We need to talk about race.
It is a fact that Appalachia is diverse, racially and culturally. That being said, there are certainly a lot of white people, and our stories tend to dominate the narrative of Appalachia.
“In Appalachian Studies, we reinforce the normalcy of whiteness by defining mountaineers in terms of their class and region (and occasionally gender), while rarely recognizing or analyzing their race–unless they are ‘not-white,’” Barbara Ellen Smith wrote.
While class, region, and gender are all important parts of Appalachian identity, the lack of discussion about whiteness troubles me as a white person.
“Race has been woven into the fabric of American social life in part through processes that do not announce themselves as racist or even racial,” Smith wrote. The recent shooting of a black man in a small town along the Georgian coast made that abundantly clear.
On February 23, Ahmaud Arbery, a black man, was killed by two white men while jogging in a neighborhood near Brunswick, Georgia. The white men who killed Arbery were a father and son, Gregory and Travis McMichael. Gregory, a former Glynn County police officer, told police—also from the Glynn County Police Department—that Arbery “looked like a man suspected in several break-ins in the area,” despite the fact that only one break-in was recorded in January.
As coronavirus news dominated headlines, the trial went relatively unnoticed outside of local media until a video surfaced.
On May 7, the McMichaels were finally arrested and prosecuted by state authorities, after delays in local prosecution. On May 8—Arbery’s birthday—supporters walked, jogged, and ran 2.23 miles to commemorate his death, which was documented across social media with the hashtags #IRunWithMaud and #JusticeforAhmaud.
Arbery is far from the only black man to be killed in recent years. Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Terence Crutcher, and Walter Scott are among the other men and boys who lost their lives at the hands of white supremacy.
Some of those violent killings made national headlines, but many others, including those in Appalachia, did not. Even the stories that do appear in the national news are quickly forgotten. That was the case when James Means, a 15-year-old boy from Charleston, WV, was murdered in 2016.
The murderer, William Pulliam, a 62-year-old white man, said to police during his confession, “The way I look at it, that’s another piece of trash off of the street.”
The podcast Us & Them continued to report on the case years after other media sources forgot about it. After many delays in the trial and finally agreeing to a plea deal, Pulliam hung himself. There was never a sentencing hearing, leaving Faye Adkins, Means’ mother, without closure.
Black men and boys are not the only ones killed by white supremacy. Black women, trans, and non-binary people also experience this violence. The killings of black trans women, in particular, are frequently ignored by both the media and the justice system.
The recent killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old woman and EMT from Louisville, KY, again highlights the danger of simply existing as a black person.
“According to the lawsuit, filed April 27, Louisville police executed a search warrant at Taylor’s home, looking for a man who did not live in Taylor’s apartment complex and had already been detained,” The Washington Post reported.
“No-knock” raids, like the one conducted by police in Taylor’s killing, are notoriously deadly. They confuse citizens, produce fatal injuries, and police often turn up empty-handed.
Like Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson was killed in her home by police in 2019. Sandra Bland died in 2015 under suspicious circumstances in police custody following a violent arrest. Video footage that surfaced years after her death sparked national outrage.
Historical and structural biases mean that black people are ignored, dehumanized, or admonished for “the way they act” by the justice system. The modern killings of black individuals by white men have deep roots in the long history of lynchings—killings for an alleged offense without a trial—in the United States after the Civil War.
“Most of the lynchings that took place happened in the South. A big reason for this was the end of the Civil War. Once blacks were given their freedom, many people felt that the freed blacks were getting away with too much freedom and felt they needed to be controlled,” the NAACP explained.
Whites justified the crimes by saying it was to protect white women. In reality, it was a manifestation of white supremacy.
I use the scholar Frances Lee Ansley’s definition of white supremacy:
By “white supremacy” I do not mean to allude only to the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups. I refer instead to a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.
White supremacy permeates this country from California to Appalachia. The videos of black individuals being killed spark public outcry, but they re-traumatize the black community that lives every day with the violent history of slavery and lynching and the reality of institutional racism.
The disenfranchisement many white Appalachians feel also stems from white supremacy, which constructs ideas about class based on socioeconomic status and fuels racism through economic anxiety. However, in terms of race, white Appalachians are still advantaged compared to people of color.
That is not to diminish the struggles of many white Appalachians, but as Tim Wise writes:
So yes, millions of whites are in pain. And that pain deserves to be addressed. But so too must we address the pain of racial inequity, which continues to marginalize people of color and elevate whites as a general rule. Black workers are typically the first fired in an economic downturn, and remain twice as likely to be unemployed and are three times as likely as whites to be poor, in good times or bad, and irrespective of educational attainment.
The time is overdue for us white Appalachians to reconcile with our complacency in racism. Racism is a white problem, and thus, our responsibility to end. No more black individuals should die because of white supremacy. We need to educate ourselves, speak up, and take action now.
Zy Bryant’s list is a great guide for those unsure of how to help dismantle white supremacy/systemic racism and support the black community.
For further reading:
About white supremacy:
About racial injustice and the black Appalachian experience:
More from black scholars:
Against systemic racism:
And support Black Appalachian futures
If you would like to share other resources, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Annie Chester is a writer and co-founder of expatalachians. She writes about the environment and culture in Appalachia and abroad. She is currently a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.