How did the toxic train disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, become a racial issue?
My short answer would quote the character in an Ernest Hemingway novel who was asked how he went bankrupt.
“Two ways,” he said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
My longer answer would include anecdotes to illustrate the problem.
That thought comes to mind as I saw coverage of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg getting bashed for claiming at a conference last week that construction sites aren’t employing local workers in minority communities, implying that jobs are being outsourced to people who are not minorities — or at least, that’s how Fox News and other conservative media played it.
“We have heard way too many stories from generations past of infrastructure where you got a neighborhood, often a neighborhood of color, that finally sees the project come to them,” Buttigieg said during the National Association of Counties Conference. “But everyone in the hard hats on that project, doing the good-paying jobs, don’t look like they came from anywhere near the neighborhood.”
Buttigieg added that Americans could help shrink wealth gaps in the country by “tearing down those barriers” on the delivery level.
He has a point, I agree. But meanwhile, presidential candidate Donald Trump and other Republicans are stealing the Democrats’ lunch in a working-class area on a day when much of the rest of the country is talking about the derailing disaster in East Palestine.
The massive derailment on the evening of Feb. 3 led to the release of unknown quantities of toxic chemicals and a massive fire as authorities burned off some of what the train was carrying.
When Trump arrived in East Palestine on Wednesday, he was welcomed with open arms in a rural area near the Pennsylvania border that fit the classic profile of Trump country — mostly white working class and simmering with resentment at being what Trump likes to call “forgotten Americans.”
That’s not far off in a state whose once-rich industrial base has been largely devastated by social and economic change, particularly job loss in competition with overseas trade.
Among others, Trump was joined by freshman Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, a native of the same southwestern Ohio factory town where I grew up, the backdrop for his bestselling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.”
The county, like the rest of that northeastern part of Ohio, voted more Democratic than the state overall in 2000, according to The Washington Post. But like the rest of what used to be a bellwether swing state, it drifted to the right until it became reliably Republican, voting 33 and 37 points more Republican the two times Trump was on the ballot.
“The three of us, in our own ways, recognized instantly: This is fundamentally our voters, right?” Vance told Axios, referring to himself, the former president and Fox News host Tucker Carlson. “These are sort of our people.”
Vance cast the disaster as a failure of big business — the Norfolk Southern railroad that operated the train — and the federal government, noting that their populist “wing of the party” is “very skeptical of each.”
While spilled chemicals were polluting the air and water at the national headline-making disaster, Buttigieg was lambasted on social media for talking about racial disparities as he failed to mention the East Palestine train derailment. Buttigieg finally visited the derailment site last Thursday.
Sure, media and politicians give short shrift to some disasters compared with others. But it sends the wrong message to seem more concerned about employment practices than a disaster that’s headlined the 24/7 national news cycles.
While the Biden administration works to play catch-up on this disaster, the Grand Old Party’s quick reaction, including Trump handing out water and McDonald’s meals, should serve as a wake-up call for Democrats.
That includes such loyally liberal voices as Joy Behar, who startled some of her audience on “The View” by declaring that Trump voters in East Palestine have nobody to blame but themselves for the toxic derailment because Trump “placed someone with deep ties to the chemical industry in charge of the EPA’s chemical safety office.”
True or not, it’s never good political etiquette to blame voters for troubles caused by the people for whom they voted. It’s better to win their votes by offering a better candidate. Our politics are toxic enough already.
(E-mail Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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