Clay County Blues

An article from The Tennessean appeared on my news feed a few months back. It was an article about how Donald Trump has captured the imagination of a county neighboring the ones where I grew up in northern middle Tennessee. Clay County. Although named after statesman Henry Clay, it seems apt that the “people of the earth” would live in a county so named.

I should have asked the question of myself earlier. But suddenly, as if startled awake, I asked myself, Why am I not like these people? I grew up around them, I had virtually the same upbringing, and yet I couldn’t be more different. Why is that?

It’s far too easy to be condescending. Too pat to say something mean or reductive or self-congratulatory. I’m smarter than them. I have always been open-minded. I am a fair person.

The better answers go deeper . The fact that I have used what intelligence I have (as opposed to just being smart), the fact that I have focused on “otherness” or divergence as a relative concept (as opposed to just being open-minded), and the fact that my idea of fairness takes place on a societal, national and global playing field—these are some of the factors that make me unlike my former friends and neighbors in the rural byways of Tennessee and so many other like-minded places in the South, the Midwest, and the Heartland.

We have all seen, over the election cycle, during the devolution of the Republican primaries in particular, that shrill accusations and finger-pointing, even when warranted, will not produce the desired clarity and insight.

The truth is that we have to meet people where they are if we are to talk with them and create a dialogue worth having. I’m not even going to say “reason with them,” because that by itself positions me as the “right” one and them as the “wrong” one. This makes the dejected, working-class whites furious, as they already feel singled out and shamed simply for who they are and what they stand for. Whether they are entitled to feel this way is irrelevant. They do.

Meeting people where they are isn’t easy. I do not claim that I even know how to do it. I am so far removed from that life that I would probably seem almost as foreign to them as the Mexicans, the Muslims, and the blacks they feel are taking over “their” country. I am one of the gays, in fact; you know, that other group that is stealing their way of life from them.

History teaches a clear lesson—that those in power (and make no mistake, this includes Trump) will seek to divide and conquer for their own purposes. Rank-and-file Republicans are furious that their elected officials make a few token gestures to advance their social agenda, then resume the real business of government—to move resources around to keep the rich people in business. Trump is already one of the rich people, so it’s obvious to them that he couldn’t care less about this shell game. He can devote all of his energy to the social agenda. (Or so he would like you to believe. He is nothing if not erratic, and so a President Trump would likely champion a smorgasbord of contradictory and probably unconstitutional policies, suited to his whims. But here I go telling folks about their hero again.)

What the people in Clay County, Tennessee, and all the Clay Countys all over America, need to hear from the rest of us is that We Hear You. You have been misrepresented, unrepresented, and then shamed for being over-represented because you belong to the racial majority, a majority status that is ephemeral on so many levels, but very real when you’re on the other side of it. What you don’t know that you don’t know because you haven’t been exposed is vast… for all of us. We can’t sugarcoat—some things you just won’t be able to experience in Clay County. But that doesn’t mean they are not real and they do not impact you in Clay County.

If it sounds complicated, it is. This nation is a bundle of contradictions: freedom and slavery, religious freedom and religious bondage, an enshrined tradition of non-violence juxtaposed with two military national holidays and a ridiculous defense budget, not to mention the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

White privilege and rampant classism, however, is probably the most insidious contradiction of all.

Poor whites have been baited for generations with the promise of white privilege while remaining in a clearly powerless position. To the extent that the government can’t make their circumstances better, it’s ostensibly because some group of non-whites is funneling off resources that would flow “naturally” to them. It’s never their own fault, and it’s never the fault of the sympathetic pro-white politicians. So the trappings of white privilege, which don’t directly cost anything, can be distributed freely by the government while conveniently keeping all the poor people poor. But this only works if you fall for it. I didn’t.

This is where I believe I truly diverge from my old friends and classmates in Gamaliel, Kentucky; in Lafayette, Tennessee; in North Springs, Tennessee; and in the neighboring Clay County that was featured in this newspaper article. I know that I can not be the winner of this American game while being offered the consolation prize of avoiding overt marginalization. I can have not losing presented to me as winning, but it’s up to me to interpret the events of my life. (The moral question of basing one’s success on the subjugation of other groups, however pressing, is going to go unexamined here.)

I harbor a deep frustration with my homefolks. I grew up in a conservative, “God-fearing” fortress, with a harping chorus of disapproval around government handouts, villifying those lazy “other people” expecting the government to provide for them instead of being willing to work and make a living.

The irony is that now many of these same people claim that the government took their jobs from them, as if it were divine intervention that first planted the local tool and die shop twenty miles away or the garment factory in the nondescript county seat. These machinations (no pun intended) are purely the result of greasing the wheels of government and bringing “artificial” jobs to areas where people needed a way to earn money. If the government took away, it also gaveth in the first place.

Any high school economics textbook published in the last two generations will tell you that agriculture and factory work is becoming more automated and that we now live in a service economy. Any textbook published in the past one generation will mention the technology sector shift and globalization. Was anyone in Clay County reading these textbooks?

“Small government” conservative politicians want to refuse handouts to the needy because they have failed some arbitrary litmus test of “trying really hard” to find a job. At the same time, the expectation is that they, as the government, should be working for their constituency to land vanishing blue-collar jobs, relics of a prior century. I don’t deny that most of the citizens of Clay County are hard-working, but is there a condition? Are they only willing to work if it involves doing what their parents and grandparents did for a living?

Citizens of Clay County, I hear you, and I know that change is hard, but it is also inevitable. We live in the information age—you can take essentially free classes online to learn computer code. You can find clerical work as a remote personal assistant. And when all else fails, don’t forget that you belong to a local community of several thousand people. Theoretically, you could all work for each other and provide the services you mutually need. To think otherwise is to buy into the big government you say you hate.

My parents moved me to Nashville. They made sure I had a chance to go to the magnet high school. I needed little encouragement to realize that I didn’t want to work in a factory (and I sure as hell wasn’t going to work on a farm—that would have been a disaster!) I struggled with low wages out of college as part of the service economy—I worked at an ice cream shop and a mailroom and the back office of a restaurant. I then set my mind on a professional career and made it happen. But even if I hadn’t succeeded on that path, I would have persevered and would likely be doing OK right now with a management position in the service sector.

What I didn’t do was sit in Lafayette and wish that the auto parts factory would come back. If my parents had acted that way, I would have left them there and visited on the holidays.

Change is rough. The blue-collar Republicans have asked the blacks, the gays, and everyone else who has had a rough time to bite the bullet and stop whining about their circumstances.

Now it’s your turn. And when you are ready to stop whining, there may be a place for you in the economy of 2016. I’d like to have my former neighbors back in the same century with me.


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