Sunday, September 21, 2014

Obama's 'Appalachian Problem'? It's Not So Easy

05/16/2008

Above are photos taken by Andrew Stern in Letcher County, Kentucky. The older picture above was taken nearly 50 years ago. Stern recently returned to Eastern Kentucky and took the other photos in this slideshow. See Editor's Note on the next page.

Once again the American media's compulsion to entertain rather than to understand has projected Appalachia to center stage of national politics.

Hillary Clinton's landslide victory in the West Virginia Democratic primary has provided yet another opportunity to reduce economic and political issues in Appalachia to time-honored tropes about cultural differentness. Within the past week, an embarrassment of journalists, bloggers, and late-night television hosts have turned Senator Clinton's support among blue collar voters in West Virginia into a confirmation of the white "otherness" of Appalachian culture rather than an expression of fundamental (and more complex) issues of class, gender, and race or even political organization in the Mountain State.

One correspondent, Jonathan Tilove, has even suggested that Senator Barack Obama has an "Appalachian problem" that goes beyond race to the peculiarities of "Appalachia's whites and the Scots-Irish who settled there and forever branded its culture."

Popular stereotypes and misreading of Appalachian history have long provided a convenient excuse to ignore Appalachia or to justify public and private attempts to bring the region into the cultural mainstream. Thus, the argument is offered that Clinton's appeal in Appalachia should not be taken too seriously since mountain voters represent those "other whites" whose heritage has led them to be suspicious, pugnacious, and a little less civilized than the Anglo-Puritan whites of the Northeast.

Sen. Barack Obama could not possibly succeed among these highly individualistic, uneducated, and unrefined mountain whites whose ancestors resisted slavery and Southern nationalism during the Civil War. This independent spirit, suggest the pundits, will lead the hillbillies to vote for Scotch-Irish Appalachian John McCain, born in Appalachian Mississippi.

Such characterizations of Appalachia not only obscure the historical diversity of the region and project a static view of human culture but also ignore most of the recent scholarship on Appalachia that contradicts the idea of Appalachian "otherness" and attributes its history and economic problems to political struggles that have shaped the rest of the nation.

Far from being the repository of Scotch-Irish culture, ignorance born of geographic isolation, or backwardness nurtured by anti-modernism, contemporary Appalachia is a much more diverse and historically complex place. Appalachian poverty, education, health care, and environmental problems are much more a product of the history of development patterns in the region than of any common Appalachian culture, and Appalachian voting patterns are much more a reflection of fundamental class, racial, and gender differences in America than they are of any ethnic heritage within the region.

Racism does continue to influence the voting patterns of some whites in Appalachia, and the lower levels of formal education in the region do continue to fuel bigotry and prejudice, not only toward blacks but toward Muslims and ethnic immigrants as well. But prejudice is by no means unique to whites in Appalachia, and it is often a reflection of more deeply seated insecurities that are rooted in gender and class.

For blue collar voters in Appalachia, economic concerns, not Appalachian identity, shaped their decisions at the polls. Job insecurity, rising food and gas prices, and uncertain access to health care and education turned Appalachian voters toward the more working class message of Hillary Clinton, especially among women who occupy the center of the modern mountain economy. Perhaps because of the race issue, Obama conceded West Virginia to Clinton, who was able to use the local Democratic political machinery to her advantage.

Unlike John Kennedy, who came to Appalachia during the 1960 primary season to confront anti-Catholicism directly, the Obama strategy of side-stepping the race issue (so recently raised by the Reverend Wright controversy) left the playing field to the opposition. Kennedy quickly learned that economic distress was of greater concern to mountain voters than religious difference, and by appealing to those concerns, he carried the state.

Obama has yet to learn this basic truth about Appalachia. The cultural conservatism that has often fueled a misunderstanding of the region's history and problems is grounded in economic conditions, hopes, and values that reflect those of the larger society. Appalachia is only the "other America" if we want to ignore the contradictions and challenges of our time. We do so at our own peril.

Ron Eller is a professor of history at the University of Kentucky and the author of Miners, Millhands and Mountaineers: The Industrialization of the Appalachian South.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Andrew Stern first came to the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky in 1959. He'd read a series of stories stories in the New York Times by Homer Bigart about the depression that had spread through the region. Stern brought his camera, and over the next four years he took photographs in Harlan and Letcher counties.

The images he took back to Washington, D.C., helped spur President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty.

Stern returned to Letcher County earlier this year for the first time in nearly half a century. A show of his photos was hanging at the gallery at Appalshop in Whitesburg. About half the photos in the show were taken in and around Whitesburg, so Stern thought it would be interesting to visit some of the places he had photographed nearly 50 years earlier.

These are the photos Stern took one afternoon. Some things haven't changed, he realized. RC Cola is still big. So is tobacco. The sign on the curve on Rt. 15 above Whitesburg is new, but the message is the same as it was a half century earlier. The families have many of the same stories he heard in the early 1960s, but they now have cell phones.

Kentucky will hold its presidential primary this Tuesday.

Comments

McCain's home state?

What's with the reference to Mississippi? McCain was born in Panama, well, the Panama Cana zone, which was a U.S. protectorate at the time so he still qualifies to run for the presidency - barely. Arnold Schwarzenegger is searching for a similar loophole.

Obama's Appalachian Problem

Barack Obama has finally crossed the line!!!!!!! Obama has gone too far!!! He has insulted every Vietnam Vet in West Virginia and Kentucky. Obama has no right to finally stick on his flag pin now, stage all those flags behind him and attempts to align himself or address the Vietnam War. WV. and KY. are largely vets, patriots, Bluegrass people, and we revere God, Country, and the American Flag and take this subject very seriously. I am sickened to see Obama act like he knows what it means to be a Vietnam Vet. Obama has no idea what patriotism means. No matter what the other states say that voted for Obama, KY. and WV. say it DOES matter who Obama aligns himself with and in bed with.(which we will prove) WV. and KY. are going to say it loud and clear with our vote for Hillary. Obama can bypass us with his trash talk. I for one am appalled and sicken by the God, Country, Jesus, and the Flag hating states and super delegates that voted for Obama; they are betrayers of this great country. What an insult and a phony, putting that Flag pin on now just for WV. And KY.!! Many Vets tell me they wish Obama and his God, Country, and the Flag hating bedfellows were in Vietnam with them so that they would have left them face down in a rice patty for disrespecting God, Country, and the American Flag, which they fought and died for without batting an eye. So we say. "NOT God Dam America, But God Dam Barack Obama." KY. and WV. are down to earth, common sense, patriotic states and are not fooled by empty talk. We believe in blind faith only when it comes to God and Jesus, which Obama likes to think he is, but isn’t either. So do the honorable thing Obama and pass up West Virginia and Kentucky YOU'RE NOT WELCOME HERE!!! (fellow Kentuckian's quote)

From Black Rural America

I think Obama by-passed West Virginia for the same reason I do -- I believe West Virginians have sublimated all of their anger about being left out into deep-seated hatred of African-Americans and other people of color. I read where West VA opposed the South in the civil war, but when I drive through there, all I see are rebel flags and hate posters. I've spent my life working for economic justice for the poor. I even grew up with migrants from WVA in the Pacific Northwest. But, I don't know how to form a coalition with people who are so angry and full of hate towards me. I never did anything to you. The same folks that held down your father's wages held mine down too. The same folks who made it hard for you to get an education dealt the same deal to me. I think white Appalachians are going to have to figure out the real source of their problems and get focused on the right track to solve them. As poor, working people of all colors, we can't help each other as long as you see us as the enemy and the people taking you to the cleaners (who are probably white) your friend. Hoping the best for you, your community, and your state.

Interesting Blanket You Have There....

Bypassing, i.e. ignoring, West Virginia is not a very effective way of dealing with the complaints you have made against the state. I think your blanket statements about West Virginians, and Appalachians in general, are little more than bigotry. You put words and opinions into the mouths of millions of people you have never met. The us versus them mentality displayed in the comment is often the one attributed to Appalachian whites, and they would be harshly criticized for it. Also, not all Appalachians are white. I admit there are poor of all colors, across both rural and urban populations, but only Appalachia receives the distinction of "Other America." The white upperclass uses the region to exemplify every ignorance and backwardness they believe they have surpassed, whether those beliefs are true or not, and this has disastrous consequences for the region. Often, the ignorance attributed to Appalachia has more to do with the insecurities of the white upperclass than the poor whites of the region. I could also make a similar statement, that "I never did anything to you," but you bash my culture and home, regardless. I grew up in Appalachia, and if all you see are rebel flags and hate posters, you are not looking for anything else. Honestly, anyone of any race can be a racist, and labeling the entire white population of Appalachia as racist is outright nonsense. By the way, I am not filled with anger or hatred toward you. I do not know you well enough.

Welcome in Kentucky

I just want to serve a small humble notice to the rant above. Obama is most certainly welcome in Kentucky and I suspect the margins here will look a lot more like Ohio than West Virginia. Jefferson County will turn out 10,000 new voters. There will also be gains on the rolls in Lexington and Bowling Green.