Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Her Earth Laid Open, Appalachia Reveals Her Soul

More Than A Simple Issue Of Black And White

It was a week ago when the heated “discussion” over Appalachia's Democratic primary voting patterns went from orange ember to white-hot flame. The decidedly revealing exit polling from the West Virginia primary set things off in a huge way, sending MSNBC's Pat Buchanan into paroxysms of red-faced keening that made more than a few viewers (like my stunned kids who were watching) actually fear for his health.

But it was his crazed words about what the West Virginia results “meant” that gave many pause. If you looked past the “guy-on-meth-from-an-episode-of-Cops” yelling, the point he was desperately trying to hammer home was one about Obama being in deep trouble with “hard-working, White” Americans because of the state's demographic breakdown post-the vote. The breakdown went nearly 70%/30% in a 95% White state, going against the prevailing trends—numbers that should indeed concern Obama, but can not be forced into the general election template Buchanan nearly stroked-out trying to cram it into.

It also doesn't help when allegedly more cosmopolitan states try to cast that primary in dumb, lowest-common denominator bolierplate, as shown in the following day's New York Daily News front page and main spread.

But that is the world we live in, where the three-word tag is king. The sound-bite, the five-second run-down...with no consideration of history or a desire to actually look with a discerning eye at why some things are the way they are. Consider this: West Virginia and Kentucky, and virtually everyplace else in that chain of states that form Appalalchia proper are not simply the short-hand, Cliff Notes™ snapshots we're force-fed the appearance of. Not the hard-core bastion of retrograde hate and susceptibility to the worst impulses of jingo-tastic, faux-American disregard for forward-thinking we are led to believe they are. I could see how that mask is mistaken for the region's face, thanks to people like Buchanan...

...but even cursory look at the region and what it has gone through tells the real story of why things are.

There is the very nature of the land itself. Rugged in its raw form, and rougher still through what has been done to it by man and moguls, this is a place where large corporations make mega-fortunes on ripping the very heart out of the earth and cleaving off its scalp. The coal mining industry, while not employing the huge numbers it once did, is still a major economic force in the area. With upwards of 600 open and active mines in the region, pulling out close to 300 million tons of coal every year, pitting and scarring the land as the dark manna is hauled out on the cheap, the region's workers average a paltry $25,000 per year in pay for this back-breaking hollowing out of the earth beneath them. You add in the mills that have taken up the slack, where every fiber-filled, right-to-work breath steals a little bit of a person every day, and then stir in the “legacy” economy that pays to keep alive the people who gave of their bodies for decades—pensions and stratospheric late-in-life health care costs, and you have a population dangling by its economic short and curlies. And the moguls who own and ioperate these cash-cow companies have a vested interest in keeping the area's population ill-educated (which lessens the opportunity to gain work beyond home), financially on eggshells and “American Dream”-starved. Were these folks to in large numbers move beyond the necessity to work in these life-stealing industiries, where-oh-where would the cheap labor come from? There simply isn't enough of an incentive for “illegals” to descend upon the mountains and snatch these jobs up. For that low level of pay (and it'd be lowered still for brown-skinned folks) and body-busting work, there would have to be more of a secondary, benign payoff than Appalachia-as-it-stands can provide. Things that many take for granted, like ease of inexpensive travel and access to the culturally familiar would work against a replacement, outsider workforce. So you have in effect, a group almost permanently chained to the corporations that call the shots in the area. That is what is called “a captive workforce”.

This is the main reason why the young leave there in droves—the limited opportunities for success compared to the rest of America. Sadly, Appalachia is not a place you think of when thoughts of making the most of the “American Dream” come to mind. And that's the way the region's controlling interests want it. Born poor, keep them poor, and said poverty keeps enough there to be used as fuel for the money machine. It's also why the voting populace skews so heavily older. These are the folks tied to home—be it by duty to family who needs them, or an inability to escape. They will be born there, live there, work there, and yes—die there.

Now, this is not to say that they are terminally morose, or constantly unhappy...or dare I say it—bitter. They most certainly are those things when times are at their hardest, as would anyone who feel the weight of clouds limiting their sight of prosperity's sky. But they get by. It doesn't consume them. They live their lives as fully as things allow. And they no doubt know that the country outside of where they are experiences life differently—maybe with the odds stacked in a less-high pile against them. It's only human for there to be some envy, and even some antagonism.

Here's where race creeps into the picture. When you take into account the relative scarcity of Black folk in the region, racism's spectre seems odd in that it would appear hard to hate people who aren't there to be hated. Racism though, is a chameleon, changing pattern and texture depending on environment and situational catalysts. It manifests itself in Appalachia as an outgrowth in large part from socio-economic pressures and good, old self-esteem issues. This is also in the interests of the “bosses” whose businesses so dominate the region, and further, the local politicians in their pockets. As a distracting straw man, they unsubtly perpetuate the dusky, but actualy unseen “other” as a factor in their doing so poorly. And since time immemorial, no group wants to be regarded as the low man on the totem pole (The irony of using a Native American metaphor should give us all pause.), and in America, regardless of social station, African Americans can never truly escape that position.

You may be bad off. You may be under-educated, or ill-housed...but as long as you ARE NOT a n*gg*r, you ARE NOT at the bottom.

For some people—for a LOT of people, that's more than enough to make them feel a little bit better about themselves. And anything that enables that is hunky dory when you're effectively parked in what America deems its sweaty regional armpit.

This is why plays to race as a subtle “feel-good” mechanism work in Appalachia—never mind that the person cast as the “one you should consider below you and thus unworthy of your trust” might actually help them. It's that gut play to emotion and self-esteem that is fertile ground for the evil's seed to take root. It clouds reason and common sense. It allows people to instantly believe the worst of Black folks—never mind the ridiculousness of a specific claim. Someone must be at the bottom and as long as it's a n*gg*r and not them, a sigh of relief can be breathed. It is much more of a tool than a belief system in a place where the overwhelmingly White population is so hopelessly beaten down, ironically worse off than a lot of their African American comrades in poverty.

It is why a Harvard educated Black man scans there as an other to be rejected out-of-hand as a potential leader...or more simply, a boss. (And “the boss” already doesn't play well in their circles, understandably) The “Harvard” hurts, but the color of his skin is the true dividing line here, and the one that ultimately wounded him in his primary battle against the equally well-educated, but demographically different in other unmistakable ways, Senator Hillary Clinton. On the whole, these people are not garden-variety racist in the practice of their day-to-day lives. In fact, considering their isolation from Black folks, racism is probably quite the non-factor in everyday life. Fighting to survive in the face of a constant economic strangulation is. There is the chance that in a general election that these folk could be swayed by strong economic revival messaging should Obama win what seems like a near-certain nomination. Their issue isn't so much about hatred of people like him as it is a desperate boosting of the wounded self-esteem of folks like themselves.

And there is the nub of it—a wounding. Wounding the vast bulk of the country America never sees when it thinks of those of us in dire straits. A wounding with the mocking “Soooooey!” calls and barbs on incest being a norm instead of a taboo. The day-in/day-out wounding that is the direct result of the social, cultural and economic armpit-ization of a mountainous swath of 21st century America encompassing some 25 million people. Starved of opportunity and resources to make better not by chance, but by design, because somebody more powerful wants it that way. When you back a bunch of folks into a corner and kick them about like trapped rats, you really can't be surprised at what they'll do to make a point. Silly, spiteful and self-defeating as it may seem.

Looking down our noses at Appalachia is what's at the root of this. Looking askance at them as the Daily News and other opinion-makers did is what perpetuates it. But it's going to take looking at them eye-to-eye as fellow human beings the way a Bobby Kennedy did in 1968 and trying to understand their problems, to finally help these people, and remove the stigmas that have been put in place to specifically keep them where they are—physically and socio-economically. It means actually doing things to fix their situations—not cheap pandering and playing to the short-term “gains” brought by emotions and dog-whistles. It's easy to hate on them, and even easier to simply dismiss. Greater America has been utterly guilty of this in its treatment of Appalachia to this very day, simultaneously ignoring and faux-courting them, and in the end giving them nothing.

What we saw there wasn't quite your boilerplate systemic racism—there is endemic prejudice involved in the voting pattern, but looking at the facts—and the true demographics, it's also a lot of conditioned response. Conditioned negative response—to their own very real oppression. It doesn't make it right or fair. But it is what it is.

“Writing these people off” isn't the thing to do, though. as it only continues the status quo that keeps them reacting as they do. Appalachia's race problem is more of a symptom than a disease. It can be fixed. But it is going to take an honest effort to make America “work” better for them. Effort. Care. Pressure. And time.

It's almost miraculous what those things can do. And if you don't think so, hell...just ask a former lump of coal.