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Fri Mar 14, 2014, 01:06 PM

The White Ghetto by Kevin D. Williamson

Needless to say, citing a well-written article here is not endorsing National Review, but I did find this piece by Kevin Williamson, The White Ghetto one of the most interesting recent journalistic pieces on Appalachia. Opening para and first line following are copied below:

Owsley County, Ky. — There are lots of diversions in the Big White Ghetto, the vast moribund matrix of Wonder Bread–hued Appalachian towns and villages stretching from northern Mississippi to southern New York, a slowly dissipating nebula of poverty and misery with its heart in eastern Kentucky, the last redoubt of the Scots-Irish working class that picked up where African slave labor left off, mining and cropping and sawing the raw materials for a modern American economy that would soon run out of profitable uses for the class of people who 500 years ago would have been known, without any derogation, as peasants. Thinking about the future here and its bleak prospects is not much fun at all, so instead of too much black-minded introspection you have the pills and the dope, the morning beers, the endless scratch-off lotto cards, healing meetings up on the hill, the federally funded ritual of trading cases of food-stamp Pepsi for packs of Kentucky’s Best cigarettes and good old hard currency, tall piles of gas-station nachos, the occasional blast of meth, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, petty crime, the draw, the recreational making and surgical unmaking of teenaged mothers, and death: Life expectancies are short — the typical man here dies well over a decade earlier than does a man in Fairfax County, Va. — and they are getting shorter, women’s life expectancy having declined by nearly 1.1 percent from 1987 to 2007.

If the people here weren’t 98.5 percent white, we’d call it a reservation.

A lot of Williamson's piece rings totally true, but there is also an element of mockery and stereotyping that makes me uncomfortable. The title perhaps best exemplifies that problem. I have a strong interest in Melungeons and acquaintance with them for several years, and the line "98.5 percent white" describes me to a T in terms of autosomal DNA results. At this point such DNA results are not unusual for descendants of any historical triracial isolate groups most of which have been "whitening" for many generations now. Surely Williamson meant that 98.5 percent of the people in Owsley County were 100% white, not that 100% of the people there are 98.5 percent white. But I suspect the latter is closer to the truth. The poorest county in Tennessee by several measures is Hancock, most closely associated with Melungeons of any county in Appalachia. The poorest in Virginia in some reckonings is Lee County, adjacent to and genealogically connected to Hancock, and the strongest Melungeon associations of any Virginia county. The counties of Kentucky most associated with Melungeons are in the southeast, the poorest part. So even here in the "White Ghetto" there is an element of both Native American and African American ancestry, not visible to an outsider like Williamson but hardly irrelevant to the poverty profile in Appalachia. Daniel Sharfstein's The Invisible Line (2011) is a masterpiece at revealing the unsuspected ethnic diversity of Appalachia.

It is apparent from any list or map of poorest counties in the US that they are clustered in four places and are dominated by four ethnic groups: Native American counties in South Dakota, Mississippi Delta counties with high African-American majorities, overwhelmingly Hispanic counties in South Texas, and "all white" counties in eastern Kentucky. But Appalachian whiteness there strikes me as a whole different category of whiteness that has becomes its own minority ethnicity-- just as some "Gypsies" are ethnically Irish yet otherwise occupy the same social niche as Roma people.

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Reply The White Ghetto by Kevin D. Williamson (Original post)
carolinayellowdog Mar 2014 OP
theHandpuppet Mar 2014 #1
carolinayellowdog Mar 2014 #2

Response to carolinayellowdog (Original post)

Fri Mar 14, 2014, 03:38 PM

1. A raw and powerful piece

Agree with you about the element of mockery and stereotyping but at this point I'm willing to forgive driving the story towards the extreme end of the spectrum as long as the story gets told. As I've said before, Appalachians are our country's invisible people -- those best not seen nor heard unless they're the subjects of the latest mockery of a reality show or playing the last of America's ethnic fools.
Could you tell me a bit more about Sharfstein's The Invisible Line?

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Response to theHandpuppet (Reply #1)

Fri Mar 14, 2014, 05:33 PM

2. only one of Invisible Line's three families is in eastern Kentucky, but it's the most memorable

The book as a whole deserves all the rapturous reviews it got for tracing three different families in which ancestors passed the invisible line from black to white at one or multiple points in history. Ohio is the setting for one of these family stories, the Deep South for another, the Kentucky/Virginia border region for the third. A lawsuit in southwest Virginia between the Spencer and Looney families opens up an amazing insight into the politics and legalities of racial identity around the turn of the century.

Spoiler alert, the eastern Kentucky community of the Spencer family rallies to its support when the Virginia legal case pulls them in as witnesses-- it's a heartwarming story. Sharfstein is both an engaging historian and a law school professor so he makes all the developments of the case really interesting and comprehensible. Years before the book, he wrote an essay about the Spencer case that is accessible online at the Yale Law School Review here.

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