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.