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Confederate controversy

“They’ve forgotten about us.”

I don’t remember where I heard this, perhaps somewhere in the small town of Blacksburg, Virginia, but the context was definitely political. The IRS is always out to get our money – of course the government hasn’t forgotten about us, right?

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the meaning behind that statement. Since the founding days of the United States, a problem has always been the power balance between small states and big states. Presently, this has evolved into the local balance between rural areas and urban areas. I remember hearing in government class how just a dozen or so of the largest cities in the United States could swing the popular vote to one political party and realizing just how valuable the electoral college is to modern politics.

There’s no simple alternative to balancing out protecting the interests of the rural minority and forwarding those of the urban majority. From the U.S. Census: “Rural areas cover 97 percent of the nation’s land area but contain 19.3 percent of the population.” This is a huge disparity; how can state governments look out for rural counties when urban counties dominate the political sphere? For many in southwestern Virginia, it seems that politicians are always subverting rural interests in favor of the dense, northern urban areas.

Even the President and many other conservatives use this idea of rural areas being left out to win votes. From his always-rambunctious Twitter account, Trump proclaimed: “The Democrats in the Southwest part of Virginia have been abandoned by their Party. Republican Ed Gillespie will never let you down!” In a time of great change and technology around the globe, sometimes it can feel as if rural areas are being left behind.

Given this context, I’d like to quickly transition to a discussion about the political frustrations surrounding the Confederate flag. The Civil War was definitely fought over slavery, but does that make the Confederate flag racist? Probably. But I’d also like to consider what the Confederate flag symbolizes to many in the South. Growing up, Confederate flags were never really made out to be a big deal.

I remember thinking nothing of the raised Confederate flags on the way to swim meets and camps. I remember the public outcry throughout the region when the school sent out an announcement banning Confederate attire. Even recently, right before I came to Stanford, I was driving home one night and pulled up next to a beat-up pickup truck flying two large Confederate flags at a traffic light. It felt pretty normal, albeit a little strange especially because of the earlier South Carolina flag controversy and the happenings in Charlottesville. This was the norm. The problem is just how commonplace these provocative items are in the region.

These rural Southerners, a legislative minority, are painted as villains, outcasts for not seeing these items as strange in such an apparently “progressive” society. This is an issue because first off, no one likes being called a villain, and secondly, to many of these people – who have seen crumbling infrastructure, a stagnating economy and skyrocketing health care premiums (one of my older teachers always complained about his wife’s new insurance bill under Obamacare) – are we really that progressive? And how high should working out our flag issues be on our priorities list? Should we be arguing over a flag when there are places with exactly zero professional medical attention? I remember watching the local news and finding out that in nearby Wise County, Virginia, the only time people can receive medical attention is once a year, when a mobile clinic known as the Remove Area Medical arrives. General health is deteriorating every year as lung cancer and obesity set in.

Things really aren’t looking up for the people here. The fact that a colored piece of cloth is generating the most media coverage instead of a terrible healthcare crisis here is a sort of a slap in the face to the coal miner with permanent nerve damage or the diabetic who can’t access insulin. We tend to separate the world into “us” and the “other,” but we fail to realize that the “other” may also be struggling to come to grips with the world too. There are definitely two sides to the argument, and I’m not advocating for any position.

There are many parts of the country that need work. Racism is a huge problem that we need to solve as soon as possible. Denigrating an important bloc of people for the sake of making a point will only divide the nation even more. If we are to move forward and be “progressive,” we need to set aside distractions, unify in our actions and put our attention to the big picture.


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