Unpacking the White Privilege “Sack” in Appalachia – #1

(Based on White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh)

Unpacking the Sack in Appalachia

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

People in Appalachia can usually ‘arrange’ to be in the company of people of their own race (white) most of the time simply because of demographics – my county is 94.4% white.  However, the ‘arranging’ part to meet up with the other 94.4% can get a little tricky.

Mass transit in Appalachia is practically nonexistent outside of urban areas, therefore any contact with other people (other than family) is dependent upon having a vehicle. Buying a vehicle costs money of course, and, as many people have little to no money (garment factory and other jobs that supported this area have dwindled away to almost nothing) and often have no credit to speak of, they turn to various used car dealers in the area whose sole business is to finance cheap vehicles at high interest rates (as high as 25%). Often these cars are totaled vehicles bought at auction, then fixed up so they will at least run. People buy the cars at these usurious interest rates (the overall interest rate is generally ignored or misunderstood by the purchaser – they just know they need a car and they look at the monthly payment only).

Not a Local Dealer!

The cars run for 6 months to a year then they break down (often stranding the person[s]). The people go back the same used car dealer, who either sells them another car (generally before the other one is paid off – the difference is added to the loan) or repairs the car and adds the repair bill onto the total debt.

So, they get deeper into debt with the ‘car man’ with little to no hope of getting out. If they miss a payment, the repo man comes (or worse) and then that’s it – no transportation. Why don’t they do something different? No options.

Therefore, if people happen to have a running car then they can ‘arrange’ to have social contact with others, generally in church, or in the waiting room at the County Health Department for medical care, struggling through never ending legal issues at the county courthouse (family members are often be in trouble with the law  – usually for substance abuse and related offenses), taking children  to various doctors’ appointments (children have many medical issues in Appalachia), standing in line in social services offices or trying to read and understand various government applications and regulations in their endless quest to try to simply feed themselves and their families*. The lucky ones, who have managed to stay out of trouble, can sometimes find jobs – usually at minimum wage. Average commute to a job from this county is 30 miles, so cars are necessities.

Abandoned Grocery Store, Midtown TN

Another barrier for the ‘arranging’ of being with other members of their race revolves around counties having the ability to revoke a driver’s license for unpaid fines (including traffic fines). If a person has a fender bender and is found to be at fault and is fined, if they can’t pay the fine, the counties revoke their driver’s license. They can get their license back by going on a payment plan with the county or outside collection agency who charge a usurious interest rate. But, if you can’t get to a job, you have no money. If you have no money, you can’t pay on the payment plan and the amount you owe just increases and increases and increases because of the interest rate. It is a vicious cycle that can kick people into homelessness.

Downtown Harriman, TN

If they can’t afford a car or if they lose their license, then they can’t work or shop for food. Going to the grocery store requires a car. The downtown areas in towns they once could walk to from their homes are sadly empty; what used to be grocery, hardware, appliance stores now just look out with dirty, empty windows onto the streets sliding further and further into decay.

Younger people of Appalachia often ‘arrange’ to seek out people of color (usually Latino or African American) because very often these people have jobs and prospects. They look at having relationships with these minorities as a possible means of escape from a life of poverty and hopelessness, but those liaisons rarely work out over the long term (for a lot of reasons).

So yes, the white people of Appalachia can ‘arrange’ to be with members of their race, but it takes a lot of planning, coordination and luck.

*In Roane County, TN, where I live (population 53,047) we have an 18.1% poverty rate – with many people hovering just one paycheck away from slipping below the wage thresholds for the federal category for poverty or even into homelessness.  Nearly 35% of the children in the county are classified as poor and are on some type of public nutritional assistance. Many adults in Roane County do not read above a third grade level if that.