Monday, June 09, 2008

Appalachians more honest about race and votes?

Journalists from around the world continue to write about Barack Obama's "Appalachian problem," based on his single-digit percentages in some Central Appalachian counties and exit polls showing that more than a fifth of white Democratic voters in Kentucky and West Virginia said race was important to their vote and more than four-fifths of those voters supported Clinton.

Paul Harris, writing in "The Observer" column in The Guardian, a major British newspaper, reports from Williamson, W. Va., on the Kentucky border, and nearby Pikeville, Ky. He quotes Johnny Telvor of Williamson as saying Obama would make slaves of white people, and Stanley Little of Pikeville as saying he will vote Republican because "'McCain is one of us. Obama ain't."

Such stories imply that race was the main reason Obama lost the two main states of Central Appalachia. They ignore the fact that he made only one campaign stop in each of them, that Hillary Clinton's lunch-bucket speeches spoke more to local needs than Obama's high-flown rhetoric, and that the Clintons had strong followings in both states while Obama was not well known. As I said in my fortnightly column in The Courier-Journal yesterday, if Obama asked one of the black mayors of overwhelmingly white towns in Kentucky, "They might tell him that when folks know you, they're willing to vote for you. When you're a silhouette or a cartoon, they're not even listening."

Still, Harris and Emory University's Andra Gillespie, whom he calls "an expert on racial politics," make an interesting argument, that Appalachians are just being more honest about race than most other Americans. "The difficult truth is that Appalachia is unusual mostly because many people here are willing to openly talk about what some of their fellow citizens are secretly thinking," Harris writes, citing the exit polls of Edison Mitofsky Research. "West Virginia and Kentucky were just more honest than other parts of the country," Gillespie tells him. "A lot of other people know it's not socially acceptable to mention that sort of thing."

Harris calls Appalachia "Another America," and paints with the usual broad brush: "This is the America where outrageous rumours that Obama is a Muslim are readily believed. It is the America where Telvor is able to voice a sentiment that 'Obama might actually be the Antichrist' without apparent irony or fear of contradiction. It is a slice of America trapped in the dreadful history of race relations and the legacy of slavery and segregation. On the streets of towns such as Pikeville and Williamson, and in the minds of people like Little and Telvor, that past lives on. It is kept in the present by poverty, joblessness and a fear of the different. It is also a powerful force that should not be underestimated. It could even decide who will be the next President." (Read more)

UPDATE, June 20: Judy J. Owens, who spent a lot of time in Appalachia interviewing people for newspapers, thinks Telvor took Harris hunting for snipe, or for wampus cats. What's that? Read her piece in the Daily Yonder.

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