GROWING up in a rural, working- class West Virginia family and earning a degree from WVU are among my proudest badges of honor. I now work at one of the most elite medical institutions in the United States. Among my duties is teaching the next generation of mental health providers about issues of diversity, privilege and oppression.Oppression is the state of being kept down by egregious use of authority or privilege. Employers have authority over employees, and the wealthy have privilege over the poor. Requiring someone to work in unsafe conditions is egregious. Rarely are rural Appalachians included when academics discuss the prejudice against and systematic oppression of underprivileged groups. But I know subtle expressions of this scenario all too well: It is not uncommon for Ivy League-educated ears to deafen to me when they learn about my Appalachian upbringing. I must personally fight against such preconceptions. Now, the applicability of these concepts to current events is too compelling for me to hold comment.The recent Sago Mine tragedy must be discussed within the historical context of large coal companies oppressing rural Appalachian residents. A commodification of life has taken place, not only at the hands of privileged coal company board members, but also by the pens of legislators who control minimum safety standards. At some point, they decided that the deaths of 12 miners are cheaper than daily safety for all miners. It appears that blue-collar Appalachian residents cost less than compressed-air tanks.
“But it pays well,” retort the mine companies (and many miners). Yet in other aspects of our society, we recognize such circumstances as coercion. For instance, it is unethical in behavioral research to pay large sums of money to encourage college students to participate. Why? Because poor college students are virtually powerless to refuse large sums of money. For me to violate this would be an egregious use of my privilege (access to the money) to oppress these students (by subjecting them to unsafe conditions). In a similar manner, the relatively high pay given to miners becomes hush money to ignore the unsafe conditions. Such oppression is particularly “effective” in economically depressed situations, be it college life or the rural Appalachian job market.
And again, the recent tragedy is not just an instance of this situation. The tragedy happened because this oppression is an institution in Appalachian society that predates all of us. Sound familiar? We must recognize that it is a faint conceptual line that divides miners in danger from poor rural residents in the path of a hurricane. As the call was put out nationally for discussing the Gulf Coast tragedy in these terms, a dialogue needs to begin that recognizes the inability of the oppressed working class of West Virginia to not work in unsafe conditions.From across the country, I heard these pleas in the comments of the miners’ family members: “He wanted to leave because it was too dangerous.” But ultimately it is we, the privileged, who must stand up and use our less ignorable voice to demand change. Why? Because today, the oppressed are busy figuring out how to feed their families without income, and burying their husbands, fathers and sons.Christopher M. Weaver, Ph.D., grew up in Franklin. He is an NIH research fellow at the University of California in San Francisco.