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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Two Underclasses

These two underclasses pre-date the United States as a political union. The black underclass, brought here in chains, toiled for centuries in the hopes of earning freedom — first physical, then political. They found themselves concentrated in the South — the home of King Cotton. The white underclass, many of whom descended from Scots-Irish peasants of the motherland, came here freely. They tended to concentrate in the rural parts of the eastern United States, especially along the Appalachian Mountains. The paths of these tribes have sometimes intersected. When recently freed slaves began to marry the white indentured servants of Virginia planters, their children took on a color that entitled them to all of the burdens of their darker-skinned parent. So they moved to eastern Kentucky and eastern Tennessee, called themselves Cherokee Indians, and attempted to live in peace. The locals, unsure what to do with their new neighbors, derisively called them “Melungeons.”

In building a dialogue around “checking privilege,” the modern progressive elite is implicitly asking white America — especially the segregated white poor — for a level of social awareness unmatched in the history of the country. White failure to empathize with blacks is sometimes a failure of character, but it is increasingly a failure of geography and socialization. Poor whites in West Virginia don’t have the time or the inclination to read Harvard economics studies. And the privileges that matter — that is, the ones they see — are vanishing because of destitution: the privilege to pay for college without bankruptcy, the privilege to work a decent job, the privilege to put food on the table without the aid of food stamps, the privilege not to learn of yet another classmate’s premature death. That working-class whites have failed to rise to the challenge is perhaps regrettable. But in a world where many poor whites know very few blacks of any class, it is not especially surprising.