By Adam Kaplan
Special to the Pittsburgh Current
We reach the apex of the highway exit that wraps around the weather-hardened billboard for Weis’ Supermarket. I cannot think of a better substitute for a “Welcome to Shamokin” sign. The small-town creeps out under a gray blanket surrounded by decommissioned coal mines and emptied factories. Wandering through the streets of Shamokin evokes feelings of nostalgia. Remembrance of better days with livelier people, employment, and comfortability. Now, days are riddled with stained brick, shadowing signs of popular retail stores that once thrived… along with Confederate flags proudly draped off truck beds and telephone poles.
Thanksgiving was just a few days ago, so my family and I are in Shamokin for the weekend and staying at my grandmother’s house. I feel uncertain, and a little anxious, at the reaction from my extended family about the election just a few weeks ago; they all voted for Donald Trump in the historic 2020 election, and are not afraid to show their support. Shamokin is certainly a right-leaning, conservative town. They loosely represent the Trump supporter stereotype of religious, gun-toting, pro-life, conservatives. Regardless, we entered the neighborhood and my father pulled in to park the car. I could see in his eyes the nervousness that comes with being blue in a sea of red. His eyes also projected preparation for a beratement of “liberal snowflake” attacks. Not directly, of course, he is their son-in-law after all. But everyone is thinking it. Every time we pull into my Mam’s driveway, we make sure to bring the mail in for her. My brother comes up to me with the wad of newspapers and cable bills to show me a Catholic newsletter that exclaims… “WHAT SIDE DO YOU WANT TO BE ON!”. On one side are Donald Trump and the Pope. On the other side are Representatives Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. I stood there shuffling around my thoughts. My brother and I folded it up and threw it in the back of the car, hidden under a bag of car-ride junk food.
We walk in to see my uncle, my aunt, and my cousins. Things start off cordial as always. As we began to unpack, I could hear my family talk about what Trump is doing for the Middle East and how great the economy was prior to COVID-19. I did not think much of it, until I heard the voice of a slick-talking Fox News anchorman, spilling out logical fallacies that sadly reaffirm their views. He brought up something about Black Lives Matter and I knew that was a dark and dreary road to go down, especially in the context of family talking politics. My Mam and cousins, with a perfect display of tunnel vision, blurred out the toxic, smug, and slightly racist remarks by a man they expect to be the pinnacle of truth. My brother and I sit there and make eye contact, preparing for someone to say something that might just bring the spirit of Barry Goldwater back to Earth.
And then, with such confidence and conviction, my cousin says the three words I wrongly assumed to be debunked, “ALL LIVES MATTER”. My mom pretends she didn’t hear, or maybe responded with a futile eye roll. My brother and I laugh for some reason. Nothing is funny, but if we react the way we want to, it might escalate the situation. My Dad did not get the memo. He is a naturally loud talker, so his normal voice can easily be misconstrued as him screaming. He of course starts off with an ad hominem attack, probably calling his nephew-in-law an idiot or a racist, I forget which one. Definitely not the best way to go about things.
My family in Shamokin is close. Political disputes do not usually become personal. Maybe a few backhanded Facebook comments, but we remain family. However, the argument took off and sides quickly became clear. My brother, my dad, and I arguing with my cousins along with the occasional interjection from my Mam. Tensions rise as we try to break down the brutal reality of institutional racism and how black families were pushed into low-income areas with low-quality public schools and limited opportunities for jobs increasing their chances of getting into crime and going to jail, a punishment that cripples these communities for generations. This is why we see things such as the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor killings happening so often. I tell them that they have no idea what it is like to live a life with such an uncertain future.
I stopped talking, it was pointless to continue. My anger, and a bit of self-righteousness, collapsed in on itself because the truth is, Shamokin residents do understand what I am saying. Communities in central Pennsylvania, and my extended family members, see the racism in this country and, to put it simply, do not care. As I listed off the shortcomings of the communities that people of color live in, my cousins should have laughed in my face. People living in Shamokin do understand what it is like to struggle. Shamokin public schools are not much better, in addition to drugs and crime ramped in the streets. What Shamokin residents care about is economic security. In a wake of a technology revolution, coal has become antiquated and the industry that employed so many of these residents has dissolved. The people of Shamokin have seen the economic troubles that many people of color experience, and for this reason, they feel neglected and forgotten by the rest of society.
Imagine a middle-aged white man who recently lost his manufacturing job and struggles to support his family. He cannot afford better schooling for his children and can hardly put food on the table. He sees the injustice of losing his job and watches Fox News that supports every one of his personal beliefs. He feels validated. Finally, a platform that realizes his struggles, and now a Presidential candidate that promises forgotten Americans a better future! He finally sees a hopeful destiny for his livelihood. The way Black Lives Matter defends people of color shares many similarities with how Trump, QAnon, and Fox News defends the central Pennsylvanian narrative. They give national, even global in some regard, representation for this former blue-collar worker that feels counted out.
This man summarizes the misunderstood psyche of struggling central Pennsylvanians. So, when I outlined the effects of racism and the results of segregation, my cousins can easily pose the question “Well what about my friends’ fathers who lost their job… do they not matter?”. One of the main arguments against someone saying “all lives matter”, is that black lives currently are being oppressed. However, my cousins beg to differ. This country is progressing without them and they need representation, which explains their affinity for outrageous conspiracy theories and far-right media that legitimizes their point of view. It was easy to leave behind the coal industry that once powered the United States, but it will not be as easy to leave behind the families and communities that made up that industry. Although they may seem ignorant, this is an incorrect assumption. This side of America is not evil, it is dismissed. They are still here and are willing to be as loud and proud as they can to defend the way of life that this country once appreciated.
Adam Kaplan is a Sophomore Economics student at the University of Pittsburgh minoring in Creative Writing and Statistics. He enjoys writing through the eye of multiple perspectives and strives to make the reader question their own point of view. Adam hails from West Chester, PA, but will spend the next few years in Pittsburgh taking classes and preparing to apply to Law Schools.