Fighting rural racism from the inside
February 6, 2020 6:39 PM   Subscribe

Andy and Stosh used to enjoy dropping in to the local fire company's bar in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. In deep red coal country, these places are are part of the community's fabric, "a cross between a fire station, a sports bar, and a church basement." But when the bartender took a racist swipe at Stosh, who's black, he and Andy, his white half-brother, spoke out publicly, setting them at odds with local people and institutions. The fallout has left them wondering whether "after years of working side by side, drinking in the same bars, they are as much a part of this community as anyone else. Whether their community loves them enough to change." ‘Cancel culture’ in coal country: Two Trump-voting brothers on a mission to fight racism in Schuylkill County, from Jen Kinney for Pennsylvania public radio's Keystone Crossroads).
posted by MonkeyToes (32 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
This one's a longread, and it does a good job of capturing a sense of place. I found it painful. And accurate. Its descriptions and story made me realize, and not for the first time, that the present is here, it's just not evenly distributed. (Gibson in coal country.) And that line, "[w]hether their community loves them enough to change"--I am afraid of the answer.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:12 PM on February 6 [6 favorites]


My mom grew up in Pottsville PA. There was a local candy shop, Mootz's, that made the most amazing confections called peanut clusters, that she'd order every year for the holidays and unveil every Christmas Eve day to our complete delight. It's long gone.

I am thanking the stars that she passed away in 1994, before she had to read of the retrograde of her hometown. She would have loved Obama, loathed Trump, and this story would have made her blood boil.

This is the purest distillation I can imagine of the incredible state we are in:
The brothers are far from agreeing with everything the president has done, but they are willing to vote for him again.

They want government hands off their guns, but were horrified by Trump’s treatment of the Kurds in Syria. Andy supports health care and free college for all, but his experiences with long waits at the Veterans’ hospital make him doubt whether that’s possible. Despite being the grandson of a coal miner he supports a move toward green energy. “It killed him,” he said, referring to the mines.

But the economy seems to be doing well. Stosh’s paycheck is fatter. Trump seems to be helping with that.

“Everybody has their line. It’s close with him,” said Stosh. “He’s like that drunk uncle. You don’t want to talk to him, but he’ll give you $100 for Christmas.”
The very smallest part of my heart, the meanest part, thinks these guys deserve every iota of what they get at that pub. They should get what they vote for others to get. That pain is justice.

But then the larger part, the better fraction of my heart, wants them to find the strength and virtue and values and vision it will take to speak and act and vote beyond the small rewards doled out by that mean, drunk uncle. I don't know how they get there. This has made me terribly sad.

Living here in Iowa, in Waterloo, a city of complexity beyond the easy NPR narratives of homogeneous Iowa, staggering past anger into sadness at the caucus fiasco, I am so fearful at what November will bring. For the students I work with. For my kids. For the road ahead for all of us.
posted by Caxton1476 at 7:16 PM on February 6 [63 favorites]


The very smallest part of my heart, the meanest part, thinks these guys deserve every iota of what they get at that pub.

I hear what you're saying, and I'll admit that was my knee-jerk reaction too.

Reading the story though, Andy and Stosh were born and raised there, and think like the majority of the people there. There's no reason to expect otherwise, and like so many other people, I'm sure both of them inherited their politics and go through the regular process of rationalizing the parts that don't fit with their personal beliefs.

The only issue is that even though Stosh is one of them, some other people are unable to get over the fucking color of his skin.
posted by Ickster at 9:50 PM on February 6 [8 favorites]


The very smallest part of my heart, the meanest part, thinks these guys deserve every iota of what they get at that pub.

No one deserves racism. Period. Because it’s never really about the person on the receiving end - not about their behavior or their moral failings. It’s solely about the prejudice and the ignorance of the racist person.
posted by Pretty Good Talker at 11:37 PM on February 6 [18 favorites]


Ickster and Pretty Good Talker, yes. I do want better for them. They are hurting, and they do not in any way deserve their neighbors' racism. The anger I felt at their hypocrisy surprised me and I was trying to express that. I went to sleep thinking about this story, and I woke up with it still on my mind. I've got some feelings to work through about it.
posted by Caxton1476 at 3:59 AM on February 7 [11 favorites]


On a tangent: isn't “Stosh” a Polish-American given name?
posted by acb at 5:55 AM on February 7


acb, coal mining jobs drew Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and Slovak immigrants to that part of the world.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:11 AM on February 7 [5 favorites]


oh sweet heaven. it's just a "joke", of course, that's what they always say, the "jokers". "we didn't mean anything".

of course. of course you didn't. /s

Then, in 2014, he retired from the Navy and moved home. His mom got sick, so he stayed. He learned to brush off the occasional prolonged stare at the grocery store, the jokes, the ‘Did you come here to rob us?’ comments when he walked into a hosey wearing a ski cap.

Stosh chalked it up to ignorance and doled out dry humor. Once when a white guy at Port Clinton kept pressing him, “Where are you from?” and wouldn’t accept ‘Cressona’ as an answer, Stosh tried to convince him he was Māori, until the guy was so confused he let it go. It was a crude solution, but it worked.

posted by affectionateborg at 6:31 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


i'm from PA, and while i'm not from this county, i know similar places and similar people. this piece has hurt my heart that so much has not changed since i left and even seems to be getting worse.

the only improvement thing is people like Andy calling it out more often and questioning what has been heretofore a cultural norm.
posted by affectionateborg at 6:42 AM on February 7 [4 favorites]


I've spent a lot of my life in Rural and ex-urb Pennsylvania and don't really hold out much hope for it changing for the better.
posted by octothorpe at 7:05 AM on February 7 [4 favorites]


It's a sidebar, but the mismanagement of the VA seems almost intentional to me at this point. In communities like this it's one of the largest interfaces a person has with "big government" and it's also a commonly cited anecdote against any other sort of social support program.
posted by codacorolla at 7:29 AM on February 7 [18 favorites]


I've never heard of "hoseys" before, it was interesting to learn about them.

The cognitive dissonance of being a Trump supporter when most of your views are completely opposite to him is staggering. I honestly don't understand people who can listen to him speak and not see that he is a idiotic lying blowhard with barely two coherent thoughts to rub together.

A part of me just feels like people with sense should abandon these places to their slow moldering death.
posted by Julnyes at 7:45 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Just because you’re on their side does not mean that they are on your side. The Brothers have lived there their entire lives, and yet seem resistant to learning that lesson.

Enjoy your Trump-shaped-rock workout, Team Sisyphus. Let us know how that turns out for y’all.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:45 AM on February 7 [6 favorites]


Andy and Stosh seem to be smart, brave and patient. How can they be Trump supporters? I don’t understand it. I just don’t.
posted by scratch at 7:58 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


I grew up in small town, white-ass Minnesota, and oh boy all of this hit exactly home, especially the pervasive mood that some people who aren't (white, straight, etc.) can be accepted and even loved on an individual level, and yet the racism and homophobia (as 2 examples) is always there underneath. You're not exactly passing, but you might get accepted as an "honorary" white or straight person, what the community considers good normal folk, until you speak out or bring attention to NOT being those things.

It used to drive me crazy that I knew my own family didn't act prejudiced towards the POC and the gay people they particularly KNEW, but still would say some really prejudiced things. Until I finally realized that every person they knew passed the "honorary normal" test. "You're black, but you're not like THOSE black people. You're gay, but you're not all in my face about it."

They often also like to say they "don't see color", but it reads more correctly as "once you've passed the not-like-the-other-X test, I deem you an honorary Normal Person. As soon as you break the illusion though, you're back to being One of Those."

I was certainly not immune to this. I had several POC friends in school that I once would have said were white-passing. I was honestly shocked to hear their experiences with racism once we all left our small town bubble, because I didn't think of them as visibly POC. And then I realized that I, too, as a white person, had stopped seeing it. But I'm sure they never did.
posted by nakedmolerats at 9:05 AM on February 7 [20 favorites]


acb, coal mining jobs drew Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and Slovak immigrants to that part of the world.

Yep, the Slovak social clubs of Pittsburgh are where Frank Gorshin got his start in standup. Some of them are still there.

A lot of the article felt very similar to where I grew up in rural Western New York. (We had one Black kid and one Hispanic kid in our school, and they were the same kid.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:08 AM on February 7


> How can they be Trump supporters?

The bit that stood out to me from TFA:
The only other candidate the brothers would consider is Joe Biden. Andy thinks he’s the only Democratic candidate who can appeal to "normal Americans."

And then he wonders aloud — what did he mean by normal? Was that a racist thing to say?
My knee-jerk reaction is that Andy and Stosh may not be all that widely travelled — but having been in the military overseas, they're much broader of mind than the people they move among, who've never been more than five miles from home. They may as well be French at this point.
posted by Rat Spatula at 9:50 AM on February 7 [4 favorites]


The brothers in the article seemed fine with the discrimination that is obviously rampant in their town (and that Stosh's father had experienced first-hand) until it personally impacted them. At this point their campaign isn't about changing racist policies, it's about personally getting back at a single institution. I think that fighting racism is laudable, but their approach is also deeply modern conservative: everyone is an individual, you can't really control society outside of violence through policing and reform through family values and church, so therefore any sort of major systemic change is an overreach and or foolish.

It's what makes 2nd Amendment fetishism and cop worship compatible: the troops and the cops that they want guns to fight against will never be their troops and cops, because their troops and cops are right-thinking, religious, and family oriented. Modern conservatism makes the father figure the middle manager of patriarchy - they get benefits and cutouts (both social and economic) to control their own family in line with right-wing thought, and they accept being controlled by that right-wing though in return. Even when they are personally injured by that right-wing thought (or a member of their family is) they can justify that injury through the substantial economic and cultural capital they receive as part of the bargain. It doesn't help that modern left-wing thought as expressed by neoliberal democrats doesn't really give them anything different in return (and largely robs them of the intangible cultural capital they get for enforcing patriarchy).
posted by codacorolla at 10:45 AM on February 7 [14 favorites]


Sorry: I should be more clear, enforcing racism and patriarchy and other bigotry that's at the heart of GOP values of control and domination.
posted by codacorolla at 10:55 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


It's a sidebar, but the mismanagement of the VA seems almost intentional to me at this point. In communities like this it's one of the largest interfaces a person has with "big government" and it's also a commonly cited anecdote against any other sort of social support program.

Arguably this is the right-wing approach to many, many government programs.
posted by atoxyl at 12:24 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]


Yeah born in Central Western PA, and worked in NE PA, near the Skook, and there's no changin' the racism in those areas. Every summer you'll see dozens of letters to the editor decrying that the Philly folks ruin the state parks and that the state should start charging anyone who doesn't live in the county.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 3:34 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


How can they be Trump supporters? I don’t understand it. I just don’t.

I would bet that almost everyone in their town and social circles gets (what they think of as) their news from Fox News and even more inaccurate Facebook postings. If you've not been inside a disinformation bubble, it's hard to understand it. But it's especially powerful in small communities where being different will lead to ostracism and being shunned can mean severe isolation.

The brothers in the article seemed fine with the discrimination that is obviously rampant in their town (and that Stosh's father had experienced first-hand) until it personally impacted them.

"Stosh had heard a lot of racism in mostly-white Schuylkill County, but this sort of overt confrontation was new." And people will put up with a lot of stuff before something finally pushes them to the snapping point, for the same reasons I listed above.
posted by Candleman at 3:40 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


the meanest part

That would be the racist part, just fyi.

Racism isn't a just punishment for the wrong vote. Being collectively safe from it is something they've been telling us we could "earn" with the right behaviour, the right opinions, this whole time. It's a lie that supports the structure of racism. It is always a lie.
posted by windykites at 4:31 PM on February 7 [7 favorites]


you might get accepted as an "honorary" white or straight person, what the community considers good normal folk, until you speak out or bring attention to NOT being those things.

Being collectively safe from it is something they've been telling us we could "earn" with the right behaviour, the right opinions, this whole time. It's a lie

Provisionally-granted humanity can be revoked at any time, for any reason. That's terrifying.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:23 PM on February 7 [4 favorites]


This story resonates with me. I have three sons who are all now in their forties. One is black, multiracial like Stosh Webb, the other two are white. I raised them in a small city 150 miles north of Port Clinton, PA. It's a university town well-known for, among other things, being very progressive. And yet it became very clear as my kids became teenagers and young men that my black son was treated differently by the schools, and later by the police. Trust me on this, I'll spare you the details, but there were horrific consequences. And yes, I did everything I could to fight the racism. As a family we have overcome.

Sometimes I wonder if the catalyst for the escalation of white supremacist sentiment and action is a reaction to the enormous growth in the number of mixed-race children all across this country. My black son is about to turn fifty; when he was little there weren't many kids like him, especially not in small towns and rural areas. And yes, I know of the long history of white men forcing themselves on women of color during slavery and beyond. There have always been mixed-race children in the US. I'm speaking here of voluntary relationships between men and women of different races who produce mixed-race offspring. If one of the parents is African American the children, as they have been since slavery, are still considered black.

I will not listen to the song named in this quote from the article but I do believe this goes to the root of the problem: "David Allan Coe is a country musician who recorded some very obscene, offensive songs. The one the bartender was referencing, N****r F****r, is sung from the perspective of a white man, disgusted that his ex-girlfriend is now dating a Black man. It’s graphic, racist, misogynist."
posted by mareli at 7:01 AM on February 8 [7 favorites]


My mom grew up in Shenandoah in Schuylkill County. Up until recently, very few black people lived in the mining communities in that county, because what I'm told is that black people only ended up in Schuylkill County as strikebreakers. Once the mine owners no longer needed black men as strikebreakers, they were shipped back out again. I suspect many people in Schuylkill County growing up in the 1950s, 1960s might have gone years without ever seeing a black person, but racial diversity didn't stay away from Schuylkill County forever. With the long, slow death of the coal industry, very few homes there were worth much, the land was super cheap, and Spanish-speaking immigrants came in, which probably also broke down some of the de facto barriers about black people living in Schuylkill County too.

A similar process occurred in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, in neighboring Luzerne County. Latino immigrants came in, and the Mayor Lou Barletta passed a really anti-immigrant law, the Illegal Immigration Relief Ordinance, which criminalized landlords who rented to undocumented immigrants or employers who hired undocumented immigrants. Barletta got himself elected to Congress doing that. The sad part is that towns like Hazleton would be deteriorating and slowly dying if immigrants weren't there to revive them economically.
posted by jonp72 at 7:21 AM on February 8 [5 favorites]


Thanks for posting, MonkeyToes. This is required reading for anyone who doesn't understand how Pennsylvania went for Trump in 2016.

Jame's Carville's widely-misquoted quip about the state -- often summarized as "Philly and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between" -- was actually as follows: "Between Paoli and Penn Hills, Pennsylvania is Alabama without the blacks. They didn't film The Deer Hunter there for nothing – the state has the second-highest concentration of NRA members, behind Texas."

Now, having lived five minutes from both Paoli and Penn Hills, I can say that Carville's quote is a bit dated, in that suburban and exurban sprawl has made it such that the "Pennsyltucky" region as people now call it probably begins closer to Coatesville in the East and Greensburg in the West. Still, the important part of Carville's quote is "without the [B]lacks." People who think of rural PA as Alabama are actually understating the problem by applying a Southern label to a racism that's uniquely Appalachian / mid-Atlantic due to a lack of close and regular contact with racial minorities in their communities.

Of course, you can find plenty of racism in the Philly and Pittsburgh metro areas, and you can find some Black communities outside of them, but as articles like this and reports like this point out, there are no majority-minority rural areas in this state.

Through this lens, I actually sort of understand how these guys end up being so close to the problem -- targets of the problem, in fact -- and yet chose to vote for Trump in 2016. Stosh Barrow likely grew up never seeing a large number of men and women who looked like him until he joined the armed forces. Setting aside the immense impact of racism itself, this also means he had no exposure to ideas from outside the right-wing talk radio bubble that consumed rural America in the 1990s before the emergence of Fox News. This quote from the article is what drove this point home to me:
Both brothers voted for Barack Obama in 2008. Andy supported him again in 2012. Stosh went for Mitt Romney. In 2016, both voted for Trump.

“It was the lesser of two evils,” said Andy.

“He’s just a clown in the circus,” said Stosh.
These are men old enough to remember the Bill Clinton economy, yet the white brother considered Trump a lesser evil than Hillary, and the Black brother sees all of government as a "circus". Is it because the benefits of the 1990s economic boom never made it to Schuylkill County, so these men bought into the Limbaugh / Trump notion of the Clintons as despicable villains who don't care about "regular Americans"? Did Stosh give up on Obama's "Hope and Change" after just four years to vote for Mitt fucking Romney because he'd internalized the conservative media's talking points about government spending?

This is what we're going to be fighting against in 2020, here in Pennsylvania, as well as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio, among others. The rural poor here will no doubt be aware of Trump's many failures, but many of them never felt the positive impact of the Clinton or Obama years, so there's little material difference in their lives. Meanwhile, the business page of the paper says that Trump's economy is booming, and he's still making promises to bring jobs back. When you've written all of politics off as a "circus" (or even a "swamp"), why not go with the loudest clown among them and hope for the best?
posted by tonycpsu at 8:07 AM on February 8 [6 favorites]


Adding to tonycpsu's comment: Pennsylvania counties by percentage of white residents. Schuylkill: 94.0%.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:38 AM on February 8


People who think of rural PA as Alabama are actually understating the problem by applying a Southern label to a racism that's uniquely Appalachian / mid-Atlantic due to a lack of close and regular contact with racial minorities in their communities.

I'd agree about the lack of contact with minorities, but Schuylkill County isn't particularly Appalachian in a cultural sense. It's heritage is more Irish and Eastern European Catholic, because that's who worked in the mines. Schuylkill County was known for having a lot of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches that were all segregated by ethnicity. You'd have the Irish church, the Polish church, the Ukrainian Church etc. etc. Only now with the population drain, some of the historically ethnic churches are merging because their membership is rapidly dying out.
posted by jonp72 at 11:22 AM on February 8


Is it because the benefits of the 1990s economic boom never made it to Schuylkill County, so these men bought into the Limbaugh / Trump notion of the Clintons as despicable villains who don't care about "regular Americans"?

To say that the benefits of the 1990s economic boom didn't make it to Schuylkill is a bit of an understatement. Some locals might blame Obama for everything, but the coal industry has been in decline since at least the Eisenhower Administration, and nothing comparable has really replaced it. Schuylkill County borders Columbia County, where you have Centralia, the town that was notorious for having a continuously burning toxic mine fire underneath it. The town is a slow-moving toxic event. In 1992, the state applied eminent domain to every building in the entire town, but people still lived there. In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service discontinued the town's zip code and stopped all mail delivery, but people still insisted on living there. Even after that, there were still seven people living in the town as of 2013. This is an extreme example, but it just goes to show how many people will never, ever leave their hometowns, no matter how much extractive industries, environmental decay, and rapacious capitalism turn where they live into a toxic, burned-out husk. When Trump sells a false promise that you can never have to leave your hometown because the coal plants are magically coming back and there will be old-school he-man blue collar jobs for every man just for the asking, you can see why the people in Schuylkill County would buy that.
posted by jonp72 at 11:33 AM on February 8 [4 favorites]


> I'd agree about the lack of contact with minorities, but Schuylkill County isn't particularly Appalachian in a cultural sense.

Right, that's why I said "Appalachian / mid-Atlantic". Having lived on both sides of the state, it's definitely true that there's no cohesive cultural / regional label that accurately describes the population in PA's "T".
posted by tonycpsu at 11:38 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]


It's a sidebar, but the mismanagement of the VA seems almost intentional to me at this point. In communities like this it's one of the largest interfaces a person has with "big government" and it's also a commonly cited anecdote against any other sort of social support program.

Having spent nine years working with disabled veterans who were trying to get their VA benefits, I absolutely believe that the VA is being deliberately mismanaged and underfunded so that republicans can hold it up as a model of failure for social programs in general.

Great article, but super depressing.
posted by bile and syntax at 3:01 PM on February 8 [5 favorites]


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