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White Privilege in Our Time

The priorities of the American ruling class require devaluing people like Miss Nelly

The Guardian visits one of America’s poorest towns, Beattyville, Kentucky. Excerpts:

Karen Jennings patted her heavily made up face, put on a sardonic smile and said she thought she looked good after all she’d been through.

“I was an alcoholic first. I got drunk and fell in the creek and broke my back. Then I got hooked on the painkillers,” the 59-year-old grandmother said.

Over the years, Jennings’ back healed but her addiction to powerful opioids remained. After the prescriptions dried up, she was drawn to the underground drug trade that defines eastern Kentucky today as coal, oil and timber once did.

Jennings spoke with startling frankness about her part in a plague gripping the isolated, fading towns dotting this part of Appalachia. Frontier communities steeped in the myth of self-reliance are now blighted by addiction to opioids – “hillbilly heroin” to those who use them. It’s a dependency bound up with economic despair and financed in part by the same welfare system that is staving off economic collapse across much of eastern Kentucky. It’s a crisis that crosses generations.

One of those communities is Beattyville, recorded by a US census survey as the poorest white town – 98% of its 1,700 residents are white – in the country. It was also by one measure – the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey 2008-2012 of communities of more than 1,000 people, the latest statistics available at the time of reporting – among the four lowest income towns in the country.

Here’s another example of the people of Beattyville enjoying their white privilege:

“Our homeless situation is really different to a big city. It’s couch surfing. You’ve got lower income people, grandparents with their children and spouses living there with the grandchildren. They’re all crammed into this one house. There’s a lot of them.”

Other people on the waiting list for new homes – wooden bungalows or trailers – are what she calls “burn downs”, whose homes were destroyed by fire from candles, kerosene heaters or pot belly stoves. Many of those are in homes disconnected from electricity and other utilities to save money.

“Utility bills are outrageous in a trailer because they lack insulation. I have a little lady I’ve been helping with, Miss Nelly. She’s in her late 70s. Her electric bill in the wintertime here runs about $400 a month. She can’t afford that. Trailers don’t heat good,” she said. “Some people choose not to connect to utilities to save money. A lot of people here, their income is like between $500 and $700 a month. That’s all they get. That’s not a lot, especially if you’ve got kids and the price of gas and car insurance and you’ve got all these things that have to be paid.”

Read the whole thing. Wonder how many white people of Beattyville are going to benefit from the $50 million Yale University is spending on its diversity initiative. While Miss Nelly checks her privilege, Yale and its Ivy League competitors are putting their significant resources to work on behalf of the truly oppressed:

Still, Kong noted that the lower number of minorities in the pool of prospective professors is not an excuse for the lack of faculty diversity on campus, which she attributed largely to the University’s inability to retain faculty of color. In recent months, English and African American Studies professor Elizabeth Alexander ’84, who recited a poem at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, as well as two other black professors with ties to the African American Studies department, have announced that they will leave Yale at the end of this academic year. Alexander and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies professor Vanessa Agard-Jones will go to Columbia University, which recently committed an additional $33 million to its faculty diversity initiative.

According to the university’s figures, a full professor at Yale makes $200,000 per year. Columbia pays even higher salaries. Vanessa Agard-Jones is only an assistant professor, which means she took in a mere $136,000. But she’s worth it. According to her Yale page, Prof. Agard-Jones is “a political anthropologist doing research on gender, sexuality, and environmental concerns in the Caribbean, [who] is currently writing a book about pesticides, (sexual) politics, and postcoloniality in Martinique.” So there’s that. If Miss Nelly would spray Raid on her private parts and come out as a lesbian, maybe somebody at Yale would study Appalachians like her.

Sorry, this is really unfair, this snark. I know that. A Yale professor is not the same thing as a little old lady living in Appalachia, and I don’t blame any professor for getting the highest salary he or she can. As long as you’re making your money honestly, I see nothing wrong with demanding what the market will bear. It’s not the fault of Ivy League professors that their universities are willing to pay them exorbitant salaries because of their skin color, sex, and so forth.

Still, it chaps my butt to think about those poor people strung out on dope, struggling to pay heating bills, in Appalachia, and to imagine that fat-mouthing Jerelyn Luther at Yale, whose parents live in a $700,000 house in Fairfield, Conn., whining about how oppressed she is at an Ivy League school — and then the people who run Yale falling all over themselves to give brats like her what she wants. The American ruling class lives in another world.