Thursday, January 30, 2014

The White Ghetto is Not a Land of Milk and Honey. It is a Place Where They Use Soda For Money.

Owsley County, Ky. — There are lots of diversions in the Big White Ghetto, the vast moribund matrix of Wonder Bread–hued Appalachian towns and villages stretching from northern Mississippi to southern New York, a slowly dissipating nebula of poverty and misery with its heart in eastern Kentucky, the last redoubt of the Scots-Irish working class that picked up where African slave labor left off, mining and cropping and sawing the raw materials for a modern American economy that would soon run out of profitable uses for the class of people who 500 years ago would have been known, without any derogation, as peasants. 
Earlier this week, President Obama gave a rather tepid and safe State of the Union Address. It did not address in any serious or broad way the national crisis regarding wealth inequality or stagnant wages. Interestingly, and very odd to my ears, Obama did wink to the "challenges" faced by "young men of color" in the labor market. And of course, the president offered nothing concrete about how to address said problem.

Obama's speech, and the much discussed assumption that he would address the United States' criminally high rates of income and wealth inequality, reminded me of a recent essay that was featured by the Right-wing website and publication The National Review.

It begins like a bad joke; the story is real. What would happen if a prominent conservative and Right-wing publication sent a black man to research and subsequently write an expose about white rural poverty?

The answer is simple: a train wreck of cognitive dissonance would occur among the National Review's commenters as they are forced to confront the fact that is white poverty, and how their default scripts about lazy black and brown people are challenged and upset.

The National Review piece is also clumsy and obvious in how it is trying to transpose its narrative about coddled, criminal, and hustling black and brown poor people who have it easy--and therefore deserve their fates--onto the white poor.

I wanted to laugh about the day-to-day conditions of the white rural poor as I read Kevin Williamson's expose "The White Ghetto". My sense of human decency and home training would not let me do so.

However, I did savor a tale of poor white people in a publication which has historically advanced Right-wing talking points and wicked stereotypes about black and brown people via the racist Southern Strategy.

As a practical matter, I also learned from Williamson about how poor white rural people use soda as a type of money. The comedian David Chappelle could not have written a better scene:
“Well, you try paying that much for a case of pop,” says the irritated proprietor of a nearby café, who is curt with whoever is on the other end of the telephone but greets customers with the perfect manners that small-town restaurateurs reliably develop. I don’t think much of that overheard remark at the time, but it turns out that the local economy runs on black-market soda the way Baghdad ran on contraband crude during the days of sanctions. 
It works like this: Once a month, the debit-card accounts of those receiving what we still call food stamps are credited with a few hundred dollars — about $500 for a family of four, on average — which are immediately converted into a unit of exchange, in this case cases of soda. On the day when accounts are credited, local establishments accepting EBT cards — and all across the Big White Ghetto, “We Accept Food Stamps” is the new E pluribus unum – are swamped with locals using their public benefits to buy cases and cases — reports put the number at 30 to 40 cases for some buyers — of soda.  
Those cases of soda then either go on to another retailer, who buys them at 50 cents on the dollar, in effect laundering those $500 in monthly benefits into $250 in cash — a considerably worse rate than your typical organized-crime money launderer offers — or else they go into the local black-market economy, where they can be used as currency in such ventures as the dealing of unauthorized prescription painkillers — by “pillbillies,” as they are known at the sympathetic establishments in Florida that do so much business with Kentucky and West Virginia that the relevant interstate bus service is nicknamed the “OxyContin Express.” A woman who is intimately familiar with the local drug economy suggests that the exchange rate between sexual favors and cases of pop — some dealers will accept either — is about 1:1, meaning that the value of a woman in the local prescription-drug economy is about $12.99 at Walmart prices.
Poor white people are maligned by many on the Left, Progressives, and others for having supposedly abandoned their material self-interest for the psychological wages of whiteness. This is a fair and well-deserved accusation.

However, we must also push back against the contemporary mythology that poor white people support the Republican Party in overwhelming numbers.

In fact, the reality of voting dynamics among the white poor is much more complicated than "common sense" would suggest. Poor people of all colors are much more likely to support the Democratic Party. The white "working class" that both parties chase--and that the Republicans have (more often than not) won over in recent elections--is comprised of relatively well to do white men in the skilled trades. The shift in voting patterns in Red State America from the Democrats to Republicans is not with the white poor in mass, but rather among more upper and lower middle class voters who are drunk on Christian Dominionist and Evangelical "social" and "culture war" issues.

The empirical data suggests that the above dynamics are driving the macro-political story. However, the micro-level story, the one Democrats like to tell each other, suggests otherwise.

Stereotypes are cognitive scripts and cues that serve as shortcuts to aid human beings' decision-making. Yet, the "pictures inside our heads" are often inaccurate because they do not capture individual complexity. Stereotypes also make political decision-making more efficient while simultaneously encouraging deleterious and short-sighted outcomes that do not serve the Common Good. In all, stereotypes are a type of "fuzzy" heuristic.

"The White Ghetto's" comment section is a great example of that phenomena.

From the 1960s to the present, Republicans (and their neoliberal Democrat allies) have circulated a set of powerful stereotypes about poor and underclass Americans.

For them, the poor are black and brown, lazy, useless eaters, possessed of bad culture, and perhaps even, defunct genes. When confronted by the "bad culture" of the white rural poor, many of the National Review's commenters tried to fit those poor whites into a box they have constructed around the black urban poor.

There is metaphorical steam coming out of the ears of some of the National Review's readers as they cannot process Kevin Williamson's story while reconciling it with their stereotypes about people of color.

In the most compelling comments on "The White Ghetto" essay, some readers even try to suggest that the denizens of Appalachia are actually free and empowered because they have guns--jobs and food be damned as the fruits of basic citizenship and membership in the polity. Other commenters apply mental gymnastics as they reconcile their right-wing ideology with the fact of the white poor, and try to rationalize how the latter are somehow fundamentally different--and better--than poor people of color.

The White Ghetto is, using one of my favorite phrases, a human zoo. The material realities of the people who live in the poorest parts of Appalachia are not funny: the conditions are pathetic and miserable.

My sense of empathy remains limited. I "get" the empirical facts surrounding the social and political experiences and identities of the white poor. Nonetheless, I worry how if the white poor are politically mobilized that they will simply pursue the material wages of whiteness as payment for how they, like other white folks, are psychologically invested in what it means to be "White" in America.

Brother Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. considered poverty in America to be a fire that is burning down our collective house. An impolitic thought. Empowered by white skin privilege, would the white poor fan the fire if they thought that it would burn black and brown people, and bring the metaphorical house down on the latter's heads? 


Myshkin the Idiot said...

Great piece, great eye on National Review there. Often in my conversations with white folk about rural white poverty, there is a defensiveness taken similar to what you see in those comments. They don't like being lumped together categorically, while they may rely on the same narrative for black and brown urban poverty if they don't take the time to examine their internalized racial prejudices.

I shared a piece with friends yesterday about why Mackelmore isn't the great savior of gay rights activism in hip hop (it was actually about something much bigger, but was reduced to this narrative). It was met with some vociferous defenses of Mackelmore by some of my white liberal friends. White racial resentment doesn't like being called out for the privilege that whiteness grants.

I think it's important to keep getting perspectives from people of color. As long as white folks can handle it (which they have shown they have a really hard time handling it, I have read things and suddenly felt defensive and resentful which some self contemplation helped me work through), if white folks can handle working through their racial resentment, the nation might get to a better place of understanding the similarities and differences between the white and black, red, and brown lower classes.

j.ottopohl said...

The problem of White Poverty in South Africa which was predominantly an Afrikaner rather than English problem was one of the issues that propelled the Nats into power in 1948 with their program of moving from segregation to apartheid. The Nats were largely successful in eliminating White poverty in South Africa through a redistribution of resources from non-Whites to Whites including poor Whites. This was one of the fundamental bases for the support of apartheid. There were material as well as ideological benefits in it for poor Afrikaners. It also effected the way apartheid was justified. Because so many poor Afrikaners did badly on IQ tests, the Nats rejected genetic explanations in favor of environmental ones and justified their racism along essentialist cultural lines rather than biological ones. Thus the "scientific racism" of the Nazis was officially rejected in favor of a Christian nationalism that emphasized volk and culture.

DanF said...

"Empowered by white skin privilege, would the white poor fan the fire if they thought that it would burn black and brown people, and bring the metaphorical house down on the latter's heads?"

The olds, yes. The youngs, no. Gen X and up have witnessed the exodus of factory jobs and consolidation of agrarian production which has continually chipped away at their communities standard of living (which was never all that high). On an abstract level, they're probably OK with burning it all to the ground and starting over because they think it would probably improve their chances (they already believe they're wiley enough to live off the land). To the youngs, it's shitty, it's always been shitty, and they don't harbor the same levels of animosity with people of color. Thanks to the unprecedented distribution of music, movies, TV, individual content, social networking, a black president, people of color on most local news networks, and in every sports context except maybe skiing - even if rural whites don't know any black or brown people, they are accustomed to seeing them in places of power and respect each and every day. They've learned the dog whistles, but they don't prick their ears in the same way. I would bet they lean on the side of solidarity push comes to shove.

chauncey devega said...

What a very useful comment about S.Africa vs. American Apartheid. I am reading a book that tries to explain lynching culture in the U.S. South as compared to the lack of such formal ritualistic violence in S.Africa. One of the author's points is exactly yours--how culture and class were used to unify whites against blacks. But, S. Africa had a challenge in that the whites were outnumbered, the Christian logic about how to organize their society and the hangover from British norms about class and labor. Very interesting read.

In S. Africa the violence was tied to labor and black resistance of course to white supremacy. But, whites would usually just take a "difficult" black out into the field and shoot them in the head as opposed to some spectacular lynching ritual. The psychology of State violence is disturbing.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

I've read a little about the Natives Land Act of 1913 in South Africa or Bantu Land Act. Apparently it restricted land ownership of native Africans to approximately 13% of the total land area of South Africa and was in place until the 1990's.

The United States, from what I know, has assisted white people in accumulating and maintaining wealth at every step in our history.

j.ottopohl said...

In the 1930s and 1940s the worry was about urban white poverty and the fact that poor Whites had to compete with Blacks for jobs. So they imposed restrictions on Blacks coming to the cities and taking certain kinds of jobs.

j.ottopohl said...

I think most of the killings after 1948 were by organized security forces and often they took place in prisons. The death under torture of Steven Biko being a good example.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

As someone from an overwhelmingly white rural area with pockets of intense poverty I totally agree with your statements about class dynamics and voting. The middle class in these areas is scared shitless of losing their position, and spends a lot of their energy kicking down on those below them. My relatives who have managed to climb from the working class into the middle class have tended to go from being Democrats to very conservative Republicans, both on economic and "values" issues. The rural white middle class is the absolute backbone of the Tea Party.

However, while generational change is afoot, I am not as optimistic as DanF. My home state of Nebraska is becoming less white, in large part due to recent immigrations from Asia and Latin America. In many communities this has prompted an ugly backlash and plenty of resentment from less wealthy whites. The elites back home have nefariously used the immigration issue to get poor whites to focus their anger at brown skinned people whose economic struggles are similar to their own. I fear that strategy will continue to pay off.

chauncey devega said...

I wonder though. American popular culture is black American culture and has been historically. The depictions of black and brown people in popular culture is in many ways very negative. Are these rural whites--and others--learning about "black people" from stereotypes, and how is this going to play out long term?

chauncey devega said...

No comment on crap rappers named Mackelmore who is taken up as some type of post racial progressive hero.

White folks have had 4 centuries to work through their racial issues. There has been much change. There remains much to be done. What if folks get tired of teaching and being so patient with them?

chauncey devega said...

Do those new middle class whites get how they are being hustled and how tenuous their hold on their new class status is?

Myshkin the Idiot said...

I think what some people need to realize is that we don't need solidarity with white people, we need solidarity with people of color.

Using this Macklemore conflict as an example, my friends wanted me to say, "Hey, Macklemore is doing great things for POC and gay Americans, leave him alone." Whereas the author of the piece was saying, "Queer POC voices are marginalized in dominant culture while white people are heralded as examples of saviors and this needs to stop. WE need recognition for our services."

I think this is why I read some authors will choose to work exclusively with white people because they usually stifle themselves around people of color and don't fully work through their prejudices and ignorance. In my experience, working through these things with white people is exhausting and time consuming, I totally understand why a lot of POC don't want to spend their time coddling white folk through Racism 101.

Reading through "Yo, Is This Racist" is giving me the confidence to just say "Shut up!" when I am confronted by subtler bigotry, or just walking away.

(I've never listened to Macklemore before, I looked him up this morning. I would call that hipster hop. I prefer Public Enemy, Grandmaster Flash, Wu Tang, KRS One, GZA, Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, and some other artists.)

Gable1111 said...

Yes, ironies abound here. The writer seems to be surprised somewhat at what he's seeing, that white folk are actually living like this. And I think that's because poverty has traditionally been sold as something that is an attribute of non-whites, e.g. they are poor because they are naturally lazy and lack the industriousness inherent in white people.

Secondly, what is seen here as “condescension” would be seen as justified as that’s just how they are if this was written about “the black ghetto.” Imagine how the floodgates of hatred would open up at the knowledge that somebody black was “on the draw getting $3,000 a month.”

So not only do I have no more sympathy for them than I would for anyone who is poor, but this is also just an object lesson of how the poor in general are treated, and how race is applied to “flavor” that treatment. In short, being black and poor is still worse than being white and poor. And they make sure of that.

chauncey devega said...

When is Fox News and Bill O'Reilly going to the White Ghetto? Would make for good TV.

Gable1111 said...

A Fox News "special," hosted by our latter day Father Coughlin Bill O'Reilly, taking a "Boys Town" approach would be unintentionally hilarious, as they'd try to uplift and lionize the dentally challenged denizens of the white ghetto as ignorant yet somehow wise, noble "real Americans," carrying on just fine, free from government dependence.

Segments on them going about their daily lives even as they convert their "draw" into pop would be portrayed as pull yourself up by your bootstraps industriousness, a turning of the screw against the stupidity of "big government" that just couldn't think to pay them in pop in the first damned place.

Of course, this would be contrasted, as only O'Reilly and Fox could, against what would be called "welfare fraud" in the "inner city," as a glorious confirmation of the "personal responsibility" that is inherent in this salt of the earth culture.