Conservatives – especially their Lawn Jockey black conservative servants, like to talk about black folks and the inner city. It, like almost everything conservatives have to say is a lie – a flim flam game.Since I was hammering the Wall Street Journal’s professional Uncle Tom, Jason Riley a few posts ago – let’s use one of his buckdances for his WSJ Massa’s as an example –
Liberals in general, and the black left in particular, like the idea of talking about racial problems, but in practice they typically ignore the most relevant aspects of any such discussion. Any candid debate on race and criminality in this country would have to start with the fact that blacks commit an astoundingly disproportionate number of crimes. African-Americans constitute about 13% of the population, yet between 1976 and 2005 blacks committed more than half of all murders in the U.S. The black arrest rate for most offenses—including robbery, aggravated assault and property crimes—is typically two to three times their representation in the population.
“High rates of black violence in the late twentieth century are a matter of historical fact, not bigoted imagination,” wrote the late Harvard Law professor William Stuntz in “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice.” “The trends reached their peak not in the land of Jim Crow but in the more civilized North, and not in the age of segregation but in the decades that saw the rise of civil rights for African Americans—and of African American control of city governments.”
The left wants to blame these outcomes on racial animus and “the system,” but blacks have long been part of running that system. Black crime and incarceration rates spiked in the 1970s and ’80s in cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia, under black mayors and black police chiefs. Some of the most violent cities in the U.S. today are run by blacks.
One more time for the Lawn Jockey set – the issue is POVERTY, not black folks, not white folks,not cities..The issue buckdancers is POVERTY.
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.
Driving through these hills and hollows, you aren’t in the Appalachia of Elmore Leonard’s Justified or squatting with Lyndon Johnson on Tom Fletcher’s front porch in Martin County, a scene famously photographed by Walter Bennett of Time, the image that launched the so-called War on Poverty. The music isn’t “Shady Grove,” it’s Kanye West. There is still coal mining — which, at $25 an hour or more, provides one of the more desirable occupations outside of government work — but the jobs are moving west, and Harlan County, like many coal-country communities, has lost nearly half of its population over the past 30 years.
There is here a strain of fervid and sometimes apocalyptic Christianity, and visions of the Rapture must have a certain appeal for people who already have been left behind. Like its black urban counterparts, the Big White Ghetto suffers from a whole trainload of social problems, but the most significant among them may be adverse selection: Those who have the required work skills, the academic ability, or the simple desperate native enterprising grit to do so get the hell out as fast as they can, and they have been doing that for decades. As they go, businesses disappear, institutions fall into decline, social networks erode, and there is little or nothing left over for those who remain. It’s a classic economic death spiral: The quality of the available jobs is not enough to keep good workers, and the quality of the available workers is not enough to attract good jobs. These little towns located at remote wide spots in helical mountain roads are hard enough to get to if you have a good reason to be here. If you don’t have a good reason, you aren’t going to think of one.
Appalachian places have evocative and unsentimental names denoting deep roots: Little Barren River, Coal Pit Road. The name “Cumberland” blankets Appalachian geography — the Cumberland Mountains, the Cumberland River, several Cumberland counties — in tribute to the Duke of Cumberland, who along with the Ulster Scots ancestors of the Appalachian settlers crushed the Young Pretender at the Battle of Culloden. Even church names suggest ancient grievances: Separate Baptist, with the descriptor in all-capital letters. (“Come out from among them and be ye separate” — 2 Corinthians 6:17.) I pass a church called “Welfare Baptist,” which, unfortunately, describes much of the population for miles and miles around.
* * *
There is not much novelty in Booneville, Ky., the seat of Owsley County, but it does receive a steady trickle of visitors: Its public figures suffer politely through a perverse brand of tourism from journalists and do-gooders every time the U.S. Census data are recalculated and it defends its dubious title as poorest county in these United States. The first person I encounter is Jimmy — I think he’s called Jimmy; there is so much alcohol and Kentucky in his voice that I have a hard time understanding him — who is hanging out by the steps of the local municipal building waiting for something to happen, and what happens today is me. Unprompted, he breaks away from the little knot of men he is standing with and comes at me smiling hard. He appears to be one of those committed dipsomaniacs of the sort David Foster Wallace had in mind when he observed that at a certain point in a drunk’s career it does not matter all that much whether he’s actually been drinking, that’s just the way he is. Jimmy is attached to one of the clusters ofunbusy men who lounge in front of the public buildings in Booneville – “old-timers with nothing to do,” one observer calls them, though some of those “old-timers” do not appear to have reached 30 yet, and their Mossy Oak camouflage outfits say “Remington” while their complexions say “Nintendo.” Mossy Oak and Realtreecamo are aesthetic touchstones in these parts: I spot a new $50,000 Ram pickup truck with an exterior as shiny as a silver ingot and a camouflage interior, the usefulness of which is non-obvious.
I expect Jimmy to ask for money, but instead he launches into a long disquisition about something called the “Thread the Needle” program, and relates with great animation how he convinced a lady acquaintance of his to go down to the county building and offer to sign up for Thread the Needle, telling her that she would receive $25 or $50 for doing so…
A few locals drive two hours — on a good day, more on others — to report for work in the Toyota factory at Georgetown, Ky., which means driving all the way through the Daniel Boone National Forest and through the city of Lexington to reach the suburbs on the far side. As with the coal miners traveling past Hazard or even farther, eventually many of those Toyota workers decide that the suburbs of Lexington are about as far as they want to go. The employed and upwardly mobile leave, taking their children, their capital, and their habits with them, clean clear of the Big White Ghetto, while the unemployed, the dependent, and the addicted are once again left behind.
“We worked before,” the former Midsouth man says. “We’d work again.”
* * *
“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…
There’s a great deal of drug use, welfare fraud, and the like, but the overall crime rate throughout Appalachia is about two-thirds the national average, and the rate of violent crime is half the national average, according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service. Chief Logsdon is justifiably skeptical of the area’s reputation for drug-fueled crime. But he is not blinkered, and his photos of spectacular autumn foliage and delicate baby birds do not denote a sentimental disposition. “We have loggers and coal producers,” he says, dropping the cornpone accent. “We have educators and local businesses, and people in the arts. And we have the same problems they have in every community.” He points out that the town recently opened up a $1 million public library — a substantial investment for a town in which the value of all residential property combined would not add up to the big lottery jackpot being advertised all over. (Lottery tickets, particularly the scratch-off variety, are ubiquitous here.) He does not deny the severity or scope of the region’s problems, but he does think that they are exaggerated by visitors who are here, after all, only because Owsley holds the national title for poorest county. Owsley’s dependent underclass has many of the same problems as any other dependent underclass; but with a poverty rate persistently at the 40 percent mark — or half again as much poverty as in the Bronx — the underclass plays an outsized role in local life. It is not the exception.
Two towns over, I ask a young woman about the local gossip, and she tells me it’s always the same: “Who’s growing weed, who’s not growing weed anymore, who’s cooking meth, whose meth lab got broken into, whose meth lab blew up.” Chief Logsdon thinks I may be talking to the wrong people. “Maybe that’s all they see, because that’s all they know. Ask somebody else and they’ll tell you a different story.” He then gives me a half-joking — but only half — list of people not to talk to: Not the shiftless fellows milling about in the hallways on various government-related errands, not the guy circling the block on a moped. Instead, there’s the lifelong banker whose brother is the head of the school board. There’s the mayor, a sharp nonagenarian who has been in office since the Eisenhower administration.
And that, too, is part of the problem with adverse selection in the Big White Ghetto: For the smart and enterprising people left behind, life can be very comfortable, with family close, a low cost of living, beautiful scenery, and a very short climb to the top of the social pecking order. The relative ease of life for the well-off and connected here makes it easy to overlook the real unpleasant facts of economic life, which helps explain why Booneville has a lovely new golf course, of all things, but so little in the way of everyday necessities. The county seat, run down as parts of it are, is an outpost of civilization compared with what surrounds it for 50 miles in every direction. Stopping for gas on KY-30 a few miles past the Owsley County line, I go looking for the restroom and discover instead that the family operating the place is living in makeshift quarters in the back. Margaret Thatcher lived above her family’s shop as a little girl, too, but a grocer’s in Grantham is a very different thing from a gas station in Kentucky, with very different prospects.
Owsley County had been dry since Prohibition. A close election (632–518) earlier this year changed that, and the local authorities are sorting out the regulatory and licensing issues related to the sale of alcohol. Chief Logsdon thinks that this is, on balance, a good thing, because local prohibition meant that local drunks were on the local roads coming back from bars or liquor stores. “They aren’t waiting until they get home,” he says. “They’re opening the bottle. They’re like kids at Christmas.” Obviously, prohibition wasn’t getting the job done. At the same time, the scene in Owsley County might make even the most ardent libertarian think twice about drug legalization: After all, these addicts are hooked on legal drugs – OxyContin and other prescription opioid analgesics — even if they often are obtained illegally. In nearby Whitley County, nearly half of the examined inmates in one recent screening tested positive for buprenorphine, a.k.a. “prison heroin,” a product originally developed as a treatment for opiate addiction. (Such cures are often worse than the disease: Bayer once owned the trademark on heroin, which it marketed as a cure for morphine addiction — it works.) Fewer drunk drivers would be a good thing, but I have to imagine that the local bar, if Booneville ever gets one, is going to be a grim place…“The draw,” the monthly welfare checks that supplement dependents’ earnings in the black-market Pepsi economy, is poison. It’s a potent enough poison to catch the attention even of such people as those who write for the New York Times. Nicholas Kristof, visiting nearby Jackson, Ky., last year, was shocked by parents who were taking their children out of literacy classes because the possibility of improved academic performance would threaten $700-a-month Social Security disability benefits, which increasingly are paid out for nebulous afflictions such as loosely defined learning disorders…more