’s a fascinating thread of an idea here about the tendency of oppressed classes to turn on each other, buoyed by Walsh’s realistic view of the darker side of the Irish immigrant story. Refusing to believe it was all squared-jawed, flag-adorned bootstrapping, she makes sure to take a detour into the history of the Irish in mid-18th Century New York, when reformers “wanted to make sure the emerging black working class maintained a strong work ethic and good relations with employers and resisted the debauchery of the Irish.”

Walsh points out that the country’s largest domestic insurrection prior to the 1965 Watts riots were the Draft Riots of 1863, in which white mobs (largely Irish) rampaged through New York for days, frequently lynching any blacks they came across. Walsh writes that “the attacks on black men had a particular savagery that can only be described as sexual” and notes that it was “probably no accident” that the word miscegenation was coined that year by an Irish-American writer, who “depicted it as a nefarious abolitionist plot.” Later revisionist historians who tried to gin up fairy tales of cross-ethnic poverty-stricken unity would have to overlook reams of ugly details.

The Slide to Anger

Walsh should have gone further with this analysis, connecting the dots between the Draft Riots, Father Coughlin, and the final tilt to Republicanism and a sense of security in the Nixon years. She is able to write with colorful and complicated yearning about her Irish working-class past while being similarly tough-minded about it. One dagger-like aside describes Smith’s turn to conservatism as being “a familiar tale of understandable Irish resentment mixed with corrosive self-pity.” With that kind of approach, we could have ended up with a daring, empathic, and vivid ethnography that went beyond glowing nostalgia for a mythic pre-civil rights never-never land or condescending rhetoric about white ethnics clinging to guns and religion.

But too much of What’s the Matter with White People? strays from that thesis. As the book follows Walsh into adulthood out in California and her career as an activist and leftist journalist, it loses the thread. Changes in American polity, like the decline of the Democratic Party and ascension of the Republicans through the ’70s and ’80s, are treated in increasingly impersonal terms. Although Walsh includes some details about her personal life, she keeps readers at a distance, never displaying the kind of intimacy she did when talking about her childhood.

The book goes from meandering to worse when Walsh gets closer to the present day. Having spent a lot of time on cable news shows getting shouted at by conservatives, she seems to be using some of the later chapters here to settle a few scores. This is particularly the case with her bête noire Pat Buchanan, who she appears to view (not without reason) as some evil doppelganger, the Irish Catholic kid who went to the Dark Side of the Force. The more Walsh recounts these individual political debates, the more atomized her thesis becomes.

Eventually, the book starts to resemble a liberal’s thumbnail history of recent American political history, and a not particularly cogent one. (She goes from slamming the likes of former Indiana senator Evan Bayh as some kind of fake-Democratic sellout to criticizing liberals who voted for Ralph Nader because the Democratic candidates didn’t live up to their ideals; which will it be?) Often, her flippant tone turns too much of her writing into MSNBC-ready soundbites.

Walsh intelligently picks apart the uglier facets of modern liberalism (“Sometimes the cold demographic analysis of the Democratic Party’s future seems to come down to waiting for the white working class to die off.”). But the book never successfully ties its modern analysis back to the societal demolition of the ’60s and ’70s that she wrote about so powerfully earlier in the book, and which helped cleave a good part of white Americans from liberalism in general and the Democratic Party in particular.

Some of Walsh’s insights in the last chapters are truly eye-opening, such as when she writes about many conservatives’ “implicit assumption” that “if nonwhite people get more power and influence, they’ll wield it at the expense of white people, the way (many) white people did when the roles were reserved.” But there is little follow-through. Even worse, there is little of the empathy that Walsh showed earlier for relatives of hers whose conservative politics she denounced but in some sense understood. In classically liberal fashion, the book wrings its hands about the zero-sum racial and class conflicts of the past and present but offers little for the road forward but platitudes.

It goes without saying that Walsh’s question is never adequately answered; for how could it be?