Appalachia also is trotted out because (to risk the ire of Ambrose Bierce), it is the exception that proves the rule. I am reminded of an SNL skit summarized by Tim Wise:
The lack of symmetry between a word like honky and a slur such as “nigger” was made apparent in an old Saturday Night Live skit, with Chevy Chase and guest, Richard Pryor.
In the skit, Chase and Pryor face one another and trade off racial epithets during a segment of Weekend Update. Chase calls Pryor a “porch monkey.” Pryor responds with “honky.” Chase ups the ante with “jungle bunny.” Pryor, unable to counter with a more vicious slur against whites, responds with “honky, honky.” Chase then trumps all previous slurs with “nigger,” to which Pryor responds: “dead honky.”
The line elicits laughs all around, but also makes clear, at least implicitly that when it comes to racial antilocution, people of color are limited in the repertoire of slurs they can use against whites, and even the ones of which they can avail themselves sound more comic than hateful. The impact of hearing the antiblack slurs in the skit was of a magnitude unparalleled by hearing Pryor say “honky” over and over again.
I could list off all manner of places and locales where Black Americans struggle under the weight of disadvantage. Indeed, I could list any place in America where Black people live (which, it bears mentioning, includes Appalachia), but to be more specific, Anacostia, DC and South Bronx, NY (Urban), Prince George's County, MD (Suburban), and Wilkinson County, MS (Rural). If I mention disadvantage in PG County, it's met with the cry of "Appalachia!" Anacostia? Appalachia! Rural Mississippi? Appalachia! It's a one trick pony, and one that presumes that social scientists are morons to boot. Do these people really think that researchers simply forget the existence of Appalachia when documenting continued racial disparity and discrimination? Indeed, in some ways Appalachia proves the opposite point -- I've seen no indication that the 10% or so Black population in Appalachia is any better off than their White peers. Even in the paradigmatic case of White deprivation, odds are Blacks have them beat on their own turf. Compare that to, say, how Blacks and Whites match-up in New York City, or the DC metro area, or the Mississippi delta.
Wise continues to note that, even when comparing Appalachia to Black people who are nominally "better off", poor Whites still hold advantages:
Poor whites are rarely typified as pathological, dangerous, lazy or shiftless the way poor blacks are, for example. Nor are they demonized the way poor Latino/a immigrants tend to be.
When politicians want to scapegoat welfare recipients they don’t pick Bubba and Crystal from some Appalachian trailer park; they choose Shawonda Jefferson from the Robert Taylor Homes, with her seven children.
And according to reports from a number of states, ever since so-called welfare reform, white recipients have been treated far better by caseworkers, are less likely to be bumped off the rolls for presumed failure to comply with new regulations, and have been given far more assistance at finding new jobs than their black or brown counterparts.
Poor whites are more likely to have a job, tend to earn more than poor people of color, and are even more likely to own their own home. Indeed, whites with incomes under $13,000 annually are more likely to own their own home than blacks with incomes that are three times higher due to having inherited property.
None of this is to say that poor whites aren’t being screwed eight ways to Sunday by an economic system that relies on their immiseration: they are. But they nonetheless retain a certain “one-up” on equally poor or even somewhat better off people of color thanks to racism.
This isn't to say that race always trumps class. No amount of money can buy off racism, but it can mitigate its effects to the point that they're not as severe a burden as extreme economic deprivation. But race always is in play, no matter how rich or poor you are, and White people are its beneficiaries, no matter how poor they are. Ronald Reagan's "Welfare Queen" was explicit racial imagery. It didn't attack poor people, it attacked poor Black people. Poor Whites (in Appalachia) simply never were attached with the same scorn and opprobrium that their Black classmates took on. The drug war doesn't target meth abuse among White Appalachians. It buries Black crack users in Mott Haven. Appalachians do get screwed in America. But they don't get screwed on account of race. Insofar as race plays into their treatment and social perception, they're advantaged. Which is why shouting "Appalachia!" doesn't cut it as a response to race-based disparity in America today.