Book Review: Dying of Whiteness

I recently finished listening to the podcast The Anthropocene Reviewed. I highly recommend it. In one episode, John Green refers to book reviews as memoirs of their writers’ experience with the book at that particular time. Books, movies, and other experiences connect with us in our context. I much prefer this understanding of book reviews as compared to more academic examples, of which I’ve written exactly one. With this idea of memoir in mind, I hope to provide insight into how a book matters to me, and also how it might impact rural ministry, as that is my field of interest. I begin this review with Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland by Jonathan M. Metzl.

As of this post, my blog is still very young, this being my fourth post. If you go back two posts, you will read about my experiences with the healthcare system in rural areas and how I spent the night with a loved one in a straight back chair listening to the local news 24 hour channel on high volume (Side Note: the term “straight back chair” takes me to the opening line of Dolly Parton’s “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” which feels on brand for a rural theology blog). This is the context in which I engaged Metzl’s text.

Oh, and also a pandemic.

The book came to me through an academic social media advertisement, I believe. I ordered the book thinking I might use it in a future course. I did not fully know what to expect. I hoped it would be a exploration of the health care industry, rural communities, and racism. However, what I pulled from the text was a larger exploration of policy, practice, and politics and how capitalism and white supremacy breed a violence that preys not only on racial/ethnic minorities, but on the poor and working class white folk as well.

The first section of of the text focuses on Missouri’s gun control laws (or lack there of) and the dramatic increase of white male gun suicides in recent years. Metzl does explore some issues related to mental health and wellbeing, but does not stray away from the reality that there would be less gun suicides if guns were not as readily accessible. The book explores a range of topics from advertisements related to gun ownership and masculinity to the idea that guns will protect people from *insert racist/xenophobic stereotype* threats. Metzl also records the responses of the family members of persons who have completed gun suicides, and how most of them still completely support gun ownership.

The next section takes the reader to Tennessee and the Affordable Care Act. Metzl includes selected interview transcripts between chapters to reiterate the point that these are real people answering these question. One interviewee essentially says he would rather die from preventable disease than see “illegals” and “welfare queens” get healthcare they don’t deserve. This hit me, as I deal with the navigating the rural health system which is lacking funding, resources, and health care professionals dues to feelings like this. I have healthcare because of the Affordable Care Act. Do I not deserve it? Or am I deserving of it because of my citizenship or because I can at least pay a premium? It also hit me as a Christian who takes Jesus’ commands to care for the sick, welcome the stranger/foreigner, and help the poor seriously. I am sure this interviewee considers himself a Christian.

The final section moves on to Kansas and the defunding and de facto re-segregating of public education. Here, Metzl takes time to briefly explore the history of educational segregation, funding, and race. He then moves on to explain how tax cuts to the wealthy and school funding determinants harm both communities of color and lower working class white communities. And while, at first, I was unsure about this section in its relation to health, Metzl brings in the reality that quantity and quality of education are measurable determinants of a persons health and life expectancy. In each section Metzl provides the number of black, white, Hispanic/Latin American years (and I believe, on occasion, Indigenous and Asian American years) lost due to these beliefs, policies, and actions.

The book, just like these numbers, are somewhat helpful. It provides a collection of information and stories that begins to demonstrate the connections between white supremacy and human health. I hoped for some ideas for beginning to move past this, but this was not his main goal. In the end, he suggests moving toward something like a “common good.” While I think this is appropriate and can point to those who write about the common good, it does not feel helpful at present for rural communities. The following section provides my thoughts on something more like a communal good.

Thoughts for Rural Ministry

I am left wondering how best to go about engaging with this text. Metzl gives a hint at the end of the text in his “Afterward for the Paperback Edition.” He, rightly so, I think, calls out those of us who complain that people “voting against their interests,” as if we actually know their interests. Instead, I want to point toward Paulo Freire’s notion of “conversion to the people,” or learning who they are, where they are from, and what they actually think and believe.

First, explore scripture together. Even before you begin these conversations, the congregation should be exploring scripture and discerning its place in their community. Then explore texts related to weapons, caring for the sick, and education. Explore scriptures about hate, race/cultural differences, about welcoming strangers, and more. This is usually best done in small groups such as Sunday school classes, where discussion more readily flows. Sermons on these topics are helpful, but only if they are built on the realities of the community and how they operate. You will also often get people trying to wash it away by saying the pastor is preaching politics and not the gospel (even though the gospel is political).

In tandem with this, connect with people through conversation. Ask questions about why guns are important to them? How do we care for the sick? What is the best way to educate people fairly? Are we suspicious of black people, brown people, poor people, etc.? And why? Having these conversations can build the trust and framework to have the harder conversations about racism, gun culture, health care, etc. Learn who they are.

Finally, people respond when a situation matters to them. This is the communal good piece. Explore the intersections of the rural community and the issues at hand. Do this through community partnerships with schools, health educators, other churches, and local organizations. One thing to remember, is that many rural people are suspicious of the government and corporations, because often, when these entities do things, it is often detrimental to rural spaces. Promises from the government and corporations that are not what they seem often creep up in conversations. Healthcare is delayed, deferred, or requires travel to urban areas. Jobs are lost due to corporate automation and outsource, and other countries and immigrants are blamed, instead of corporate greed.

Moreover, rural folks often view social safety nets with suspicion, and have stories of people who needed help (disability, unemployment, medical care) could not get it or afford it, while other folks who did not deserve or manipulated the system abuse the system. These stories have some truth to them, but stem more from pain and fear and can be redirected toward advocacy and action to change things if people are encouraged.

Overall, my advice in rural ministry is to educate and act in community. Learn the community, culture, and history, and then move toward the Kingdom of God together. Once the framework and trust are in place, then harder conversations and actions can take place.

It has been my experience in schools, healthcare, and issues of race, that when people connect their hearts, their faith, and their communities to an issue, they are more apt to work to change the issue. “Why does it matter to us?” “Why does it matter to God?” and “What can we do about?” can begin to make change.

As we sit with these issues, real humans suffer. In the midst of a pandemic, people refuse to wear masks and follow guidelines because of their rights. Hospitals, already overburdened, are at their breaking point due to COVID-19 cases and un-insured emergent care due to the economic fallout. Crippling medical debt piles up. Schools struggle to educate on a shoestring budget. White supremacy continues to be the United States’ religion and people continue to die because of and in allegiance to it. Time is continuing onward and more years fade from the lives of people, black people, brown people, poor people, and rural people.

Lord, hear our prayer.

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