Presidential Campaign

Democrats, prejudice and rural America

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If Donald Trump wins in November, he’ll do so with a preponderance of votes from white Americans living in rural areas. If Hillary Clinton wins, voters of color and urbanites will be largely responsible for her victory.

On the electoral map, swaths of blue flank a vivid red center, a testament to segregated politics. But when population density is taken into account, electoral cartograms show a center akin to Swiss cheese. Red may rule in rural America, but blue holds sway in the country’s multicultural cities, wherever they may be.

{mosads}As Josh Kron pointed out in his 2012 Atlantic article “Red State, Blue City: How the Urban-Rural Divide Is Splitting America,” attitude is a product of location: “[P]eople don’t make cities liberal,” Kron writes, “cities make people liberal.” Assuming he’s right, mass migration of rural whites to the cities may be the only viable solution to the rancor we face in American politics. Short of that, it behooves us to come up with ways to broach this divide.

After a bitter defeat in 2012, the 2013 “Growth and Opportunity” autopsy conducted by the RNC stressed the need to expand the Republican tent. But when the Grand Old Party envisioned RNC staffers integrating with minority communities, it didn’t foresee that Humpty-Trumpty would perch himself on his great big wall and give inclusiveness the middle finger.

Post-convention, as the GOP hunkers down beside Commander-in-Chief Trump in the law-and-order bunker, Hillary’s camp seems to recognize that outreach is needed. An old white guy who’s a fearless firebrand could be the Democrats’ secret weapon of mass reconstruction. But Bernie can’t do it alone. I’m worried that Democrats may abandon white rural America for one simple reason: time is on our side.

Rural areas comprised primarily of whites will shrink even more as urban-catalyzed mega-regions swallow them up. Will the new Multicultural Majority remember what it was like to live in a country where our voices were silenced? Turnabout isn’t always fair play; sometimes it’s vengeance.

I’ve lived in small American towns in rural, out-of-the-way areas for more than three decades, a decade longer than I lived in my birth city of London. I’m continually amazed by how ignorant some urbanites are about rural America. When I tell people I lived in Arkansas, for example, a common reaction is dismay. When I tell them I loved it there, some think I’m crazy.

Ruralites are frequently portrayed as badly educated, gun-toting, bible-thumping racists. Some are of course. Like most people of color I can personally attest to this. But ruralites are as diverse a group as urbanites. Even so, we see the tired caricatures all the time: the ignorant sheriff whose vowels stretch from here to Mississippi, the illiterate hick whose grammar is almost as rotten as his teeth. 

For a white Republican friend of mine who lives in rural Virginia, the movie Deliverance, with its depiction of savage hillbillies, is so offensive she can barely utter its name. Deliverance causes her as much pain as Gone with the Wind, with its happy darkies and willfully oblivious heroine, causes me.

Ask American urbanites to impersonate an idiot and many make a vocal pilgrimage to the rural south to borrow a suitably twangy drawl. And then there’s the term “redneck.” Like most forms of synecdoche, it’s both belittling and revealing of the prejudice it embodies. Whites’ necks redden in the sun, presumably from doing the labor America eulogizes. If white ruralites want to call themselves the “r” word it’s their prerogative. But the term is more difficult to defend when it mocks a huge hunk of the population — one that, like blacks, struggles to stay afloat.

The first time I remember being infuriated by anti-rural bigotry was when a sports reporter attached the descriptor “barefoot” to those of us who live in rural Southwest Virginia. It wasn’t meant to be a joke. The insult felt much like it did when I’ve been called the “n” word.

As a biracial professor who emigrated to the U.S. from the U.K., I get worried when we build ethnic and geographical walls around our politics. Integration is a quintessential component of democracy. Without it we’re not the many acting as one, we’re the one making assumptions about the many.

It’s not just about changing our attitudes about rural America, it’s also about how we hear others. Accents, diction, and grammar still matter; speaking is risky business. You can fail to be hired because you sound “too country.” Non-college educated ruralites have to pick their way through a minefield of accepted pronunciation. They’re ridiculed when they trip up.

Students with mellifluous Appalachian accents often tell me how self-conscious they are when they speak. Virginia Tech, where I teach, sits slap-dab in the middle of rural Southwest Virginia. Most of the staff are local, but the majority of students and the vast majority of faculty come here from other places. A faculty member told me how he had been obliged to rid himself of his regional accent when he was young after someone asked him this question: “Do you think as slowly as you speak?” It reminds me how far we still have to travel in order to see each other clearly.

If Democrats don’t find effective ways to be more inclusive of white rural America, all of us — white, black, and in between — could soon slam into that wall Humpty-Trumpty the Megabuilder is constructing. If that happens, nothing short of a miracle can put us back together again.

Lucinda Roy is Alumni Distinguished Professor in Creative Writing at Virginia Tech and author of No Right to Remain Silent: What We’ve Learned from the Tragedy at Virginia Tech (Three Rivers Press).

The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags 2016 presidential election Appalachia blue state Democratic Party Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Multiculturalism Redneck RedState Republican Party stereotypes United States

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