Sunday, April 24, 2016

Is the "pot economy" behind eight murders in rural Ohio?

NPR reported Friday on eight "execution-style" killings in the Appalachian part of Ohio.  The following excerpt quotes Mike DeWine, the Ohio Attorney General:  
Each one of the victims appears to have been executed. Each one of the victims appears to have been shot in the head. ... The family involved, we're advising the family members to be very careful and take particular caution.
Other reports are herehere, and  here.  These events occurred in Pike County, population 28,217, which is not far from Cincinnati.  The county's poverty rate is high, at 21.9%.

Then, the Los Angeles Times reported today:
Two of the crime scenes are within walking distance of each other along a sparsely populated, winding road that leads into wooded hills from a rural highway. The third residence is more than a mile away, and the fourth home is on a different road, at least a 10-minute drive away.
I am thinking about how spatiality is shaping these events.  Here's an excerpt from today's New York Times story that suggests some aspects of rurality's relevance:
Three marijuana growing operations were found on the premises of at least one of the homes where eight members of the same family were killed in a small town in southern Ohio last week, law enforcement officials said Sunday. 
* * *

One of the victims, a woman, was killed while she slept as her 4-day-old baby lay, unharmed, in the same room, law enforcement officials said. 
Dan Tierney, a spokesman for Mr. DeWine’s office, said that sheriff’s deputies discovered the marijuana operations during a search of the four homes and nearby wooded areas. Video broadcast by WCPO, a local television station, showed investigators walking through woods and searching a ramshackle shed.
Tierny added:
This is not your case where someone got mad at somebody else, they shot them, and there’s a witness, or two witnesses.
According to Pike County sheriff, Charles Reader, the investigation is “probably the largest” that has ever taken place in the county.  Slate also quotes Sheriff Reader:
This was very methodical.  This was well planned.  This was not something that just happened.
It is interesting to consider how rurality--material spatiality, distance--helped to conceal the work of the murderers, just as it concealed the pot-growing operation in the woods.  I am also intrigued--and a bit appalled--that Ohio officials have encouraged family members and associates of those murdered to arm themselves.  Here is a quote from the Slate story:
"I cautioned them they are a target and I cautioned them, 'Be armed.'  If you are If you are fearful, arm yourself."

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The 2016 Presidential Race: A View from Appalachia

Steve Inkeep reported for NPR today from Bristol, Tennessee (and Virginia--because Bristol straddles the two states).  Inskeep and NPR went there primarily to talk about the presidential election and, I suppose, specifically whether rural whites in places like Appalachia are more attracted to Donald Trump (and Bernie Sanders) than to other candidates.   Here's an excerpt:
INSKEEP: Obviously, Trump has support across the country. But does his message resonate in a special way in Appalachia? 
GREEN (Director of Appalachian studies at Berea College): I think that it resonates in a way that has to do - on the surface, perhaps, people might think that these are people who don't feel spoken to. They may feel like President Obama is not doing what he needs to do. But the roots of it go back to the 1980s, with the beginning of the collapse of the industries in the area - the collapse of the coal economy, which lost over 20,000 jobs in the 1980s; another 20,000 in the 1990s. And what people feel is a loss of their identity and working-class power. 
INSKEEP: Well, that's a good point. Let's follow up on that with a Republican voter who's not for Trump, by the way. His name's Ralph Slaughter (ph). He's a bearded veteran. He's bought guitars and guns at that pawn shop in Bristol, by the way. He said factories and even universities have closed in his area. 
RALPH SLAUGHTER: We traded in 10, 12, 15-dollar-an-hour jobs for seven, eight-dollar-an-hour jobs. And employment - there is none. Go up and down every street you want to choose, and look at how many houses are for sale and how many apartments are for rent. The whole damn place is selling out.
This entire story is well worth a listen for what it has to teach us about more than the 2016 Presidential election, including this vignette on the region's post-coal economic future:
INSKEEP: Adam said, we knew where we wanted to live, but there was no way to live down here. He said he job searched for about three years - was finally thinking, if he's going to work, he needs to work for himself because nobody is going to hire him to do anything at a decent wage. So what did he do? He started the Damascus Brewery, a tiny operation. Its slogan is, the best dam beer in Damascus - D, A, M. We watched him grinding barley on a homemade contraption run by a motor salvaged from a washing machine. He's making it work. He's part of this former mill town now that has remade itself as a tourist stop. It's a destination on the Appalachian trail. And as we were there, sunburned hikers were walking through town. Maybe they'll buy a beer. Appalachia is a region rich in history that's looking to improvise a future and looking for leaders who can help.
Other NPR stories out of Appalachia this week are here (on health care and its significance to the region's voters) and here (on the arts).   

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Chinese theft and espionage, in an Iowa cornfield (and other agricultural crime)

The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this week on the F.B.I.'s recent attention to agricultural espionage.  An excerpt from Josh Kenworthy's story follows:  
United States law enforcement agencies are urging farmers and businesses more broadly to be increasingly vigilant amid a rise in attempted thefts of genetically engineered seed and other commercial secrets.   
Mai Hailong, one of six Chinese nationals U.S. authorities accused in 2013 of digging up seeds in Iowa farms with plans to send them back to China, pleaded guilty in January.  
Kenworthy notes that the U.S. Department of Justice prosecuted the case as one of national security rather than handling it as a typical criminal case.  

Another agricultural crime story--this one about nut theft--is here.  An excerpt follows:  
California's agriculturists are beefing up security to strike at increasingly sophisticated efforts to divert their high-end nuts to the black market. Criminals find farm records so they can impersonate reputable shipping companies. A thief posing as a driver can take a truck-load of freshly processed nuts or pistachios, with a value as high as $500,000, and divert the entire shipment to the black market at a massive profit.
A rural crime-prevention specialist at the California Farm Bureau in Sacramento compared these nut heists to another crime sometimes associated with rural places.
Somebody who is stealing copper wire to make a quick buck for a quick fix is very different from somebody who is masterminding a plot to steal hundreds of thousands of pounds of nuts across county lines.
An earlier post (2013) on the topic of nut theft is here, and a quick search for stories on the topic on NPR brought up stories from 2008 (almonds), 2012 (almonds) and 2013 (walnuts).

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Now a systemic, quantitative analysis of the early deaths and high morbidity of poorly educated white women--as a rural phenomenon

My post on Friday discussed the Washington Post's feature (by Eli Saslow) about the life and early death of Anna Marrie Jones of Tecumseh, Oklahoma.  I pondered there the extent to which these early deaths of poor and/or poorly educated whites is disproportionately a rural phenomenon.  Now the Washington Post is running a related story that seems to help answer that question--and the answer is "yes."  Here's a summary:
Among African Americans, Hispanics and even the oldest white Americans, death rates have continued to fall. But for white women in what should be the prime of their lives, death rates have spiked upward. In one of the hardest-hit groups — rural white women in their late 40s — the death rate has risen by 30 percent. 
The Post’s analysis, which builds on academic research published last year, shows a clear divide in the health of urban and rural Americans, with the gap widening most dramatically among whites. The statistics reveal two Americas diverging, neither as healthy as it should be but one much sicker than the other.
* * *  
But progress for middle-aged white Americans is lagging in many places — and has stopped entirely in smaller cities and towns and the vast open reaches of the country. The things that reduce the risk of death are now being overwhelmed by things that elevate it, including opioid abuse, heavy drinking, smoking and other self-destructive behaviors.
Maps that accompany the story show that the worst losses in life expectancy for poorly-educated white women are in rural parts of states you would expect:  Arkansas (including my home county, Newton County), Alabama, West Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Oklahoma.  But the rural parts of some other states that you might not immediately expect to show such decline are also faring badly:  Utah, (parts of) Nevada, Oregon (including Harney County) and much of nonmetropolitan Kansas.  Places like the Carolinas, Missouri and New Mexico look spotty--which is to say, pretty bad.    California is interesting in that the highest mortality rates for white women are not in the great Central Valley, which attracts so much media attention in relation to environmental and health challenges, but in the Sierra Nevada Mountain counties (Mono, Inyo, Plumas, Lassen) and counties like Modoc, Trinity, and Siskiyou in the far northern part of the state.  On the other hand, San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, part of the state's "Inland Empire," fared especially well.

Ground zero, based on the percentage of counties where the mortality rate for white women rose 40% or more during the 1990-2014 period:  Nebraska.  (This shows up on the Washington Post map as lots of red!) I find that surprising based on my perception of the state as an essentially wholesome place with middle-of-the-road social policies and safety net.  Further, neighboring Iowa and South Dakota are two of the healthiest places for low-income white women, the latter no doubt less so for American Indian women.

On the other hand, states with particularly low (or no) rise in the death rates of poorly educated, middle-aged white women included New York (including upstate), Vermont, the Dakotas, Wisconsin, Minnesota (mostly) and Iowa.  Several Nevada counties showed particularly healthy results/outcomes (in contrast to others, with particularly poor outcomes--Nevada is clearly a study in contrasts).  Surprisingly, Aroostook County in far northern Maine, a notoriously poor county frequently stereotypes as backward, also showed good outcomes on this particular metric.

The Post story goes on to link all of this mortality (and morbidity) news to 2016 Presidential politics:   
This reversal may be fueling anger among white voters: The Post last month found a correlation between places with high white death rates and support for GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.
On the latter issue, read some of my musings here and here, and the musings of another (among many) here.

This Washington Post piece is apparently the first part of a series coming from the Post under the broad heading:  "Unnatural Causes:  Sick and Dying in Small-Town America."  I look forward to the subsequent installments, albeit with some dread for what they will reveal. 

Friday, April 8, 2016

On the decline and early death of the white "middle-aged" "middle class" in "middle America"

The Washington Post reports today from Tecumseh, Oklahoma, population 6,457, under the headline, "We Don't Know Why It Came to This."  In the story, Eli Saslow tells of the life and death of Anna Marrie Jones, a 54-year-old working-class grunt that some academic analysts have chosen to refer to as "middle class," though she had only a high school diploma  (Read more here).

The feature's sub-head explains more:  "As white women between 25 and 55 die at spiking rates, a close look at one tragedy."  Here's a paragraph from early in the story that begins to hint at the "rural" dimension of this phenomenon (reported here and here, among other places, and illustrated here).
Fifty-four years old. Raised on three rural acres. High school-educated. A mother of three. Loyal employee of Kmart, Walls Bargain Center and Dollar Store. These were the facts of her life as printed in the funeral program, and now they had also become clues in an American crisis with implications far beyond the burnt grass and red dirt of central Oklahoma.
This early death trend among poorly educated whites, as well as its possible causes, are commented on elsewhere in the article:
“It’s a loss of hope, a loss of expectations of progress from one generation to the next,” said Angus Deaton, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who had studied the data. 
“What we’re seeing is the strain of inequality on the middle class,” President Obama said. 
“Erosion of the safety net,” Hillary Clinton said. “Depression caused by the state of our country,” Donald Trump said. “Isolated rural communities,” Bernie Sanders said. “Addictive pain pills and narcotics,” Marco Rubio said.
And here are some more mentions of "rural" in the story.  
According to recent studies of death certificates, the trend is worse for women in the center of the United States, worse still in rural areas, and worst of all for those in the lower middle class. Drug and alcohol overdose rates for working-age white women have quadrupled. Suicides are up by as much as 50 percent.
And, regarding Anna Marrie Jones's friend (and rural mail carrier), Candy Payne, who led Jones's memorial service:
There were days when the vast emptiness of rural Oklahoma could make someone feel alone — when the only sound was wind, and the prairie looked small beneath the sky, and the one car bouncing along the rutted gravel roads was Candy Payne’s mail truck, circling its way from one house to the next. 
It had been four days since she presided over her friend’s funeral, and now she was back on her usual U.S. Postal route: 404 mailboxes in 126 square miles of Pottawatomie County. The roads were in fact dirt trails, the houses were mostly farmsteads equipped with well water and what she called the “traffic considerations” were turkey, deer and coyotes that darted across her route.
So, to what extent is the demise of the white working class a "rural" story?  Or is "rurality" a scape-goat for the media to focus on when what is really causing this crisis is socioeconomic disadvantage?  Or is the situation among poor whites exacerbated in rural places because of the relative lack of services there?  Or, do we just collapse white socioeconomic disadvantage into rurality in our national imaginary, making Anna Marrie Jones a good candidate to illustrate this phenomenon to the coastal elites who read the Washington Post

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Two more vignettes of the drug scourge in rural America

This is not a new story (read more here, here and here, as well as at "drug abuse" label on this blog), but I'm going to highlight some recent media coverage of the problem.  Melissa Block reported for NPR from Kutztown, Pennsylvania, population 5,012, last month.  The headline was "A Small Town Wonders What to Do When Heroin Is 'Everywhere.'"    Here's an excerpt:
I went to rural Berks County in southeast Pennsylvania to hear what the opioid epidemic means in a small town, a place where everyone knows everyone and the ripples of addiction spread wide. 
Really, I could have gone just about anywhere. No community is immune. 
The landscape in Berks County is bucolic: rolling farmland studded with silos and 19th-century stone barns. But that peaceful landscape belies a serious problem. Opioid addiction is deeply embedded in these small towns. 
"It's become a crisis," says Phil Salamone, a paramedic in Kutztown, Pa.
He points out that heroin is both cheap and readily available from nearby cities such as Reading and Philadelphia. Salamone says, "There is no exclusive demographic that's using it. It's everybody. It's kids, adults, low income, high income. It's everywhere."
The paramedics note that they are using naloxone (Narcan) effectively to save lives--and that they are using enough of it that they don't worry about expiration dates.  The two area high schools have lost six students to heroin overdoses in the past two years.  (It is odd that the reporter calls Berks County "rural" because it is metropolitan, with a population of more than 415,000; or maybe Block meant she went to the "rural" part of Berks County).

Another more recent NPR story is out of Austin, Indiana, population 4,295, in the Southern part of the state, in Scott County, population 23,744, very close to the Kentucky state line.  "Inside a Small Brick House, at the Heart of Indiana's Opioid Crisis" is the headline, and it recalls that just a year ago,  this town became "home to one of the biggest HIV outbreaks in decades, with more than 140 diagnosed cases."  The story features several local vignettes, including this extremely sobering one that makes clear the link between :
When news of the HIV infections broke, Kevin Polly was one of the few people in Austin willing to go on the record and say he was using Opana. Polly had contracted HIV, and at the time told a CBS reporter he had no plans to quit injecting the drug. 
Clyde Polly, Kevin's 73-year-old father, says his son went to a rehab facility and isn't living in Clyde's one-story brick house anymore. Even though Kevin is gone, Clyde says some of his son's friends who do drugs are still there. Not all of them are HIV positive, and not everyone is from Austin — but most of them are using Opana. 
"Everyone that's in there right now has probably done it," he says. "There's about a half-dozen in there. Some of them give me a little money for staying here, help me get by."
The other vignettes from this NPR feature include a nurse who has become addicted and William Cooke, previously the only physician in town.  About the latter, the story reports:
Cooke's staff goes door-to-door to make sure people are keeping their appointments. "When somebody walks in my door with HIV, I hug them, " he says.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

More on Life and Law in Rural America (Part III): Violence and Resistance in Rural Communities

Here is an excerpt from the Legal History Blog's coverage, a post written by Smita Ghosh, which briefly describes each of the panelists' presentations, as well as Professor Beth Lew-Williams' commentary on them:
The panel began with Mia Brett (History, Stony Brook University)’s history of vigilantes in postbellum Montana. Vigilantism was an important component of Montana territory, even as formal legal institutions appeared in the area.  In the 1860s, small towns were governed by local sheriffs, many of whom had criminal connections themselves.  Unsatisfied with the formal criminal justice system, prominent business-owners, lawyers and community leaders joined vigilance committees. ... The vigilantes connected their barbarism to American identity, drawing on a regional history of warfare with Native Americans.
* * *  
Jillian Jacklin (History, University of Wisconsin)’s “A Family Affair” is a study of labor activism among Wisconsin’s dairy farmers. Thrust into a particularly volatile market during the depression, the state’s dairy farmers organized in a “milk pool” and refused to sell their products to larger dairy companies. Resistance, like dairy farming itself, was truly a “family affair.” The women whose labor had sustained the industry worked organized working families at barn dances and picnics.

* * * 
Tyler Davis (Religion, Baylor University) presented “Life Beyond Lynch Law: Imagining the Human and Utopia in Rural Texas,” his analysis of Sutton Griggs’ Imperium in Imperio in the context of the national non-response to lynching. Like his contemporary Ida B. Wells, Davis argued, Griggs recognized the collusion of the state in extralegal violence.  
 * * * 
Heath Pearson (Anthropology, Princeton University) presented his paper “The Carceral Outside: Living & Laboring in a NJ Prison Town,” with a narrative dynamism that, I’ve since learned, is typical of anthropologists. He related his ethnographic study of a New Jersey town (he calls it “Dayton”) that his home to one state and one federal prison facility.  * * *  In Heath’s assessment, the town’s elite made Dayton into a prison town, soliciting prison investment when the town’s factories closed.
And from Lew-Williams' commentary: 
[T]he four papers illustrated the state’s relationship with even extra-legal violence. Lew-Williams introduced a question that would be reiterated: what is the role of the rural? How do historical phenomena--progressivism, law-and-order, black resistance, the prison industrial complex--change in rural settings?

Monday, April 4, 2016

Rurality and recent political attention to the white working class (Part II: White trash)

In Part I of this series, I summarized some recent political attention to poor and working class whites and observed how some of that attention suggests a conflation between this demographic and rural Americans.  I now plan to roll out still more evidence that we are conflating this group with rural Americans.  Exhibit A for this post comes from historian Nancy Isenberg's forthcoming book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America (Viking, June, 2016).  WNYC interviewed Isenberg last month for a story titled "America's Long (Unaddressed) History of Class."    Implicit in that headline is "whiteness" because what Isenberg is really writing about (as a historian) is what I've been writing about for the last few years (as a law professor and critical race scholar):  that which is at the particular intersection of whiteness (implicit--perhaps foremost--in that:  white skin privilege) and low socioeconomic status (what the headline refers to simply as "class").  Whatever you call "it," it is highly unpalatable.  

Here is an excerpt from the WYNC interview with Isenberg:  
NANCY ISENBERG:  But one of the things that I think most people would find really surprising is that the Southern planter elite, before the Civil War, valued their slaves more than they valued white trash because slaves were at least productive. 
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And actually, the phrase “white trash” emerges around the time of the Civil War, right? 
NANCY ISENBERG: Yes, because it's part of the language that is adopted by the Republican Party when they critique the South and the slave economy. This is when they begin to see the poor white trash as this dangerous offshoot. They see their children as old before their time, shriveled. They are described as a curious species.
And they ask this question, are these really Americans, how could America have produced such people? They are seen as dangerous, a group that, by the eugenics period, it’s not enough to just assume that we can dump them somewhere. Now you have to make sure that they can't reproduce. 
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There is one point in our history, you note, when there was active intervention to actually improve the lives of the poor. You had FDR's New Deal, though it was largely aimed at the white population. 
NANCY ISENBERG: Suddenly, 20 percent of the population is out of work. You can't just blame one group for being an inferior breeder, you can't just blame them for somehow being lazy and idle, because now a large portion of the population find themselves short of their ability to be productive members of society. Suddenly people are willing to listen and think about the poor and look at them in a very different way. And this is one of the things that, you know, James Agee captured so beautifully, when he argued that to understand the poor we have to understand that we, the middle of the elite class who shame them, have contributed to the problems that they face.
On that final point, I do wonder if that is precisely what the "middle of the elite class" were (are) trying to do:  deny they have any part in the struggles of the white poor.  One way to divert attention from the animosity of elite whites toward poor whites is to attribute the lion's share of social problems, of  income and wealth inequality, for example to racism.  Isn't it easier for whites to blame these problem on racism than to acknowledge the toxic intra-race animus at the heart of "white trash"?

Also, I am not sure I agree with Isenberg that the discovery that a fifth of the population might be "white trash" necessarily caused a re-thinking of the term.  Indeed, I fear that the more whites become poor, the more elite whites become comfortable with expanding the definition of the term to include all "other" whites.

The story/transcript is well worth a read in its entirety, but here's the part that most squarely supports my assertion that "white trash" is a primarily rural phenomenon--at least historically, and perhaps still in our national imaginary.  
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even if squatters weren't particularly respected or trusted, they had to be pandered to every few years, in order to get people elected. And you mention the story of the Arkansas traveler from 1840. 
NANCY ISENBERG: Yeah, the Arkansas traveler tells the story of a rich politician canvassing in the backcountry, and he asks a squatter for some refreshment. The squatter is seated on a whiskey barrel and he ignores him. And the politician is obliged, in order to get his refreshment, in order to get his vote, to, you know, jump off his horse, grab the squatter’s fiddle and show that he can play his kind of music. 
And that, I think, eerily is a, a recurrent problem with our American democracy. What we really have is a democracy of manners, not a real democracy. And what I mean by that is that we accept huge disparities in wealth but we demand that our politicians sound like us or dress like us.
And that, I suppose, brings us to this, with still more "rural" illustrations to explain the rise of Trump.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

More Life and Law in Rural America: Rural Labor and Immigration (Part II)

Here's an excerpt from the Legal History Blog post of Jillian Jacklin, a PhD student in History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, about one of the panels at Life and Law in Rural America:  Cows, Cars and Criminals.  The American Studies Graduate Student Conference was held March 25-26 at Princeton University; an earlier post about the event is here:
An interdisciplinary dream, the Princeton University conference on rural America this past weekend was one of my most memorable moments as an academic to date. An array of fledgling scholars discussed their own research, compassionately and judiciously commented on each other’s work, and grappled with divergent and competing meanings of “rurality.” Gracing all of us with her wisdom on the subject and personal experience growing up in the Arkansas Ozarks, UC-Davis “ruralist” and Professor of Law, Lisa Pruitt, provided a compelling case for producing scholarship on the intersection between law and rural life. Arguably more importantly for a group of graduate students in the humanities, her talk urged us all to care about rural people; and she demonstrated a need for social justice beyond the borders of U.S. cities. Overall, our projects contributed to a lively symposium that the American Studies Program hosted, and my time at Princeton was insightful and inspiring. 
Although not all of the participants would have referred to themselves as legal scholars upon initially attending, the conference certainly revealed the importance of law in U.S. history. One panel that I absolutely appreciated, titled “Rural Labor and Immigration,” focused on the juncture between rural work and matters of legality (and in interesting ways, law enforcement or lack their of) in the history of rural America.

* * *

Postdoctoral Research Associate in African American Studies at Princeton, Jarvis McInnis, offered important feedback for each of the panel participants. And he spent considerable time providing thoughtful theoretical and content-specific questions and suggestions. But what I found to be most interesting and useful for an American Studies gathering was his emphasis on the interdisciplinary nature of the conference. Focusing on what he believed to be the greatest contributions of each paper, he simultaneously critiqued them through his own disciplinary lenses. As a scholar of African American & African Diasporic literature and culture (as his Princeton University bio states), Jarvis also demonstrated his knowledge of a vast collection of fields. He made sure to contextualize the literary, historical, anthropological, and cultural studies suggestions that he gave to each graduate student by explaining that he was recommending certain titles and bodies of scholarship based on his research and training.

Both humble and smart in his comments, Jarvis captured the meanings and complexity of “Life and Law in Rural America” as a conference. He encouraged each of us to avoid complacency or becoming overly rooted in any academic field, and by way of his thoughtful commentary, he inspired us to become more communicative and collective as scholars. Legal historians can learn from exploring rural spaces for sure; but as Jarvis suggested, we need to move beyond the silos created by our specific disciplines as well.
The full post, which describes papers by Smita Ghosh, Vanessa Guzman, Tyler Gray Greene, and Daniel Platt, is here.