As a practical matter, I also learned from Williamson about how poor white rural people use soda as a type of money. The comedian David Chappelle could not have written a better scene:
“Well, you try paying that much for a case of pop,” says the irritated proprietor of a nearby café, who is curt with whoever is on the other end of the telephone but greets customers with the perfect manners that small-town restaurateurs reliably develop. I don’t think much of that overheard remark at the time, but it turns out that the local economy runs on black-market soda the way Baghdad ran on contraband crude during the days of sanctions.
It works like this: Once a month, the debit-card accounts of those receiving what we still call food stamps are credited with a few hundred dollars — about $500 for a family of four, on average — which are immediately converted into a unit of exchange, in this case cases of soda. On the day when accounts are credited, local establishments accepting EBT cards — and all across the Big White Ghetto, “We Accept Food Stamps” is the new E pluribus unum – are swamped with locals using their public benefits to buy cases and cases — reports put the number at 30 to 40 cases for some buyers — of soda.
Those cases of soda then either go on to another retailer, who buys them at 50 cents on the dollar, in effect laundering those $500 in monthly benefits into $250 in cash — a considerably worse rate than your typical organized-crime money launderer offers — or else they go into the local black-market economy, where they can be used as currency in such ventures as the dealing of unauthorized prescription painkillers — by “pillbillies,” as they are known at the sympathetic establishments in Florida that do so much business with Kentucky and West Virginia that the relevant interstate bus service is nicknamed the “OxyContin Express.” A woman who is intimately familiar with the local drug economy suggests that the exchange rate between sexual favors and cases of pop — some dealers will accept either — is about 1:1, meaning that the value of a woman in the local prescription-drug economy is about $12.99 at Walmart prices.
Poor white people are maligned by many on the Left, Progressives, and others for having supposedly abandoned their material self-interest for the psychological wages of whiteness. This is a fair and well-deserved accusation.
However, we must also push back against the contemporary mythology that poor white people support the Republican Party in overwhelming numbers.
In fact, the reality of voting dynamics among the white poor is much more complicated than "common sense" would suggest. Poor people of all colors are much more likely to support the Democratic Party. The white "working class" that both parties chase--and that the Republicans have (more often than not) won over in recent elections--is comprised of relatively well to do white men in the skilled trades. The shift in voting patterns in Red State America from the Democrats to Republicans is not with the white poor in mass, but rather among more upper and lower middle class voters who are drunk on Christian Dominionist and Evangelical "social" and "culture war" issues.
The empirical data suggests that the above dynamics are driving the macro-political story. However, the micro-level story, the one Democrats like to tell each other, suggests otherwise.
Stereotypes are cognitive scripts and cues that serve as shortcuts to aid human beings' decision-making. Yet, the "pictures inside our heads" are often inaccurate because they do not capture individual complexity. Stereotypes also make political decision-making more efficient while simultaneously encouraging deleterious and short-sighted outcomes that do not serve the Common Good. In all, stereotypes are a type of "fuzzy" heuristic.
"The White Ghetto's" comment section is a great example of that phenomena.
From the 1960s to the present, Republicans (and their neoliberal Democrat allies) have circulated a set of powerful stereotypes about poor and underclass Americans.
For them, the poor are black and brown, lazy, useless eaters, possessed of bad culture, and perhaps even, defunct genes. When confronted by the "bad culture" of the white rural poor, many of the National Review's commenters tried to fit those poor whites into a box they have constructed around the black urban poor.
There is metaphorical steam coming out of the ears of some of the National Review's readers as they cannot process Kevin Williamson's story while reconciling it with their stereotypes about people of color.
In the most compelling comments on "The White Ghetto" essay, some readers even try to suggest that the denizens of Appalachia are actually free and empowered because they have guns--jobs and food be damned as the fruits of basic citizenship and membership in the polity. Other commenters apply mental gymnastics as they reconcile their right-wing ideology with the fact of the white poor, and try to rationalize how the latter are somehow fundamentally different--and better--than poor people of color.
The White Ghetto is, using one of my favorite phrases, a human zoo. The material realities of the people who live in the poorest parts of Appalachia are not funny: the conditions are pathetic and miserable.
My sense of empathy remains limited. I "get" the empirical facts surrounding the social and political experiences and identities of the white poor. Nonetheless, I worry how if the white poor are politically mobilized that they will simply pursue the material wages of whiteness as payment for how they, like other white folks, are psychologically invested in what it means to be "White" in America.
Brother Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. considered poverty in America to be a fire that is burning down our collective house. An impolitic thought. Empowered by white skin privilege, would the white poor fan the fire if they thought that it would burn black and brown people, and bring the metaphorical house down on the latter's heads?
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