Columbia University professor John McWhorter gleans interesting insights from a new memoir tackling “hillbilly” culture.

For a book arguing that poor Americans have control over the trajectory of their lives even in an unfair system, J.D. Vance’s memoir has encountered a surprisingly warm reception from America’s intelligentsia. Or maybe not so surprisingly.

Hillbilly Elegy is about the white poor rather than black poor, which frees our thought leaders to think of its subjects as actual human beings. If the author and his poor relatives were black, the critics would no doubt approach them on the standard assumption that the descendants of African slaves in the U.S. are the world’s first people incapable of grappling with anything short of a level playing field.

J.D. Vance is a graduate of Yale Law School and a principal at a Silicon Valley investment firm. He’s also of the Scots-Irish Appalachian culture, and with a few name changes, the story he tells about his life could be about poor black people, or poor urban Irish immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

While Vance writes with sincere affection about the “hillbilly” culture that spawned him, he also reports that its people too often refuse to work even when work is available. They wallow in abstract vitriol against “the system,” use violence to settle trivial disputes, have children early and without the means to support them, and often succumb to substance abuse. They do all this in numbers far too vast to be dismissed as mere anecdotal peculiarities. In fact, incarceration rates for these poor whites are going up at the same time that they are going down for poor blacks.

“Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith,” Vance writes.

His book highlights a simple proposition: that one’s behavior is based, to a considerable degree, on what one grows up seeing as a norm. If a young man is not inclined to work steadily, it may be because he grew up in an environment in which men who did not work steadily were accepted as part of the local fabric. A tendency toward violence may be due not to genetics or the stress of being poor, but to an upbringing among people for whom it was normal to resolve disputes through violence rather than dialogue. …

… Certainly, public policy can be altered to make achievement easier for poor people, and Vance has some suggestions. But after 50 years of Great Society programs that tried to legislate poverty out of existence, it’s clear that government alone cannot create real change. To pretend that culture is somehow beside the point is a denial of a people’s humanity, for all its intended benevolence. “To the degree that I nearly succumbed to my worst decisions, the fault lies almost entirely with factors outside the government’s control,” Vance writes.