and its racial symptoms
Leaning over her iron Sherry looks almost lost in the cavernous space of Mill Store, the discount T-shirt shop she manages in Florence, Alabama. While women browse the racks, Sherry shuttles between the front and back rooms, restocking the floor and finishing a custom order. Saturdays are busy, and the customized T-shirts she’s working on have become very popular, but Sherry likes it that way. She loves this job and hopes business stays good. Before she sold shirts, Sherry sewed them. Thousands of people in Florence did. The shop is actually housed in the former Tee Jays factory, once the largest privately owned T-shirt manufacturer in the US. After a series of layoffs beginning in the 1990s, workers showed up one morning in 2005 to locked doors and a CLOSED sign. Women like Sherry scattered to a series of short-term jobs. She answered phones in a local shop, studied to become a hairdresser, started a pool-lining-recycling business, and even came back to sewing at a small manufacturer for a while. Then she lucked into Mill Store. “It’s a good job,” she says, looking around at her empire of cotton, all imported from Central America.
People like Sherry make up the “white working class” that has been at the center of fervid political discussion since Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. She has lived in Lauderdale County her whole life, a county that is more than 80 percent white, and where Republicans now hold most local offices. A single mom without a college education, she has struggled to pay the bills. Sewing used to be the way people in Florence made ends meet: as a local saying used to have it, you go to high school graduation on Saturday and start at Tee Jays on Monday. By the time Tee Jays, the third-largest employer in the area, finally closed, up to two thousand workers had lost their jobs. In an area that used to hum with garment production, 25 percent of Florence’s forty thousand residents now live at or below the poverty line.
Before NAFTA, Muscle Shoals supported more than 10 percent of the approximately fifty thousand apparel-industry jobs in the state. Promises to bring manufacturing back and to keep terrorists and immigrants out played well here. During the election, more than 70 percent of Lauderdale County voters went for Trump. But if people like Sherry helped to hand Trump the presidency, as well as make longtime Alabama senator Jeff Sessions the attorney general, she is in no hurry to get back on the sewing machine. Her dream is to open a second Mill Store.
The white working class has become a visible and burdened figure in the current moment. Whites with no more than a high school education, sizable percentages of whom voted for Obama, have been widely cited as tipping the scales in favor of Trump, particularly in Midwest swing states. Researchers and commentators have tried to track the white worker’s political intentions, economic potential, demographic fate, and ethnographic truth, which suggests how critical this figure has become to making sense of the current moment. And it isn’t just the fortunes of the Trump Administration that are bound up with white workers. The health of the white working class has become a cipher for the well-being of American capitalism itself.
Concern about the health of America has not been purely metaphoric. In a widely circulated study in 2016, the economists Ann Case and Angus Deaton identified a dramatic and unprecedented rise in midlife mortality rates for non-Hispanic whites in the United States. This rate has been growing, despite a steady decline in mortality across the industrialized world and among other demographic groups in the US. Case and Deaton peg this sudden increase in white mortality to what they call “deaths of despair”—characterized by rising rates of suicide, drug overdoses, and alcohol poisoning and linked to “morbidity increases,” that is, self-reported health deterioration, including chronic pain and other everyday struggles.
Spanning 1999–2013, the period of Case and Deaton’s study overlaps with the collapse of manufacturing in states like Alabama, and it follows the longer slope of American economic decline since the 1970s: the now-familiar story of low growth, stagnant wages, rising income inequality, declining union strength, disappearing industrial work, reduced public and social-welfare spending, and the coup de grâce of the 2008 financial crash, which eviscerated savings tied to home equity.
Though they acknowledge this coincidence, Case and Deaton argue that purely economic reasons aren’t sufficient to explain white health outcomes. They speculate that the economy’s long downturn may have led to “cumulative disadvantages over life” for whites with lower income and education, and “bred a sense of hopelessness” in this once-advantaged group. Embedded in Case and Deaton’s “narrative of deterioration,” then, is a narrative of racial declension. Poorer, non-college-educated black and Hispanics have suffered the same economic weakness without experiencing rising mortality and morbidity. Instead, white mortality has risen, and has closed the “racial gap” in life expectancy. Health disparities used to tell the story of white privilege. The apparent narrowing of these inequalities now highlights “white vulnerability.”
The day after the election, the New York Times said Trump’s victory “electrified the country’s white majority and mustered its full strength against long-term demographic decay,” referring to their declining share of the electorate, even though whites still compose 70 percent of voters. If “black lives matter” became a slogan of the late Obama years, a peculiar feature of Trump’s rise is the targeted reassertion of white fragility and victimization. Liberal thinkers like Mark Lilla even draw direct equations between the two, accusing Black Lives Matter activists of “Mau-Mau” tactics. “As soon as you cast an issue exclusively in terms of identity you invite your adversary to do the same,” he claims.
Accounts such as these betray a racial anxiety never far from the surface of American political life. Both the modern Republican Party, and—until very recently—the politically centrist Democratic Party have solicited white-identified constituencies through dog-whistle invocations of black fecklessness or criminality, in order to advance welfare reform, intensified policing, mass incarceration, and the like. Obama’s ascendancy marked a rhetorical sea change, but even he took pains to present himself as a President for all, and he occasionally used his status to give standard speeches in which he dressed down blacks for derelict parenting and expensive sneaker and video-game purchases.
Obama’s vexed relationship to racial politics—symbolized, toward the end of his term, by the rise of militant black-led movements against prisons and police brutality—had a corollary in the surge of militant white-led movements emphasizing loss of status and country, exemplified by the rise of the Tea Party and Trump’s “birther” campaign. Political scientists John Sides and Michael Tesler argue that during the 2016 Republican primaries, survey respondents who affirmed the idea that whites tended to be “treated unfairly” were likely to vote for Trump over other candidates. A majority of white evangelicals (who voted overwhelmingly for Trump in the general election) had come to believe that Christians face “a lot” of discrimination in the United States. Among those who said their identity as whites was extremely important to them, 81 percent intended to vote for Trump in the 2016 primaries. Meanwhile, at the extremes pro-Trump “alt-right” groups parade behind slogans like “You will not replace us,” as well as the specter of “white genocide.”
Though it seemed to provide supporting evidence for the rise of white-supremacist politics, neo-Nazism, and Trump himself, Case and Deaton’s paper has been subject to a number of fundamental challenges. In certain readings of the data, the statistics don’t hold up: increases in mortality appear only among white women, and are mostly confined to the South and the Midwest. But the problem is also moral and political. Why, many have asked, does white mortality matter so much when black deaths (not to mention stubbornly high rates of black poverty, unemployment, and incarceration) continue unabated?
But to fixate on racial disparities—whether still open or rapidly closing—misses the point. Writing about white political dispositions in an earlier period, W. E. B. Du Bois argued that postbellum working-class and poorer white Americans received “a public and psychological wage,” withheld from African Americans and other stigmatized racial groups. He meant that whiteness secured certain expectations and assurances of material and social gains, including access to stable wages and a monopoly on public goods. What we are seeing in this moment is not a literal diminishment of white bodies, but the stagnation of these wages of whiteness.
White Americans remain political, economic, and psychic beneficiaries of these wages. (Look at most corporate boards, newsrooms, academic departments, and congressional delegations.) But for whites at the bottom, the decline in the standard of living—and even the conditions of livability—is hard to ignore. For them, not only jobs and affordable housing have disappeared; education and clean water can’t be counted on, as they used to be. The sudden reversal in midlife white mortality is just another sign of how deeply the latest phase of capitalism reaches into the lives of the majority of Americans, eroding the pretense and protective covering that whiteness once promised some of them.
The wages of whiteness were generated through black enslavement, expropriation of indigenous land, migration of low-wage laborers from Asia and Latin America, and, following the abolition of slavery, segregated housing, segmented labor markets, and unequal education. Today, these legacies of black subordination produce diminishing returns. Law-and-order policies, and the mass incarceration of black bodies, paid dividends to municipal bondholders, public prosecutors, and prison-guard unions (often the only source of jobs in the towns where prisons dominate). But the same policies also locked up and disenfranchised millions of poor Americans, across the board. Predatory lenders who targeted black home-buyers fueled a housing bubble that, once popped, wiped out the savings of millions of homeowners indiscriminately. More and more poor and working-class people across the color line are being overwhelmed.
In a time when white privilege is no longer clearly sustained or—perhaps more to the point—measured by black subjugation, when white workers, too, face the fallout from the declining price of labor globally, in what many have termed the “race to the bottom,” there is a kind of convergence happening. Yet the depiction and discussion of this shared material decline (including in studies like that of Case and Deaton) remains captive to racial comparisons and categories, as if these were discrete, neutral, and empirically valid descriptions, rather than categories morally and politically freighted with a history of inequality that shapes the meaning of the conclusions drawn from them. It’s becoming increasingly clear, though, that our racially comparative but still segregated ways of knowing and doing politics no longer serve us very well.
Trump has promised a return to American greatness through a reinflation of the wages of whiteness. Perhaps recognizing that antiblack themes no longer shock, his rhetoric accentuates the idea that foreign invaders—Mexicans, Muslims, and Chinese—are stealing Americans’ birthright. (Trump has even blamed Chinese and Mexicans for the opioid crisis.) In the wake of white racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, which prompted the collapse of Trump’s advisory council on US manufacturing, we can see more clearly how damaging and counterproductive his efforts to renew white identity politics actually is. Terminal whiteness will not be restored to its past glories by reindustrialization, border walls, or the repeated invocation of racial enemies (old or new). That these ideas are now put forth as answers to economic distress merely reflects a deepening of morbid symptoms that have come to define America’s racial-capitalist order over the past several decades. Our collective survival urgently depends on finding another course.
Factory as Corpse
In a town like Florence, Case and Deaton’s findings would surprise few people. Like the rest of Alabama—the fourth-poorest state—it has seen a steady growth in unemployment, poverty (one in every six people lives below the poverty line), and rising morbidity and mortality rates. Though the opioid epidemic was only recently recognized as a “national emergency” (in the words of Trump’s opioid commission in August), it was old news in Alabama. The state has the highest rate of opioid prescriptions in the country, at 1.2 per capita—more prescriptions than people. At the leading edge of the crisis, the state is also spearheading its criminalization. Alabama’s House of Representatives passed a bill that would punish illegal opioid possession as harshly as the possession of cocaine (a similar bill is pending in the State Senate).
In many ways, Florence is emblematic of the crisis Case and Deaton identified. Sherry’s own son has been in and out of drug rehabilitation. Her sister died young, of an allergic reaction to medication prescribed by a negligent doctor. When Sherry was laid off from her last full-time gig, sewing the linings on caskets, she lost her home and was forced to move back in with her mother. But Sherry recounts all this like it’s an old history lesson. Her life is different now. She recently got remarried, and her husband is a man who “does well for himself,” running several rent-to-own houses in the area. Her job at Mill Store makes it possible for her to take care of herself and to spoil her new granddaughter. In the long, empty back room of Tee Jays, Sherry has remade her life.
The story of Tee Jays’s demise and of Sherry’s Mill Store offers a fuller view of how racial and economic life have unfolded in this era of morbid capitalism. We can see the conditions that have not just shaped white life—and death—but made working life more precarious for the great majority in the United States, a country where 81 percent of households suffer flat and falling incomes, 75 percent report living from paycheck to paycheck, and more than 70 percent die in debt.
If the Confederate monument has recently become the most visible and fought-over emblem of America’s history of racial division, the factory is the most invoked icon of broad national restoration. In towns throughout the Piedmont region, factories have become a potent symbol of what once was and might be again. The Piedmont provided clothing to the entire country, through the conjoined efforts of cotton planting, textile making, and garment sewing. These forms of labor made up a holistic system that connected and kept the heart of Southern manufacturing beating.
Among Southern states, Alabama was one of the earliest to industrialize. Textiles, the leading industry, employed exclusively white labor for nearly a century, until the early 1960s. Early efforts to integrate Southern textile factories in the 1930s led to vast and successful rebellions by white workers to ensure that the trade remained in white hands. It was not until the civil rights movement that, as the historian Gavin Wright recounts, what black workers called “the change” took place. Over the latter half of the 1960s and through the 1970s, under federal-government and grassroots pressure, textile manufacturing became the largest Southern industry to be racially integrated. The bulk of national gains in black income before the 1980s came during this brief period of black access to industrial jobs throughout the South.
Tee Jays itself was staffed by an integrated workforce, half of which—according to some—were African American. (Though others doubt it was that high, Terry Wylie, the owner, remembers there was a “significant amount” of black workers on his payroll.) Still, white workers continued to enjoy occupational advantages, including better wages, supervisory positions, and intimacy with the owners, that black workers did not. In fact, there is scant evidence in Tee Jays’ photographic archives of black workers having been there at all. Whether the photos were taken in the sewing room or at the company picnic, this “significant” black presence is hard to verify.
Moreover, the first wave of black access to decent manufacturing jobs coincided with the long decline of US manufacturing that began in the 1970s. Black workers waged a series of class-action lawsuits during these years in an effort to overcome discrimination and secure better-paying industrial jobs—just as these jobs were beginning to vanish. This meant that whatever economic gains industrialization brought for African Americans was largely confined to just a single generation of workers. By the 1990s, when Tee Jays began mass layoffs, the Florence area had already lost more than half its manufacturing base. A decade later, all large-scale textile manufacturing was gone.
For years afterward, the empty factories stood in the Florence-Lauderdale Industrial Park, abandoned but not destroyed. Tee Jays was not the first or even biggest manufacturer in the town, but people remember it warmly as a “family business,” started by local men who are still community members. Paul Wylie started the company in 1976 after putting in time at Genesco, then a major garment manufacturer in Florence. Paul had either the luck or vision to focus on T-shirts. Casual wear was already a booming industry in the US, but it was the T-shirt that captured the silk-screened imaginations of Eighties youth. Sales grew steadily, and soon Tee Jays reached from Florence to Sacramento and beyond.
“We weren’t Hanes or Fruit of the Loom,” Paul’s son Terry Wylie tells us, “but we were up there.” In the 1980s, Terry returned an out-of-the-blue phone call from an old classmate of his dad’s. “He asked me if I wanted to have lunch. Well, I’ll have lunch with anybody.” The friend helped to broker a deal with a New York investment-banking firm, which bought out 75 percent of Tee Jays. The Wylies held on to the rest and continued to manage the company, but it was no longer a family business. Tee Jays was resold twice more, the last time to a firm based in the Dominican Republic that finally shuttered operations in Florence.
Tee Jays’ layoffs and closure unfolded between the signing of NAFTA and the passage of CAFTA a decade later, the trade agreements that exposed US workers more fully to competition from Central and Latin America. Most Florence residents blamed the loss of Tee Jays and other manufacturers on these free-trade deals.
For many, trade deals became a cipher for trade in general. “It was China,” several former employees have said, conflating anti-NAFTA and anti-China sentiments in a manner common in Florence today. “We couldn’t compete with T-shirts from China,” Terry explains, “We just couldn’t make them that cheap.” Of course, Terry remembers, even if few others knew or mentioned, that even before NAFTA was inked, Tee Jays had already been sold, and that the plan had always been to sell it off. While some wondered how much money the Wylies made off the deal, few held them personally responsible.
The factory was emptied, its contents sold off in pieces to companies overseas. But the Wylies can’t get rid of the building. “They can’t sell it,” says Roland, the building manager. “Once, a couple of years ago, somebody was interested in buying it. But it didn’t go anywhere. Nobody wants to buy an old factory like this.” Instead they rent out spaces separated by hastily constructed walls. Several rooms serve as warehouses. One stores expired cat food, made in China. Another, furniture used to stage showrooms. According to Roland, Terry barely breaks even. “The electricity alone probably eats up all the rent. This place is wired for the old factory. They should have rewired it years ago. It costs a ton of money just to light the space, heat it, and cool it.” But renters help to keep insurance costs down. Empty spaces are costly to cover.
Sitting on twelve hundred acres of former cotton fields, and on the path of the Trail of Tears, the factory is dead. It can’t be sold, fixed, or rebuilt. But after thirty years, people like Sherry are making a new life and living off its remains. In another makeshift wing, Roland’s son runs a twenty-six-person security business. From a small room occupied almost entirely by a large desk and several computers, he operates an online monitoring system currently used in schools to help police and emergency responders locate assailants and victims in the event of a shooting. The company works closely with the Department of Homeland Security. It has grown because random mass shootings are justifiably viewed as increasingly likely. The company plans to expand to hospitals. Their first contract is with the Department of Veterans Affairs, in whose hospitals, he says, “every patient is already a trained killer.”
Roland’s son has done very well in the security, or maybe more accurately the random shooter, business. But he and his brother, a chemist, have another gig. “It’s a treatment for chicken,” he says. “When they inject chickens with antibiotics, it turns their meat dark. No one wants to eat black meat. We found a solution that you can put into the meat, does the same thing, treats it with antibiotic, but makes it white. We’ve had a lot of success with that.”
Warehousing, public safety, meat processing, and retailing: these are forms of economic life that have taken root in the remains of Tee Jays. For some, this is just the natural life cycle of capitalism. Layoffs and closures always open the door for new businesses. Cataclysm offers change; failure breeds innovation. This faith in the doxa of creative destruction helps to sustain the hope that new life can be breathed into old factories.
But businesses like Mill Store haven’t sprouted from the cleared lots of old forms. They reside in its dead body. They require the low rent that it offers, so low because the real benefit of these businesses is actuarial, not fiscal. They also trade in forms of mortality, squeezing economic life out of dead chickens, expired food, and at-risk schools and hospitals. Even the T-shirts Sherry sells are a sign of loss. Tee Jays used to have its own mill store—the name traditionally refers to a discount shop where manufacturers sell their irregular or discontinued goods. These stores used to offer workers access to the things they made, but Sherry’s Mill Store sells them T-shirts they can no longer produce. These businesses generate growth not through the creation of new life but through effective cohabitation with death.
In 2008, Natalie Chanin, a fashion entrepreneur and native daughter of Florence, took up residence at Tee Jays in the first and still only effort to return manufacturing to its halls. Chanin was one of the earliest proponents of what has become known variously as the eco-, sustainable-, slow-, and ethical-fashion movement, crusaders in the war against “cheap T-shirts made for nothing by little kids in China,” as she often says. She took up the vast space of what was formerly known as Building 14 and launched an organic cotton empire, selling expensive, hand-stitched dresses and shirts to the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Rosanne Cash. The goal though was to bring jobs back to her hometown. Terry, whom she characterizes as a warm benefactor, obliged with discount rent.
Nearly ten years later, Alabama Chanin employs half a dozen sewers full-time and dozens more part-time, in a contract, piecework, home-sewing system—still a drop in the bucket of Florence’s job losses. But Natalie says she still has had a difficult time finding workers. In the same small town where there were once thousands of sewers, she can no longer find women willing to sew. Many lack the skills, and those who have them are too elderly or uninterested. “A lot of people here are lazy,” former sewers like Sherry say. “Especially the kids. They don’t want to do this kind of hard work.” Margaret, the sewing-floor manager, is also skeptical: “They say bring back manufacturing, but they want to get rid of the immigrants. Who’s gonna do the manufacturing then?” It has been especially difficult to find black workers. “It’s not that we don’t want them here, we do. We’ve tried everything to find them—posting ads in the papers, in churches. But no one applies.”
It’s a situation as mysterious to Natalie as the midlife white-mortality challenge has been for Case and Deaton—and just as evocative of the mutations of historic racial divides. With the exception of one black kitchen staff member, white workers make up the entire workforce in Building 14, making this factory, much like the region’s schools, dramatically less integrated now than when Tee Jays opened forty years ago. Meanwhile, the embers of anti-China resentment that began crackling when Tee Jays closed have been fanned into a roaring fire. When well-intentioned philanthropists and ambitious politicians talk about bringing sewing back to the area, frustrated residents invariably ask: “But what are we going to do about China?”
Autopsies of Revival
As if channeling the ire of former Tee Jays employees, the Trump Administration has made anti-China bluster a recurring theme. Across the country, Walmart executives and union organizers alike have complained about the threat that this manufacturing behemoth poses to American livelihood. Such common resentments have been given the name “China shock” by the economists David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson, who have measured the purported correlation between China’s rise and America’s decline by tallying the number of manufacturing jobs lost due to Chinese imports. It’s a new term stoking an old feeling, one simmering just below the surface in towns like Florence. Following just a few steps behind the China shock is the fear that immigrants are stealing American jobs, and criminals and terrorists are threatening American lives. In the Piedmont, as everywhere in the US, there has never been an “economics” that is not narrated through racism.
A more thorough forensics of manufacturing’s death makes this clear. In Alabama and other parts of the American South, garment manufacturing never went entirely extinct. Instead, it disappeared into small shops—and behind prison doors. Lying 200 miles southeast of Florence in Wetumpka is the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, and 300 miles due south is Holman, a close-custody prison for men that also houses Alabama’s death row. Holman and Tutwiler are sites of thriving clothing-manufacturing operations. Here, there is no shortage of sewers. Working under the auspices of Alabama Correctional Industries (ACI), men and women are paid anywhere from 25 cents to 75 cents an hour for their labors. The humming of the textile looms in these prisons is a point of pride for state business boosters: “Alabama’s state prison system faces a wide range of problems, from overcrowding to rampant violence,” reported AL.com. “But one thing its administrators do not have trouble with is coming up with things for inmates to manufacture. From cleaning solutions and clothing to couches and barbecue grills, the list of items made by prisoners who participate in the Alabama Correctional Industries prison work program is long and varied.” In the first eight months of 2017, ACI reported more than $15 million in revenues, including almost $2 million in profits, approximately half of which came from textiles.
Most of Alabama’s prisons were built during the 1970s and saw rapidly rising populations, due in part to stricter drug laws. In the late ’70s, when Tee Jays first opened, Alabama’s state prison population was approximately six thousand; now it hovers at around thirty thousand, 42 percent higher than the national average. African Americans make up less than a third of the state population but more than 54 percent of those incarcerated.
As the textile factories were shuttering, emptying out, or sold off to foreign buyers, Alabama’s prisons were steadily filled to overcapacity. Meanwhile, both sets of infrastructure—the factory and the prison—slid into disrepair. Holman and Tutwiler have been under Justice Department investigation because of overcrowding and substandard, inhumane living conditions. Tutwiler has also been the focus of investigations into allegations of sexual violence and abuse of incarcerated women by guards. In response to a series of disturbing reports, Alabama’s governor announced its closure in 2016, but he has since backtracked. The prison, one of Alabama’s oldest, will be refurbished under the auspices of a massive $325 million bond issue that will also fund the construction of three new men’s prisons. Tutwiler is not what most people imagine when they wax nostalgic for the lost days of manufacturing. Nor is it what people like Natalie hope for when they talk about bringing sewing back to Florence.
Natalie’s attempt to reindustrialize Building 14 recently got a boost from the foundation Nest, whose mission is “to promote the social and economic advancement of global artisans and homeworkers . . . to alleviate poverty, strengthen families, and preserve endangered cultural traditions.” Founded in 2006, Nest started out like most US and European nonprofit micro-enterprise organizations by focusing on women in the poorest parts of the former colonial world. The foundation helped to “empower women” and “preserve craft traditions” like basket-weaving in Swaziland, batik dyeing in “west Java,” and silk-weaving in Varanasi by enlisting third-world artisans to create skirts and handbags for first-world designers.
In Florence, Nest discovered new opportunities to save women and crafts closer to home. The organization helps fund a sewing training curriculum at Alabama Chanin to “empower” women like Sherry by returning to them the “lost art” of sewing. Cultural preservation and uplift through craft labor has long been presented to poor women in the Global South as an antidote to unemployment or state dependence. Now, they are being offered to workers in the US by liberal philanthropists who see the American South as a postcolonial outpost where labor can be made productive again. The figure of the abject woman, so often conjured in the philanthropic imagination as being from Africa and Asia, now finds a place in Alabama. When Rebecca, Nest’s founder, spoke to community members gathered in Building 14—at an event where Nest donors had been flown in to observe first-hand the natives of Florence—she made these connections vivid. The exodus of sewing endangered this community “just like” the disappearance of silk-weaving was threatening Varanasi, she claimed. In the world of need-based philanthropy, Alabama’s proximity to Uttar Pradesh is a selling point.
This view of the South is shared by the state as well. Ambitious politicians who have been blasting Chinese competition have also been courting their investments in US-based manufacturing. Over the past decade, dozens of Chinese plants have relocated to the Piedmont region, refilling those empty factories with their own technologies and managers in a process that has been called insourcing. Chinese-owned firms alone now employ more than one hundred thousand workers across the country. In relative terms, the overall cost of labor in the depressed South now means that, by some estimates, if it costs 96 cents to make something in China, it’s only four pennies more to make it here.
Nowhere have the Chinese been more aggressively courted than by Southern states and municipalities who advertise low land and labor costs, right-to-work laws, and state grants and tax incentives. Low energy costs thanks to fracking are a big selling point. Minimal environmental regulations also mean that fear of water contamination is no barrier. In 2014, Dothan, Alabama, a town with one of the state’s highest unemployment rates, hosted a two-day US–Chinese manufacturing symposium. Here, the delegates were offered T-shirts for sale emblazoned with the slogan NI HAO Y’ALL. We do not know where they were sewn.
Since the 2016 election, there has been a continuous, perhaps unresolvable, debate about whether deepening economic distress or ingrained racism led many whites to back Trump. Seen from the former empire of cotton in the US South, where surplus was extracted from black bodies, and industrial progress and good wages were allocated to whites who had only their own labor to sell, the notion that there would only be two opposed readings is impossibly simple.
We reap what we sew. Cotton made industrial capitalism possible by feeding the bodies of workers, enslaved and free, into its machine, and by voracious clearing of indigenous lands. At the back end of its historical arc, vulnerabilities that have long sundered workers along racial and national lines ensure that the race to the bottom continues. Sherry wants to fight against this by hanging on to the vestiges of her wages of whiteness, dependent on the subjugation of workers in Central America, prison labor, and the distinction that she posits between herself and other lazy whites.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his recent essay “The First White President,” wrote, “Black workers suffer because it was and is our lot. But when white workers suffer, something in nature has gone awry.” It’s not nature, though, that has produced the racial differentiation in wealth or health. What places like Alabama, which comprise a disproportionate number of communities described by economists simply as “distressed,” show is that whiteness is not an all-powerful “amulet”—to use Coates’s evocative word—whose energies can be conserved effortlessly through time. The open secret that Trump’s politics conceal is that white privilege no longer provides much protection from economic insecurity.
If the economic struggles of white Americans like Sherry are now more visible, it doesn’t mean she is specially or inexplicably vulnerable. Her challenges do not make her unique; they make her more like everyone else. To be a working person in America today is increasingly to join the ranks of workers everywhere. Such a realization is perhaps the first step toward generating the forms of collective political will and solidarity to chart a different course. Sherry herself understands that there is little to exempt her from the crisis that has engulfed her town and region. She knows that the ground continues to shift beneath her. “I hope it works out,” she says about Mill Store. But hedging her bets, she adds, “I don’t rule it out that I would go back to sewing, if I had to.”