What keeps us down: Poverty of Imagination
Democrats, in our coffee shops, scooting around town in our hybrids listening to NPR, over local-sourced dinners with our foodie friends, find ourselves at an uncharacteristic loss for words when forced to confront the uncomfortable reality.
What the hell is happening?
The best any of us can conjure: dunno.
It had become a foundation of our belief system that the world around us was becoming, literally every day, more tolerant, more enlightened.
Every day, the moral arc of our universe was bending toward justice, for African-Americans, for women, for the LGBTQ community, for immigrants, newcomers to our land.
I would have sworn that I’d seen it happening in my own life experience, from my grandparents’ generation, for whom the liberal use of racial epithets was a function of the environment that they’d grown up in, through my parents, who still went to segregated schools, to mine, the first fully integrated generation, to our kids, whose knowledge of our nation’s struggles with racial equality were something that they’d had to read about in history books.
And I’m not your typical coffee-shop, upper-middle-class liberal.
I grew up in a trailer park, born to teen parents, raised by a single mom making minimum wage.
I listen to country music, am a big fan of professional wrestling.
OK, full disclosure: for five years, I worked in the wrestling, er, ‘rasslin’, business, so, there.
What else? I have tattoos, wear muscle shirts, mow my own lawn.
I’m a white kid, from a very, very, very white part of the world.
Born and raised in Augusta County, Virginia, population 73,500, as of the 2010 Census.
Augusta County, Virginia, according to that same 2010 Census, is 95 percent white, actually, to be precise, 95.02 percent white.
A sliver more than 19 out of 20.
That’s, as I say, very, very, very white. And also very, very, very red: the last time Augusta County voted for a Democrat for president was 1944, the fourth and final run for FDR.
Which makes me the oddball, the black sheep of my DNA tree, in a manner of speaking.
The white liberal sheep, maybe, says it better.
I have long harbored the notion that the hospital sent my parents home with the wrong kid, because I can’t otherwise explain coming out of Deerfield, then Crimora, on opposite sides of a county so vast geographically that it takes me roughly 20 more minutes to drive from my home in Waynesboro to Richmond than it does to drive to my father’s gravesite in Deerfield, as a true-blue, single-payer, universal basic income, gun-control, civil-rights Democrat.
This theory of mine is quite well-developed at this stage, after many years of thought put to it. There is a doctor and his wife, a college professor, still scratching their heads all these many years later, not able to put their heads around how their only son ended up racing a late model stock car at Eastside Speedway every Saturday night.
And yes, I know, from my wife telling me so every time I bring this theory of mine up, to reveal new details that I have convinced myself that I’ve discovered, that all it takes to prove me wrong is looking at photos of me, my mother, my father, my nieces.
Damn me to hell.
Aside: This is why I have taken to self-medication in recent years, and might I recommend the fine ciders from Bold Rock, over the mountain in Nelson County.
To borrow from Jimmy Buffett, it’s their tasty concoctions that help me hang on.
Back to where I was starting to go with this: how what had seemed to my lily-white eyes that the generations were getting more tolerant, more accepting, more enlightened, and related nonsense, at least what I see now is nonsense.
Part of my issue, I now realize, is that there aren’t a lot of black folks where I live, just saying that outright.
Which means, among other things, that we don’t have police shootings involving unarmed black motorists pulled over for an expired registration.
Uppity white folks don’t call the police on black families trying to grill out in the park.
Blue-haired old ladies don’t call 911 on black real-estate investors looking at homes for sale in subdivisions.
Not because our white folks here are better-grade white folks than where you’re from; but just because, we just don’t have enough black folks to call the cops on.
It has only hit me in recent years that I had this blind spot in my life experience, basically around the same time that it hit for most white folks, no matter how well-meaning, with Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, Philando Castile.
I’m kind of embarrassed, but then at the same time not at all embarrassed, to admit this, that I was missing out on so much in terms of persistent racial injustice in the world around us.
I’m embarrassed because I like to think of myself as somebody who is on top of things going on in the world, but then not embarrassed because I’ve been working to try to learn as much as I can and apply it, particularly in terms of my day job, as the editor of the daily news blog Augusta Free Press, which I launched in 2002, and have touched literally every day for the past 16 years.
This blind spot is just lack of exposure.
The other one that has come to the fore in the wake of the 2016 presidential campaign, and subsequent election of Donald Trump, a faux billionaire Manchurian Candidate huckster who staked his electoral chances on cutting open wounds in the fabric of American society, rubbing salt in them and having people thank him for doing it.
It’s becoming common knowledge that what a lot of us pollyannas had assumed was decline in racism, ethnocentrism, misogyny, patriarchy, was actually just stealth.
Story to illustrate: my sister.
With ostensibly the same DNA, I grew up wanting to be a civil-rights lawyer. Which I share to preface the image of a Confederate flag blanket in the background of a photo that my sister posted on her Facebook page late the afternoon of Aug. 12, 2017, the day of the infamous white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, where I went to college at the University of Virginia, that ended with the deaths of three people.
My wife saw the post, and assumed that maybe my sister hadn’t noticed the Confederate flag in the background of the photo, and messaged my sister to that effect, to suggest, you know, today, maybe it’s not the day for a Confederate flag blanket photo.
Only to be informed that, no, actually, sis was fully aware of the flag, and that the flag was the whole point of the Facebook post, and otherwise my wife and I could mind our own business, thanks for asking.
That odd defiance – it’s my right, my heritage, my duty! – isn’t anything new; and as much as we want to attribute the attitudes to Donald Trump, nah, sorry, all he has done is figure out how to tap into it for political and personal financial gain.
Which is to say, the bigots didn’t become bigots because of Donald Trump. They can just be public with the hate they’d been carrying quietly for years, and which is now normalized as if the past 60 years hadn’t happened, erased as if we’re in a bad ‘50s sci-fi involving a time machine where the baddies figure out how to turn back the hands of time.
The funny thing to me is the notion that it’s a heritage thing, you wouldn’t understand.
Augusta County voted against seceding from the Union in 1861, largely because the nature of farming here wasn’t conducive to large-scale agriculture that was at the time dominated by slaveowners.
Which isn’t to say that there weren’t slaveholder-owned farms in Augusta County, but they didn’t hold much sway, and the only reason Augusta County didn’t end up splitting off into West Virginia is that the Confederacy had prioritized the Shenandoah Valley militarily, as a possible backdoor to Washington, D.C., and maintained control of the region into the final days of the Civil War.
People like my sister, then, who post images of the Confederate flag as representative of their Southern heritage are – yes, shockingly, surprisingly! – utterly ignorant, but also unwittingly outing themselves.
Because, see, if the Confederate flag doesn’t accurately represent their heritage, and I’ve traced my family history in Augusta County to the 1730s, when the first Graham, also named Chris, by chance, settled in the Deerfield area in the far west part of Augusta County, then what does it represent?
We all know the answer, maybe not the way I’ll tell it, but we all know it.
The Confederate flag has been used since the early days of Reconstruction to signal support for the antebellum racial order.
No doubt the cracka-ass-crackas in my family DNA – I just saw a story about a family who were given the wrong baby at the hospital, so that kind of thing does actually happen, just sayin’ – who were among those who opposed secession in 1861 weren’t to be confused with Radical Republican abolitionists.
They weren’t holding out because they believed in racial justice; they didn’t think it was fair that the big slaveholders on the other side of the Blue Ridge lorded over them politically and economically, and voting against secession was a way to strike back.
I mentioned my research into my own family tree; we Grahams are an ornery lot, as my mother’s side of the family, represented by my mother’s father, a German immigrant, didn’t hasten to point out, often referring to my sister and me as hillbillies, and not endearingly.
We don’t have black folks around us here now, we didn’t have them around us back then, and though we didn’t know any black folks, we knew that when they were to be set free, they had to end up somewhere, and we didn’t want it to be here.
That’s the best explanation I can come up with for people in a 95.02 percent white county that voted against secession waving that damn Confederate flag like our biggest worry in life back before the Civil War was when to sip tea on the front porch of our mansion and what the best time was to have the servants break out the mint juleps.
I think that can also go to explain the virulence of the hatred toward basically anything that goes against being white, Anglo-Saxon or Protestant in a place where literally almost everybody you ever see or will see is white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant.
There’s racism everywhere, as we all damn well know, throughout the South, up North, in the Midwest, on the Left Coast.
It’s off-putting, at first, to see how bad it is in places like Augusta County, again, not manifesting itself necessarily in incidents with police, with odd calls to 911, that kind of thing, but still, the language, the characterizations, down to the helpful warnings you get from folks when you tell them you’re going out of town on vacation, for example, say, to New York, to Washington, D.C, to Chicago.
Watch out. There’s lots of crime there, you hear from people who think they’re well-meaning, but of course have been nowhere near New York, or Washington, D.C., or Chicago, but today they know what they know from Fox News.
Substitute out the word crime with the words black people, and you get the sum of the real message from the well-meaning.
The danger here is in not actually knowing New York, or Washington, D.C., or Chicago, not actually knowing anybody but small-town white people, you let yourself become prone to fear, of the unknown.
Which is how it comes to be that the type of propaganda advanced by the likes of Fox News and Donald Trump can be so effective.
People here like to seduce themselves into thinking of Augusta County as God’s Country, which, every time I hear an old-timer, chest puffed it, start to say the words, it makes my teeth hurt.
Translation: you know, 95.02 percent white.
I want to think that Augusta County is getting a tad bit more cosmopolitan.
But, you know, I want a lot of things.
Where I live, in Waynesboro, technically an independent city, but surrounded on all sides by the county, has been morphing into a bedroom community for Charlottesville over the past 15 years, as folks moving to the Charlottesville area for jobs associated with the University of Virginia find out that they can buy twice the house for half the price 20 miles to the west.
Staunton, my actual hometown, in the sense that I was born in the hospital that used to be there, and got torn down in the 1990s when the new regional hospital also led to the closure of the independent community hospital in Waynesboro, also an independent city, also surrounded on all sides by the county, has its own outside influence, in a manner of speaking, in the form of Mary Baldwin University.
But the cities, combined population of just under 45,000, are islands in a deep and choppy sea, Staunton leaning slightly to the left politically, Waynesboro slightly tilting to the right.
The hope for the future is the influx of new folks coming in, the people taking jobs at UVA and buying houses next to me in the Tree Streets in Waynesboro, those who come to the area for Mary Baldwin, the older couples from up north who want to retire to the small-town South.
You’d expect to see some conflict with the newbies and their bigger-city attitudes clashing with the locals who’ve never been outside the mountains for more than a few days at a time their entire lives.
It’s the battle of the from-heres and the come-heres, and ours is defined about as tight as a tick as you can get.
My wife, Crystal, for instance, moved to the area with her family from Minnesota when she was in first grade, back in the early 1980s; she’s still a come-here, 35 years later.
Odd, how that is.
The influx, from forever ago and the one picking up steam today, is impacting the social dynamic here, as you’d expect, but also not in the ways you might expect.
OK, the older generation, sure, they act the way you’d expect.
I remember when I ran for a seat on Waynesboro City Council back in 2008, collecting signatures for my ballot petition, asking an older woman whom I’d known from my days working at the local paper if she would sign, and getting back as a response: I’ll sign, if you promise not to change anything.
Waynesboro, like a lot of small towns across America, suffers from this line of thinking.
Waynesboro was a thriving industrial center for 60 years, with thousands of good-paying jobs at the local DuPont and General Electric plants, and brain power with the physicists at DuPont and the engineers at GE that led to the push to build and maintain good public schools that could train their kids to follow in their footsteps.
A lot of those folks were the types to relocate to other outposts across the country and across the world over the years, but ended up returning to Waynesboro at retirement, having decided that it was the small-town life that they wanted in their golden years, after all that traveling around.
Pathetic to say, but they got selfish as they aged out. Their kids, by and large, aren’t here, so the good quality schools that they wanted when they were raising their own families are not the priority they were 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago.
The failing infrastructure, most notably the stormwater system, which floods the streets and basements every time it rains a couple of inches, also not a priority, not even a concern.
The erosion of that industrial base, which has been replaced by retail and restaurant jobs that pay about 60 percent of what the manufacturing jobs that we’ve lost over the past 30 years, not on the radar with folks who are retired, living on pensions and government money.
Don’t change anything, is the call of our golden generation here, and they vote, and for whatever reason, the folks under 50 don’t, and the result is we’re stuck in this holding pattern that we’ve been in since the 1980s, when the jobs started leaving.
I’m the one telling you this, of course, and I’m a from-here, and there are plenty of other from-heres who do want to change things, just not enough of us, and we can’t seem to get the come-heres to care enough to join us.
That’s in part because the folks spilling over from Charlottesville still treat Waynesboro as being that bedroom community that I talked about, literally just the place they sleep, but when they tell people where they live, it’s just outside of Charlottesville, which is where their heads and hearts are.
I’ve been fighting this losing battle, trying to get these folks interested in city politics, for 10 years now.
I mean, when I tell you that I ran for City Council in 2008, that implies that I lost, right? Because otherwise, I wouldn’t have told you about how I ran; I’d have gone on about how I’d done all these great things while on City Council.
I didn’t give up easily, signing on to run two campaigns for friends running for City Council, losing both.
I’m the Bob Shrum of Waynesboro politics, pretty much.
The other come-heres are the retired baby boomers, who you’ve been told come from up north wanting to have it both ways, living the quaint small-town life they’d read about in Southern Living and also wanting to remake their new hometowns in the images of the places they just left.
But actually, in practice, at least in Waynesboro, they don’t do that at all.
You’re talking largely about white folks, not necessarily conservative, definitely not as conservative as the locals their age, but also not liberal.
They moved here because they wanted a slower place, peace, quiet, and because it’s cheap to live here.
If they’re motivated by anything, it’s, oddly, things like support for more restrictive zoning, opposition to economic development, anything that changes the way the place they came to love while visiting, and decided to resettle to.
We see a lot of that in Waynesboro and the suburban parts of the county.
Staunton, a few miles west, runs blue, as I mentioned, influenced by the presence of Mary Baldwin, and its vibrant downtown, which is home to the American Shakespeare Center, a world-renowned recreation of The Bard’s indoor theater.
Staunton, the Queen City, as it is marketed, hasn’t lost its industrial base like Waynesboro did, because it really never had one.
For the better part of a century, Staunton was the commercial and cultural center of the region, as the county seat home to the courts, with retail growing up in the city to serve the people coming in from all around to take care of what they had to take care of.
That started to change in the 1980s and into the 1990s, when the big-box retailers started building up in Waynesboro to accommodate rapid population growth in the western half of Albemarle County, east of Waynesboro.
It got to a point where there was a time that the downtown district in Staunton that is now the city’s crown jewel was more akin to the Rust Belt, with broken windows and blight.
The renaissance was as much a necessity as it was anything else. The situation actually got so bad that in the late 1990s the City Council was publicly pushing the idea of having the city revert from city to town status, essentially giving up on being an independent city in the eyes of Virginia law, and subsuming itself under the government of Augusta County.
Credit to the city leaders who got Staunton out of that hole by working with what they had to work with.
The building stock in downtown dates back to the Victorian era, and it survived due to an odd bit of economic history.
There was a movement nationwide in the 1950s and 1960s to replace the 19th century buildings in downtowns with buildings of more modern design, and among the cities that went through that rebirth was Waynesboro, which over time replaced almost all of its older buildings with the cookie-cutters.
That was because Waynesboro in the 1950s and 1960s was rather prosperous, making investments there more likely to be seen as gaining proper returns in time.
Staunton in the 1950s and 1960s, not so prosperous, so the older buildings stayed around, and were still there in the 1990s when the city leaders decided to hitch Staunton’s wagon to the economics of the historic downtown.
Waynesboro has made a series of half-hearted efforts to try to breathe life into its downtown, dating back to the 1980s like in Staunton, but nothing has really taken root, mainly due to official action, or rather inaction.
The little-l libertarians that run City Hall voted to defund the nascent downtown development association several years ago, putting the kibosh on plans in the works for years to re-do the downtown district as a mix of retail, commercial spaces and residential.
The economic focus in Waynesboro is, like in many towns on interstates in America, along the interstate, Interstate 64, in our case, which here features, as it does typically along other interstates, a run of big-box stores and chain restaurants catering to travelers and also to folks over in Albemarle County who find the drive over the mountains to be much quicker than fighting traffic in too-big-for-its-britches Charlottesville.
The little-l libertarians consider this their genius, that unlike their counterparts over in Staunton, who had to commit city tax dollars to rebuilding their downtown, all they had to do to get things moving in Waynesboro was sign over the rights to the Interstate 64 corridor to the big boxes and chains.
It wasn’t genius, though, because the lazy-way-out scheme only worked at the outset because Albemarle County leaders weren’t willing to ease their grip on zoning laws to the point that it could make it easy enough for the big boxes and chains to locate there.
One result of that has been a transfer of wealth as Albemarle County residents shopping and eating out in Waynesboro spend their money here, which also means sales- and meals-tax dollars going to Waynesboro that could otherwise go to pay for local needs in Albemarle.
No surprise, then, that Albemarle leaders have been getting wise to what’s been going on in terms of that transfer of wealth, and now you’re seeing the big boxes beginning to build on that side of the hill, and it’s inevitable that in 10 years, 20 at the most, Waynesboro is going to have itself a problem with empty big boxes and restaurant spaces, on top of its problem with empty industrial spaces.
With all the changes taking the attention of folks in the cities, the county has also seen its share, with a divide emerging more along suburban vs. rural lines.
Staunton, basically in the center of the region, and Waynesboro, right up against the Blue Ridge, are connected by I-64, U.S. 250 and a rural highway, Route 254. Three unincorporated communities in between, Stuarts Draft, Fishersville and Verona, have a combined population of just under 21,000, and with residential, economic and traffic patterns being what they are, it’s coming to feel like we have ourselves a mid-sized metro area stretching from the western border of Staunton to the eastern border of Waynesboro, with the three unincorporated communities and the two independent cities being sort of neighborhoods within.
The issues for county residents in between the cities are what they are in suburban areas across the country: balancing high demand for public services like police, fire and emergency services in densely-packed areas with even higher demand for astonishingly low tax rates because, hey, c’mon, we live in the county for the astonishingly low tax rates.
You go north, south or west of the metro area, and it’s a very different dynamic.
I’ve mentioned that my family roots are in Deerfield, in the far western part of the county, an hour away from where I live now, in Waynesboro. I grew up in an unincorporated community north of Waynesboro, Crimora, about 20 minutes outside of town, or at least, 20 minutes from the nearest stoplight.
My elementary school, Crimora Elementary, closed a quarter-century ago, and kids who live there now ride a school bus 25 minutes to go to a suburban elementary school.
Middle school is a 45-minute bus ride, and the high school is just short of an hour one way.
My address growing up was P.O. Box 12. My college roommates used to joke with me about what, like, my phone number was, did it have more than one digit, if a lady sat at a switchboard to connect us to the general store when we needed a new pair of overalls.
My experience, having come out of that environment, is that the biggest issue in the very rural areas isn’t police, emergency services, water and sewer, the kinds of things that get the city and suburban folks out to public meetings and to the polls every November.
It’s more like, what happens if my car breaks down?
When you live a half-hour from everywhere, you’re not walking to walk, and there aren’t buses or subways or Ubers out in the sticks.
What happens if the factory closes down? My dad worked at the General Electric plant for 25 years. Two of those years, in the Reagan recession in the early ‘80s, he was laid off, for lack of work. He did odd jobs, mowing lawns, cutting wood, and had me help him, and paid me five or ten dollars a week, which of course made me feel like a king, because I’d never had an allowance before.
What he made after paying me, of course, wasn’t anywhere near what he’d been making at GE.
You’re probably not surprised to hear me tell you now that at the end of this two-year layoff, my parents split up, and I started to become acquainted with the delicacy known as the ketchup sandwich.
The other biggest issue for rural folks, saying that intentionally, the other biggest, because they all run together, is the overwhelming feeling that no matter how hard you try, you’re never going to win.
You’re almost afraid to say out loud that things are going great, is how much you get to feeling beaten down by life.
I brought up the example of your car breaking down. That can literally put you on the brink of suicide, because if you don’t have your car, you can’t get to work, if you can’t get to work, you don’t eat or pay the bills, but if you have to put down a few hundred bucks to fix your car so you can go to work, you still can’t eat or pay your bills.
If the furnace breaks down, similar.
If you end up having to go to the hospital for something, again, similar.
How much that beats you down: I am very fortunate, after years of hard work. We own a 2,700-square-foot house, bring in well into the six figures in annual income, we travel, basically want for nothing, if at most very little.
And yet I can’t get past thinking, every day, that it’s all going to come tumbling down.
My wife will tell you, too, that when we have an issue with a car, it sends me into the most irrational of funks.
This is where I bring us Democrats sipping our café lattes trying to figure it all out back to the forefront of the conversation, and to how we can’t seem to get over why people who have nothing vote against their basic interests, siding with Republicans who want to defund public schools to put more money into private schools that they could never afford to send their kids to, who want to kill unions that represent their interests in terms of fair wages and benefits to give unilateral power to corporate interests, who won’t accept anything in terms of movement toward nationalized healthcare coverage, when they’re a bill coming in the mail for a trip to the hospital in an ambulance away from having to declare bankruptcy.
Having lived it, not having figured out myself how to entirely escape it, I can tell you that, no, it makes no sense at all for people who live day to day, hour to hour, waiting for the absolute worst thing to happen, to not want to do something about it.
Poverty is more than a formula with income measured versus cost of living determining how people can meet their basic daily needs, is how I’m starting my answer.
Few of the people that I grew up with would qualify under the federal poverty guidelines, but they exhaust themselves trying to stay on the other side of the line, and they’re tired of fighting.
Just plain tired of it all, really.
So, then somebody tells them that the problem is Mexico sending their worst to sign up for welfare and otherwise rape, rob and pillage, Germany and Canada and China not playing by the rules and robbing us of billions in international trade, those sons of bitches in the NFL who make millions and can’t bother themselves to stand at attention for the damn national anthem, but don’t worry, we can fix that in five minutes, trust me, we’ve got this tremendously wonderful plan, and you won’t believe how easy it will be.
Who do you think they’re going to listen to?
Spoiler alert: not the people who they think look down their noses at them.