There’s A Racist Elephant in Our Suicide-Crisis Living Room

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“Deaths of despair” for white non-Hispanics, 2000 and 2014
Ages 45–54, by couma* (from the Brookings Institute)

So far we’ve seen respected journals and media sources blame America’s current suicide crisis on economic stresses, less-reliable access to both physical and mental health care, and the opioid epidemic (see CBS News, Washington Post, and Men’s Health, to name just a few). But step back for a moment and look at who the crisis is affecting most: middle-aged whites in general, and middle-aged white men in particular.

None of these sources seem to acknowledge that those same factors listed above apply not just to middle-aged whites, but to all Americans of the same age cohort. Why, then, is it affecting whites (especially white males) more than anyone else? (No, this article is not about either Kate Spade or Anthony Bourdain and we’re not going down the InfoWars histrionic road of “it’s a war against white men”)

Look at the map above and consider where the changes have been greatest. Generally speaking (and all such observations in this article are meant to be understood in the general sense), it’s the rural areas, particularly the rural areas of the West Coast, the Appalachians, (most of) the Midwest, and - to a lesser (though still quite significant) extent - the South. Let’s examine these in a little more detail:

  1. The Appalachians. Yes, the region has been economically hit hard over the past two decades with the decline of coal (especially since it’s now cheaper to build and operate renewable energy sources than it is to simply operate coal or nuclear power plants). They can see for themselves that the source of their livelihood is dying…so surely this should be considered a major factor, right? Actually, no. Look on the same map above - Michigan’s suicide rate for white males increased, but not nearly so much as did the Appalachian region even though much of the engine of Michigan’s growth - the automobile industry - has been shipped out-of-state or out-of-country. This isn’t to say that economic hardship isn’t a significant factor, but it doesn’t seem to be as great a factor as some seem to believe. The region also has a low general educational attainment level, and lower educational attainment level is identified as a risk factor for suicide.
  2. The Rural West Coast. Unlike the Appalachians, the West Coast has not seen a great economic decline; quite the opposite, in fact, and not only in the urban sectors along the I-5 corridor from San Diego to Seattle. The Napa Valley wine industry has done very well indeed, and so have much (though not all) of the great farming regions of northern California and eastern Oregon and Washington. These regions saw the same great increase in suicide rates among white males as did the Appalachians, but they did not experience anything approaching the economic downturn suffered by the Appalachian region. This would seem to indicate, then, that economic well-being (or lack thereof) really isn’t that great an overall factor. Furthermore, the educational attainment level of whites in these areas is significantly higher than in the Appalachians, so one’s level of education does not seem to be a factor in this area.
  3. The Deep South. In fact, while the poorest region of America - the Deep South - did have a statistically-serious increase, that increase was still not nearly as significant as in the Appalachians or on the rural areas of the West Coast. This is yet another indication that while economic hardship is a significant factor, it is not a major factor. It should also be noted that the Deep South has (again, generally) the lowest educational attainment averages in the nation, so as with poverty, lack of education may not be as significant a factor as some believe. I would, however, point out that this is the “Bible Belt”, and those regions that are more religious do tend to have lower suicide rates. This isn’t to claim moral superiority of religion over atheism (full disclosure: I am a strong Christian), but religion tends to strongly inform regional culture, and this may very well have a direct effect upon the suicide rate.
  4. The Midwest. This is the most interesting dichotomy on the map, since the lower states of the Midwest experienced a great increase, but the increase in the upper states of the Midwest was much less. North of Kansas, the states of the Midwest have been doing fairly well both economically and in terms of educational attainment. Except for the Texas economy, the opposite is true of the lower states of the Midwest. As above, the Midwest tends to be more religious, and this may explain to some extent the lower suicide rates of the upper Midwestern states.

So it would seem that neither economic status nor educational attainment can really explain the frankly shocking rise in the mature white male suicide rate. What about the Opioid Crisis? Here’s a map:

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Comparing the above map to the map of mature white male suicides at the top, there doesn’t seem to be much (if any) real correlation. Okay, what about access to physical and mental health care? Here’s another map:

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Again, there doesn’t seem to be much (if any) correlation with the map of white male suicides. And to reiterate the point about educational attainment, here’s yet another map:

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As before, there is no apparent correlation. There seems to be no real geographical correlation between the map of white male suicides and the maps of opioid use, access to health care, or educational attainment. What’s more, as far as I can tell, there’s no combination of those maps that lead to any reliable hybrid form of correlation.

The only correlation I could find was with the following map of unemployment by county:

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However, even though the above map shows that there may be such a correlation on the rural West Coast, if unemployment were really tied that strongly to suicide among white males, then the suicide rates should be much lower in Oklahoma and Texas and much higher in Michigan and the Deep South. This seems to indicate that unemployment does factor into the equation, but not to the extent that it explains the disparity of suicides by mature white males.

What, then, could possibly be the major overriding factor in the rise of mature white male suicides? The first clue comes with the words “white” and “male”. The white males are not facing anything worse than nonwhites from the same areas are already concurrently facing; if anything, those white males are (in the overall picture) facing generally less severe economic/drug/educational factors than those faced by nonwhite males!

So what happened? Blame Obama (along with everything else they want to blame him for, too)!

Okay, I don’t mean we should blame President Obama personally, but the shift in the American electorate and American society that allowed him to be elected president in the first place. Look first at the left-side map on the top, from the year 2000. Consider that at that time, discrimination against those of the LGBTQ community was legal, normal, and accepted by most Americans (particularly in rural conservative communities). There was no “socialist” health care law like the ACA. The Republicans had finally gotten control of not just the White House, but both houses of Congress, too. Bill Clinton had been impeached for lying about a blowjob from a woman not his wife. Karl Rove wrote of a “Permanent Republican Majority”. “Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell” was the very best deal that gays and lesbians in the military could hope to get (and transsexuals need not apply). Rush Limbaugh and Jerry Falwell were kingmakers, and anyone who didn’t toe the conservative and right-wing evangelical line had no chance to get elected.

In other words, in 2000, times were pretty good for Republicans. The world seemed to be their oyster…and the 9/11 attacks only strengthened their hold on Washington D.C. and the American political establishment.

Then came the patently illegal invasion of Iraq (which Bush had discussed in his very first cabinet meeting long before 9/11) and the Great Recession, and the frustration and anger of the Left enabled the Democrats to take back Congress…and then we elected the first black guy to take up residence in the White House. All of a sudden we began to see protests by right-wingers carrying signs saying, “We want our country back!” and “Send Obama back to Kenya!” Before Obama was elected, the Republicans in Congress voted almost in lockstep to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act that prevented racist vote suppression in certain states. Just over three years after he took the Oath of Office, the Republicans cheered the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the conservative-led Supreme Court.

Then came the big one, the realization that America would become a “majority-minority” country in just a few decades. From a 2014 study by Northwestern University:

The U.S. Census Bureau projects that racial minority groups will make up a majority of the U.S. national population in 2042, effectively creating a so-called majority-minority nation. In four experiments, we explored how salience of such racial demographic shifts affects White Americans’ political-party leanings and expressed political ideology. Study 1 revealed that making California’s majority-minority shift salient led politically unaffiliated White Americans to lean more toward the Republican Party and express greater political conservatism. Studies 2, 3a, and 3b revealed that making the changing national racial demographics salient led White Americans (regardless of political affiliation) to endorse conservative policy positions more strongly. Moreover, the results implicate group-status threat as the mechanism underlying these effects. Taken together, this work suggests that the increasing diversity of the nation may engender a widening partisan divide.

Note how the authors identified how the demographic shift was driving more whites to the GOP.

The point is, in the period of the study - 2000 to 2014 - there was a great shift from Republicans and conservatives being on top of the world to a point where they thought they were losing their country to nonwhites, to immigrants, to Muslims, and to liberals, all of whom were (in the Right’s eyes) shoving out-of-control socialism and politically-correct regulations down their throats.

Such a great political and social shift has psychological consequences. Just as many Democrats and liberals became depressed after the election of Trump (I know I did!), many Republicans and conservatives were depressed after the election of Obama, as this article in The Atlantic makes clear:

It’s easy to mock reactions like these, but for liberals and conservatives alike, losing at the polls can produce an all-encompassing sense of despair. Conservatives experienced something similar after the election of Obama, whose socially liberal platform was anathema, for example, to many religious people.

As Senator John McCain conceded to Obama in 2008, Kevin Neugebauer of Katy, Texas, told CNN he was “distraught” and struggling to understand “how it could happen.”

And in 2012 Mitt Romney supporter Marianne Doherty of Boston told the Washington Examiner, “It makes me wonder who my fellow citizens are. I’ve got to be honest, I feel like I’ve lost touch with what the identity of America is right now.”

Thing is, for the ever-whiter Republican party, it wasn’t just the election of Barack Obama, but the lasting effects of the wars in the Middle East, the growing acceptance of the LGBTQ community, and (most of all) the great demographic shift to a majority-minority nation. Even with the election of Trump and the Right’s current stranglehold on Congress, America today is nothing like the America of 2000…because the people no longer support military adventurism or tolerate everyday prejudice (regardless of what Fox News tries to claim). Most of all, short of a nationwide catastrophe or ethnic cleansing, the demographic shift is an eventuality, a true certainty; America will be a majority-minority nation no matter what white nationalists like Trump try to foist on our nation. As demonstrated above, great political shifts do tend to depress those on the losing side…and those who are more depressed are more likely to commit suicide.

But it’s much worse for the white males. Why? White males had much farther to fall down the social ladder. The truly telling moment was this study by the National Academy of the Sciences that showed that many Trump voters were driven not by economic stresses, but by fear of loss of status. That study echoed what was found in a previous study by PRRI and The Atlantic that showed:

Overall, the model demonstrates that besides partisanship, fears about immigrants and cultural displacement were more powerful factors than economic concerns in predicting support for Trump among white working-class voters.

Depression due to the perceived loss of one’s “America”, to the fear of “loss of status”, to the fear of “cultural displacement”…these are in my opinion the “why” of the rise in the suicide rates of mature white males. That, and the depressive effect was magnified all the more since they had farther to fall down the social ladder.

To be sure, this factor, this “fear of cultural displacement” is almost certainly not what was going through the minds of any of those mature white males who committed suicide, but it’s an additional factor that those (who are not American whites) would experience to a *much* lesser extent. Nonwhites, either having grown up in America or having immigrated here, are used to being in a “white America” and accept that they must adapt to make it here. But for whites who see themselves facing the eventuality of an America that isn’t the “white America” of their youth, such a prospect is frightening, and certainly has a depressive effect.

Many of those who read this might say, “Well, that just means that the white males need to man up and adapt like the rest of us”, and I quite agree (full disclosure: I’m the only white guy in my family). But it’s sorta like the old saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” We white males do need to “man up” and adapt to change, to learn to surf the tsunami of demographic change, but so many don’t realize that they can adapt, or believe that they must somehow fight to retain their social status…and what’s worse, that’s what they’re being told by right-wing pundits and politicians. They honestly believe that they and “their” American way of life is being threatened by nonwhites, as I point out in this article.

So what comes next? I’d say that within the next couple years, we’ll see statistics showing a drop in the rate of suicides by mature white males since many of them will somehow think that Trump’s actually making America “great again” and this will alleviate to some degree the aforementioned depressive effects…but America is changing and browning and within a couple decades will become a majority-minority country, and we whites are going to have to accept and adapt to that fact. I hate to put a Darwinian spin on things, but Nature will take care of those who can’t adapt.

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