My uncle is a plumber. To the average American, there is nothing exceptional about his life.
One Christmas, when our extended family still gathered for the holidays, my uncle was late. At the time he was working for a highly-esteemed university in our community.
The reason for his tardiness that particular year? He had been called in to shovel snow off of campus sidewalks.
I remember staring at him in disbelief. “But it’s Christmas.”
“Well,” he explained with an air of resentment, “those professors gotta have clear sidewalks so they can do their work.”
What I didn’t realize then was that this division – between the haves and the have-nots – was bigger than Christmas lunch that year. That it would only grow in the years to come. And that it would forever change our political landscape.
My upbringing was by no means privileged, but my hometown was geographically advantageous. I lived within 90 miles of eight institutions of higher learning. And, at least in my own mind, one of them would serve as my golden ticket to opportunity.
Such is the case for many youth in Appalachia, which is why young minds are this region’s greatest export.
But, lately, the media hasn’t been so kind to the struggle of being poor…and white. In fact, it quietly remains the elephant in the room in most national poverty discussions.
And so, I store those sights – the ones I know most will never see – in my heart each time I return: a pervasive restlessness; increasingly limited employment prospects; and men – just like my uncle – who are fighting (and losing) a silent battle: addiction.
If I’m honest, the ivory tower I have been climbing for more than a decade has created a cognitive dissonance that numbs me. I can no longer feel the desperation.
But the Deep South is now my home, and I can tell you that hopelessness at the bottom looks the same no matter where it exists. Just last week, upon leaving our polling center, I spotted a group of men with that same visage my uncle held all those years ago.
We want to our lives to be great again.
They waved Trump flags.
Last Wednesday morning, as I braved Facebook, I grew slightly amused.
“Who would ever vote for Trump?” was a popular question posed.
The truth is, for those of us with advanced degrees, we are less and less likely to encounter the kind of individual who bleeds for Trump with ineffable longing. They aren’t going to magically pop up on our newsfeed.
But they are real people, and they have real human needs. In this climate of fight-or-flight economics, they chose to vote. And, really, can we blame them?
If we’re ready for change, I think this is our call to action. The ivory tower sitting and suburban refuges will only perpetuate our fear.
It’s time we start looking at life through the lens of the cashier…the janitorial staff…the plumber. As Steinbeck once said:
Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love.
I believe the American flag waves with promise for all.
And the view from the ground? It’s just as remarkable.