Across the United States, people are protesting lockdown orders. A new divide now offers Americans the opportunity to define themselves as pro-economy or pro-safety—and like all the social divides we have embraced in recent years, there is no room for nuance, no interest in understanding opposing views or finding middle ground.
Those who want to reopen the economy are branded “covidiots.” Some of them lament about fearmongering and government overreach, while others say they just want to go back to work.
My home of Kentucky is one of the states that has seen protests against the lockdown. On social media, some progressives bemoan the working class begging to go back to work, facing an uncertain risk to their health, as well as putting others in danger. These progressives complain that workers should be protesting for their rights, for rent freezes, anything but the “right” to work for the elite and powerful wealthy. We forget that the working class has always been required to put their bodies in harm’s way—and until now, for the most part, we have let them.
Coal miners have historically faced the kind of danger that most of us never have to imagine. We think we would never choose that life. But for the coal miner—like for the grocery clerk, the delivery person, the low-wage worker, and for many people of color and the undocumented—the only choice is to feed their family, to try to keep their lights on and water running. Like unions—like the black activist Angela Davis—coal miners in Appalachia, too, have fought hard for workers’ rights, which even today are constantly under threat.
Statistically, coal mining was the most dangerous profession until 2001, although the risk for accidents and chronic and fatal conditions still persists. The health of Appalachians at large measures lower than the nation as a whole when examining rates of heart disease, cancer, COPD, injury, stroke, diabetes, and Years of Potential Life Lost.
Until recently, none of us would have considered working at a grocery store or restaurant to be a particularly dangerous profession. But here we are. And with the same socio-economic and ethnic minorities bearing the brunt of the harm, as well as the blame.
In health class, when I was 14, I used to stare at a poster of a tidy little triangle that showed Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—the theory that ranks human need: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Most of my physiological needs were being met, but our mother had a tenuous hold on shelter and food. She had barely escaped our father’s violence, addiction, and unpredictable temper. Though we were the kind of poor the mainstream calls white trash, my brother and I were fed. But a full belly couldn’t change the fact that I never felt safe anywhere, at any time. Maslow’s Hierarchy meant that without safety, the rest of the triangle—love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization—was impossible.
At 40, I was a single mother with two kids—one heading to college—when I read that coal generates around $8 billion a year in economic benefits for the Appalachian region—that’s a lot, I thought. But then I read the next number—$42 billion: a conservative estimate of the value of human lives lost to premature death due to the mining industry.
I could look up other numbers—the value of coal mined versus the amount of taxes invested in Appalachia. Or I could try to weigh the profits made by opiate producers and distributors in the past 30 or so years against the lives lost, the violent degradation of our families and communities, or the heartache my granny suffered as she lost her son and then grandsons to pills, all while watching the women and girls she raised suffer under them.
This is an old story. People who don’t live in Appalachia don’t find value in our lives. The pharmaceutical industry spends their profits—earned from the destruction of our bodies and the orphans they make of our children—without guilt. Do they imagine us all bent over a table, snorting opiates and stimulants through rolled dollar bills? Do they think of the generations they’ve helped to decimate? Or has the dehumanization of Appalachia and its people, like the dehumanization of black people and people of color in America— make it easy to dismiss us, easy to think of us as throw-away people with throw-away bodies and throw-away lives?
During this pandemic, some people are anxious and eager to return to the convenience of their lives as they once knew them, regardless of the cost to the larger community. Others just want to go back to work. For the latter—the kind of people I come from—returning to work is a matter of survival, just as working has always been a matter of survival for those living on the margins or who, like me, have barely managed to pull themselves out of poverty. We—the coal miners, the working class, the poor, the essential workers, people of color, and LBGTQ—through intentional systems or marginalization, have been denied the opportunities that would enable us to create a safety net. There are no bootstraps to pull up when you can’t afford the boots.
As of the first week of May, Kentucky had the highest unemployment rate in the country, at 36 percent. Around 10 percent of those who filed for unemployment in March still haven’t received their first payment. Another 13 percent who filed in April haven’t received any unemployment benefits. The safety net, which is funded by workers, is the same safety net that is failing thousands of workers in Kentucky and millions across the country, with some of those workers reporting that they are contemplating suicide.
I understand the desire of progressives who want workers to organize, to demand universal basic income—to fight for a new economic structure that does not put their bodies at risk. What we never talk about, though, is why some people in Appalachia would love the idea of going back to work in coal mines. The problem is that both the rural and urban poor have been in survival mode for decades. The clamor to go back to work is a clear cry for food and shelter—which at this time, the government refuses to provide even though workers cannot safely provide for themselves.
To understand the alternatives available to us is a privilege. And to complain about workers who don’t understand, rather than putting real pressure on politicians to enact change, is classism. Workers’ emotional and mental energy is endlessly drained, and their psyches are constantly under attack by structural marginalization.
It is easy to complain about the men and women whose backs are breaking beneath the heel of predatory capitalism, because we have been suckered into another unsavory role within this ugly trap: we blame the victims for being complicit, for not creating an alternative to their own oppression.
Those who live outside of wealth, of class and racial privilege, know how to survive in their communities, in their lives, like no one else understands. They might not understand the writings of Marx or the difference between socialism and democratic socialism. But they do understand that for the entire history of their lives, work has been essential to survival, and long before COVID-19, “to work” has required them to put their bodies on the line. If you are compelled to blame workers for not understanding social theory, look instead to the politicians who diverted coal taxes to the cities, rather than keeping generated wealth in Appalachia. Look at the policies that ensure schools and hospitals in urban areas don’t have basic supplies even when there is no pandemic—particularly those with a large African-American population.
The general population is beginning to understand and care about the sacrifices being made by workers—workers who have always been those deemed essential to the economy, but worthless in every other sense.
When I was little, my granny grew a garden and raised chickens and cows. We ate vegetables and the chickens she slaughtered in her back yard. She shared the proceeds from selling a cow with me more than once, as I suspect she did with the rest of her loved ones. When I was a struggling single mother, another single mother once paid my electric and water bill so those utilities wouldn’t be turned off. After that, I paid another single mother’s utility bill for the same reason—so we mothers would not face the threat of losing our children.
Today, organized mutual aid projects, as modeled by communities of color, connect a larger network of those who can share with those who need. But as I search through the options available to Appalachians, I find the money has run out, or it is limited to $100 or $200 loans to young people, defined as under the age of 30. Like folks in the rest of country, people living in Appalachia can’t make ends meet on $200 loans. Still, mutual aid projects and collective action represent a faith and investment in community that is rarely seen outside of it.
The progress of America has always depended on the sacrifice of actual human bodies, beginning with the genocide of native peoples. Our nation became a superpower through the collective labor of enslaved people, while regions like Appalachia have contributed fossil fuels and lumber, spurring industrial development in the rest of the nation without fair recompense. As fear, anxiety, and uncertainty build in American society, we would be well served to remember: the people who clamor to work are not the ones who love the system, or who created the system. They are the ones who struggle to survive beneath its heel.
Bobi Conn is the author of the memoir In the Shadow of the Valley. She was born in Morehead, Kentucky, and raised in a nearby holler, where she developed a deep connection with the land and her Appalachian roots. She obtained her bachelor’s degree at Berea College, the first school in the American South to integrate racially and to teach men and women in the same classrooms. After struggling as a single mother, she worked five part-time jobs at once to support her son and to attend graduate school, where she earned a master’s degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing.