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Newsweek and the misunderstanding of ‘white death’

Condescending claims, uncritically reported

November 30, 2019

1:44 PM

30 November 2019

1:44 PM

If you were concerned about ‘white death’ you can rest easy. Newsweek is here to tell us that the rise in white mortality is due to white people not knowing how fortunate they are. You think I’m kidding? The article proclaims that new research has found the ‘anxiety of whites’ is based on ‘a misperception that their dominant status in society is being threatened, which is manifesting in multiple forms of psychological and physiological stress.’ What a relief! And what poor tools. If only we could emphasize to them that their perceived loss of status is based on misperception, they could stop taking fentanyl. 

The research has been conducted by Arjumand Siddiqi and her colleagues from the University of Toronto. Professor Siddiqi studies ‘inequality’, and how ‘societal conditions produce and resolve inequities in population health and human development across the lifespan.’ I assume she thinks inequality is a serious and widespread problem. Not when it comes to struggling white people, though, who just fail to realise how darn lucky they are. That might sound like a cheap shot but look at this passage:

‘Siddiqi…went on to say this could be the first time that a widespread population health phenomenon cannot be explained by social or economic status disadvantage, and instead has been driven by “a perceived threat to status”.’

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When white people are dying it is the first time a widespread population health problem cannot be explained by disadvantages? I am sure that she believes what she is saying but this sounds like a narrative of ‘privilege’ struggling to stay afloat.

Let us turn to the study. First, what do Siddiqi and her colleagues mean by ‘misperception’? Their argument is essentially that black Americans are still more economically disadvantaged than white Americans, who tend to underestimate the gap. ‘A 2017 study,’ they write, ‘suggested that whites perceive blacks to have far more income and wealth than is actually the case.’ Well, OK. But white Americans have gone from being almost 90 percent of the population to almost 60 percent in a matter of decades. You can consider this good or neutral but it is a loss of status. In the news we find white Americans being denounced for their white privilege, their white fragility, their white tears and their ‘incurable disease’ of whiteness. Even if you agree with these denunciations, you have to accept that white Americans’ place in mainstream discourse is symbolic of a loss of status. 

While I think that is worth saying, I also think it is somewhat beside the point. The paper makes a very bad argument that racial anxiety is the cause of ‘white death’, misperceived or otherwise. It has to be emphasized that more youthful deaths have not been evenly distributed across white Americans. Siddiqi and her colleagues grant that poorer and less educated whites are dying younger. Their loss of status is a class issue more than an ethnic one. In a world of credentialism, outsourcing, deindustrialization, single parenthood and social isolation it would be absurd to claim that there has been no loss of status — or, for that matter, stability and social capital. Granted, Siddiqi and her colleagues are correct that more black Americans than white Americans face poverty, family breakdown and social isolation, and they have not experienced rising mortality rates, but perhaps this is because they have become more advantaged while poorer and less educated whites have become less. As Dr Carol Graham of the Brookings Institution observes, the stress and pessimism that declining life outcomes inculcates has a powerful effect on physical and psychological health. 

But Siddiqi and her colleagues brush over what is perhaps the most significant inequality. As Charles F. Lehmann points out, it’s the fentanyl, stupid. I think Lehmann too easily dismisses the concept of the role of ‘despair’ in rising mortality — pointing out, for example, that so-called ‘deaths of despair’ rose 10 years after a rise in reported unhappiness, which to him is evidence of inconsistency but which could perhaps be explained by unhappiness becoming fatal in the long term. Still, he makes a convincing case that the availability, addictiveness and lethality of synthetic drugs has been a leading cause of ‘white death’ that at least to some extent transcends other socio-cultural factors. As Lehmann writes:

‘The exponential increase in overdose death rates is a function not of increasing demand produced by despair, but of an exponential increase in the cheapness and deadliness of supply. That increase is led by the mass switch to heroin and then to fentanyl.’

Do white people take deadly synthetic drugs more than black people? They do. Even black opioid users have been less liable to take fentanyl than white opioid addicts. This has shielded them from the deadliest drugs of modern times. Granted, this gap has been closing as fentanyl has crept into the inner cities. In Connecticut, black Americans now die as a result of fentanyl use at the same rate as white Americans. Still, the difference has been real, and it seems preposterous to claim that fentanyl abuse has been driven by racial anxiety. When a new, cheap and very powerful drug is introduced into communities on a large scale, a rise in deaths is as predictable as damage after storms. It does not explain all of the rise in mortality but it is important.

This study is unconvincing, then, and as much as I am sure that the researchers believe its conclusions, and as much as I dislike moralizing empirical research, it is at least depressing that such condescending claims were so uncritically reported. The study makes a big song and dance about how rising white mortality rates are correlated with support for Donald Trump, assuming with a leap and a jump that this proves that both have their foundations in racial anxiety. I don’t like to go in for ‘this is why people voted Trump’ point-scoring but if men and women from poor, deindustrialized, fentanyl-ravaged town heard that elite academics are blaming the deaths from their families, friends and neighborhoods on some bigoted ‘misconception’ it would not make them less likely to vote for him.

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