Last year on my then-job, work was slow. A late middle-aged RN supervisor who worked in a different wing came in to file papers. We exchanged superficial pleasantries, the mask everyone wears in everyday life. And then suddenly that mask dropped for some reason I still don’t understand, she sat down and started talking very personally.
She had been a public health nurse for the State of Alabama for decades. Alabama has a strange set-up where the Department of Home Health provides last-resort home health care services. What this means in practice is that the private, for-profit home health agencies will dump their most difficult cases on the state: the addicted, the mentally ill, the non-compliant. In her words, her caseload was “the worst of the worst.”
Often that called for her going to deserted rural areas where she said sometimes everyone in the house would be passed out in Oxycontin-induced stupor, the utilities shut off and she was forced to turn over bodies in the dark to find her client. Or, having to make visits in what were obviously crystal meth labs with all the tension and aggro that implies. One day, she wrenched her back trying to lift a farmhouse gate out of mud and went on disability.
However, the state kept raising public sector workers’ health insurance co-payments and over time these costs ate up more of her disability check and she was forced to take a job. Her husband was also disabled. Her husband’s parents owned a small chicken farm in north Alabama and had only left Alabama once in their lives, to visit Nashville. Now, they were getting frail and she had to take care of them too.
Then she used a phrase I found quite striking. She said, “There’s no civic obligations these days.” What I think she meant by this was that the communal ties and reciprocal responsibilities people in her rural neck of the woods used to show had eroded, in large part because of the crystal meth and Oxycontin epidemics that have so devastated the rural South. When she stopped talking, she looked as if she had come out of a trance and apologized for talking so much before moving on. The mask had slipped back on, as it usually does.
Now, I have no doubt she voted for Trump and Roy Moore, although we never discussed politics and I suspect her support was entirely passive, confined to pulling the lever in the voting booth. This wholesale destruction and degradation of life today understandably makes people look backward to past times when things were different, hence the appeal of “Make America Great Again.” I overheard my mechanic talking with another customer about what it was like to work for Goodyear Tires in Gadsden in the 1970s; the management built a golf course on the grounds for workers’ use and if you parked with non-Goodyear Tires on, someone would leave a handwritten note on your car suggesting you get some, sooner rather than later. Today, that Goodyear plant is a mere shadow of itself and all the perks long gone.
Without an alternative framework to make sense of the present – the last Socialist in rural north Alabama was probably Helen Keller in Tuscumbia in 1910 – people such as these fall back on explanations that preserve what was important and good in their lives. To reduce these complex and contradictory views to mere nostalgia for “white supremacy” I believe is making a serious mistake. Even if this white supremacy exists, it is not imbedded like some original sin, but something more fluid and malleable. In There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Right, 1945-1975, Jason Sokol’s superb study of white attitudes during the Civil Rights era, Sokol mentions how Lester Maddox, who later became a notorious racist demagogue, blocking the entrance of his Atlanta restaurant with a pick axe rather than let Black customers in, was himself fired from his supervisor position in a Marietta, Georgia steel plant in the 1940s after refusing to terminate two Black workers seen talking to a union organizer. What happened in between is anyone’s guess; Maddox is long in the grave and never spoke about it.
When I later worked at a job in rural Alabama, thirty miles outside the city, I ran into many white working-class women from rural backgrounds and what struck me listening to their stories were how similar they were to those of older Black women in a northern inner city I used to hear, with the major difference that the white women weren’t confronted with the constant bloodletting on the streets. These rural women were struggling to take care of grandchildren whose parents were in jail or lost to drugs, often juggling several jobs and having younger children and extended-family members provide child care in between their own multiple job-holding. This is not the era of the 1970s “protected” white worker Wallace supporter, perhaps a unionized steel or auto worker with a pension, vacation home and boat. There is now a convergence of life situations between the two groups that didn’t exist before and out of this convergence can come new possibilities as well as new challenges.