Thoughts Obama and Appalachia: It Ain’t (Quite) About That Southern Thing
1) Voter registration. Kentucky, West Virginia, and Arkansas are disproportionately Democratic—that is, when you compare voting preferences with party identification. In Kentucky and West Virginia, the margins are 56-37 and 54-29, respectively. While the Old, Solid South has trended Republican in party ID, Coal Country has remained solidly Democratic. There are plenty of races in Kentucky—particularly in the eastern counties that Obama lost—which are, effectively, decided in the Democratic primaries. Turnout in these races, that is, included many voters who are in practice Republicans.
2) Let me put this in terms of a series of questions, all meant to be read in light of the race question in these primaries (now and in 2008): What do we make of the fact that Obama won Virginia but lost West Virginia? Or that he lost Appalachia overwhelmingly but won Fayette County? Obama does worst not in “The South” but in Southern mountain country specifically. Whether Blue Ridge or Smokies, the history of race in these hills is quite distinct from the history of race in “The South”—by which we typically mean farming country, not mining country. The former is by comparison wealthier and racially more diverse; the latter is (even within Kentucky’s overwhelmingly white demographics) overwhelmingly white and intractably impoverished.
3) There is an historical resentment toward farming country—particularly toward the wealthier segments of it—from mining country. This was often a matter of economic interests: the mining companies weren’t owned by anyone living in Harlan County, after all. In the 1850s and 1860s, this made these regions opposed to slavery—and certainly secession. The existence of “free” labor limited the number of jobs available to anyone who might want to move out of the then-barely arable mountains and do more than scratch out a subsistence living. West Virginia seceded from secession; eastern Tennessee was a haven for Union sympathizers; more than just the terrain of eastern Kentucky was hostile for Confederate incursions. If you wanted to find a Union sympathizer, you went to the hills.
4) This remains, to some extent, in the half-joking observation that it is difficult for a Louisvillian to win state-wide office in Kentucky. Some might attribute this to basketball; I’d attribute part of the basketball rivalry’s intensity to an older anti-Louisville resentment that stems from moneyed interests of times gone by.
5) If we think of the history of racism in America as tied to the history of slavery, secession, Civil War, and Jim Crow, then we need to recognize that whatever is happening in the mountain south does not map on to this narrative. Why are the regions that gained the least from slavery and Jim Crow, and were either ambivalent or openly opposed to the two, the regions that disproportionately give “race” as a factor for voting against Barack Obama?
6) The title of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ post on media coverage of this phenomenon points, I believe, in the right direction: “White Resentment, Obama and Appalachia.” Though I imagine he would argue against this distinction, it is worthwhile to read this not in terms of a belief in racial superiority/inferiority, but in terms of racial resentment. Something has shifted in the mountain south in the last fifty years. Is it, somehow, connected to Great Society reforms? To the political aftermath of Civil Rights and political re-alignment within southern states? Something to do with the old comparison of inner-city Detroit and Appalachian mining towns—and the fact that much more time is spent talking (or at least perceived as such) about the former than the latter? Has the traditional resentment for cities and farm counties been shifted toward a racial demographic suddenly (through television and other media) present in a way and to an extent it had not previously been? And, of course, why?
7) Coates notes, rightly, that no matter how many other reasons you have, “It is wrong to believe Barack Obama shouldn’t be president because he’s black.” I suspect, however, that this is not framing of the logic in Appalachia, even among race-motivated voters. Being black is likely a signal that those other, perhaps more important, factors are present. That is, it is not that Barack Obama is unfit or incapable of being President because he is black—but that he oughtn’t be President because he is a member of a resented but potentially capable demographic.
8) Barack Obama, that is, might as well list his residence as an old-money Louisville mansion, travel back in time 80 years, and ask Harlan County to vote for him as dog-catcher.
9) But: this narrative cannot be divorced from the dominant narrative of race. Mix in a little George Wallace, a little Alexander Stephens, a little Archie Bunker, and you get something much more virulent than (8) above would or could ever suggest on its own. Racial resentment is an aspect of racism. But it is an aspect that we are not used to talking about in terms of the South—because we aren’t used to talking about race and the South in terms of the mountains.
10) So when we look at the results of Democratic primaries in the mountain south, or general election results, saying “George Wallace,” “Alexander Stephens,” or even “Archie-Bunker-with-an-accent” is not a sufficient answer. I don’t have that answer, but to find it, we need to get used to talking about race, the South, and resentment in terms of the oft-overlooked mountains.