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“Rural America” doesn't mean “white America” — here's why that matters

What our conversation about "rural America" is missing.

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The media often conflates rurality and whiteness in this country. But this is a false — and misleading — narrative.

Roughly one-fifth of rural residents in this country are people of color, and their interests and political views are as diverse as they are. When coverage of rural areas dismisses or otherwise ignores this fact, actual political consequences follow: The specific concerns of certain communities simply fall out of view.

Mara Casey Tieken, a professor of education at Bates College, studies the impact of race in rural communities. Last month, she penned a column for the Washington Post decrying our (bipartisan) tendency to treat rural America as a racial and political monolith.

“In defining rural white America as rural America,” she wrote, “pundits, academics and lawmakers are perpetuating an incomplete and simplistic story about the many people who make up rural America and what they want and need.”

I reached out to Tieken to dive deeper into the problem she highlighted in that column. Media discourse about rural America, she told me, does not track with her experiences in these communities. So I asked her what we get wrong, why it matters, and what we can do about it.

Here’s what she told me.

How “rural America” became a euphemism for “white America”

Communities of color in general have been marginalized from policymaking and from media depictions, so that’s obviously part of the story.

I think policymakers that represent white communities have disproportionately more power than policymakers representing rural communities of color. We have a long history of marginalizing rural communities of color, and one of those [strategies] is gerrymandering, and so there's not the same kind of political representation on a state or national level.

I think the problem also becomes self-perpetuating because what gets covered is rural white America, so that shapes how people think about rural America, and those are the stories that get told over and over again.

The common stereotypes of rural America

There tend to be two overwhelming stereotypes that shape how people think about rural America. One of those is the Andy Griffith fantasy, in which rural America represents a simpler, better time, a very romanticized image of history. Then there's this other portrayal, which is kind of the Deliverance, backwoods redneck model. So two very opposite portrayals — one is romanticized, and the other is backward.

The common thread with both of those is whiteness.

The material gaps between rural white communities and rural communities of color

The first thing I'll say is that we're still talking in generalities even as we get more distinct about rural white communities versus rural communities of color. A lot depends on class and geography, where you actually live in rural places. Poverty rates are higher in rural communities of color than rural white communities. Job opportunities are very different for rural communities versus rural white communities. School experiences, dropout rates or push-out rates, if you want to reframe that, are much higher for rural students of color than rural white students.

We predominantly rely on property taxes to fund our schools, and because of the relationship between race and class, that means schools that serve mostly rural communities of color often have less of a funding base, less of a tax base to draw upon. So they literally have got less resources than rural white communities.

Racial segregation in rural communities is high and consequential

Racial segregation is just as high in rural communities as it is in urban communities. So this matters to rural schools, of course, given the importance of property taxes and how we fund our schools. Again, schools serving rural communities of color tend to have less resources. That has all sorts of implications for how they can hire and keep teachers. Rural schools particularly struggle to hire qualified teachers.

So there are all kinds of ways in which, if you look at these big, broad indicators, it's a very different experience being part of a rural community of color versus a rural white community. A lot of the same issues you see in urban areas divided by race you see also in rural areas very distinct by race.

The deep roots of the racial divide in rural America

This goes back for centuries. Demographics and where people live — that's not accidental. That goes back to our very racialized history, and it’s a direct legacy of slavery. That was a rural phenomenon. We see still people live based off where plantations were historically. Town lines still reflect that old geography. This is very much baked into the picture of the country and our physical landscape, our geography, and oftentimes a lot of people make the argument that policymakers have pitted, either intentionally or unintentionally, poor rural whites against poor rural black folks as a way to dilute power.

Progressives make a political and moral mistake when they surrender rural America to Republicans

If you think about progressives who right now are trying to mobilize and think ahead to these next elections, they risk overlooking a large part of their base who they already have on board but could very easily lose if they feel marginalized.

Immigration policies, ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] raids, even voter ID laws that are pending in a number of states — these are not just affecting urban communities of color. They're affecting rural communities of color. The organizations and agencies that are doing some work to try and temper some of these effects risk overlooking large numbers of people who they profess to hope to serve.

People in these communities feel ignored by the media, and for very good reasons

I think when you talk to folks within these communities, they very much feel like they have been ignored and that they're pretty much alone in terms of political representation, having a voice, being a part of the media. People, the general public, pay attention to what journalists draw their attention to, and policymakers do too. If this is not seen as an urgent issue, then they won't pay attention.

There are a lot of challenges facing rural America in general but also in rural communities of color, and they might be different in a lot of ways from rural white America. Unless we get more nuanced in how we talk and how we have these conversations, those unique needs and unique strengths risk getting overlooked.

On J.D. Vance’s hit book Hillbilly Elegy and how it’s been used to frame the conversation about rural America

I think it represents a narrative that has been very much left out of the general public conversation. He focuses on culture. I wish he had focused more on the structures that shape opportunity, but that wasn't the story he set out to tell, so I can't fault him for that.

I had more of an issue with how it's been used since then to talk about rural America. It gets back to the same point. It's been held up as "the story" of rural America despite being focused on a particular class and a particular region of the country. It is a compelling story, but it’s not necessarily representative of the entire rural American experience.

How to change the conversation and force policymakers to respond

So this is where you, as a journalist, can do something about this. Begin to widen the focus, broaden the conversation, make the discourse about rural America more complex, make it attend to issues of race. I think back to the point that journalists get to shape the conversation. I do think a large part of this is an issue of what story is being told in popular media.

Another part of the story has to do with community organizing, which is a real challenge in rural places because a lot of organizing models depend on large numbers of people, and so by definition that doesn’t work well in rural areas. But there are ways to do it.

If you think back to the whole farmworkers movement, that was a movement of rural communities of color. The civil rights movement was also largely rural communities of color. So there is a history of this, and I think now it becomes the challenge of getting policymakers to respond.

I end my [Washington Post] op-ed talking about organizing across lines of race but also organizing around lines of geography. We’ve seen this happening all over in urban areas, but it’s happening in rural areas too. Wherever you are, you have to forge alliances across these lines if you want to make real change happen.

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