Walsh's book is a personal story, not an analytic exercise. It's the tale of how her Irish immigrant working class relatives drifted away from supporting racial and economic justice and away from liberal Democrats. Like too many older whites, they somehow ended up in the party of the plutocrats, of G.W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. It is also the tale of how Walsh managed to remain a liberal Democrat despite feeling out of place among progressives. And so, necessarily, it is a story of feeling whiplashed, without a place.
Like such authors as Rick Perlstein, Jefferson Cowie, and even the too little noted Judith Stein, Walsh points to the late 60s and the 70s as a hinge time, the time when the white working class became alienated from Democrats.
She mourns the disdain and ignorance with which liberals treated the terrible history of Irish suffering -- somehow other people's travails counted more than those of her people. None of us respond well to feeling our culture has been dismissed.
And Walsh experienced a particular wrenching that many white progressives felt in the Reagan era:
She identifies with the experience Obama recounts in his autobiography of checking out the squabbling sectarian left groups of that era while seeking a political home and, like him, recoiling at their lack of realism and of an inspiring vision.
I lived some of the same sense of losing my place (though my mostly WASP family had always been Republicans of the now-extinct northeastern sort), but for me, insurgent feminism filled the hole where New Deal populism might have once lived. Though Walsh is the epitome in some ways of what the women's movement has won us -- a Hillary-admirer, a writer, a TV commentator who brings a woman's experience to politics -- the women's movement doesn't seem to have served her as a political home in that difficult time. She reports with resentment her feeling of having no place in social struggles in which race seemed to trump concerns for economic justice.
I'm a little older than Walsh with a different political history, but I've been in some of those meetings -- in Oakland in fact. Come on Joan -- you shine that stuff on. It will either pass away or it won't; you'll either be accepted for your work by people whose work you respect or you won't; there's nothing to do but let it go and do the work. I'm sure she knows that, but the book is a testament to how hard it has been for her to hang on to what she knows.
Anyone who has read this far will have gathered that I'm ambivalent about What's the Matter with White People? It didn't help as much as I hoped in answering its own question. I can't stop with recognizing the humanity of people whose bitterness (yes -- bitterness and disappointment, I will just say it) keeps them acting politically against their own self-interest. I want to know what we can do -- truthfully, respectfully -- to help them change that. I'm an activist, I guess.
On the other hand, if you don't know much about the history of Irish assimilation in the U.S. melting pot, this is a good and valuable book. There are more histories in this country than we realize and we become more ourselves as we assimilate more of them.