In this op-ed, writer Holly Genovese explains how people of color who live in rural spaces often face erasure.
In 1966, activist Stokely Carmichael popularized the term “Black Power” while organizing in rural Mississippi, though the term is now almost exclusively associated with the Northeast and West Coast. I’m a teaching assistant, and this surprises my students because Black Power activism has become so closely tied with the coasts, major cities and the non-South. (Even scholars of Black Power tend to write stories set in the Northeast and West Coast.) But 10.3 million people, one-fifth of rural America, are people of color.
Mainstream media’s rush to humanize Trump supporters and “understand” the Midwest, Appalachia and the rural South has given undue attention to the white rural population of the United States. Much of rural America, particularly areas with growing populations, like California, is made up of people of color. Popular depictions of rural life mostly involve white people, and discussions often focus overwhelmingly on rural white conservatives at the expense of everyone else living in rural America, leading some to wonder why rural Americans vote against their own interests. But many of them, including people of color, don’t.
Large numbers of African-Americans left the rural South during the Great Migration, which spanned from about 1916 to 1970, but places like Alabama’s Black Belt and the Mississippi Delta still have large African-American populations, and the South isn’t the only diverse rural area. Much of popular literature about Indigenous peoples is based on reservation life, but these communities are effectively erased from political discussions around rural America. Even the largest Native American reservation in the country, Navajo Nation, faces issues common in rural America. Native Americans have the lowest employment rate of any ethnic group in the U.S. and, on average, just over 50 percent of Native American students graduate from high school. Additionally, many Native American reservations struggle with poor water quality, infrastructural issues (i.e., a lack of paved roads), and food scarcity.
Certain rural areas of Texas, New Mexico and Southern California are primarily Latinx. While the media has been mostly focused on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the fate of immigrants who come to the U.S., many outlets have not explored the fact that a large number of these immigrants will move to rural areas.
Some of this comes down to what we have been told by news media and popular culture. According to the 2010 U.S. census, more than 80 percent of the country’s population lives in “urban areas” or “urban clusters.” This is a popularly cited statistic, though some may not realize that an urban cluster, according to U.S. standards, is any town or borough with more than 2,500 people living in it but less than 50,000. This designation ignores the actual experiences of the many Americans not living in major cities or suburban areas.
In recent years, the discussion of rural and working-class America in the media has been mostly dominated by Hillbilly Elegy. The book, which is about author J.D. Vance’s personal connection to Appalachia, and what he considers the flaws of Appalachian people, has become the de facto source for people attempting to understand the rural-area Trump voter. In addition to his family history, Vance argues that some Appalachian people are at fault for their poverty because they aren’t educated, rely on welfare and remain unemployed. He offers a quintessential American bootstraps narrative, asserting that if he could make it to Silicon Valley, many others can, too. However, Vance’s work fails to include people of color in the conversation about Appalachia and the Midwest. And though liberals and conservatives alike have clung to Hillbilly Elegy as an explanation for the Trump era, they should really be analyzing suburban white voters.
There are those who contest some of the ideas in Vance’s book. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, a short volume by historian Elizabeth Catte goes toe-to-toe with the problematic ideas put forth by Vance. Bell hooks
Mara Casey Tieken, a professor at Bates College, has been doing a lot of work on rural communities of color and education inequity. Projects like PBS’s Black in Appalachia, based in Tennessee, have been working to collect oral histories from rural people of color and digitize archival and newspaper collections. Academics and rural people of color alike have been working to counter the erasure that often takes place in the national conversation, but the stereotypes of rural white coal miners are hard to eliminate.
Even those attempting to shift the media’s focus from the rural white working-class are getting rural America wrong. In a piece for Lit Hub, Rebecca Solnit attempts to argue that “real America” is outside of the rural white areas that have been a focus of the national media. She writes, “Once again a small-town white American narrative is being treated as though it’s about all of us or all of us who count, as though the gentrification of immigrant neighborhoods is not also a story that matters, as though Los Angeles and New York City, both of which have larger populations than many American states, are not America. In New York City, the immigrant population alone exceeds the total population of Kansas (or Nebraska or Idaho or West Virginia, where all those coal miners are).”
Though Solnit is trying to reframe focus from white working-class Trump voters, she inadvertently reinforces the idea that immigrants, people of color, and liberals of any sort only live in cities.
In doing so, whether or not it was her goal, the essay doesn’t acknowledge the lives, work, and activism of rural people of color. But they exist, and their lives matter, too.
This article was originally published by Teen Vogue.