2018-07-18 / Opinions

Why is it okay to slur Appalachia?

Here’s today’s question: Why, in the year 2018, is it still OK to slur Appalachia and the people who live there?

This isn’t the first time we’ve had to ask this question and, sadly, it probably won’t be the last.

We posed it twice last year. The first time came after an article in New York magazine headlined “No Sympathy For The Hillbilly,” which pretty much said what you think it said. The second time was after an article on the liberal website Daily Kos provoked a robust back-and-forth over whether liberals should pay more attention to Appalachia and its economic problems. Many responders said not just “no,” but “hell no.” Actually, what one poster said about people in Appalachia was: “They aren’t just ‘conservative.’ They are ignorant and racist and proud to be both.” Then there were a few comments we simply can’t print in a family newspaper.

The problem these writers had was, of course, that Appalachia voted heavily for Donald Trump. Never mind that Appalachia has, for quite some time now, voted heavily for any Republican. As Elizabeth Catte points out in her book “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia,” it wasn’t Appalachia that elected Trump, it was communities elsewhere that had voted Democratic in 2012 but flipped to Trump in 2016. Somehow, though, it’s more fashionable for liberals to blame Appalachia and not, say, St. Lucie County, Florida — a county that voted Democratic in five straight elections, then went for Trump.

It’s not just liberals, though, who find it convenient to depict Appalachia as home to a bunch of ignorant rubes. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort —under indictment on various tax and bank fraud charges — recently filed a motion to have his trial moved from Alexandria to Roanoke. His legal argument was two-fold: Northern Virginia voted heavily for Hillary Clinton, so it would be hard to find an impartial jury there, but would be easier in Roanoke, where the jury pool would be drawn from an area that voted nearly 2-1 for Trump. Manafort understandably would prefer a more conservative jury pool. However, his filing goes on to suggest that potential jurors in Southwest Virginia are less informed than those in Northern Virginia. This is both absurd, and, closer to our point here today, offensive.

Whether it’s the commenters on the Daily Kos arguing that all of Appalachia should be written off, or Manfort’s lawyers thinking we’re easy marks who can’t understand complicated financial laws, we are reminded of the lines from the musical “Hamilton” where the young Alexander Hamilton is trying to prove his worth: “He looked at me like I was stupid / I’m not stupid.”

All this comes to mind because of a recent commentary piece in The Richmond Times-Dispatch by Frank Kilgore, a lawyer from the coalfields town of St. Paul and a community leader of some import. In the commentary — headlined “Smashing stereotypes about Southwest Virginia” — Kilgore described a meeting with certain state officials in which he was asked if far Southwest Virginia “has the DNA to fill cybersecurity jobs.”

Really? Really?!

At best, this is an artless way to ask if the coalfields have a labor pool with the skills necessary to fill cybersecurity jobs. That’s a legitimate question. We know that rural areas, in general, have a “skills gap” between the talents of the local workforce and the types of jobs being created in the new economy — one reason that community colleges in Southwest Virginia have been at the forefront of raising scholarship money to help get more students into their programs. But that’s not what was actually asked, now was it?

The question was not whether the workforce possessed the skills, something that can be taught, but whether that workforce possessed “the DNA,” something that is inherent and unchangeable in all of us.

If the question had been asked that way about an ethnic group or gender, people would rightly call “racism” or “sexism.” So why is it OK to ask the same thing about people in an entire region? We lack a word to describe the offensiveness of that question, though perhaps we need to invent one.

Kilgore went on to write: “Most subgroups of Americans who are consistently demeaned by bigots or the merely misinformed have an organization or two that take to the streets when overtly insulted. We Appalachians don’t have one yet.”

We do, however, have Kilgore, who went on to cite one statistic after another to show that, yes, Southwest Virginia does have “the DNA.” He cited school test scores that show schools in the coalfields often outrank their peers in the urban crescent. He cited how well schools in Southwest Virginia have performed in statewide competitions in forensics, robotics and the arts.

Kilgore naturally skips over the challenges the region faces. For instance, Dickenson County has a state-of-the-art school building in Ridgeview High School but lacks many programs that schools elsewhere take for granted because it can’t afford them. That’s not a problem of DNA, though; that’s a function of a depleted local tax base, and a state funding formula that doesn’t go far enough to bridge funding disparities between rural and suburban school systems. That’s an economic and political problem, though, not a genetic one.

Instead, Kilgore rightly calls attention to what the region does have to offer potential employers: “We also have access to millions of dollars in job-creating incentives and a very trainable labor base – some of whom have decades of experience in electronics, mechanics, metal fabrication and operating and troubleshooting computer-driven equipment. We have graduates from homegrown professional schools in law, pharmacy, and (very soon) veterinary science. That’s not to mention a surplus of welders, truckers, diesel specialists and manufacturers to boot.”

And, oh, in case anyone was wondering, there are, in fact, cybersecurity programs at UVA-Wise and every community college in Southwest Virginia. Given the low cost of doing business in Appalachia, there’s no reason why Southwest Virginia couldn’t be a technology capital for cybersecurity, other than people’s perceptions about the region.

So does Southwest Virginia have the DNA for the new economy? Puhlease. Southwest Virginia needs many things but one thing it doesn’t need is more insults.

— The Roanoke (Va.) Times

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