In the Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance tells the tale of his struggle to attain the American Dream. From his humble roots of “white trash” (self-described) to Yale law school graduate, Vance paints the story of a home life in crisis. He then extrapolates from his personal experience to comment on the sociological causes of poverty.
Although touching at times with some poignant insights, this memoir reeks of white, male privilege. Vance recognizes his privilege in passing. But his acknowledgement rings hollow, especially as he compares his plight to that of impoverished black Americans.
Vance is a tall, attractive, white, Christian, heterosexual, healthy, able-bodied man. He can walk into any room and command an audience by virtue of these characteristics. A privilege that he comments on, more for lip service and optics, than for anything else.
Rather the narrative is constructed perfectly and tactically for a future career in politics (my prediction). At its core the narrative is simple – a must for any political campaign. He worked hard. He escaped poverty. He enlisted in the army. He went to Yale. He got married. And he clerked for a judge.
Now at 32 years of age, he feels empowered to tell you what’s wrong with America. No doctorate needed. Just personal experience.
Vance explains why his people are poor:
“We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans… We spend to pretend that we’re upper middle class… Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other… At least one member of the family uses drugs… We don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents… We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs… We talk to our children about responsibility, but we never walk the walk… Our eating and exercise habits seem designed to send us to an early grave…” [Emphasis added.]
There are kernels of truths in his statements. But his under-valuing of the systemic roots of poverty goes to show how deep his own luck and privilege runs. Poverty has nothing to do with iPads.
Not everyone can just pick themselves up by their bootstraps and attain the American dream. Systemic barriers run deep.
(Views expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect the views of any organization.)