Labeling isn’t Funny: Monikers given don’t necessarily reflect truth

I remember a time back in the 1970s when some talking heads on Indianapolis radio referred to Columbus as the Carmel of the South.

I’m pretty sure it was an unkind designation — a putdown on this city’s efforts to break out of the typical southern Indiana mold by snidely implying they were pretentious gestures that were highly unlikely to elevate Columbus into the realm of the Indianapolis suburb.

Most folks around here tended to shrug off the insults, content in the knowledge that Columbus had indeed made great strides in breaking away from the stereotypical image of a “burg” that had characterized it through the first half of the 20th century.

Indeed there had been a dramatic change in the ’60s and early ’70s reflected in great part by the dramatic upgrade of school buildings and other community properties but primarily in the dramatic addition of young upward bound families that had been recruited by corporations such as Cummins Engine Co., Arvin Industries and Hamilton Cosco.

It was this group that came to view Columbus as the place they wanted to live out their lives rather than a way station in their career advance.

In the years that followed they and a great number of native born Columbusites brought about even greater change than what had transpired in the ’60s and ’70s. The complexion of the community changed as well. Instead of a predominantly white population Columbus numbered people of diverse nationalities and cultures.

It also broke away from the traditional phobias that marked so many of its southern Indiana neighbors. Instead of a closed society in which newcomers were suspect, it adopted as one of its brands “Welcoming Community.”

If there ever was a rivalry with Carmel, it ceased to be in the late 20th century. Columbus has achieved a true international reputation. It’s been recognized in the national media for its arts and architecture. It has taken the lead in advancing social causes and it has been saluted for its efforts to provide care for lower income groups through innovative programs like Volunteers in Medicine.

The name Columbus frequently appears on state and national Top Ten lists of desirable communities in which to live and visit.

There is one Top Ten list, however which breaks from that mold of favorable attention and casts Columbus in an entirely different light. It also reminded me of that time in the 1970s when the city was battling the image of the “Carmel of the South.”

It appeared on a website bearing the telling name of “RoadSnacks” and was headlined, “These are the 10 Most White Trash Cities in Indiana.”

Columbus was listed as ninth in the overall rankings in this category.

To be fair, the article provides a disclaimer that it is ”an opinion based on facts and is meant as infotainment.” The author adds, “Don’t freak out.”

That’s easier said than done since the writer refers to the description of white trash provided in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a term used broadly to define a person or group of persons whom embody the concepts of ignorance, racism, violence, alcoholism, poverty and anglo-saxon ancestry. Similarly used with the term ‘cracker,’ ‘hillbilly’ or ‘redneck.’”

For comparison purposes, the full Top Ten list is as follows:

1. Rushville

2. Austin

3. Elkhart

4. Terre Haute

5. Shelbyville

6. Alexandria

7. Richmond

8. Marion

9. Columbus

10. Beech Grove

My immediate reaction after going through the list was to run down in my own mind some of Columbus’ neighbors that I felt genuinely deserved the white trash term. Then I began to wonder what criteria was used in compiling the list.

Admittedly, some of that criteria is suspect. It included:

  • Cities where there are lots of white people
  • Cities where residents are poorer than average
  • Cities where a high number of residents are high school dropouts
  • High drug use
  • Higher than average Payday Loan outlets
  • Violence
  • Cities with a high number of residents on welfare

Under that criteria, the writer contends that within Columbus’ population of 44,437, there are an estimated 14,444 white trash.

The sad part about this survey is that people who have never been to Columbus can take it as gospel.

It isn’t.

While indeed Columbus used to be a predominantly white community a half century ago, it is an overwhelming rainbow of nationalities and cultures today.

The tragic aspect of this survey is its tendency to equate poor or low income residents with mean-spirited attitudes and acts of crime.

The community has long been aware of the disparity in incomes as witnessed by the number of public-school students on free or reduced-price meal programs, but it has made repeated efforts through public and private sector programs to address their needs.

There is a drug problem in Columbus — the same drug problem that exists in just about every community in this country. The difference here is that local government is not waiting for some higher power to provide the answer. Already, significant amounts of money and resources have been committed to the opioid crisis that has taken more than a dozen lives in this community alone.

In many respects this listing of so called “white trash” communities can be looked upon as a joke.

It’s not a funny one.

Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at harry@therepublic.com. Send comments to editorial@therepublic.com.