My colleague Leonard Pitts, in yet another column this week complaining that latent racism skewed the Democratic primary in mostly white, working class West Virginia, serves up a phrase about the folks back home that struck me as particularly misinformed. Pitts was bothered by readers who found little moral difference between blacks who voted nine-to-one in favor of the black candidate, Barack Obama, and the mountain state whites who voted overwhelmingly for the white candidate, Hillary Clinton. He wrote, "Thing is, that's not what happened in West Virginia. Not unless you're going to tell me with a straight face that that vote reflected marginalized whites (an oxymoron if ever there was one) seeking a seat at the table."
I don't know how much race was factor in the Clinton vote in the West Virginia primary. Some, surely. Maybe racism was a decisive factor. Worth more than Clinton's union support. Or the residual affection for her husband. I know, too, that in the southern West Virginia coal fields, elections are won by candidates who know where, or rather with whom, to put their money come election day. Campaigns in West Virginia, not unlike the black-dominated urban centers of dying old industrial towns, are decided by election day largess. Obama's new Internet-driven campaigns, peopled by college kids and young professionals, don't translate into votes in towns like Pineville, Logan, Sophia, Welch, Coal Mountain. Those elections traditionally run on $5 bills. Or pints of whiskey. Not on websites.
Last winter, I drove through a few of those same forsaken towns. The coal mines have played out. The storefronts were mostly empty. The best educated, the most ambitious, the folks with gumption abandoned the coal fields and West Virginia. Substitute crystal meth for crack and these little rural towns are suffering from some of the same pathologies as America's black inner cities. Their children must leave the state to find work. Those who stay behind, can only watch as the strip miners, who employ relatively few workers, wrangle giant shovels that utterly brutalized the mountains, with the economic advantages going to outsiders. Meanwhile, the locals find they're suffering 100-year floods with increasing frequency.
Down in the deep hollows of Appalachia, the word "marginalized" seems less an oxymoron, as Pitts suggests, than downright inadequate.