Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

West Virginia – Almost Heaven?

Posted by hyperpat on May 15, 2008

The West Virginia primary results have evoked quite a bit of commentary. Many were somewhat surprised at Hillary’s large majority, which was even more pronounced in places like Mingo County (about 88% voted for her). As Mingo County was where I was born, this has influenced me to do a little web research on what the area is currently like.

This first item that really struck me is the decline in population of some of the old mining towns. Delbarton, where I spent the first couple years of my life, has gone from a population of about 1,300 in 1948 to today’s 474. The reason for this is pretty obvious, namely the decline in coal mining jobs available, although this occupation is still one of the largest in the county.

Delbarton is located about 50 miles southeast of Huntington, about six miles from the Kentucky border, and about five miles from Matewan. Matewan is famous as the area where the Hatfield-McCoy feud was waged, though the actual events were scattered more generally over the entire area, from South Williamson  and Pikeville in Kentucky through what is now Matewan to points north. As a side note, I may be distantly related to some of the participants in this feud via the Mounts family line. This entire area is quite mountainous and not really well suited for farming except in some of the valley bottoms.

The demographics of this area are telling: average income of about $21,000, 30% with incomes below the poverty line, 40% without a high school diploma, an unemployment rate around 7% (this last has been improving lately), with exactly one black person currently residing in Delbarton, and only about 400 in the entire county. This last item I think is significant in terms of the political landscape; West Virginia in general and this area of state in particular has always been very heavily white in composition, with most of its inhabitants originally hailing from Ireland or Germany. While the portrait is not quite the bare-footed hillbilly of the stereotype, the general picture is uncomfortably close, and Hillary’s message of aid for the poor must resonate much more with this population than when contrasted with a black candidate whose very articulateness may be a point against him.

No matter how you cut it, or how much we might wish it to not be true, race is playing a part in this presidential campaign.

Now Hillary’s victory in West Virginia will not materially affect the final results at the Democratic Convention, unless she pulls off some kind of miracle coupled with some back-room deals. But it should be a reminder that the racial problems and prejudicial attitudes of some in this country have not gone away and still need to be addressed. Obama will almost certainly end up as the Democratic candidate, and if he should win the general election, perhaps he will be able to really do something about a thorn that has festered in the American way of life for far too long. If instead McCain should win, I think he also will be driven to pay some real attention to the race problem, as Obama obviously has too many supporters to ignore.

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