During the 2016 election, Appalachian America received unprecedented levels of press. The lion’s share of these stories related to the region’s collective malaise – a potent combination of job loss, drug use and outright poverty – and attempted to use these cultural ills as an explanation for the people’s rabid and widespread support of Donald Trump. And although Trump has long since ascended to the Oval Office, the media’s attention gone with him, those same ills haven’t lessened in the slightest.
Across the newly deemed “opioid belt,” a region-wide sense of resignation has long since set in. The jobs are gone, the drugs have arrived, public interest has waned and opportunity – in the broadest sense of the word – continues to remain elusive.
The effects of this phenomenon, however, aren’t limited to the eastern mountains and are instead felt by the country at large. For evidence of that, look no further than our current Oval Office; put simply, Appalachia’s problems are America’s problems. Collectively, however, our nation’s response has been, to put it lightly, pathetic. We of course have nationwide systems of welfare and other scattered small charities and do-gooders, but more robust, widespread systems of social betterment uniquely designed for Appalachia are almost nonexistent. Some have blamed this collective lack of interest on the fact that Appalachians did widely vote for Trump, or on Appalachia’s general dearth of cultural clout. Regardless of our indifference, though, our fellow Americans continue to suffer.
There are, however, other potential opportunities to assuage the region’s problems. Perhaps the most prominent and feasible of these solutions is in fact something that has existed in our nation for decades but whose confines have long excluded Appalachian America. Just as we attempted to combat spiraling racial inequalities with affirmative action in the 1970s (bullshit), so too can we use that exact same tool to help stem the tide of grief and devastation that has enveloped this region.
Since its inception in the early 1970s, affirmative action has been wielded by college administrators, hiring teams and socially conscious people to promote equality of opportunity, increase wealth and create role models for groups that need them most – all notions that, I think we can all agree, Appalachia is in desperate need of.
The problem with this line of thinking, however, is that affirmative action has traditionally been wielded as more of a blunt, one-size-fits-all weapon than the more dexterous tool that it has the opportunity to become. The reality of this system is that it tends to view its constituents in quite literally, black and white (and Latino, Native American, Asian, etc.) terms. The result of this is that those who would seek to use affirmative action for good tend to view it through an ultra-simplistic lens that leaves little room for the subtleties and modern realities of a “post-race” America.
For example, on paper, a wealthy African-American student that comes from a good family, went to a good school and grew up in, say, Manhattan, is frequently viewed as being more in need of special consideration for college applications than, say, a student with identical academic credentials who comes from an opportunity wasteland in the opioid belt, with the caveat that this latter hypothetical student is white. Now, on its own, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. African-Americans have undeniably been systematically persecuted throughout the history of this country and fully deserve whatever advantages they can get. To call this fair, however, is something of a stretch. Because although that second student may have gone to worse schools, had less familiar support and been surrounded by a less development-oriented environment than his hypothetical peer, there are no systems consistently put in place that can account for this difference.
What I am implying – or rather, imploring – through all of these anecdotes and claims is that more robust systems of affirmative action absolutely should be put in place for people in Appalachia and similarly disadvantaged communities that don’t meet the traditional race-based requirements imposed by our existing notions of affirmative action. This will not be an easy thing to do. This will require something of a mental leap. We absolutely must expand our personal notions of what, or rather who, affirmative action can benefit. Race alone is no longer sufficient as an indicator of the challenges people face in their unique upbringings.
One issue in this plan harkens back to the original geographical limitation I set on this very piece: By constraining this idea to just Appalachian peoples, it was significantly easier to compress this idea into a single, digestible package. The simplicity of this premise, however, is most challenged by its potential for scalability. Because while the Appalachian people do suffer from a lack of opportunity and social protections, they are not alone in that regard. Dozens of American regions, subcultures and groups can rightfully claim to have been slighted by the tide of economic development and subsequent equality-building movements. They too, should, in theory, receive special consideration on school applications, job interviews and social opportunities. But then the question arises of, where to draw the line? How are we to say, for example, that someone from West Virginia has more of a claim to affirmative action than someone from, say, rural Idaho?
On a micro-scale, opportunity for social mobility is nearly impossible to quantifiably identify. The absolute unlikelihood of finding any way to truly flesh this out leaves college administrators, potential employers and equality-minded citizens in a difficult position. How are they to assure that all peoples, regardless of race, upbringing or otherwise, are being treated as fairly as possible? I would personally posit that the only way to achieve true equality in this regard would be a complete overhaul of what “affirmative action” truly means. This new definition would need to encompass the many and varied factors that predict success in a child’s life and be able to more accurately correct for them.
To be frank, this is something of a pipe dream. But nonetheless, if we are to truly stand for the idea of equality on modern society, we owe to it ourselves to look beyond the traditional boundaries of perceived privilege corresponding to race. Instituting a more holistic evaluation program for students from Appalachian America would be a good place to start, and given Stanford’s relative autonomy and self-proclaimed moral righteousness, there is perhaps no institution better positioned to help these people in their time of greatest need.
Contact Harrison Hohman at hhohman ‘at’ stanford.edu.