The Trouble With “Strangers”

© Fibonacci Blue

U.S. sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild spent five years living among and interviewing hard-pressed whites in the poorest and most polluted part of Louisiana, itself one of the poorest and most polluted states in the Union. Her subjects—Donald Trump supporters all—find validation within their fundamentalist religion, Fox News, Tea Party affiliation, and their seething resentment against all of those—minorities, immigrants, feminists—who they are convinced have unfairly jumped ahead of them in “the line of the American dream.” Hochschild’s interview subjects reserved special scorn for the effete denizens of the blue states: the liberal New York Times readers and NPR listeners. Even more galling, these elite “cosmopolitans” were said to look down their noses at hard working, virtuous, God-fearing, patriotic whites in small towns, mocking their culture as ignorant.

The book that recounted her sojourn, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, was published in 2016. An unexpected bestseller, it received rapturous reviews and was listed as a finalist for the National Book Award. Prestigious publications heaped praise on Strangers and Hochschild’s commitment and skill as a social scientist.

I read the book with a mixture of rage and revulsion. I’ve continued to wrestle with what its contents suggest about my country, and struggled to find a response consistent with my Quaker values.

Strangers in Their Own Land also set off a spate of reactions and commentary that I have found troubling. Many reviewers have treated Hochschild’s subjects as some kind of exotic fauna in the forest, labeling them wholly innocent and good, deserving of urgent care and special feedings. They wrote copiously in guilty tropes about arrogant and insensitive liberals—among whose company they included themselves. How, they agonized, could they have overlooked and discounted for so long the concerns of the millions of the hard-up white fellow citizens who voted for the New York billionaire? They exhorted “us” to get out of our privileged bubbles and make special efforts to empathize with the plight of the Trumpists.

Remember the Tea Party? Placards at Tea Party rallies featured violent, race-tinged depictions of Barack Obama, including lynching.

Friends haven’t been immune to this tone. The Friends Journal review of Strangers in Their Own Land agreed that “cosmopolitan liberalism can look grasping, rootless, and without honor . . . [embracing] a cultural environment that is polluted, unclean, and harmful.” Reviewer Pamela Haines suggested that liberals unfairly benefit from the environmental destruction Hochschild’s interviewees suffer. She apparently commiserates with white Southerners who had to endure generations of “moralistic” and “elitist” Northerners—including those impertinent Freedom Riders—swooping down with, as Hochschild quotes a Louisianan, “their PC guns blazing.”

I don’t concede my freedom as a black American citizen to be anyone’s politically correct option; I’m just glad that in the 1950s and 1960s, blacks and “liberal” white allies drove a (nonviolent) stake through the heart of Jim Crow laws and segregation. I do not expend much sympathy for the Southern whites who believed in—and benefited from—an unjust system (or, as they might express it, “our way of life”) and lamented its demise. You can hear echoes of this sentiment in the ongoing debates about Confederate statues and other symbols of national treason.

“For the Tea Party around the country,” Hochschild writes, “the shifting moral qualifications for the American Dream had turned them into strangers in their own land, afraid, resentful, displaced, and dismissed by the very people who were, they felt, cutting in line.”

Remember the Tea Party? Placards at Tea Party rallies featured violent, race-tinged depictions of Barack Obama, including lynching. Tea Party-affiliated politicians hurled insults and circulated images of both Barack and Michelle Obama that are too vile to reproduce in this publication. Hochschild’s subjects may not have committed those specific acts, but neither did they repudiate them by ending their affiliation with the Tea Party.

Hochschild—seemingly to her own surprise—writes of the deep regard she developed for the interviewees. She finds them “caring,” “bright,” and “warm and intelligent.” She admires their stoicism and dedicates her book to them. And in the book’s epilogue, she urges East and West Coast liberals and the Trump/Tea Party-identified whites to reach out in understanding to each other—to “climb the empathy wall.”

Friends, I cannot scale that wall.

© Mobilius in Mobili

As an African American (and a woman), I would have to agree to assume a subordinate position in American society, so they can move to the front of the “line” they believe it is their right to occupy. That I will never do.

As one of those “line crashers,” my reaching out, over, and to the Trump voters would only legitimize and reinforce their self-serving beliefs. It would imply that to assuage their feelings of anger and disenfranchisement, I, as an African American (and a woman), would have to agree to assume a subordinate position in American society, so they can move to the front of the “line” they believe it is their right to occupy. That I will never do.

I do not overlook or excuse the right-wing Republican legislators and their unquestioning embrace of the Trump agenda. But it was the Trump base—coupled with Republican voter suppression techniques targeting mainly minority populations—that enabled the presidential outcome.

Anyone who can or wants to may proceed to reach out to and plan listening sessions with the Trump base. Apart from the logistics, those healing conversations might be rather one-sided: I don’t see a population boom of contrite Trumpists on the horizon. As the New York Times reported in January 2018, Trump retains an 80 percent approval rating among those who voted for him.

However, for those who do venture into the wall-climbing experience, I offer a few words of advice:

  1. Dismiss, ignore, and disbelieve the self-serving canard that religious fundamentalists are somehow more moral than the rest of the population just because they believe in biblical inerrancy and can speak in tongues. As one raised in that branch of the Christian family tree, I am completely persuaded that its adherents possess no more moral virtue than those of any other sect.
  2. Dispense with labels on all sides. If you don’t want to identify groups of people as rednecks or hillbillies, why unthinkingly employ the moniker of “cosmopolitan liberal” to describe yourself? It’s a made-up term, a caricature whose only purpose is to invalidate. You are not obligated to repeat that term, and certainly not obligated to adopt it. Stop doing it.
  3. Stop apologizing for your values. If you think that tolerance, equality, and inclusion are non-negotiable values, be prepared to articulate and defend them with the same fervor as the conservatives refute them. Appeasement and false moral equivalency are not good baselines for honest mutual communication.

I don’t claim more wisdom than any other American in how to engage with those whose views I oppose—no, loathe—in these volatile times for our country. I don’t know what reconciliation would look like. Our exemplary co-religionist John Woolman abhorred the institution of slavery but traveled among the slaveholders in the American South, preaching that the practice subverted God’s will and was injurious to whites’ own humanity. Woolman did not merely “talk the talk”; he made substantial material sacrifices to carry out the acts that supported his beliefs. And he did change the hearts of a few slaveholders to release African Americans from bondage.

The unhappy fact, however, is that the iniquity of slavery endured for another hundred years, and ended by a bloody civil war. New laws enforced emancipation, equality, and economic opportunity (no matter how imperfectly they were and are applied). They have remained in place precisely because racial discrimination and hate crimes persist to this very day. Now, not only these hard-won laws but also basic democratic norms and institutions are under threat from extreme right-wing lawmakers and Trump appointees, facilitated by the “Strangers” who assured Trump’s election.

Scripture reminds us that to everything there is a season. In this season, my energy, focus, and future as a citizen and human being is served by working to repudiate everything these “Strangers” in their own land, and their candidate, stand for and that their vote has unleashed. As a Quaker, I look to the principle of continuing revelation for hope and for spiritual wisdom. May Way open.

Gerri Williams

Gerri Williams is a member of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) and has served on AFSC Nobel Peace Prize Task Group. The opinions expressed are her own*. Her article “Standing for Miss Rosa” appeared in the August 2006 issue of Friends Journal.   [*Disclaimer added by author's request. - FJ Eds.]

14 thoughts on “The Trouble With “Strangers”

  1. I found Gerri William’s commentary deeply insightful and moving, and open-ended and searching. Thank you for this strong piece, Gerri!

  2. Excellent piece. I totally agree with what was said in this article. We cannot be wishy- washy about what these people and this President, Congress and the so called religious right is doing to this country. Thank you for sharing your insight with us. Susan

  3. Thank you for this articulate article. I agree that we need to establish firm limits around people who are intent on mismanaging fear by demonizing others. It is good to maintain a level of compassion for their suffering but never compromise the truth arising from the facts of history. As I see it, the Trump supporters and those who subscribe to fundamentalist beliefs are entrenched in judging themselves and others. It makes them very fearful and angry. They have difficult work to do to recover a sense of their own basic goodness. Policies that support interventions to prevent generational repetition of entitlement and self-criticism need to be implemented and sustained. The Nurse Family Partnership is one such evidence based program.

  4. What the “strangers in their own land” need is an analysis of why they are deprived/displaced or feel that way. It is not because desegregation has (at least in part) occurred, not that immigrants have come in to work hard and build up businesses, not because environmentalists/unions/feminists have championed the earth, the workers and women. It is likely because there have not been enough government programs (like FDR’s WPA and the Tennessee Valley Authority), and not enough free education, and not enough social programs to support “poor areas” that need extra help.
    Hitler roused his population to blame “the Jews”, foreigners, and surrounding countries for limitations in his own country, while using huge amounts of German money to build up a modern army to defeat neighbouring countries.
    We need a sociologist/economist to write the true causes of people’s discontent and then a popular writer to explain it those whose own communities did not provide them with much education.

  5. I agree with Gerri Williams that Arlie Hochschild went soft on racism in her attempt to “climb the empathy wall.” Throughout the book, as she kept wondering what accounted for white Louisianan’s willingness to vote against their own interests, I kept waiting for her to just say “racism,” which is so clearly the subtext in the story white people tell themselves about the “line-cutters.” Although she does mention racism by the end, Hochschild fails to acknowledge its centrality, which I also found frustrating. I’m not surprised that Williams, as an African American woman, “read the book with a mixture of rage and revulsion.”

    As a white woman from a working class family, however–in fact, as a Friend who came to anti-racism work and activism at least partly in revulsion to racism within my own family–I did find the book useful, despite its limitations. For starters, Hochschild’s explanation of white conservative’s “deep story” helps me see why most of the arguments I’ve offered at Christmas dinner have hit a brick wall, while last year’s strategy (which started with listening) seemed to work better, leading to my best conversation to date with my conservative brother in-law about racism. If white progressives are going to take on these conversations–and I hear many African Americans urging us to do so–trying to understand the “other side” can help us be more effective, which is not the same as giving racism a pass or being complacent.

    Despite my feeble holiday attempts, my primary calling is not to take on racists one by one, but to challenge the systems that both oppress people of color and keep people of different races divided. To me, the strength of Strangers in their Own Land is that it shows in vivid detail the way poor whites are actually harmed by the system they uphold. As I see it, white folks in southern Louisiana suffer polluted water and extremely high cancer rates for the privilege of having cancer rates a little lower than their Black neighbors, who die at even more shocking rates. The ultimate question the book raised for me was how to organize across these divisions, when corporations and other elites have done such a successful job of dividing people, and when politicians like Trump are so adept at stoking the fears of the white working class.

  6. The pain that Gerri Williams feels is very real. But the book mentioned apparently falls short of answering why white working class people vote the way they do. Racism is a factor among many, but that’s only one of the reasons. The late Joe Bageant wrote a book, “Dear Hunting with Jesus,” that shows how the religious right, corporations and politicians sold the white working class on voting for the right. Please don’t just think it’s all racism; that’s only a part.,

    Chris Wynn

  7. ^This is exactly why i left the Religious Society of Friends. In the past couple of years it has become more about virtue signaling among smug suburban white liberals, than anything that resembles the quiet spirituality that I so much admired. As a Centrist Libertarian, I was all of a sudden “Othered” because I didn’t completely accept and parrot the Radical Leftist Racial Identity Politics that were being rehashed every single meeting. I gave up after trying a couple of different meetings, but finding the same thing.

    My wife, who teaches at a Quaker school, cannot even attend the meeting attached to her school because of politically charged atmosphere.

    Please think about the fact that meetings around the Philadelphia suburban area becoming unwelcoming exclusive clubs for smug white Leftists, and that who hold views more akin to Classical Liberals, Libertarians, and run of the mill Conservatives are being marginalized and pushed out, and made to feel very uncomfortable.

    I miss the Quaker Meetings of 3 years ago, when everyone was friendly and accepting, and welcome to sit in silence and reflect. Messages were of the spirit (not the ego).

  8. Fantastic writing in every way!

    Thanks, Ms. Williams, for saying what I’ve been thinking!

    -Member NAACP and Quaker support staff, Alaska

  9. As this article reminds us, there were hundreds of feature stories about why certain swing voters (rural, former coal miners, former factory workers) embraced Trump. Were any written about why African-American women–also marginalized and poor–warmly embraced Clinton? These women seem to have their eyes open while too many Caucasian women have their eyes shut. For example, 63% of white women voted for Roy Moore, while black women were a significant factor in blocking him from office. (Is it racism that keeps them from being interviewed for their astute political insights?) Where should empathy or human interest stop? In October, the New Yorker gave a white supremacist a platform by covering his life story.

    A certain narrative about the left-outs took hold about the election. Surrounded by many Friends and friends who thought the emphasis after the election should be on reaching out, listening, and finding common ground, I often felt alone before Gerri Williams. I’ve had different reactions over time. The first was that progressives and liberals should be kicking themselves for having done so little to win and vow to do differently, starting in January [not October] 2018. Friends often feel good about a little dialogue, while hours of election phoning and major political contributions are hard.

    The second thought was that the narrative about Democrats neglecting blue collar workers was unfair and misleading. After achieving health care, Obama spent the next seven years trying to get through a jobs program and infrastructure funding that would have helped rural and urban workers. One of the many events to highlight the jobs push was held at a factory in Baltimore where my son is employed. Republicans blocked every proposal. Why blame liberals for the resultant discontent and lack of hope? Moreover, conservatives crushed labor unions that used to protect the middle and lower class.

    The third was that sexism was greatly underplayed before and after the election. How quickly the despicable campaign tee-shirts were forgotten by white male pundits. Since Hillary was not treated awfully when she ran in 2008, I never imagined that blatant disrespect (even by some ‘Bernie bros’) could become so horrendous. As a female who identified with her, I wept and YELLED and canvassed.

    Maybe the election was too close to make sweeping generalizations. With a swing of 77,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania (combined), the conversation would be totally different. It would have been about how an accomplished woman finally became president. And about when the entertainer who lost would start his profitable media outlet. And about stopping Russian intervention. Perhaps, today, about how Hillary was trying to implement her gun control position.

    Thank you, Gerri, for being courageous and for helping us consider a myriad of values. I know that you listen to many marginalized people who are often voiceless such as Native Americans. Glad you can care about others and stand up for yourself. Quakers are multi-faceted people.

  10. I was deeply disappointed while reading this article.
    I found very little in the article that I could connect to what being a Friend means to me: acknowledging that of God in us all, searching for it in others, particularly those with whom we currently disagree, and striving to “love thy neighbor as thyself”.
    What would be helpful to me are articles that help me reach out to others in a Friendly manner who are different from me or with whom I may disagree. How to loving listen, empathize and mutually seek the Truth.

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