I really enjoyed my conversation yesterday with Farah Stockman, whose new book is moving, insightful, and even suspenseful. She tells the life stories of three workers who were laid off when the Rexnord factory in Indianapolis was shut down, just as Donald Trump was winning the 2016 election.
I asked her versions of these questions:
You recall that your parents used to argue about race. When a waitress was rude, your Black mother would suspect she was being racist; your white father “thought she must be cranky after a long day on her feet.” You say, “I always wondered which one was right. That is why I became a journalist, to talk to the waitress.” I read that sentence as a metaphor for the whole book, and especially for sections like the one where you have a four-hour conversation about race with John—the Trump-voting union guy–after you learn that he displays a Confederate flag in his garage. Can you say more about your impulse to talk to people like the waitress and John? What are you trying to accomplish?
John sees the world in terms of workers vs capitalists. He hates talk of white privilege because he feels oppressed as a worker. He works to make the union fight the company, and he votes for Trump. His wife is more favorable to management. On that basis, he describes her as a “liberal.” He is also surprised when a Republican politician doesn’t seem to favor US workers. Does he see today’s capitalists as the liberals? What is making him feel that way?
Wally is a black man. You say that the first time he gave a “structural” explanation for injustice was when he criticized how the city condemned houses owned by Black people and sold them to white developers. Otherwise, instead of giving structural explanations, he talks about his own responsibility and how he’ll benefit from a positive personality and hard work. I believe in structural explanations, but I can see how they don’t offer much to Wally. He doesn’t have many ways to address structural problems in the society, but he sometimes benefits–precariously — from his own hard work and niceness. Am I understanding him right? And do you think he would have been better off if he had thought more politically and structurally?
College really doesn’t seem to benefit anyone in the book. Several people enroll and rack up debt without getting degrees, or earn degrees that don’t lead to good jobs. They resent college-educated people who are set over them. Shannon says, “I am not a Democrat or a Republican. I’m for the one who will keep good-paying jobs here for us un-educated people that build the parts that make them rich.” Is college good? How could it work better for all?
The book is full of moving moments of solidarity, like when a Mexican worker who will take Shannon’s job pulls her aside and apologizes (233), or when John worries that he might be taking a position away from a Black co-worker, Marlon (289), or when Wally physically embraces a man he has caught sabotaging equipment (214), or—most moving to me—when Wally and his new girlfriend Stacie pray and weep together over his challenges. Factory work can offer solidarity. Unemployment destroys it. Do you see ways to build solidarity, especially across race?
You explore the differences among Shannon, John, and Wally, but also their shared circumstances and culture. And you depict how different their culture is from that of a Harvard-grad reporter who lives in Cambridge, Mass. You are critical of your group (which is also mine) for being out of touch, pretentious, and soft. What should highly educated elites learn from working class Americans?