Loss is hard. It causes grief, underlies insecurity, and initiates cascading effects that go far beyond those immediately affected. Of all the things that are hard to lose, it seems that one of the worst is privilege. Especially privilege that one hadn’t fully realized one had to begin with.
In a follow-up to their own study on mortality and morbidity in the 21st century Princeton Professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton offer several explanations for their study’s surprising conclusion: that life expectancy in middle-aged, white, non-Hispanic Americans is decreasing. This is new, and it’s not true for non-whites in the same geographic locations, with the same education, economic situations, and ages. The authors estimate that up to half a million deaths from 1999-2013 can be attributed to this previously unseen effect. (This is comparable to the U.S. AIDS epidemic.) Perhaps even more amazing is that the cause of all these “extra” deaths is not violence, disease, or hunger. Although Case and Deaton make a valiant effort to avoid judgment and stick to the facts, it’s pretty clear that the segment of the population experiencing increased “deaths of despair” (deaths by drugs, alcohol, and suicide) is the same one that has traditionally–at least in this country–benefited most from privilege: privilege that came at the expense of racial inequality.
The data from the follow-up report shows some very specific features. First, these “deaths of despair” seem highly sensitive to level of education. The less education one has, the more likely one is to die of drugs, alcohol, or suicide. Second, age is also a factor. These deaths are happening at mid-life, for those 45-55 years of age. (I myself am in this age range.) Finally, the effects are happening to white, non-Hispanic Americans. If you look at the same demographic in other parts of the world, or people with different racial backgrounds here in America, you won’t see the same effect. Geographically, the effect showed up earliest in the American southeast and, to a lesser degree, central and southwestern states. Since then it’s become more widespread, but it still seems strongest in areas where racial inequality has been most pronounced.
A story that seems to come up a lot in this data is unmet expectations: the younger, now-middle-aged generation is realizing that they aren’t going to have a better, easier, or more prosperous life than their elders. Maybe not even as good as their elders’. This is unexpected, because it goes against a historical trend of ever-growing prosperity…for members of the majority…in areas where minorities were historically exploited.
After decades of struggle, “social engineering,” and changing demographics, the privilege of the white majority is beginning to come to an end. It’s clearly not over yet, but it’s beginning to end. The election of an African-American to the Presidency was by far the most visible sign. So it stands to reason that this rise in “deaths of despair” among middle-aged, non-Hispanic whites coincides with Barack Obama’s term in office.
But it’s more than signs and portents. A black President might be highly visible, but the changes in the legislative and judicial climate over these past decades have been even more powerful. We’ve actually begun dismantling some of the apparatus of racial inequality and injustice in this country and replacing it with safeguards against recurrence, and it’s hitting the formerly privileged in their pocketbooks.
It used to be easy for uneducated whites to get jobs. There were always minority workers who could be displaced so a member of the privileged majority could have a job. Whites had all sorts of nifty social privileges (clubs, restaurants, seats, offices, titles, etc.) that could make up for a lack of education or income by feeding the ego. You didn’t even need to know that you were privileged to receive the benefit of privilege: it just happened like magic. The odds were always in your favor, whether you knew it or not.
The well-educated and wealthy also benefited from white-majority privilege, of course. But they had the additional benefits of their education and economic backgrounds, and these haven’t changed much during recent decades. In fact, economic inequality has been getting much worse. And despite the recent attacks on education and the educated, we have a very long way to go before intelligence becomes a disadvantage in this country. So, the people most affected by the loss of white privilege are the uneducated and the poor.
Racial and social injustices are still here: make no mistake. But changes are beginning to have an effect. For those who previously benefitted from this privilege–especially those who benefitted without realizing it–what it feels like is a growing inhospitality. The odds are less favorable. Everything is a little bit harder. The little social perks that used to make us feel good about ourselves when money was lacking–exclusive clubs or services–are no longer here. We’re not special anymore, even though we never realized we were special before.
It’s a loss. A real loss. And it does lead to grief and insecurity. And the effects are cascading throughout our society. It’s no wonder we see a rise in xenophobia and racial violence. It’s no wonder we see a rise in fear and insecurity among whites. It’s no wonder we see a white, wealthy man, with a self-proclaimed reputation for winning, elected to follow Barak Obama: a man who promises to be “strong on borders” and who will “keep us safe” and who will “make America great again.” Simply by saying those things–without providing any specific plans or possessing any relevant skills–Donald Trump tapped into the powerful sense of fear and insecurity that the former majority has been feeling at the loss of their privilege.
Perhaps the most insidious part of it all is that most of the people who are feeling this loss don’t even understand what they’ve lost or why. They don’t realize how privileged they, their parents, and their grandparents were. They’ve never fully acknowledged their place in the system of social injustice. So they can’t see what they’ve lost, and they can’t know what will make them feel better. They just know they want something to return that was here before but is now gone. Something they can’t admit they want. Something they don’t want to believe existed in the first place.
At some point, the former majority will need to come to grips with what they’ve lost and why. They’ll need to consciously decide whether it’s a bad thing or–just maybe–a good thing. At some point, it will become obvious that in order to repair the damage caused by racial and social injustice, the formerly privileged must lose something. Maybe we can figure it out in time to take comfort from our loss of unjust privilege, rather than grief. Maybe we’ll decide that what we’re experiencing isn’t really a loss so much as a shedding, and that the result isn’t really a hardship, but an opportunity to live a fairer life, on equal footing with those surrounding us. Like other addictions, we must acknowledge our problem before we can free ourselves of it. To be honest, my fear isn’t that we’ll lose our privilege. My fear is that we’ll take overly long getting rid of it.