Getting Better, or Worse, for Whom?

Getting Better, or Worse, for Whom?

On January 24, Nicholas Kristof printed a column reminding us (among other things) that our economy is getting harder. Five days later, in response to a separate incident, Megan McArdle had a piece reminding us that individual consumers are much better off than they used to be. Though making opposite arguments, the pieces shared a common flaw: they missed how much these stories are about race, especially whiteness.

Kristof’s piece was motivated by the death of a childhood friend, Kevin Green. Though coming from a similar background, Kristof became a very successful journalist while his friend ended up dependent on a combination of government aid, recyclables, and marijuana sales to get by. At the center of that story is a narrative about the changing economic possibilities over three generations.

With only a third-grade education, Kevin’s father Thomas “had a good union job as a cement finisher, paying far above the minimum wage.” By the time Kevin entered the workforce, the “local glove factory and feed store closed, and other blue-collar employers cut back. Good union jobs were hard to find.” Without steady, well-paying employment, each challenge added up until his life ended mostly out of his control. These problems were compounded for Kevin’s children: “They had trouble in school and with the law, jailed for drug and other offenses” like their father. “The upward mobility that had seemed so promising a generation ago turned out to be a mirage. Family structure dissolved, and lives became grueling – and shorter.”

One way to summarize this is to say that Kevin and his family lost out of the benefits that their race had afforded their ancestors. Those good union jobs that Thomas Green was able to get? Almost universally reserved for the white working class. When the jobs disappeared, so did the white privilege they supported. Kevin’s choice not to marry his children’s mother was one symptom of that change. And his own children’s condition? The key factor separating them from many of the nation’s non-white youth is being offered the ‘mirage’ of success in the first place.

McArdle’s piece looks back a bit further, to the late 19th and early 20th century, with special attention to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. Her focus is on consumption; in the books she finds evidence of how expensive things were, so that the family had to save up to buy something as basic as a tin cup. But in stressing the relative paucity of our ancestors’ cupboards, she misses the extent to which this is also a story about whiteness.

“The Ingalls family were in many ways bourgeoisie: educated by the standards of the day, active in community leadership, landowners. And they had nothing,” she writes. To recap, the Ingalls family had (a) access to education, (b) community status, and (c) land. That’s a long way from “nothing” and substantially more than almost any non-white Americans could claim at the turn of the century.

Nor does McArdle seem cognizant of the ways in which this continues to be a racial story today. Her focus, again, is on consumption. So she writes that “Most of the time, people were eating the same spare food three meals a day… This doesn’t sound romantic and old-fashioned; it sounds tedious and unappetizing.” A similar condition, reflected in concern about ‘food deserts,’ exists for many today and is especially prevalent among non-white populations. Affluent Americans sometimes look down their noses at the eating habits of the poor. But don’t you think the Ingalls family, faced with this monotony, would have been thrilled for a McDonald’s, with all those cheap, fast, flavor-loaded calories?

McArdle closes by declaring that, “In every generation, we forget how much poorer we used to be, and then we forget that we have forgotten… Somehow the simplest and most important fact — the immense differences between their living standards and ours — slides right past our eye.” Unfortunately, she seems to have focused too much on her own (white) forbearers and missed “the immense differences between [the] living standards” of many contemporary Americans.

I teach history and struggle to get my students to understand the past as more than a convenient source for simplistic moral lessons. Part of how I do that is to spend a lot of time on race. I do so because paying attention to race highlights the intricacies of our nation’s past. Neither Kristof’s story of declension nor McArdle’s tale of ascension reflect the real complexity of America’s actual history.

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a reform-minded historian, center-left Democrat, and religious believer.

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