Nelson Mandela has been quoted as saying “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Jonathan Metzl’s 2019 book shows how the intersection of race, politics, and health in three states illustrates Mandela’s simile. Health law scholars concerned about health justice are familiar with research findings that the chronic stresses of living in a racist society contribute to poor health outcomes for people of color, particularly black people. But Metzl–a psychiatrist with a PhD in American Culture–reverses the lens and considers how entrenched racism affects white people. The book views white people not as objects of discrimination or even as perpetrators of racist actions, but rather as political actors whose racial anxieties leave them ripe for manipulation by political and corporate interests. It offers three case studies of how conservative GOP policy issues affect white population-level health. Specifically, Metzl explores how policies like loosening gun control laws (Missouri), rejecting the ACA’s Medicaid expansion (Tennessee), and drastically cutting taxes on corporations and the wealthy (Kansas) garnered popular support by implicitly or explicitly promising to protect the status of white people, a status perceived as threatened by progressive policies and an increasingly diverse society. What Metzl finds is that conservative political victories came at the steep cost of poorer health and rising death rates, both for the minority and immigrant communities who were their targets, but also for white supporters. He concludes: “white America’s investment in maintaining an imagined place atop a racial hierarchy–that is, an investment in a sense of whiteness–ironically harms the aggregate well-being of US whites as a demographic group, thereby making whiteness itself a negative health indicator.” (P. 9.) Hence the title, “Dying of Whiteness.”
Missouri is Metzl’s first stop. He explores how the state transformed from having relatively strict firearm registration laws to enacting some of the most expansive gun rights laws anywhere, including its so-called “guns everywhere” law. Some of the book’s most poignant moments come when Metzl talks with men and women who lost family members to suicide by gun. A consistent refrain in Metzl’s interviews was that guns and gun policies were not to blame for the lives lost. But as Metzl dives into and crunches the vital statistics regarding cause of death in Missouri, he finds that, while white Missourians may support permissive gun laws so they can protect themselves from dangerous “others,” the rate of white male gun suicides has skyrocketed. Some number crunching permits Metzl to calculate the cost, both in terms of financial costs and years of life lost, of the high white male suicide rate. (If you would like to hear more about this case study and are a AALS member, check out Sidney Watson’s excellent presentation (at 21:50) from the 2020 Annual Meeting.)
Metzl measures impact in Tennessee as well, estimating that the state’s “refusal to expand Medicaid cost every single white resident of the state 14.1 days of life.” (P. 13.) Using focus groups of men, Metzl tries to understand Tennessee’s transformation from “a Southern beacon for progressive approaches to health care for low-income people” (P. 133) to a Medicaid expansion holdout. Those focus groups revealed historically grounded and racially inflected negative responses to “government” among many white men, as well as a conviction that expanding Medicaid would mean having to pay for black people and immigrants. Ultimately, according to Metzl, having health care reform as a common enemy provided white men with beneficial group cohesion and an affirmation of the value of their whiteness, even as it deprived them of access to needed health care.
In Kansas Metzl examines the “backlash conservative takeover” of state government led by Gov. Sam Brownback, which featured massive tax cuts and budget cuts to shrink the role of government. This austerity regime’s impact on public education–once a gem in Kansas’ crown–is Metzl’s particular focus. He describes how school systems suffered and declined and how budget cuts amplified racial and economic inequities in public education. In this way and others, “[a]usterity codified hierarchy.” (P. 217.) Although health repercussions were less immediate than in Missouri and Tennessee, Metzl also examines increased high school dropout rates and studies demonstrating decreased life expectancy for persons without a high school degree to find long-term, “politically induced” (P. 258) health effects of education cuts for both black and white Kansans.
I recommend Dying of Whiteness to anyone interested in health law and policy, as it offers insights into voter behavior that, viewed from afar, may appear irrational. I’m white and I grew up in Tennessee, and reading the book gave me a richer appreciation of how perceived threats to white racial status and privilege fueled the State’s objectively self-defeating decision to reject the Medicaid expansion. Moreover, Metzl’s narrative exemplifies a “health in all policies” mindset and illustrates both direct and distal policy impacts on health. He reminds readers that “fancy upstream policy solutions” (P. 117) are likely to be ill fated as long as the cultural and political landscape fosters racial division and vilifies compromise. In this regard, Metzl seems to sing from the same page as others who argue that institutional and structural racism presents the fundamental impediment to adopting equitable health policies in the US.
I really liked this book for several additional reasons. For one thing, Metzl’s prose is lucid and vivid. I caught myself highlighting turns of phrase nearly as often as noting substantive points. (For example, “[o]vert religiosity and conservatism emerge in deep twang” from the Tennessee focus groups. (P. 144.)) In addition, beyond deploying statistical analyses to support his conclusions, Metzl delves into regional history and culture to help readers understand choices that might seem illogical to outsiders. For example, an extended examination of the racialized history of gun ownership rights and patterns offers insight into the cultural and symbolic meanings of guns in Missouri.
Finally, to my mind, Metzl achieves the delicate balance of portraying the regular people whom he interviews and interacts with respectfully, without being sympathetic to racist histories, structures, or sentiments. He’s willing to call out politicians who speak falsely, but he doesn’t belittle the voters who swallow those falsehoods. To be clear, Metzl identifies how the policies he describes negatively affect minorities and immigrants, but anyone who has been paying attention knows about those impacts. His real contribution lies in opening the reader’s eyes to how whiteness hurts white people materially and physically. If Dying of Whiteness has villains, they are not the white folks experiencing racial anxiety in a changing world. Rather, the villains are the politicians and corporate interests who play upon those anxieties to put in place self-serving policies that harm the very voters who support them. They promise greatness but deliver “a biology of demise.” (P. 281.) In the end, the book offers a cautionary tale of how attempts to preserve the privileges of whiteness end up harming everyone.