Gary Younge writes: Jeff Baxter’s enduring memory, from childhood, is the glow. Coming down over the hill overlooking the coke plant in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the molten iron would make itself known – both as a vision and an aspiration. “It’s like the sun landed there,” says Baxter, a burly, bearded retiree, who achieved his boyhood dream of becoming a steelworker.
Today, the plant, like the one Baxter worked in for 30 years, stands derelict – a shell that represents a hollowing out not just of the local economy but of culture and hope – as though someone extinguished Baxter’s sun and left the place in darkness. Buildings in the centre of town that were once testament to the industrial wealth produced here stand abandoned. More than 40% of the population now live below the poverty line; 9.1% are unemployed.
Cambria County, where Johnstown sits, was once a swing county. Al Gore won it in 2000; George W Bush took it in 2004; it went to Barack Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 – each time by fairly narrow margins. Last year, Donald Trump won it in a landslide.
Baxter, who once backed Obama, voted for Trump, the first time he had ever voted Republican. “I liked [Obama’s] message of hope, but he didn’t bring any jobs in … Trump said he was going to make America great. And I figured: ‘That’s what we need. We need somebody like that to change it.’”
Over at the century-old Coney Island Lunch, this once-bustling institution famous for its chilli dogs and sundowners is virtually empty. “A lot of people have left town,” explains Peggy, who has been serving at the diner for nine years. “There are no jobs. If you’re going to have a life or a steady income, you know, you need to get out of here, because there’s nothing here. I expect a lot of towns go this way. You know, when the steel mills died and the coal died. It’s sad, it’s very sad.”
Across from the counter, Ted sits in a T-shirt emblazoned with a Native American in full headdress. He thinks white America is getting a rough deal and will soon be extinct. “There’s not many white Americans left. They’re a dying breed. It’s going to be yellow-white Americans, African-American white Americans, you know what I’m saying? The cultures are coming together,” he says, with more than a hint of melancholy. “Blending and blending, and pretty soon we’ll just be one colour.”
Ted also voted for Trump. “I liked him on TV. I voted for him, alright, but it was because he was supposedly going to make America great, and what’s he done so far? He hasn’t done anything.”
Two days after I spoke to Ted and Peggy, Coney Island Lunch closed down.
In the 12 years I reported from the US I saw no end of white journalists opine on black America. This summer, I took a trip through white America, driving from Maine (the whitest state) to Mississippi (the blackest), to flip the script. Talking only to white people, I attended a white supremacist conference, accompanied an emergency health worker who sought to revive people who had overdosed, and went to a comedy club in the French Quarter of New Orleans to see the “Liberal Redneck” perform. I was told the Ku Klux Klan were liberals (they weren’t), that Confederate general Robert E Lee didn’t own slaves (he did) and that I could not be British because I’m black (I am).
It was a few weeks before the disturbances in Charlottesville, when a mob of white supremacists, including neo-Nazis and Klansmen, converged on a college town in Virginia, terrorising protesters and leaving one dead and many injured. Just seven months after the US had bid farewell to its first black president, his successor said there were “some very fine people” marching with the neo-Nazis who chanted: “Jews will not replace us.” A poll shortly afterwards showed that almost half of white Americans thought they were “under attack” and one in three thought the country needs to do more to preserve its white European heritage.
Any reckoning with how the US got to this point, politically, demands some interrogation of how white America got to this place economically and culturally; that takes into account both their relative privilege and their huge pockets of pain. [Continue reading…]