A few months ago, a region of our country was devastated by massive flooding. Entire neighborhoods were under water. Footage of the damage looks almost Biblical. But you probably hadn’t heard of this natural disaster, and the reason you hadn’t heard of it is probably because it happened in Eastern Kentucky.
Many of the homes destroyed by the catastrophe were trailer parks. Many of the affected communities were poor rural towns. The misfortunes suffered by the people in these areas very rarely attract the attention of anyone on the outside, which is an especially egregious oversight considering their misfortunes are so numerous.
Nine of the poorest counties in the country are located in Eastern Kentucky. Nearly half of the residents in Owsley County are subsisting under the poverty line. Across the entire Appalachian region, the poverty rate is almost 20 percent with an average income of only $37,000. Look at the photographs of the poverty in Appalachia and you will have to remind yourself that these are images of Americans in the 21st century, not people in the third world, or pioneers in the 1800s.
In 2014, the New York Times Magazine compiled a list of the places in the country with the worst quality of life. According to their calculation, Eastern Kentucky holds the distinction as the absolute worst place to live.
The team at The Upshot, a Times news and data-analysis venture, compiled six basic metrics to give a picture of the quality and longevity of life in each county of the nation: educational attainment, household income, jobless rate, disability rate, life expectancy and obesity rate. Weighting each equally, six counties in eastern Kentucky’s coal country (Breathitt, Clay, Jackson, Lee, Leslie and Magoffin) rank among the bottom 10.
Clay County, in dead last, might as well be in a different country. The median household income there is barely above the poverty line, at $22,296, and is just over half the nationwide median. Only 7.4 percent of the population has a bachelor’s degree or higher. The unemployment rate is 12.7 percent. The disability rate is nearly as high, at 11.7 percent. (Nationwide, that figure is 1.3 percent.) Life expectancy is six years shorter than average. Perhaps related, nearly half of Clay County is obese.
It should come as no surprise, given these figures, that the suicide rate in Appalachia is 17 percent higher than the national average. The opioid crisis has also hit this region harder than perhaps anywhere else, which is the one piece of Appalachia trivia that most people in the country probably already know.
I bring all of this up because it seems relevant to the current conversation about “white privilege.” We are told that privilege is rewarded to all white children from birth, by virtue of their skin pigmentation. But in what sense, exactly, is a white child in a trailer park, with a meth-addicted mother and a father who committed suicide, and who has the worst standard of living in the country, and a life expectancy significantly shorter than most everyone else, privileged? What good is this privilege doing him? How does he cash it in? When will he see its benefits?
He is certainly not economically privileged. He is not privileged with a good education, good health care, good standard of living, good housing, good job opportunities. He is on the bottom rung in all of these areas. Is he privileged “systemically”? How so? What system, precisely, favors him, and in what way? It would seem to me — and I’m sure it seems even more to him — that he has been forgotten and forsaken by all systems, everywhere.
Will his white skin guarantee better treatment from the police? I see no evidence that cops take a more lenient approach with crime-ridden trailer parks than they do crime-ridden inner cities. Anyone making such a claim has the burden of proof. Will his white skin help him in a job interview? The unemployment rate in poor white areas suggests otherwise. Besides, it seems unlikely that most employers are biased in favor of poor kids from trailer parks with thick regional accents.
The claim of universal white privilege does not hold up against the — to borrow a progressive phrase — lived experience of many white people. It is true that the experience of many black people in the city would appear to support the notion of white privilege, but that is because we’re comparing their experience to suburban whites living in single family homes with garages, fenced-in yards, and basketball hoops in the driveway. If we compare their experiences to impoverished whites living in drug-infested trailer parks, suddenly the “privilege” issue isn’t so literally or figuratively black and white.
It’s the same on the other end of the spectrum, too. Compare two people of different races living in the same favorable circumstances and it will be much harder to say who has more privilege than the other. That’s because the true privileges in modern society are not tied directly to race. Economic privilege is real — it makes sense to say that a child born to rich parents is “privileged” — but it’s clear that being white is no guarantor of this privilege.
At a deeper and more important level, children born to loving, stable two-parent homes are privileged. This indeed is the most significant privilege a person can be given, and the greatest defense against poverty, drug abuse, and all of the other social ills mentioned above. It is no coincidence that domestic strife is common in areas that suffer from a lack of economic privilege. The two issues feed each other, the ultimate vicious cycle.
In the black community, the fatherless rate is a catastrophic 70 percent. In Appalachia, domestic abuse is so endemic that a third of all hospitalizations related to “intimate partner violence” (abuse of a partner or spouse) occur in that region of the country. A child growing up without a father, or in a home beset by domestic turmoil, will be at a profound disadvantage in many respects, but those disadvantages will have nothing to do with his race. In the same way, a child growing up with two parents in a loving and stable marriage, who care about his education and his moral formation, will have many extraordinary advantages that, though often attributed to race, actually have no relation to his skin color at all. If we want to really understand privilege, then, and see that more children are blessed with its benefits, we need to stop looking at the issue through a narrowly racial lens.