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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Leonard Pitts Jr.: ‘Dying of whiteness’

By Leonard Pitts Jr. Tribune News Service

This is a column about saving whiteness, precipitated by an incident last Saturday at a bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Seems that author Jonathan M. Metzl was giving a presentation when a group of white nationalists barged in. They formed a phalanx between him and the audience, and one of them harangued the crowd with an electric bullhorn, something about the white working class being asked to “trade their homeland for handouts.” The group chanted, “This land is our land.” They filed out, to a chorus of boos.

We will pass lightly over the irony of Woody Guthrie’s words of harmony and inclusion (“This land is your land, this land is my land. From California to the New York island…”) being repurposed as a white supremacist manifesto. Let’s deal instead with Metzl’s book, the one this group tried to shut down, thereby giving it greater visibility and increased sales.

It’s called “Dying of Whiteness” and it is a deep dive – lots of statistics, charts and graphs – into a provocative thesis: that white conservative voters, driven by fear of, and antipathy toward, black and brown “others,” support policies against their own self-interest, policies that diminish their lives and even kill them. Whiteness, argues Metzl, a white psychiatrist and physician, thus emerges as a risk factor for death – not unlike smoking, depression or fast food.

One of his more compelling illustrations involves “Trevor,” a 41-year-old white former cabbie in Tennessee whom Metzl describes as “yellow with jaundice,” hobbling on a walker, with hepatitis C and an inflamed liver, dying, yet resolutely opposed to the Affordable Care Act, even though it might provide medical treatment he desperately needs and cannot otherwise afford. “Ain’t no way I would ever support Obamacare or sign up for it,” he told Metzl. “I would rather die. We don’t need any more government in our lives. And in any case, no way I want my tax dollars paying for Mexicans or welfare queens.”

You might wish to let that simmer for a few minutes. With his health as shaky as a Jenga tower, with his very life ebbing away, Trevor’s greater concern – his greater fear – was of undeserving “Mexicans or welfare queens” benefiting from his taxes, however much that might be on the wages of a used-to-be cab driver eking out his last days in a low-income housing facility.

If that’s sad and ridiculous – and it is both – it is also predictable. From the beginning, white fear has been a great, unspoken driver of this nation’s sins against difference. So Trevor is just a link in an unbroken line that binds Lincoln fretting about retribution from newly freed slaves, to Roosevelt worrying about treachery from Americans of Japanese heritage, to Trump seeing terrorism in brown-skinned toddlers on the southern border.

Decade after decade, election after election, so much of the white conservative appeal is an implicit promise to defend whiteness from blacks and browns. Metzl argues that white people themselves have borne and are bearing a terrific cost for this “defense,” that they are, in effect, killing themselves.

It’s an interesting thesis, but people who came out to hear him explain it Saturday were forced to first sit through bullhorn guy and his backup singers who fear – that word again – the loss of a “homeland” stolen from the Seminoles, the Shawnee and the Paiutes. We will pass lightly over this irony as well.

Because Metzl raises an important question, one we have never answered nor even truly asked. So many people are so ready to save whiteness from the faceless “other.”

Who will save it from itself?

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at