Let’s stop with the simplistic generalizations please

When my husband first proposed moving to Appalachia in the winter of 2011, I flat out rejected the idea: “No way in HELL am I going to move to Appalachia” (which I pronounced at that time as App-a-LAY-sha, not properly as App-a-LATCH-a.)

My impressions of Appalachia as a region of unrelenting poverty, coal mining and hopelessness were vivid and very real, built not on any personal experience with the region but on images from Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 tour of Appalachia, Jon Boorman’s Deliverance and Harlan County USA, Barbara Kopple’s Academy-Award winning documentary on the battles waged by coal miners against Duke Energy in the early 1970s.

Coal, poverty and banjo music. That’s what Appalachia seemed to me to be.

And then I moved to Appalachia and discovered a far more interesting place than stereotypes portrayed it to be. It’s a region with university towns like Boone, NC and cities like Asheville and Knoxville. There are vineyards in Appalachia. Though poverty is a very real issue, there is far more than coal and hillbillies here.

The other day on Twitter, Dave Roberts, an energy policy blogger for Vox.com, shared his thoughts on rural Appalachia:

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As one who now lives in Appalachia, I resent his blanket condemnation about the region.  I wonder who has “romanticism about US rural life?” Surely the people who live here understand how hard it is. He clearly understands that “vulture capitalism” has decimated any number of Appalachian communities.

Dave Roberts is not alone in condemning Appalachia. One of the most appalling examples comes from February 2016 story in Vanity Fair, where, in an attempt to understand the “Trump Voter,” John Saward, the writer, decided the best place to find such an exotic creature is by visiting a strip bar in West Virginia in a heavily Republican county. He ventures out into the community by day as well, encountering people who love hot dogs more than life itself:

“You have never heard people speak so fondly, so intimately about hot dogs. Not, like, the nuances of them, but their very existence, the way you would talk about a grandmother or an old Labrador. It’s part reverence, part nostalgia. I have never cared as much about anything as this man did about a hot-dog recommendation. It was sincere and beautiful, him imparting this to someone, a kind of treasure map.”

When I read the breathless anecdotes of a reporter who dropped into a community and thinks he knows it well or I see a tweet condemning rural America for its “horrible land use,” I realize that the stereotypes are winning over the reality.

What I wish – is that journalists stop relying on their “drive-by” stereotypes of a region. Would anyone be taken seriously if they tweeted out: “Drove through Chicago on I-90 today. My impression: hideous landscape marred by tacky-tacky strip-mall architecture, & economic decay” ?

You COULD get that impression driving through Chicago on I-90 – but who would base an impression of an entire city based on the images on sees on the highways that cut through the community?

The issues with rural America are not just isolated to horrible land use. There are state and federal policies that can destroy communities. The loss of manufacturing jobs was catastrophic for many communities. Wilkes County, adjacent to Watauga County, saw significant turmoil and decay with the loss of manufacturing jobs. According to a February 16, 2016 Wilkes Journal-Patriot article:

“Wilkes County had a larger percentage decrease in median income than all but one other county nationwide from 2000 to 2014, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data.

The median income in Wilkes dropped 30.4 percent, from $47,992 in 2000 to $33,398 in 2014. Rockdale County, Ga., had the biggest decrease at 33 percent, from $72,364 to $48,287 in the same period.”

A 33 percent drop in median income! That’s a nightmare, not the American dream. The significant issues faced by Wilkes County in the early years of the 21st century had nothing to do with terrible local policies coming out of the county commission. Sweeping changes in our economic landscape can greatly influence (and destroy) local communities.

We’re ten years out from one of the worst economic crises to face our nation. But even in the years before the crash, our national economy was transforming and changing in ways that destroyed the manufacturing sector. As noted in the Wilkes Journal Patriot article:

“[Demographics reporter Tim} Henderson found that in more than a third of the nation’s counties, the inflation-adjusted median income dropped by 10 percent or more since 2000. In 57 percent of counties classified as “manufacturing-dependent” in 2000 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, median income dropped by 10 percent or more. Twenty-five percent of other counties experienced a decline that dramatic.

What’s clear – the economy in the 21st century has taken too many Americans for a very rough ride.

What I wish – that news reporters would stop with the stereotypes about all regions – especially Appalachia. If a rural town center has been decimated – why? Is it really only just “horrible land use” that destroys a community? (To be clear – land use IS an ongoing issue in my own community – how to develop land in this community and who has the right to build what kind of facility in residential areas is a hot button issue. For the past four years, we’ve been following an asphalt plant that will likely be built on a Scenic Byway near many homes and two of our schools. But land use is not the only issue my community faces today.) 

Stereotypes will never help us fully understand the issues facing a particular community. Even David Roberts knows they’re just so much “lazy garbage.”

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