On July 30, 2003, Cannon Mills died.
The Kannapolis, N.C. textile factory, which after its 1887 inception bloomed into what was at one time the largest textile-producing factory in the nation, had long been one of the largest employers in rural North Carolina.
The company was the town, so to speak. In constructing its factory town, the Cannon family funded the building of a police department, a post office, schools, churches, and mill houses on surrounding land. The town’s main entertainment hub, complete with the still-operating and always pleasant GEM Theatre ($5 tickets! $2 sodas! $4 large popcorns!) sprouted next door. The company, though combative with union organizers from the start (multiple Cannon Mills ownership groups squashed multiple unionization efforts spanning from the 1920s to late 1990s, to the workers’ ultimate loss) established sentimental good will with its employees early on, becoming the first company in the nation to roll out life insurance for its employees when it did so in 1912. Other industries entered Kannapolis’s private business sector in the textile giant’s 116-year existence, but the town’s economic core was Cannon Mills.
In July 2003, when Cannon Mills’s owner went bankrupt, more than 4,000 workers living in Kannapolis lost their main source of income overnight. To put that in perspective, 11.7 percent of the town’s total 36,910 occupants—77 percent of whom were white and 30 percent of whom were in families with children, according to the 2000 U.S. Census—instantly became unemployed. Next door, in my hometown of China Grove, N.C., 560 people, or 15 percent of the town’s 3,651 dwellers, were out a job. It was the largest permanent mass layoff in the state’s history.
At 10 years old, I didn’t understand their tears. I didn’t understand them any more at 13 when people gathered en masse to gawk, cheer, or weep as they watched the smokestacks topple. I understood only that many people were depressed and confused. And as history will explain better than I, people, on a mass scale, don’t stay confused for long—they adapt and become content with the new norm, or they become pissed off. Kannapolis, like many, many other small towns across America, got pissed off.
In the three years between the shuttering of the factory’s doors and the final implosion, California billionaire David Murdock, the former owner of Cannon Mills and current chairman of Dole Foods, announced his latest project: the North Carolina Research Campus. On the same ground that was once home to the textile factories, a sprawling campus would rise, with buildings occupied by research teams from Duke, UNC, Appalachian State, and other North Carolina universities. The multi-million dollar effort was pitched in the local paper as an excellent move to create jobs, boost the economy, and show a public focus on science and education.
Fewer than 700 people are currently employed at the research campus. Job numbers are not an indicator of how successful efforts in researching and combating diseases are or will be, but the fact remains that 700 degree-requiring jobs do not 4,000 factory jobs make. According to UNC-Chapel Hill’s state population education data, 12.5 percent of Kannapolis’s adult population possessed at least a bachelor’s degree in 2000—the national average at the time was roughly 24 percent, per the census. By the time the N.C. Research Campus opened in 2008, Kannapolis’s number increased, but only slightly, to 14.4 percent.
As captured in interviews with the Charlotte Observer the day after the masses were put out of work in 2003, the townspeople of Kannapolis were woefully unprepared for such a drastic change in industry:
James Kyles, who worked for Pillowtex for 36 years, didn’t want to watch the news on television. He and his wife, Carolyn, drove to Pillowtex headquarters in Kannapolis Wednesday to see what was going on.
“I’m 61 years old. Where am I going to go find a job? I’ve worked in the mill my whole life. I’m uneducated,” he said.
“It’s a sad day,” said Carolyn Kyles, who also was recently laid off from her job.
“People don’t understand. All of these people with no education, where are they going to go?”
The globalization of markets in the 1990s and the absence of care for our 50 public education systems ensured that droves of uneducated people in small factory and farm towns spread across the entirety of the nation would become uneducated people in small towns without steady work. Public education reform mostly doesn’t come at the federal level and electing a new president won’t spark it; due to our individualized school systems, it comes at the state level. North Carolina, now able to begin recovering from Pat McCrory setting us back 20 years on the social timeline, ranks 47th in average teacher pay; Florida got its convoluted system from a damn Jeb Bush napkin doodle; Louisiana can’t find a penny for its K-12 system. Anyone who expected these communities to spontaneously become educated might be more foolish than the Trump voters.
The textile manufacturing business was not booming in 2003—from 1970 to 1995, the number of textile workers in Cabarrus County dropped from 24,720 to 6,000, as the population and commuter numbers shot up. While textile jobs fell from 1993 to 1999, according to a study completed by Gary Shoesmith, ex-director of the Center for Economic Studies at Wake Forest’s Babcock Graduate School of Management, U.S. textile production rose.
By 2000, the Cannon Mills company, then owned by Pillowtex, was taking on losses after refusing to move operations overseas and began looking to employ a cheaper labor source that wouldn’t try to unionize which, according to a USDA-funded 1999 study by a pair of sociologists at N.C. State and Iowa State, came in the form of the state’s growing Hispanic population. (Per the census, it quintupled between 1990 and 2000.) Fewer new hires were made than ever before, but the new hires were paid higher wages than what white workers started with in years past and granted longer training sessions. This—while deemed by one informant in the study to be a political maneuver by the plant to hush unionization efforts among its new minority faction—resulted in open anti-immigration discussions among long-standing community members, which, in turn, begat anti-Mexican sentiment that echoed across the state. Previously and simultaneously, this role of misplaced blame-bearers was assumed by African-Americans, though prior to the 1960s, they were not allowed to work inside the factory in any fashion. (African-American women often worked as housekeepers and child-care providers for white families in the town during this time.)
Of the affected workers I knew, all of them were white and all of them attended my church, First Baptist Church of Kannapolis, which was granted a charter by the Cannon family in 1912 for a lot directly next to the factory. I was raised in a Southern Baptist environment for the first 18 years of my life. While this can’t speak to the nation at large, in North Carolina’s rural culture, the church continues to play a major role in determining how people vote in all elections, not just the presidential. That’s why Cannon Mills owners, who were charged by the National Labor Relations Board with unfair labor practices in 1995, were found to have cozied up to church pastors by giving them free vans and organs, according to the 1999 study; in return, the pastors agreed to convince their congregations to vote against unionization. But the church’s effects on the community’s politics were not felt solely through pastors politicking at the pulpit, but through encouraging sheer, clearcut groupthink.
Regardless of whether it’s a church or a chess club, it’s easy to motivate yourself to make a terrible decision if you meet with dozens of other people with similar Fox News- and Facebook-based thoughts and rationalize the decision one time per week every week for a year as one that would have your Lord and savior’s approval (even if, based on my understanding of the New Testament, it would not). When people convince themselves that they have been consistently pushed down by another group—regardless of whether such a thing is indeed happening, or whether the wounds that led to the injury were in part self-inflicted—they lash out. Donald Trump, while the worst one possible I can imagine, was the near-majority’s ill-advised and tragic answer. Groupthink is powerful as a tool; it’s infinitely more devastating as a weapon. And as the product of a Trump town, it was abundantly clear to me throughout the election that he understood this as well.
While many of the poorly-titled “coastal elites” watched something like the following video and chuckled about how funny it sounds when Trump said “Jina” (it is funny) and sneered at his generalizations of the Mexican people, I assure you the response back home and in small rural towns across the nation was not one of levity or disgust, but agreement.
I’ll skip the part where I review whether racism was engrained in our church’s culture (it was) and simply say I think it was no coincidence that the church’s non-white crowd consisted of one black man, one Hispanic family, and my family (though, for all intents and purposes, we functioned as a white unit during my 10 years in the congregation). Being regularly exposed to normalized bigotry as a child and developing teenager is something I’ve come to realize everyone in my hometown shared, regardless of race, religion, tax bracket, or gender—those signifiers were in place to determine whether or not you were the one lobbing the insults. So, for instance, while I largely missed the racism boat because nobody really cared enough about Native Americans to foist more than the occasional Trail of Tears joke, I was primed to develop into a misogynistic little shit, which I did.
The town, carrying with it the social and foundational ills that afflict many towns spread across the Tar Heel State—a lack of proper K-12 education and path to secondary education, paired with the prevalence of blatant misogyny, racism, and xenophobia—is not dissimilar from the countless small towns and counties that recently supported our misogynistic, racist, and xenophobic president-elect. At my high school of roughly 1,200, we had a small minority representation, and the majority took advantage of that fact. A kid drove a piece-of-shit pickup to school every day with a rebel flag the size of my living room rug flying on the back. I had a black teammate to whom white teammates would say “nigger” just to laugh and run away when he reacted. Multiple male teachers at my high school slept with underage female students. Three or four teen pregnancies in a high school graduating class was a good year. My girlfriend, salutatorian of her high school class and a pre-med student at Chapel Hill, is still asked by folks back home if she’s going to school to become a teacher or a nurse, and if she’s scared—at 21 years old—about having children too late in life. All this comes after being taught that sex and drugs and homosexual feelings are forces of evil; having dinosaurs explained by elders in the church with retorts like “The devil put them bones in the ground” and “God can make Earth look as old as he wants”; and being instructed, by publicly-paid teachers, that evolution is merely a theory. This isn’t meant as a condemnation of my hometown, but it is an honest representation of what we all allowed to continually occur.
For all the rightful condemnation of the national media for not better preparing the nation for this outcome, the local media, at least on my end, held up its end of the bargain despite being weakly financed. Conversely, the majority of national media stories I saw were comfortable framing Trump fans as radicals on an island far away from this place called America. At arm’s length, these people seemed dangerous, but not in a way that inspired the 6.8 million Obama voters that stayed home on Tuesday to actually hit the polls. The thing about uneducated white people that the media and Democrats seemed to forget is that there are a whole fucking lot of them, and shuffling them off to the side as if they were one among many mistreated and underrepresented minority factions doesn’t work in our current system.