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President Trump won the vote in Appalachia because people are tired of being looked down on. Considering the work of powerful industry interests, a century’s worth of negative stereotyping, and culturally insensitive protests against coal—a source of people’s pride, heritage, and income—it’s not difficult to understand how.
My family has lived in Appalachia for nine generations, and we have worked hard all our lives without asking for a great deal. We were never drawn to extravagance, nor did we need to keep up with the Joneses. Simplicity and family were the means to much of our happiness. As long as we had a decent home, food, and the time to watch our children grow up with a good moral compass, we were fulfilled. “It’s not your needs that get you into trouble—it’s your wants,” my grandfather would often say.
But this lack of complication has been the subject of ridicule by many outside our communities. Among a national and now international audience, Appalachia has been viewed as a degenerate region without sophistication. The dehumanization of its people has allowed for the exploitation of its vast energy and timber reserves, and putting Appalachians down has often been a means of lifting others up: “I may not be rich, but at least I’m not a hillbilly.” These forces have made maintaining our dignity a constant struggle.
Exploitative economic systems have ensured that there is no change to our status quo. Low property taxes have appeased out-of-state land-holding companies while keeping our public education system in a near constant budget crisis. What money extractive industries do contribute is spent funding state-certified curriculums on the benefits of coal.
Our children are fed an industry narrative that dignity, sacrifice, and the patriotic duty of mining are inextricably tied all while downplaying a century’s worth of labor struggles for basic human rights. These issues, compounded by an existing need to appease common core initiatives and standardized testing goals, have limited teachers’ abilities to instruct on critical thinking.
By co-opting Appalachian values, the coal industry has elbowed itself to the center of our region’s cultural identity. Shannon Bell, a sociologist at the University of Kentucky, has studied the many ways coal industry associations have adapted Appalachian culture in appealing to its people. She found that the industry has used pro-coal media campaigns such as Friends of Coal to manipulate the region into believing that support for the industry, despite its destructive nature, is the accepted cultural norm.
Meanwhile, media misrepresentations have fueled negative stereotypes held by urban populations. In many ways, this has put us on the defensive, pushing Appalachians to seek out and attack the shortcomings of our city counterparts. Rural people have long seen urbanism in contrast to their own values, fixating on stereotypes of city dwellers and suburbanites as being selfish and lacking common sense. Many also associate academia and liberalism with urbanism, an association exploited by media organizations like Fox News that oppose government regulation and environmentalism.
As a result, the efforts of progressive organizations working in Appalachia are sometimes taken as downward-looking elitism. It doesn’t help that many progressives and environmentalists have done a terrible job of communicating with local communities, both in their actions and presentation. When outside activist organizations expect Appalachians to simply accept their protests, marches, street theatre puppets, and public civil disobedience as avenues to their logic, they foster tensions that manifest in bumper stickers like: “lib·er·al / lib(-ə)-rel / noun 1Someone so open minded that their brains have fallen out.”
The Confederate flags, Trump signs, and pro-coal stickers I see displayed throughout Appalachia are not as much the result of deep-rooted racism and bigotry as many would like to believe. They are often symbols of defense against a world that views us as lesser people. They are symbols given to us by politicians and corporations that have learned to speak our language, and they throw gasoline on the fiery dissent many feel toward longstanding urban ridicule.
There is no easy fix for the situation in Appalachia. Poverty causes intense suffering with all of the symptoms you would expect. Health outcomes are plagued by a lack of access to health care, food deserts, and the environmental pollution created by decades of coal and natural gas extraction and processing.
Over-prescription of pain medications has led to a drug abuse epidemic that has spread to younger generations suffering from a loss of hope. Recent media attention on these issues stemming from Donald Trump’s election has fed into the national stereotyping of the region, keeping Appalachia in a vicious cycle of self-destruction.
If there is any hope for Appalachia, it is in eliminating the sources of the problem, not just treating its symptoms. We must address the communication barriers that exacerbate feelings of resentment and increase political and cultural divides. Perhaps then we can work toward ending corporate influence over our local culture, economics, and political systems so that we, ourselves, can really begin to shape a better future for our region.
This article was first published in YES! Magazine.