Thursday, July 30, 2015

Random Thoughts about Growing Up Poor-White in the South

Arkansas is not the deep South, although it has been said more than once, "we did secede during the War." Some of the eastern part of the state belongs to the Mississippi Delta and even manages to show up on the fringes of blues history. I grew up in the Northwest corner mostly in Washington County adjacent to the south to Benton County. Benton County was where Walmart got its start. I grew up in Walmart country and remember Walmart stores from before Walmart became a hulking corporate blob. The northwest corner of the state has always had a very, very low African-American population. While we to one degree or another identified with the Confederacy, it was very much felt that slavery and institutional racism was not part of that identity. I am not intimately familiar with the history of my state. But as I understood it, the Northwest Arkansas was impoverished with economic development discouraged to the benefit of the eastern half of the state which was predominantly agricultural. That's where the money was. And where the money was is where political power was. And the economically advantaged there as always, felt it was their God-given duty pursue policies that would protect and enhance their wealth. This state of affairs changed when Northwest Arkansas was connected to I-40 to the south in Ft. Smith but that wasn't until the 70s or 80s. Like I said, I'm no expert and I am probably wrong in some particulars.

Another part of growing up in 60s and 70s in the South, and not just Arkansas, was the poor schools, the lack of healthcare, and any other kind of social support. Poor whites and poor blacks made for a natural partners in seeking social improvement. I don't know the numbers but together they could have made for a force to be reckoned with. The explanation as heard it is that poor whites were told by the powers that be that social issues were n***** issues. Of course, no one wanted to be n***** lover, so no coalition and no social support services. I don't know if this is true, but it fits the mentality of an awful lot of people. A man could be impoverished, illiterate, toothless, half-blind from cataracts but at least he was white. Racism hasn't just hurt African-Americans. It is poison and harms whoever it touches. Just so there's no confusion, I most definitely am not asserting that poor whites had it worse or know (better) than "African Americans" the effects of racism. Racism is primarily a tool of economic exploitation. It has been used in different ways on different populations.

Here is what life in the rural south is like:

I readily admit that it is an exaggeration, but not by much. More often now, a man can be impoverished, illiterate, toothless, half-blind from cataracts but at least he has Jesus. Poverty, illiteracy, hookworm, domestic abuse, poor health care are also part of Southern Heritage. I hadn't realized the extent to which I hold the rural South in low regard. I am fond of my immediate family and the area where I grew up, but I have lived "up North" for most of the last 30 years. I can afford the luxury of nostalgia only until it makes for stupidity and blindness. The South has changed. There has been an influx of immigrants and migrants from other parts of the country but mostly to the cities. I suspect that rural life hasn't changed nearly as much.

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