Campus News

Experts discuss race, addiction in regards to controversial Hillbilly Elegy

Three Madison experts discussed J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy" at Memorial Union Monday night.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

Amid backlash against this year’s Go Big Read book, students, staff and community members packed into Shannon Hall Monday night to hear three Madison experts discuss J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy.”

The memoir, which details Vance’s experience rising from poverty to an Ivy League college, has faced criticism for its portrayal of working-class people as being able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

The panelists highlighted the controversial topics of race, class and addiction that are raised in the book and which have been underscored in recent discussions surrounding the book.

Panelist Katherine Magnuson, the associate director of research and training at the Institute on Poverty Research, said Vance’s story is unique because very few people are able to rise from poverty in the U.S.

Magnuson pointed out that while Vance’s story of upward mobility is valid, it did not happen without support from family and government resources.

“People rise up and manage to succeed, but they don’t do it alone,” Magnuson said. “[Vance] talks about several resources that were critical to his success [in the book].”

Many American’s have turned to the book as a way to gain insight into the election of President Trump, according to UW-Madison professor Kathy Cramer. However, Cramer warned readers to be cautious in jumping to conclusions.

“It’s become a little bit of a myth that the white working class as responsible for the election of Trump,” Cramer said. “We need to be careful about jumping from this book to assumptions about Donald Trump supporters.”

Cramer drew parallels between her own book “The Politics of Resentment” and “Hillbilly Elegy,” When interviewing Wisconsinites about the election of Scott Walker Cramer said she heard similar things to Vance.

“What I was hearing in 2007 was people saying to me things like ‘we don’t get our fair share of power and resources,’ and people are also saying ‘those folks who are making decisions, they don’t know us, they don’t understand us and they don’t actually even like us,’” Cramer said.

To provide context to the book’s discussion of substance use disorders, Aleksandra Zgierska, UW-Madison professor of family medicine, spoke about how addiction acts on the brain.

Zgierska said she hopes the book can act as a springboard for conversations on the stigma of substance use disorder. Zgierska said these conversations can affect how many drug addicts seek treatment.

“The majority of patients with addiction when offered treatment and offered support, eventually they do well,” Zgierska said.

The three keynote speakers agreed that dialogues sparked by the Go Big Read text were valuable and relevant.

“I draw so much of my hope these days from great public universities like this one,” Cramer said. “I think the problems in front of us are enormous but the fact that you all are here on a beautiful evening thinking about these problems with us and that we are surrounded daily by wonderful, bright, committed and energized students gives me so much hope.”

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