Back Forty: Know your enemy

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Grand Dragon of the KKK Louis Beam sets fire to a boat during a rally against Vietnamese shrimpers in Santa Fe, Texas, in 1981. Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images.

By Brent Cunningham

In 2017, the media were abuzz about how Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s memoir of his hardscrabble childhood in Appalachia, explained Donald Trump’s victory — The New York Times called it a “civilized reference guide for an uncivilized election.” At the time, I was reading another book that also sought to divine the mindset, and voting decisions, of America’s white working class: Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land

Vance’s narrative is set among the various calamities that befell communities like the one where he grew up — the post-industrial economy, the opioid epidemic — but the diagnosis at the heart of Hillbilly Elegy is a familiar piety of the right: personal responsibility. We feel your pain, sort of, but you’re still to blame for your plight. Indeed, the Trumpian path Vance has traveled since his book brought him fame is no coincidence.

Hochschild, meanwhile, a Berkeley-based sociologist, spent five years listening to pipefitters, plant operators, auto mechanics, school custodians and other blue-collar workers in the Louisiana bayou. Her explanation for why they consistently seem to vote against their economic and environmental interests is more nuanced than Vance’s, teasing out what she calls her subjects’ “‘deep story,’ a narrative as felt.” She describes their abiding fear of cultural displacement and economic decline, their anger at “coastal liberals” who they think look down on them, and their “perceived betrayal” by the government for not protecting them from the petrochemical companies that are despoiling their “sportsman’s paradise.”  

I couldn’t help thinking of these two books while reading The Fishermen and the Dragon, Kirk Wallace Johnson’s brisk account of the protracted clash, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, between white shrimpers along the Gulf Coast of Texas and the influx of Vietnamese refugees displaced by the U.S. military operation in their home country.

The shrimpers were already struggling. For decades, the oil and petrochemical industries had steadily colonized the Texas coastline, bringing thousands of jobs but also fouling the fertile waters with spilled oil and all manner of toxic chemicals, from benzene to mercury. By 1980, half the chemicals produced in the U.S. came from plants along Galveston Bay, where 30 percent of the country’s petroleum industry was based. Mutant fish, shrimp and crabs began turning up in the fishermen’s nets. An exposé in Texas Monthly found leukemia rates in many of these coastal towns were quadruple the state average, and the magazine gave the affected areas a new name: the Cancer Belt.

Much like the characters in Hochschild’s book, though, the white shrimpers in Texas refused to blame the oil industry for their declining catches. Family members worked at those plants, and the public narrative around them was one of progress. At the same time, the fishers loved their communities, and took pride in their life on the water, the legacy of independence that had been passed down across generations. As they sensed it all slipping away, they were angry and scared. But instead of lashing out at the polluters, they trained their anger on the Vietnamese refugees who were suddenly competing for a diminishing catch.  

Before long, a refugee killed a white shrimper in self defense, the resurgent Ku Klux Klan got involved, Vietnamese boats were torched, crosses were burned and guns brandished. The white fishers and their allies began insisting that the federal government was subsidizing the refugees in a plot to “replace” them. It was the same crazy talk we hear today from white nationalists emboldened by Trump and his ilk. 

Today, 90 percent of the shrimp Americans eat is imported from aquafarms in Asia, which have their own substantial environmental costs. What little remains of the Gulf Coast shrimping industry is dominated by Vietnamese, who, as Johnson repeatedly tells us, always worked harder and smarter than their white counterparts. In Seadrift and Seabrook, the tiny communities at the center of Johnson’s book, the shrimping business has dramatically shrunk. Oil continues to periodically spill into the bays and other waterways.

In an extended epilogue, Johnson provides a where-are-they-now for his central characters. Some, like Louis Beam, the former Klan leader who exploited the tension between the shrimpers and the refugees, remained unrepentant, at least publicly. But others, like the Collins brothers, who had been shrimping Texas bays since they were teenagers, wound up broken, in poor health, and facing premature deaths. When Johnson asks David Collins why he had embraced the Klan, burned crosses, and dropped rattlesnakes into Vietnamese boats, he says, “Just for mischief. I was wild and crazy when I was young.” Collins reminds me of some people I grew up with, including in my own family—racist almost by default rather than out of some deep commitment to the ideology of white supremacy. That’s not to excuse their behavior, only to complicate it. It’s easy to talk about transcending our circumstances, but actually doing so is hard.

There was plenty of racism and xenophobia in Seadrift and Seabrook. But residents old and new also experienced mounting precarity and genuine fear over things largely beyond their control. To a certain extent they were being replaced, but not by the refugees. Their way of life was being squeezed by a global economy that demanded “efficiencies,” and by the ecological mayhem that stemmed from our devotion to fossil fuels. It’s not unreasonable to believe that the response to the refugees would have been less hostile if the bays had remained healthy and there had been enough shrimp and crabs for everyone to earn a living.

I spent the summer of 1985 working on a friend’s brother’s shrimp boat out of Biloxi, Mississippi, some 450 miles east of where Johnson’s story takes place. By then, there were plenty of Vietnamese working the waters off the Mississippi coast, too, and I heard grumbling from white shrimpers (including my friend’s brother)—as well as the occasional note of grudging respect—about how it was impossible to outwork them. We didn’t even try; for my friend and me, this was just a summer adventure, one that would make for great stories when we returned to campus in the fall.

We lived out in the country with little to do when we weren’t on the water except catch catfish for dinner, race the motorcycle down endless stretches of asphalt, or go mudding in the pickup. Our neighbors were dirt poor. I didn’t know what any of the kids’ parents did for money, but I remember when one teenage boy opened up his family’s freezer to reveal that it was packed with squid they’d scooped out of the Gulf. He said they ate it several times a week. We pulled up plenty of squid in our nets, too, but threw most of it back, saving only a handful to use as bait. I have no idea what became of those kids, or who they might have voted for in 2020. At the end of the summer, with our catch tapering off, we left all that behind and drove home.