There are problems in rural America that need addressing. I can name a few: white supremacy, crippling poverty, Evangelical fervor, and Trumpism. The 2016 election round made all of these issues painfully clear, and they continue to affect U.S. politics on a national and global scale.
Rural America’s issues are also self-perpetuating. I’ve watched the poorest county in Missouri strike down an initiative to increase funding for its already under-resourced public schools, some even lacking internet access. Lacking public resources, insular community dynamics, racial ignorance and intolerance, meth addiction, and government corruption are just a few of the factors at play in rural conservative parts of the U.S. All of them create a vicious cycle, increasing poverty rates and anger and bigotry alike.
Here’s where white activists come in: rural communities need outside resources and perspectives. We must confront white supremacy and conservative extremism, and help provide educational and organizational resources. White activists are the perfect candidates for this job.
Who Will Take Responsibility for Dealing with White Supremacy if We Don’t?
As I write in the A Letter to My White Friends zine, organizing and educating other white people is our work. The ignorance, racism, and Trumpism we see coming from so many insidious corners of our communities? Yeah, that’s on us, and we need to do whatever we can to defeat it.
White privilege operates in a way that unfortunately gives a white person’s views on racism more credibility than first-person experiences from people of color. Again, from my zine:
“Due to their biases and because they know you, they have more respect for you and are more likely to listen to you than people of color…And even if these conversations are uncomfortable, who better to bear the discomfort of other white people than you, a white person?”
White activists are not only seen as more credible due to their privilege, but are also much safer in white communities than people of color. The same goes for those who are cisgendered or able to straight-pass. Throughout my time working in rural communities, my ability to pass as heterosexual protected me from anti-queer violence and enabled me to keep working towards the undoing of toxic white supremacy and crippling poverty.
Because we are much more likely to be both heard and safe in these communities, confronting white supremacy, organizing community members, and providing outside resources and perspectives are much easier for us. More than that, they are our responsibility, the contribution we can make in the fight for racial and economic justice.
Don’t Go Where It’s Easy
Recently, I attended a talk given by indigenous activist and water protector Winona LaDuke. She spoke about her experiences doing community organizing work on her reservation in Minnesota, explaining the difficult rural conditions and bigotry of the white people who surrounded the area. Despite the difficulties, she maintained that working within this community was extremely important and impactful. Then she referred to all the organizing done in urban areas, and urged us,
“Don’t do community organizing in places that are easy — go where we need you.”
Urban areas, of course, are not without a host of their own special problems, which deserve attention. But what Winona wanted to draw our attention to was both the utter lack of resources in rural areas, and their inability to garner the attention of many activists.
Rural America, especially in conservative white communities, is not a comfortable or easy place to organize. But it is a place that desperately needs outside attention and investment. Rural dwelling people face serious issues — police corruption and militarization, domestic violence, human trafficking, major economic inequalities, and unregulated water quality, to name a few. These issues manifest into human conditions that beg for concern and exposure by activists on a national scale. The insular and hidden-away nature of many rural communities is what helps perpetuate many issues. Outside attention and resources can help change that.
The Civil War Continues
No one is surprised that bigotry lives on in rural white communities. But they have made it clear that even as they deal with issues of increasing inequality and deindustrialization, they cling to supremacy and scapegoating, rather than turn to the Left for poverty-competent policies. They continue to be manipulated by fear-mongering right-wing politicians who see opportunities to profit from their anxieties. Under-resourced schools, insular communities, and poverty all keep racism alive, creating a well of ignorance politicians can draw from.
Clearly, this needs to stop. Community organizing for racial justice and multicultural understanding, economic justice, and increased educational resources can help deplete the well. (A great example of this work is rural Oregon’s Rural Organizing Project — they do amazing work!) I truly believe that if white supremacy and rural poverty can be confronted with educational and material resources, we can see a political shift away from the destructive and violent tendencies white rural communities currently embody. Until we can do this, the civil war rages on.
Confronting the issues of rural white America is challenging. My own experiences doing community organizing work in these areas were difficult, but also rewarding and successful. I engaged many people in conversations on their thoughts about race, poverty, politics, and their own conditions. I brought educational resources and new perspectives to the table, and saw people change and grow as a result. Students I worked with understood and supported Black Lives Matter. Adults I worked with became more aware of community poverty levels and their shared struggle. I believe there is hope that rural white America can change for the better. But for the seed to grow, someone has to plant it. White activists have the safety of their identity and the ability to bring support and resources to community organizing efforts to do just that.