Why Saying “Louisiana is Lazy” is a Problem

Here is a quote from a MSNBC/Bloomberg Businessweek article that is discussing the US Bureau of LABOR Statistics’ finding that Louisiana is the laziest state in the Union, followed by Mississippi and Arkansas:

To be clear, by “lazy” we do not mean lacking work ethic or engagement. Rather, it is a measure of leisure time spent doing sedentary activities compared with activities that require more physical effort, such as exercising and even working. Mississippi and Arkansas came in second and third, and while states in the south and southeast are represented heavily in the list, such East Coast states as Delaware and New York placed in the top 20.

Say, what?  It doesn’t measure work ethic, just whether people are working.  Right.

One of the experts cited (Peter Katzmarzyk, associate executive director at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La.) does say, “‘that Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas are in the Lower Mississippi Delta region, which is “very poor, has poor medical service, and is hot, humid, and has few opportunities for physical activity.'”  Wouldn’t you know, the article then decides to talk about the problems that are faced by poor communities that don’t have good medical service.  Oh wait, no they don’t.  Instead, they continue to point out that people in Louisiana don’t work and, therefore, are obese.  Or something like that.

Businessweek.com’s ranking is based on five years (2004-08) of data from the BLS American Time Use Survey, which averages the time spent doing various activities each day across the entire population age 15 and older, including individuals who did not do the activity at all. Using state-level data, we evaluated the average leisure time engaged in sedentary activities: sleeping, watching television, surfing the Internet, playing board games, relaxing, thinking, and socializing, for example. These factors were weighed against other metrics, such as average time spent exercising and playing sports, time spent working, and the state’s median age. The survey started only in 2003, so no data exist to show how patterns might have changed over time.

Okay, so this paragraph sets leisure activities against, you know, working.  Another point, isn’t “leisure a much nicer word than “lazy”?  Funny that they chose the latter to headline the article.

And then comes the fat-shaming:

This sedentary lifestyle — combined with the effects of Louisiana’s famous cuisine — has its consequences. The lack of physical activity “correlates with our obesity rates,” says Christy Reeves, director of community relations at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana. The obesity rate in Louisiana is 31.2 percent, the fifth-highest rate in the country, according to a recent report by Trust for America’s Health. In 2009, the state ranked eighth with an obesity rate of 28.9 percent. Louisiana spends about $1.4 billion dollars annually on obesity-attributed medical expenses, reports the state Office of Public Health.

But it isn’t just that people in Louisiana are lazy and fat, it’s that they aren’t SMART enough to do anything about it:

The challenges to getting people up and moving are complex. Outside the big cities is a dearth of public transportation, bike paths, and sidewalks, says Berry Trascher, Louisiana advocacy director of the American Heart Assn., “and there are so many poor and underserved and undereducated people who don’t understand how to eat healthy.” On top of that, she says, “everything is centered around food in Louisiana.”

Because being poor and underserved means they don’t know how to eat healthy, instead of meaning that they simply doesn’t have access to healthier options.  There is at least some acknowledgment of that in the final paragraph of the article, though with no real specifics or discussion (what services?  what facilities?):

Awareness programs are also growing. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana started a free, online fitness program in 2007 called Louisiana 2 Step, which allows users to track (and hopefully change) what they eat and how much they exercise. Says Reeves: “We have a lot of outreach in schools and churches.”

Still, widespread lifestyle changes take time and require alterations not only in mindset but also available services and facilities. “In the medical community, we are well aware of the situation,” says Pennington’s Katzmarzyk, but “there is a lag time between what we understand in science and what we put in place in the population.”

I just find this article to be a big FAIL because it sets itself up to dive into the murky waters of food deserts, the prices of good-for-you versus not-good-for-you foods, and the issues that come when people can’t get any medical care (not just good medical care).  It isn’t enough to say that these rural Louisiana residents, who the article has dubbed “lazy” (not “leisurely”) and obese, are being failed by an overall system that does such things as funds big-business food, put lots of money into corn subsidies instead of other whole foods, and, of course, the problem with access to medical care.  Instead, this article makes it seem like if these people just would count calories and exercise, they could fix their problems.  It’s condescending and false.

On another note, I absolutely HATE the word “lazy” used to describe three southern states that have large black populations.  Mississippi is larger than Louisiana (and both trump Arkansas), but you could argue that following Hurricane Katrina, many US citizens view Louisiana as a space full of black people.  This link from Wikipedia shows the census data of cities in America in 2000 that had more than 30% black American citizens, with New Orleans coming in fifth behind fourth place Jackson, Mississippi (Little Rock, Arkansas is #36).

I think most people know that “lazy” is the way most black, poor people (especially mothers) are characterized by those who want to get rid of social welfare programs.  The myth of the welfare queen is still notorious and powerful to this day (sorry that the link is from 1995 but it gets my point across – 1996 was when a lot of the craziness surrounding “welfare queens” came to a head).

This is best summed up, though, by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels in Ms. Magazine (back in 2000).  Go read the whole thing, or their book The Mommy Myth, but here are the parts that matter for my argument:

And this is what so many of us have been pulled between when we see accounts of motherhood in the media: celebrity moms who are perfect, most of them white, always rich, happy, and in control, the role models we should emulate, versus welfare mothers who are irresponsible, unmarried, usually black or Latina–as if there were no white single mothers on the dole–poor, miserable, and out of control, the bad examples we should scorn. […]

It isn’t just that the conservative right has succeeded in stereotyping welfare mothers as lazy, promiscuous parasites; the media in which these mothers appear provide no point of identification with them. At best, these mothers are pitiable. At worst, they are reprehensible opposites of the other mothers we see so much of, the new standard-bearers of ideal motherhood–the doting, conscientious celebrities for whom motherhood is a gateway to heaven.

During the height of welfare bashing in the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations, the stereotype of the “welfare queen” gained mythological status. But there were other, less obvious, journalistic devices that served equally well to dehumanize poor mothers and their children. Unsavory designations proliferated with a vengeance: “chronic dependents,” “the chronically jobless,” “welfare mothers in training,” “hardcore welfare recipients,” “never-married mothers,” “welfare careerists,” and “welfare recidivists” became characters in a distinctly American political melodrama. […]

As sociologists have pointed out, even though there consistently have been more white people than black on welfare, the news media began, in the mid-1960s, to rely almost exclusively on pictures of African Americans to illustrate stories about welfare, reinforcing the stereotype that most welfare recipients are black.

Occasionally readers are introduced to the runner-up in the poster competition: the white welfare mother, whose story varies only in that she lives in a trailer in some godforsaken place we have never heard of and is really, really fat.

According to Douglas and Michaels, the media and conservative pundits/politicians equate black mothers with laziness, and white mothers on welfare as fat.  Interesting…

And, of course, recently there have been all the conservatives who don’t want to re-up unemployment benefits because it doesn’t get people to go get jobs.  I would argue that, historically, this a racist and classicist argument that has embedded in it images of black welfare moms and deadbeat dads (the link is to the Tea Party Express’ Mark Williams racist rant that he penned after being called racist in order refute(?) his racism.  In it he characterizes “colored” people on welfare as lazy.  The original is gone off his website in the spirit of healing – or something like that – but this link provides the whole thing.  *Trigger Warning* for general assholish racist garbage.  But it gets my point across).

Regarding those conservative politicians, Shark-fu said it all better at Feministing than I ever could:

No, these politicians are giving voice to their belief that people receiving unemployment checks are lazy bums who don’t find work because they are living the life of Riley on the government dime.

Reality, however, is another thing altogether.

For Bloomberg Businessweek and MSNBC to present Louisiana/Mississippi/Arkansas citizens as “lazy” because they don’t work very much isn’t just incredibly insulting. It’s incredibly coded within a much larger discussion about “lazy” in this country.

It’s amazing that a study about laziness found obese southerners to be the laziest.  It’s sometimes like the study exists only to back up all the stereotypical things we already think.  Funny how that happens, huh?


One thought on “Why Saying “Louisiana is Lazy” is a Problem

  1. Pingback: What is this story about? « Speaker's Corner

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