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The myth of white innocence: A takedown of Hillbilly Elegy


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In the US, the book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance has been burning up best-seller lists this year—even before it got an unexpected bump from the rise of Donald Trump. The book examines the white working-class culture from which the author hails, suggesting that this culture is beset by a host problems, from deindustrialization to drug abuse and a lack of stable families. During the US presidential campaign, Vance became the de-facto mouthpiece for this demographic, which was instrumental in Trump’s electoral victory.

In The New Inquiry, John Thomason takes a scalpel to Hillbilly Elegy, which has even been praised by some liberals for supposedly shedding light on Trump’s surprising ascendence. Thomason argues that behind the book’s portrayal of whites as a maligned silent majority hides a belief in “white innocence”—that is, a belief that whites do not, in fact, enjoy any inherent advantages or privileges because of their race. This belief, writes Thomason, is central to conservative efforts to push back against social and economic gains made by people of color in recent decades. Read an excerpt of Thomason’s piece below, or the full text here.

But Charles Murray’s ideas about racial determinism are not the only ones still lying around. Another racial ideology is “lurking” in the background of Hillbilly Elegy, one so central to contemporary conservative thought that it doesn’t register as ideology at all. Call it racial innocence: Even as Vance wags his finger at the vices of his fellow hillbillies, he cannot help but insist on the innocence of their whiteness.

For decades, the explicit invocation of white supremacy has been anathema to American public life. If this was a welcome development, it was foolish to assume it would be a permanent one. Racial determinism was the Trump campaign’s center of gravity, from the candidate’s rise to prominence as a champion of the “birther” movement to his insistence that a Mexican-American judge would necessarily be biased against him. People like Murray have been peddling racial determinism for a long time, but Trump’s victory has made it a central tenet of the American right, rather than a fringe view it entertains with the occasional National Review article or think tank fellowship.

With its “ethnic component lurking in the background,” and with well-meaning liberals tacitly accepting its dubious racial claims, Hillbilly Elegy helps to normalize this thinking across the political spectrum. But while reactionary racial determinism spent decades in exile before its recent, triumphant return, an insistence on racial innocence never left the conservative mainstream. This ideology, too, is implicit in the book’s opening pages. Hillbilly Elegy asks us to accept that the Scots-Irish are fiercely loyal, quick to anger, and suspicious of outsiders. It’s just their culture. If the white working class is reacting badly to deindustrialization, as Vance argues, it is because of these innate characteristics.