J.D. Vance and the Myth of White Exceptionalism

How a chronicler of hillbilly culture and incoming U.S. senator positioned himself as a representative of people he despises

J.D. Vance and the Myth of White Exceptionalism
Republican U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance speaks with supporters in Middletown, Ohio, on Oct. 19, 2022. (Gaelen Morse/Getty Images)

J.D. Vance, a venture capitalist and author of the runaway bestseller and cultural sensation “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” took a seat in the U.S. Senate on Jan. 3, representing the state of Ohio. What can his rise tell us about America’s relationship with whiteness, the power of narrative and the utility of poverty for a politician?

The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates warned: “It is often said that [former President Donald] Trump has no real ideology, which is not true — his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.”

Vance has been criticized for his own shifting alliances and lack of firm principles. So as he enters as a freshman senator, let us not misunderstand him as a passive figure with no clear agenda, or regard him merely as a tool of Trump or the tech billionaire Peter Thiel, who donated millions to his campaign. What we understand about Vance depends on what we can understand about the complex positioning of a new white exceptionalism.

The narrative of exceptionalism is most broadly defined as a belief that one group is different from all others and assumes a uniformity within the group. American exceptionalism, though a term first used by Josef Stalin in 1929 to critique revisionist American communism, has evolved into a form of bragging from within America; a way of claiming a status beyond and above all other nations. Black exceptionalism, on the other hand, depends upon the same assumption of group uniformity but posits that anyone who is both successful and Black is the exception.

In the debates at the turn of the last century, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington and northern philanthropists who promoted the idea of “raising the race” considered whether a reliance on the top 10% of the Black population to acquire classical education or an extension of industrial education to a broader Black population would be most effective. Foundational to this idea, which Du Bois advocated and is sometimes called “The Talented Tenth” — referring to that top 10% — is an assumption of a lack of ability associated with Blackness during the Reconstruction Era. More than a century later, the concept of Black exceptionalism continues to prevail and to be tied to an assumption of Black poverty and low ability. Individual Black success happens in spite of Black culture, according to this framework, and depends upon a damning and monolithic representation of that group. Whether it is Michelle Obama, Michael Jordan or Nina Simone, Black exceptionalism asserts that success is due to individual exceptionalism, which does not reflect upon Blackness but rather exempts individuals therefrom.

Success for a white person in America is not the exception. White exceptionalism is an oxymoron. In his 1997 book “White: Essays on Race and Culture,” Richard Dyer observed that while factors like region, religion, socio-economic class, gender expression and other identity markers can have an impact on overall experience, “whiteness generally colonizes the stereotypical definition of all social categories other than those of race. To be normal, even to be normally deviant (queer, crippled) is to be white.” In other words, whiteness trumps other markers of identity.

J.D. Vance has positioned himself within an oxymoronic white exceptionalism of his own design, which is derived more from frameworks of Black exceptionalism than American exceptionalism and relies upon a history of the Appalachia region as “not quite white” or “unwhite” — existing outside the realm of white American experience. His reliance on personal experience allows him to carve out a white victimization that is at the heart of contemporary white identity politics. What is confounding, upon closer examination, is Vance’s assertion of the intractable flaws of the (white) people who raised him, and his reliance on the narrative of Black exceptionalism to claim his own place as an individual success. His success, given this complex position as a person who claims whiteness but asserts his ancestors’ predisposition to failure, makes him an exception to the rule. He got up and out on his own accord. Now that he has done so, his response is to blame the poor for their poverty, blame the addicted for the opioid crisis and blame Appalachia itself for the extraction of its resources.

In “Hillbilly Elegy,” Vance speaks confidently in the first-person plural, placing wholesale blame on a vast group of people:

We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job, but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness, or for stealing merchandise and selling it on eBay, or for having a customer complain about the smell of alcohol on our breath, or for taking five thirty-minutes restroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance — the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.

We’ve seen this before, in places like the Moynihan Report and “The Bell Curve” (both discussed below). Each time we see this move, white identity shifts ever so slightly — as it has since it was invented.

In 1964, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant secretary of labor (later a U.S. senator), crafted an unsolicited report to warn the White House of the inevitable failures of civil rights legislation. Titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” the text known as the Moynihan Report asserted that “at the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family.” Critics accused Moynihan of blaming the victims for their dilemmas. In the nearly six decades since the report was made public in the spring of 1965, Moynihan has been criticized less for his study and more for the conclusions he drew. He asserted that only internal racial self-help could reverse problems in the family structure, ignoring structural injustices and criticizing reform measures. The Moynihan Report blamed Black families and asserted, by implication, the moral, social and characterological superiority of white families.

The same year that Moynihan and his staff were writing their report, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the “War on Poverty” from a Kentucky porch belonging to a local resident, Tommy Fletcher, an unemployed sawmill operator. While this “war” had many fronts, the Johnson administration focused attention on white rural Appalachian areas to garner support. Urban poverty, which disproportionately affected people of color, had a different edge to it than the representation of poverty created during the early days of the War on Poverty.

This early, intentional representation of white rural poverty in 1964 was tied to and came out of the same moment that created the Moynihan Report. What if photographers had instead gone to Chicago and photographed young Black children in that urban setting, knowing that the funding and programs enabled by the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 — programs like Head Start and Job Corps — extended to impoverished areas and people across the country? Johnson understood then that white poverty was more palatable than Black poverty, and so his administration gave its War on Poverty a white face.

Vance’s white exceptionalism is derived from two essentialist frameworks: the victim-blaming of Black families represented in the Moynihan Report and the pathos for white poverty shown in War on Poverty depictions of Appalachia. Both presume monolithic cultures and rely on simplistic arguments. Black people are poor as a rule because Black families are broken, whereas white people are poor as the exception and deserve assistance. Vance has crafted the most powerful position for himself in which he is white and could be exceptional in his poverty as a child, but he posits himself as exceptional in that he came from a backward place that deserves to fail. In applying Moynihan’s victim-blaming to a region (mis)represented as white and rural, he can be a white victim whose rise is exceptional.

In 1964 and 1965, both Black families and Appalachia were depicted as deeply broken. Moynihan argued that legislation could not correct the flaws within the Black family. Measures such as the Economic Opportunity Act were designed to rescue impoverished people like those in Appalachia. The success of the act had everything to do with the white face of the War on Poverty. The argument Moynihan deployed against Black families in his report was not central to Johnson’s approach to Appalachia. Dwight Billings has pointed to this aspect of “Hillbilly Elegy,” calling it “the pejorative Moynihan report on the Black family in white face.” Vance, however, braids together the Moynihan argument with the Appalachian narrative to justify his assertion that his “culture in crisis” is irredeemably flawed, allowing him to claim an exceptionalism centered on his individual merit.

From the earliest determinations of the region as a region, travelers, geologists and botanists worked to define and label Appalachia. As early as the 1720s, William Byrd II established many of the stereotypes about the region that remain today in “The History of the Dividing Line,” which chronicled his travels near the Virginia-North Carolina boundary. He showed the “up-country” people as primitive, lazy and unkempt. A century and a half later, William Goodell Frost wrote “The Southern Mountaineer,” in which he mythologized the “pure” race of the region, writing about what he called “our contemporary ancestors” living in the mountains of Appalachia. He helped create the notion that the mountains were filled with people untouched by the passage of time. These myths of Appalachia — as white and out of touch — prevailed and were utilized in the media to promote the War on Poverty in the following century.

Just as Johnson’s administration was situating poverty in Appalachia, the “Life” magazine photographer John Dominis was sent to document the poverty of Kentucky. His images convey a sense of despair, destitute poverty and fragility. Along with the images, the captions situate the subjects as deserving of pity. With one photograph, he wrote, “Appalachia stretches from northern Alabama to southern Pennsylvania, and the same disaster that struck eastern Kentucky hit the whole region — the collapse of the coal industry 20 years ago, which left Appalachia a vast junkyard.” This kind of generalization of a 13-state region (including northern Mississippi and southwestern New York, which Dominis’ photo caption overlooked) — calling Appalachia a vast junkyard — does damage.

It did damage to kids like Vance, who came to feel such a deep shame about Appalachia that he now does all he can to distance himself from his hometown and to blame Appalachia for his individual shortcomings.

News crews and photographers followed Johnson’s path through Appalachia, seeking out the most impoverished areas. Dominis and others like him captured, in undeniably beautiful, haunting, poignant images, a face for the War on Poverty and presented it to the world. This face, and these images, set in place a type — an expectation — for future documentarians, photographers, journalists and writers, so that when visitors to the region sought images that were familiar, they made their way to the same rickety porches, coal mines and family farms.

Vance takes the same path down that well-rutted road, driven as much by stereotypes of the region as his own lived experience. Ivy Brashear, an Appalachian writer and organizer, has observed:

Vance’s willingness to tap into that long history of misleading images of the place and the people who live there proves his end game: monetary gain and national notoriety to bolster a potential political run for office — supported, of course, by his carefully created and curated self-image as the so-called “expert” on the white working class of Appalachia, a place where he has never lived. His only connection to its realities were visits with grandparents who traveled home for short periods for a few summers when Vance was a child.

Vance might have positioned himself as one of those down-home factory workers “done good” who can’t stand the direction in which liberal elites are moving the U.S. But that isn’t the story he tells. Instead of aligning himself with Appalachia and calling for a conservative turn to restore power to locals, he points out the reasons that locals can’t be trusted. He writes, “Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us … . These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.” In playing the white exceptionalism card, Vance posits that his success is in spite of the world in which he was raised, rather than due to it.

The historian Bob Hutton highlights that Vance was pointing out problems but discouraging solutions. Hutton writes:

[A]t no point does Vance suggest that Kentucky and Ohio residents might benefit from higher wages, better health care, or a renewed labor movement. That would run in the face of his bootstraps thesis. Such concepts would interfere with Vance’s aim in writing “Hillbilly Elegy,” for the book is primarily a work of self-congratulations — a literary victory lap — and a vindication of a minimalist safety net.

While Vance writes about Appalachia as a monolithic white region, he depends upon narratives that have been applied to both Appalachia and to non-whites — specifically Black Americans. The narrative of Appalachia as backward is tied to the narrative of Appalachia as expendable. The narrative of Black families as dysfunctional is tied to the narrative of Black labor as expendable. Both have long histories, tied to capitalism and extractive industries. The success of these systems depends upon narratives of backward cultures deserving of erasure. These are the narratives that Vance co-opts in “Hillbilly Elegy,” where he first cast himself as the exceptional white victim.

Just as coal companies feel justified to blast the tops off mountains and developers call it progress to grade mountainsides and fill them with second homes, Vance extracts a narrative to launch his political career, with no commitment to change the circumstances of those he represents and in fact with quite a bit of resentment toward them. Using the framework of victim-blaming familiar from the Moynihan report, Vance uses the stereotypes of Appalachian people to his benefit, to launch himself as a politician who was smart enough to escape this doomed place.

The myth of the mountaineer trades on two primary tropes that depend upon one another, reminiscent of historic representations of Native Americans. Like Native Americans, mountain people belong to another era. Left too long in isolation, they have not adapted to progress. On the one hand, this paints them as quaint, leading to a romanticized narrative of an old-fashioned people. Yet, as with Native Americans, rootedness in traditional customs is freighted with an inability to adapt. For the Cherokee, this meant forced removal from their ancestral home. For “white” Appalachians living on the land for generations, this means and has meant a removal of agency, a presumption of ignorance and an abuse at the hands of those who own resources, through a manipulation of mineral and timber rights. Much of this has been shaped by narratives of the region, represented as a socially impoverished but geologically wealthy place that cannot manage its resources and does not deserve support.

Scholars of the region understand Appalachia to be — and to always have been — a diverse place. First inhabited by Indigenous people, Eastern Band of the Cherokee remain in Southern Appalachia near sites like Kituwah, the Cherokee Mother Town. Appalachia was settled by European immigrants, like those who settled across the east coast. Scholars like Karida Brown, Phillip Obermiller and others have written about Black migration to Appalachia, while William Turner and Edward Cabell have emphasized the long history of Black Appalachians. Mexican in-migration over the past 30 years has further increased the racial and ethnic diversity of the region. From the 1990 to the 2000 census reports, the (predominantly Mexican) Latino population increased by 394%. Appalachia has never been an ethnic monolith. Together, scholars have demonstrated a consistent and complex “non-white” presence across the region. And yet Appalachia exists as white and rural in the American imagination. The dual position of Appalachia follows the patterns of dehumanization for the sake of extraction and colonization; inhabitants of Appalachia have been cast as backward, simple and deserving of their own poverty.

Progress and development tend to be met with simultaneous embrace and regret. An outhouse becomes an emblem, despite the rather universal agreement that indoor plumbing is at least far more convenient. Conceptually, the good old days exist to remind us of a simpler time; a better time. We romanticize remnants of the past — especially in America, where our past is so relatively short. But we tend to idealize only the parts of our past that align with our professed values and ignore other parts that are messier. This might mean turning away from the Black history and culture that have deeply shaped what we consider American culture. It might mean ignoring Indigenous stories. And it might mean focusing on whiteness and committing to tell a story of Appalachia as a white place. But what if whiteness doesn’t exist? What if whiteness is made up and mutable?

Historians of race — from Nell Irvin Painter to Ibram X. Kendi — have demonstrated how whiteness is a slippery thing. It is not an identity driven by region, culture or presumed experience but one driven by hierarchies of power. This is how the Irish, Jews and Italians variously became “white” as they acclimated to a country whose caste system was built upon skin color. In his influential 1995 book “How the Irish Became White,” the historian Noel Ignatiev demonstrates how the Irish shifted from an oppressed group to the oppressors themselves, in large part due to their willingness to embrace the system by mistreating non-whites, particularly Black Americans. Their skin color made them eligible for membership in the dominant racial stratum, but it didn’t automatically translate into acceptance — indeed, when they first arrived in America, the Irish were regarded by the Anglo-Protestant elite as a lower order, sometimes called “white Negroes.” It was adherence to the American racial scheme, not just their phenotype, that allowed the Irish (and others) to “become white.”

Whiteness, Ignatiev argued,

is not a culture. There is Irish culture and Italian culture and American culture — the latter, as Albert Murray pointed out, a mixture of the Yankee, the Indian, and the Negro (with a pinch of ethnic salt); there is youth culture and drug culture and queer culture; but there is no such thing as white culture. Whiteness has nothing to do with culture and everything to do with social position. It is nothing but a reflection of privilege, and exists for no reason other than to defend it. Without the privileges attached to it, the white race would not exist, and the white skin would have no more social significance than big feet.

Critical White Studies emerged in the mid-1990s from Critical Legal Studies, spiraling into a range of fields and evolving toward a contemporary understanding of race as a social construct with whiteness as an identity devoid of meaning but full of power. The “identity politics” created by movements like these have led, in part, to the white supremacy du jour, which is out in the open and available as a political platform.

It was this sensibility that Trump tapped into in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. As Coates argued so effectively in his essay “The First White President,” Trump benefited from a latent racism and fear of change, and effectively threw fuel on a bed of coals. Trump, Coates wrote, was “not the product of white supremacy so much as the product of a backlash against contempt for white working-class people.” Trump invigorated voters who resisted one conception of identity politics (while engaging in their own white identity politics) and “moved racism from the euphemistic and plausibly deniable to the overt and freely claimed.” According to Coates, the possibility of Obama’s presidency served as a personal affront to Trump, who set out to reverse Obama’s policies as if erasing his presence altogether.

The current state of white identity politics tends to blame systems that have oppressed them. A factory worker blames globalism for his loss of employment, but might conflate the objects of his rage — confusing those making decisions (corporate executives) with others who are affected by them (workers in China or Mexico). The liberal elite are blamed for taking away the rights of heterosexual couples as marriage rights are extended to same-sex couples. The media and educators are blamed for creating new ideas around gender identities. A narrow way of life, which held sway for generations and continues to maintain the most privileged position, feels threatened as rights are extended more broadly, hard-won through organizing and advocacy.

As James Baldwin wrote, “No one was white before he or she came to America.” Whiteness is stabilized, conceptually, when reports “demonstrate” the putative flaws (genetic or cultural) of non-whites. We’ve seen this before, too. It has led to genocide.

Charles Murray, the co-author of the controversial 1994 book “The Bell Curve,” uses a genetic premise in his warnings about poor whites. In a 2000 article for National Review (a pillar of American conservatism), he wrote:

Try to imagine a … presidential candidate saying in front of the cameras, “One reason that we still have poverty in the United States is that a lot of poor people are born lazy.” You cannot imagine it because that kind of thing cannot be said. And yet this unimaginable statement merely implies that when we know the complete genetic story, it will turn out that the population below the poverty line in the United States has a configuration of the relevant genetic makeup that is significantly different from the configuration of the population above the poverty line. This is not unimaginable. It is almost certainly true.

To maintain a particular imagined whiteness, Murray tightens the circle — asserting that those who are poor actually have a different “genetic makeup.” They are not the right white. It is this conception of whiteness that Vance seems to align with when he similarly blames the poor for their poverty. Yet he positions himself, in the book at least, as genetically predisposed to violence. “We do not like outsiders or people who are different from us, whether the difference lies in how they look, how they act, or, most important, how they talk. To understand me, you must understand that I am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart.” This same framework seems to fuel his ridicule of the LGBTQ community.

On International Pronoun Day, an organization tweeted a chart with a list of pronouns and examples of avoiding presumption of pronouns. Vance retweeted it with the comment, “I’ll just speak like a normal person instead.” One reader called him the “ultimate vice signaler.” In a talk at a high school in California, he said that parents should stay in marriages — even violent ones — for the sake of the children. In a speech given at a meeting of a conservative think tank, Vance laughed about the “LGBTQIA+” community, thanking them for adding the “+” so that he didn’t have to remember any more letters. This “anti-woke” sensibility was fueled by Trump, whereas the genetic sensibility tied to blaming the poor comes from Murray.

Vance’s rise from Middletown, Ohio, to Yale Law School — supported by his grandmother and the G.I. Bill — is told, by him, as a bootstraps narrative of independence and hard work. His rise from lawyer to bestselling author occurred as he leaned into the role of the naïve hillbilly. His ascendance was orchestrated early on by the Yale law professor and “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” author Amy Chua, whom Vance thanks in his book for helping him believe “both [his] life and the conclusions [he] drew from it were worth putting down on paper.” Chua is a controversial and divisive figure who most recently came under attack when she defended Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. Another major supporter of Vance’s has been Thiel, the venture capitalist who co-authored “The Diversity Myth,” a book in which he asserted that multiculturalism was dumbing down colleges and that date rape charges were merely “seductions that are later regretted.” Thiel pledged $12.5 million to Trump immediately after the “grab ’em by the pussy” tape was released. He later donated $10 million to Vance’s recent senatorial campaign.

Vance’s rise from celebrity and venture capitalist to U.S. senator is enabled by this divisive moment of white identity politics, whose primary narrative is that liberal elites are abandoning “real” Americans and their values. Just as Trump took advantage of white angst resulting from Obama’s presidency, Vance capitalizes on white anxiety. He positions himself as Appalachian enough to be “one of us” but never fails to distance himself from those who raised him. He uses the narratives of monolithic “pure white stock” alongside the critique of the region as deserving of its stereotypes.

It is easy to read Vance as a puppet. His flip-flopping, after all, led Trump to claim, “J.D. is kissing my ass, he wants my support so much.” Hearing him dismiss what he calls the culture wars, laugh about gender identities and roll his eyes at “woke culture” should be a warning. Not only is he writing as an authority on a region he narrowly understands, confirming stereotypes that cause harm and justify mistreatment, he has managed to position himself as a representative of the people he despises. He calls them despicables, but perhaps it is the R beside his name that earns him their votes.

The narrative of white exceptionalism may feel oxymoronic when you pay attention to history, economics, politics or sociology in America. But Vance has just won an election based on the idea that white people are victimized by progressives, and that experience as an exceptional white — better than the rest of Middletown, Ohio — makes him the leader worth following.

Narratives matter. The shifting narrative of Vance requires an understanding of shifting constructions of whiteness, the historical tendency to blame victims for their circumstances and a justification for plundering cultures that are depicted as backward. Trace the position of race, the position of progressives and the position of government responsibility, and you’ll see just how serpentine his path toward power is. Tell a story enough times, though, and it seems true.

As Vance enters the halls of the U.S. Senate with a narrative of oppression — blaming not Purdue Pharma but his addicted mother; blaming not the tax breaks that moved jobs out of the country but the immigrants who seek a new home; blaming not the systems of poverty that were perpetuated in his family but rather the laziness of his own family — the stories he chooses to tell matter. Pay attention to his narratives. They have taken him this far and can continue to shift to carry him even further.

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