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.