Tuesday, February 26, 2008

THE LAWSON FILE: NOTHING FUNNY ABOUT POVERTY IN APPALACHIA


Folks living in Appalachia are over it as far as being depicted as "inbreeds" and bizarre not quite normal human beings. Who can blame them? Think about all the jokes, comments, movies and TV shows which you've heard or watched, without blinking an eye, which have demeaned citizens of one whole part of this country.

Would you have said nothing if such derogatory comments, television shows, or movies were about African-Americans, Jews, Muslims, or just about any other grouping?

Why, then, is it okay to make fun of people living in the hills and valleys of the Appalachian region of America?

Why, then, is it okay to paint the people who live there as some sort of evolutionary throw backs?

Some fellow named Everett Sizemore in an article entitled "Appalachian Americans: The Invisible Minority" answered that question like this. He wrote, "Appalachian-Americans are not generally discussed in multicultural textbooks or thought of as a distinct cultural group, yet they exhibit major cultural differences when compared to the common social construct of 'white America'. For this reason they continue to be marginalised, even in a time when acceptance of ethnic minorities and ideals of a pluralistic society are the norm."

Sizemore argued argues that Appalachians are a distinct cultural group, who have experienced oppression and marginalisation similar to that endured by racial and ethnic minorities such as the African, Native and Mexican Americans.

I think he is on to something there. In fact, if you look at a map of persistent rural poverty you will see that, except for Appalachia, these are places where people of color live.

Anyway for the people of Appalachia, it must be especially galling when the "beautiful people" of Hollywood are the culprits behind such bigotry. Equally galling would be the "funny" comments about hillbillies oftentimes made by the so called educated elite of this great land of ours.

The hardworking people of Appalachia have battled a "left behind" kind of poverty for years. They've been largely ignored when it comes to social programs or economic assistance. I remember only three mainstream politicians who really seemed to give a hoot - Lyndon Johnson, Bobby Kennedy and John Edwards - about fighting the real poverty which has been a staple of life for too many in the region. (Of course, thanks to the Ohio primary, Hillary Clinton's campaign will be touring Appalachian Ohio soon which continues its pattern of economic struggles, according to the Small-Area Income and Poverty Estimates recently released by the U.S. Census.)

Robert Kennedy was moved in Appalachia by the unmet needs of the community's inadequate schools, its environmental degradation, and the working families he spoke to who had trouble feeding their children.

"Family after family still survives on beans and potatoes or rice, cornbread and fat back," Kennedy said during his visit back in 68. "In many of the counties of Eastern Kentucky, more than half of the adult men, sometimes over three quarters, have no work." Kennedy was not only bringing attention to poverty--but also to how people in Appalachia were cut out of access to education, and decent jobs, and lived without health care.

It ain't all that different today. In fact, more than 40 years since the Johnson administration announced a program to fight poverty in Appalachia, many people there struggle to afford basic food and shelter. Central Appalachia had a poverty rate that was nearly twice the rate for the rest of the nation in 2000...and rural Appalachians experienced a rate of poverty than was 40 percent higher than the rate in metro Appalachia.

Cynthia M. Duncan author of the book, "Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America," says of Johnson's Poverty program, "... without greater commitment to investment in education and skills, without a significant economic engine to create the kind of jobs that support a solid middle class that can be holding government accountable, it didn't have a lasting, far-reaching effect for the region."

A 2004 article in the now defunct New Standard pointed out:
"Poverty in Appalachia has a long history--from immigrants who settled in the hills and died young in coal mines at the turn of the century to today's impoverished residents who work at Wal-Mart, McDonald's and Dairy Queen after being laid off from mining and manufacturing jobs."

Most of the jobs were lost as industries switched from Appalachia?s bituminous coal to cleaner-burning Western coal. Between 1950 and 1960, more than 640,000 Appalachians lost coal and agricultural jobs, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette."

Mining now employs just two percent of the workforce in Appalachia?s coal-producing region, according to the ARC. In the last four years, 4,000 coal miners have lost their jobs. Around 1,500 still die each year from black lung disease, according to the
United Mine Workers of America."

Most of the mining jobs have been replaced by low-paying, non-unionized service sector jobs. In 2000, the service sector employed more than half of all Appalachian workers. Two million of these workers are in occupations classified as particularly low-skilled and low-paying."

It's 2008 and the rich and famous still think its funny.

I don't.

You shouldn't.

The following is from the Lexington, Kyntucky Herald Leader.


W.Va. governor protests film using negative W.Va. stereotypes

CHARLESTON, W.Va. --Gov. Joe Manchin and a miners' union took offense Tuesday to a planned scene from an upcoming film starring Julianne Moore that stereotypes West Virginians as inbreeds.

The horror thriller "Shelter" is recruiting extras with unusual physical features for a scene in a West Virginia "holler," according to the statement from Donna Belajac Casting of Pittsburgh.

The casting call said the film is looking for extras who are extraordinarily tall or short, those with unusual body shapes and unusual facial features, especially eyes, and even people with physical abnormalities as long as they have normal mobility.

"It's clear that they have no real understanding of who the people of West Virginia are," Manchin said. "And that's not only unfortunate, but in this case offensive. Certainly it doesn't sound like a movie worth watching."

The casting call also advertises for a 9- to 12-year-old white girl with an "other-worldly look ... could be an albino or something along those lines - she's someone who is visually different and therefore has a closer contact to the gods and to magic. 'Regular-looking' children should not attend this open call."

Shooting for those scenes is scheduled to start Sunday in the Pittsburgh area.

Casting agency director Donna Belajac didn't immediately return a telephone message Tuesday.

The casting call prompted a seething response from Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers union.

"Why must it be automatically assumed by the surgically enhanced 'beautiful people' who populate Hollywood that those who live in the hills and hollows of places like West Virginia are all afflicted with physical abnormalities?" Roberts said.

"For the producers of this movie to issue such a blatantly insulting and demeaning casting call is not just a slap in the face to tens of thousands of West Virginians, but to millions of Americans who may not fit the 'norm' of Hollywood beauty," Roberts said.

The entertainment industry has long used negative Appalachian stereotypes, including 1972's "Deliverance," a story about a group of men whose river-rafting trip goes horribly wrong.

Hollywood attempts at stereotypes haven't always been successful, though.

CBS hoped to remake the 1960s "Beverly Hillbillies" into a reality show in 2002, but tabled the idea after negative public reaction, including a protest by mine workers from West Virginia and Kentucky at CBS' parent company, Viacom.

In 2004, after an outcry from Appalachian residents, NBC scuttled a proposed rural-to-riches reality show "The High Life" that would have followed an Appalachian family's adjustments to a ritzy lifestyle in Beverly Hills. NBC cited "creative reasons," not the protests, as the reason the show wasn't pursued.

"It harkens back to a dark time in our nation's history when flimflam artists roamed the country making a quick buck with traveling 'freak' shows, displaying human beings who may have different bodily characteristics, in darkened cages," Roberts said. "I believe our society has progressed past that point - maybe not in Hollywood, but it has in other, more enlightened parts of America."

2 comments:

Momma said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Toni said...

I absolutely mirror your thoughts on this matter. My husband's family comes from Appalachia and my family (parents) grew up very near to it, in the foothills of western PA. We find it unthinkable that the people of Apppalachia continue to be "acceptable" targets for discrimination, intolerance, and bigotry.

We hope to take a family missions trip with our children in the next year or so to Appalachia. It is our desire that they learn compassion and humility; that they care for people in the world at large, notjust those whose lives and lifestyles are similar to their own.
Blessings,
Toni