Appalachia On My Mind

“If it weren’t for Appalachians, this would be a perfect country.”

That’s what I seem to be hearing, these days, from many of my progressive fellow travelers. They point to a map in The New York Times that shows that Appalachia, essentially, is the only area of the country where Republicans gained in presidential voting.

Except for the southern Louisiana portion, this looks rather like the migration pattern of my family. So, what I hear when people criticize the people inhabiting the regions in red on this map is criticism of my own background. What I particularly resent is an underlying assumption that the increase has a simple, racial genesis.

Whether Obama is an east-coast elitist or not (I’d say not, but it doesn’t matter), Appalachia has been stigmatized for a long, long time—and even more during the past eight years, when the “crackers,” “rednecks,” and “hillbillies” have been yoked (in liberal minds) to George W. The connection (like the current increase in voting Republican in the region) is used as proof that Appalachians are worthy of the disdain for them felt in much of the rest of the country.

There’s a lot more going on here, however—and the contempt felt for Appalachia says to me (a displaced Appalachian, now a New Yorker) more about the liberals and progressives than it does about the people of my home region.

According to the U. S. Census Bureau, West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Louisiana make up four of this six most impoverished states in the U.S. (New Mexico and Mississippi are the others). They also make up (with Tennessee, Western Virginia, and Western North Carolina) the part of the United States that has been continually scapegoated for American failing for more than a century (though Louisiana isn’t really Appalachian, it has felt the scapegoating, too). When America fails, it has become easy to place the blame on “them,” for the image of the Appalachian has become as ingrained in the rest of America as the image of the African-American among white America (just witness how quick many were to accept Ashley Todd’s accusations of assault right before the election).

The view of Appalachians (and those descended from the Scots-Irish in general) has little difference in background or in effect from the racism that much of the rest of the country faults Appalachia for. To make matters worse, the fingers pointing at racism in the mountains should be pointed back at their owners. Having voted for Obama does not absolve one from racist attitudes—any more than not voting for him makes one a racist.

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