Latest Scholarship

March 13, 2018

Elite hypocrisy about working class white and rural folks? The case of the West Virginia teachers strike

I've been keeping an eye on elite bashing of working class and rural whites for years now, and I published my first article about it as long ago as 2011.  But the election of 2016 brought the disdainful badmouthing by the chattering classes to a fever pitch, and I've occasionally blogged about the phenomenon, including here and here.  


One "series" I see on Twitter begins:  "And in today's episode of:  I Bet I Know Who You Voted For..." That is the common  preface to re-Tweets of headlines that could previously have appeared in the "Darwin Awards" or perhaps the petty crime pages of a local paper.  I'm pasting one below.  It re-Tweets a Fox News Tweet that reads "Substitute allegedly brought boxed wine to school, vomited in class."


Another re-Tweets this Fox News Tweet:  "Woman charged with choking teen for blocking view at Disney fireworks show."


On a related note, here's an item from Instagram just a few days ago, from the account called guerrillafeminism that reads "happy international women's day except the 53% of white women who voted for trump."


Pat Bagley, the cartoonist for the Salt Lake City Tribune (whose work I greatly admire, by the way--both cartoonist and paper), has referred to Trump's "idiot followers."  I could provide many more illustrations of this phenomenon.  


With that background, you can imagine my surprise--but also delight--when I saw this Tweet from Neera Tanden, President of the Center for American Progress, which bills itself as an

independent nonpartisan policy institute that is dedicated to improving the lives of all Americans, through bold, progressive ideas, as well as strong leadership and concerted action. Our aim is not just to change the conversation, but to change the country.

Despite the "nonpartisan" billing, I see Center for American Progress as clearly left leaning (a good thing in my book!).  Tanden's Tweet reads:

The teachers of West Virginia are heroes.  They deserve good pay and a real raise.  I stand with them. 


Now, I don't recall any past Tweets by Tanden blasting Trump supporters, though I do recall some highly critical of Trump.  That's fine by me.  It's a line I've drawn myself--at least in the last year or so (I was a bit less discriminating--a bit more knee jerk--as I reeled in the wake of election of 2016, and I sent off some angry, pejorative Tweets about Trump supporters as a monolithic group).  I now readily take aim at Trump but try to be more thoughtful and circumspect re: Trump supporters.  I'm looking to understand them, trying to listen empathically. (I've got a whole law review article forthcoming about female Trump supporters, delivered as the key note address at the Toledo Law Review symposium in October, 2017,  The Women Feminism Forgot:  Rural and Working Class White Women in the Era of Trump.  I hope to have the text posted soon on my page).


But the bottom line is that some things I saw on Twitter about the West Virginia teachers--many sympathetic comments of the sort Tanden shared--had me wondering if the lefties doing this Tweeting realized that many of the folks they were lauding and advocating for had no doubt voted for Trump.  That is, these newfound labor heroes with their wild-cat strike were one and the same with (many) reviled Trump voters.  Some 68% of West Virginians voted for Trump!  Could I possibly be seeing praise for these women--praise from the left?   These are the same women that many lefties on Twitter have said "get what they deserve" if they lose their healthcare (thanks to Trump's effort to dismantle Obamacare) or face further economic decline (thanks, for example, to the long-term consequences of Trump's tax reform law).


(Btw, I was at an Appalachian Justice symposium at West Virginia University College of Law in Morgantown from Thursday Feb. 22 'til Saturday Feb. 24th, and I got to see the teachers picketing--and hear the honking in support--first-hand, which was pretty cool.  One of my favorite signs, this published in the Washington Post, is here) 


Michelle Goldberg, a relatively new columnist at the New York Times who is writing a lot about gender issues, offered up this column under the headline, "The Teachers Revolt in West Virginia."  She called the strike "thrilling," noting that strikes by teachers are unlawful in West Virginia, which became a right-to-work state a few years ago, and where unions do not have collective bargaining rights. Yet, Goldberg writes,

teachers and some other school employees in all of the state’s 55 counties are refusing to return to work until lawmakers give them a 5 percent raise, and commit to addressing their rapidly rising health insurance premiums.

Goldberg further explains that the "obvious impetus" for action is West Virginia's awful pay of teachers, which ranks 48th in the nation (read more analysis here).  She also discusses the critical role that health care/health insurance plays in the labor dispute:

 In the past, solid health care benefits helped make up for low wages, but because West Virginia hasn’t been putting enough money into the state agency that insures public employees, premiums and co-payments have been increasing significantly.  

Ah, there's that health care problem again, by which I mean you should read this and this, among other sources cited and discussed in that forthcoming Toledo Law Review article. 


Having pored over many, many mainstream media reports of white working class Trump supporters in places like Appalachia (you guessed it, all discussed in that Toledo Law Review article!), I was struck that the women Goldberg identified and interviewed did not appear to be Trump supporters.  Quite to the contrary, these women are held out as having responded to Trump's election by becoming part of what is popularly known as "the resistance." I was delighted to learn about and hear from these women, but was Goldberg unable to find any Trump supporters among the striking teachers?  I would very much have liked to have heard their attitudes about the strike, also in relation to their support for Trump.  Did they reconcile the two?


Here are excerpts/quotes about the two women Goldberg did feature, Jenny Craig, a special education teacher from Triadelphia (population 811, northern panhandle) and Amanda Howard Garvin, an elementary art teacher in Morgantown (third largest city in the state, home of WVU):

Craig described the anti-Trump Women’s March, as well as the explosion of local political organizing that followed it, as a “catalyst” for at least some striking teachers.

Goldberg quotes Craig:  

You have women now taking leadership roles in unionizing, in standing up, in leading initiatives for fairness and equality and justice for everyone.

Goldberg also quotes Garvin:

As a profession, we’re largely made up of women. ... There are a bunch of men sitting in an office right now telling us that we don’t deserve anything better. 

Oh how I LOVE that quote, not least because it evinces a feminist consciousness.  In the wake of Trump’s election, Garvin added, women are standing up to say: 

No. We’re equal here.

I sure hope Garvin is right that the sentiment and movement are as widespread as she suggests--and as Goldberg implies.  If this is accurate, liberal elites--including feminists--will have to give Craig, Garvin and so many more like them their due.  (Indeed, teacher strikes may be in the works in the equally "red" states of Oklahoma and Kentucky, too).  That will challenge deeply entrenched stereotypes about folks from this region (read more here and here), which will in turn serve all of us quite well.  


By the way, the strike succeeded, with the teachers getting what they held out for.  You can find more exciting coverage of the West Virginia teachers strike herehere and here.  And don't miss this by WVU Law Professor and education law expert, Joshua Weishart.  


The question that all of this leaves me with is this:  What can the WV teachers strike teach us about how to build and sustain cross-class coalitions, including among whites?  How can these intra-racial coalitions interface with cross-race coalitions for even stronger pacts among progressives? And what role will gender play in that coalition building?  


Other hopeful news of change in relation to women and the national political landscape is herehere and here.  


April 3, 2011

Widening Spatial Inequality and What to Do About It

Wealth and income inequality have been getting a lot of attention in recent months--at least in the New York Times. Op-Ed columnist Bob Herbert has been especially persistent about keeping the topic on readers' radar screens; read some of his columns here, here, here, and here. Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, and Robert Frank have had a say, too. Wealth inequality was also the subject of a "Room for Debate" feature a few weeks ago.

But geographic analysis of inequality has been little examined in the mainstream media until The Economist Magazine ran a couple of stories about uneven development and spatial inequality in the March 10, 2011 issue. The first "Internal affairs: The gap between rich and poor regions widened because of the recession," analyzes various nations' spatial inequality as measured by income and GDP. This analysis shows that Britain is the nation with the widest geography-based income gap: the per capita GDP is nine times greater in central London than it is in some Welsh regions. The smallest regional spreads, on the other hand, were in Italy and Germany, where "incomes in their most affluent areas are [nevertheless] almost three times those of the poorest." The United States falls at the British end of the spectrum, coming in second for inequality across regions among the nations studied. The District of Columbia, for example, is five times as rich as Mississippi. Further, the situation has worsened in the past few years.

Between 2007 and 2009 real GDP per head in the five richest states actually rose by an average of 2%, but fell by 3% in the five poorest. Both groups outperformed the national average, a fall of more than 4%. (The biggest slumps, both by more than 10%, were in Michigan, the eighth-poorest state, and in Nevada, site of the biggest house-price crash.)

The Economist notes that this is merely a continuation of a long-standing trend, and it attributes the phenomenon, in part, to the "dependence of poorer states on manufacturing, which has suffered big job cuts over the past decade." The feature concludes that "the income gap between richer and poorer areas is likely to widen further as government-spending cuts disproportionately hurt less prosperous parts."

One of the story's big attention getters is its comparison of GDP among regions and cities of different nations.

[O]ver a quarter of regions in Britain and Italy and one-tenth of those in Germany will this year have a lower GDP per head than the municipality of Shanghai. All the American states remain richer, but Shanghai looks set to overtake Mississippi by 2015; within ten years half of all the states, including Florida, Michigan and Ohio, could have a GDP per head lower than Shanghai and Beijing.

If the comparison were at the scale of the county rather than that of the state, these Chinese cities would no doubt be shown well out-pacing our nation's persistent poverty counties.

The second Economist feature on spatial inequality, "Gaponomics," takes up the question of what should be done to respond to this problem, particularly in the context of Britain. Instead of investing in particular regions or giving tax breaks to "enterprise zones" in these downtrodden areas, The Economist offers this proposal:

[M]ake it easier for people to move. Given inherent gaps in regional productivity prospects, there is a case for boosting mobility from declining regions to prospering ones. In Britain the main problem is the fetish for home-ownership and high house prices in the south-east, partly the result of severe shortages of supply. Easing planning restrictions below the Watford Gap would be a better way of helping Britons than propping up the north.

As a ruralist, I am immediately suspicious of policies that would aggravate uneven development. Among other things, they ignore those who will remain immobile and inevitably left behind. They also ignore attachment to place as an aspect of the political economy of rural areas in particular.

This story's second proposal is far more palatable: invest in education because it results in "the single biggest reward" for the nation--even if northerners then move south with their enhanced human capital. (Regarding the latter, I am reminded of this book on the rural brain drain).

Back in the United States, a recent New York Times editorial echoes the second of these ideas in relation to New York's funding scheme for education. In "Rich District, Poor District," the editorial staff consider how two of the state's school districts will fare under the Cuomo budget: "Ilion in the economically depressed Mohawk Valley, and Syosset, a wealthy town in Long Island’s Nassau County." Needless to say, it's not a pretty picture. Here' a summary:

The cuts would scarcely affect wealthy districts that rely primarily on local taxes to support lavishly appointed schools. But they would be catastrophic for impoverished rural districts that have been starved of state aid for decades and are still reeling from cuts levied last year .... Already struggling to furnish even basic course offerings, the poorest districts would need to cannibalize themselves to keep the doors open and the lights on.

As the editors express it, the $1.1 million cut Ilion is being asked to take to its $25 million budget "would not even come to a rounding error in the state's richest districts," like Syosset, which is being asked to absorb only a $1.4 million cut to its $188 million budget. But the New York Times editors aren't just arguing that school funding should be more equitable because "it's the right thing to do," they make an argument grounded in economics: Depressed regions like that around Illion "stand[ ] little chance of attracting high-skill jobs if [their] schools are allowed to deteriorate."

Going back to The Economist articles for a moment, I noted that enhanced investment in education is one reason for the income convergence across Germany, even as spatial inequalities become more acute in other nations. The story describes "huge national and European Union funds for infrastructure, R&D and education, as well as the transfer of some manufacturing jobs from factories in the western states to the east." For some reason, Germany sees reasons to take care of its citizens where they are--not to create incentives for residents of the less affluent East to move West. I'd like to know more about those reasons because I suspect they go beyond a sentimental desire to permit people to stay where they are and the attractive orderliness of a more evenly populated. I am guessing these policies are based in part on economic calculations about the value of existing infrastructure and human capital in the historically deprived East. Better understanding those reasons might inform debates in the United States about why regional development and reducing spatial inequalities--not fueling them--makes good sense from myriad perspectives.

Some of my writings mapping the sociogeographic concept of spatial inequality onto legal conceptions of (in)equality are here, here, and here.

Cross-posted to, ClassCrits, and Legal Ruralism.