7 Reasons Why Rural America Matters To You Even Though You Can’t Feel it Yet
“The disproportionate power granted to rural Americans ― who are far more likely to be old, white and conservative than other voters ― in the Senate is arguably the key fact of American political life.” —The Guardian, 3 Nov 2010
A note from me, first. If you’d rather, the list starts below:
A friend told me a couple of years ago that I needed to come up with a name for all the people I met while researching Rural American Cultures (RAC) along the Redwood Highway in Southern Oregon. He suggested I needed a label that would distinguish the invisible rural humans on the margins of a deep-red poverty-ravaged Oregon county from the rural humans used by mainstream media for their rabid political soundbites and images.
He said I needed a name for the humans who my mostly white urban friends simply cannot feel to see, through all the politics: the fighting, arguing, and propaganda. Whose urban positions of privilege intentionally raise them up above anyone without their means, education, or position. Whose urban worlds are safely out of reach of rural ugliness. My urban friends’ layers of social and economic insulation protect them and make them blind.
I cannot un-see the people I met. I cannot un-feel the broken bodies, minds, and spirits of my former neighbors who live in a zip code that condemns them to the lethal weight of judgement and disparagement — to suffering and death. Many live with no hope: no warmth, no light, no creativity, no room for expression, no accepted difference. Nothing ever changes in their world. Before the research, I didn’t believe that could possibly be accurate. I was wrong.
The people I met didn’t choose their circumstances; they didn’t create their environment. They have no control and no options: conservative white boomers who claim authority and resources — insiders and “old timers” — speak for the people I met, stand in front of them, hide them in shame. Throw them away when no one’s looking.
The people I met on the margins make choices to survive in a rural world that you could never understand if you haven’t experienced it firsthand. The choices seem to demonstrate what you’d recognize as agency on their part. Their choices draw demands for “personal responsibility,” for calls to pick themselves up by their bootstraps. But “choice” is different in a place where power is scarce.
Choosing to agree with authority so you don’t get beaten is not a choice. Choosing to supplicate — because to dissent earns a black eye and bloody nose — is not a choice. Choosing to live on your knees — because to stand means to starve — is not a choice. Choosing to cover your ears and try to ignore the screams from the bedroom — because to acknowledge and challenge means being homeless — is not a choice. Choosing to resist arrest — because to be taken into custody means an unspeakable life in a private prison — is not a choice. Choosing to numb your body and emotions so you don’t feel the gut-churning agony of enduring a life you know won’t get any better is not a fucking choice.
I know. I lived there with them. Not above them: next door. Not as research subjects: they were my neighbors. BIPOC, LGBTQ, poor and working class whites, and thousands of kids. Many white children are born and raised in families where the father holds all the power and no one can disagree without getting punished. They are invisible because the white men in authority — and the white women who’ve internalized the toxic masculinity around them and enable the men — hide the kids, shame them, steal their power, and terrify them into silence.
Those are the actualities. That’s what exists. Decades of others’ research shows it, and my research confirmed it for me. I cannot forget what I saw, forget who I met, not without killing my own soul. I can’t not-know. I can’t not-see. I can’t not-feel. I could have been them if my father and mother had had their way and moved my 5 brothers and sisters and me rural, like they’d intended. I was lucky. The people I met are not.
The people on the margins I met in Southern Oregon are like everyone else: they are human beings who want to exist, who want to live without fear, who want better for their children, who want to live indoors with a little privacy and dignity. But they are buried in conditions that make it impossible for them to imagine or dream or reach beyond their world, and they are surrounded by people who prefer to ignore, hide, and silence them.
My invisible knapsack of white privilege no longer offers insularity, no longer affords distance, and no longer takes me out of my body so I can avoid feeling, connecting, and being responsible for fellow human beings without a voice. My hope is that you’ll also feel to see, and to care.
Here are 7 ways there. (There are a bunch of other trails to connection we can walk together, later.)
(1) BIPOC, LGBTQ+, poor, and working class Americans are an invisible and marginalized part of Rural American Cultures (RAC). For instance, about
“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.”
More than this, the policies devastating BIPOC in urban areas have similar effects on invisible communities in rural areas:
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.
When we can see these connections — that a poor white woman in Cave Junction, Oregon shares many of the same experiences with a working class Black man in Baltimore, Maryland and an undocumented brown woman in DC — political divides fade and healthy human relations have a chance to grow.
(2) Most natural resources in the U.S. — and all the living beings for whom those resources are home — are in rural places. According to The Center for American Progress, “Rural areas constitute 97 percent of America’s land mass, accounting for a large portion of the country’s vital natural resources.”
The US Census Bureau confirms, also highlighting that the vast majority of public natural resources are controlled by a small number of mostly white Americans who live and do business there, or by the federal government:
“Urban areas make up only 3 percent of the entire land area of the country but are home to more than 80 percent of the population. Conversely, 97 percent of the country’s land mass is rural but only 19.3 percent of the population lives there.”
As a result of recent massive federal policy upheavals, however, vast portions of rural lands and all the beings who live there are under attack from developers, resource extractors, and federal land grabs.
Just as importantly, but overlooked, is the fact that the cultural norms embodied by the rural humans who live on or near natural areas directly impact all the living beings and ecosystems around them. Healthy rural cultural norms help keep natural resource management also healthy.
(3) Capitalist interests in agriculture make Rural American Cultures globally exploitable. History professor Kristin Hoganson’s research shows how rural places are ‘riddled with histories of foreign relations,’ often in service to agriculture.” Rural America is hardly quintessentially the pure white heart of American culture:
“It would take an entire atlas of maps layered on top of one another, transparency style, to convey the far-flung relationships that formed in (this region),” she wrote in The Heartland: An American History.”
Although the humans and the information ecosystems in rural places are often isolated, the interest from multinational corporations in the profit they can extract from American agricultural products makes rural America global.
Rural American Cultures bear the imprint of capitalist branding in their cultural practices and norms, many of which are authoritarian (they steal power). The laser focus on profit extraction from natural resources and destruction of them for development in rural areas has provided the way in for humans who practice power-stealing in general, and rural cultural norms reproduce that theft over and over in relational practices.
(4) Being poor in Rural American Cultures means being doubly marginalized and invisible. The Brown Political Review points out that
even when poverty is discussed, the chatter often emphasizes urban poverty and fails to recognize that the poverty rate for rural Americans is three percentage points higher than the corresponding statistic for urban Americans.”
The cultural norms in RAC and beyond reflect a deep misunderstanding and fear of poverty. Many whites in rural places don’t understand poverty’s origins and prefer to hide “their poor and homeless” because they are ashamed and afraid it might be catching. Those toxic ignorances are projected onto human beings already under tremendous pressure from the ravages of poverty:
Americans harbor particularly negative views of the rural poor — especially in regions like the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains — giving them labels such as “hillbilly.” According to Lisa Pruitt, a Professor of Law at UC Davis, Americans label rural Americans as “uncouth,” “racist,” and “unsavory,” partly explaining why the very real issue of rural poverty is too rarely discussed.
Capitalism’s business model requires an underclass — a whole bunch of disposable human beings (read: Black and brown and some white) who conventionally successful people (read: mostly white) agree are the cost of the system’s profits and their security. Many of those human beings — the U.S. underclass — are trapped in Rural American Cultures not of their choosing or making. It’s a whole lot easier to avert our eyes if “we” don’t think of “them” as actual suffering human beings. That’s capitalism’s biggest gift to humankind: its destruction of human connection in the service of competition, profit, and security.
(5) Good ideas and a democratic education need to be distributed equally. Like an equal distribution of capital can alleviate poverty and suffering, an equal distribution of knowledge — healthy ideas and power-sharing practices — to rural areas nourishes our democracy:
“None of us can lose sight that equal public schooling is the great hope of our democracy. Equal education is the opportunity to invite young people to cherish the values and skills that make our democracy great — from including an appreciation of diversity to the ability to listen to others, to the vocabulary to articulate one’s own viewpoint and the confidence to voice one’s opinion.”
As the Atlantic reported in 2019, the likelihood of democratic ideas and education reaching those in rural “education deserts” is dismal. The implications for that lack of democratic education means that the only cultural norms the mostly white humans grow in are those they are taught at home. Jonita Davis beautifully describes how that plays out in her ZORA article, “The Midwestern Black Professor Teaching MAGA Babies Is Not All Right.”
If humans have the opportunity to embody power differently — to practice sharing it rather than stealing and hoarding it — it creates the enabling conditions for democratic practices that become norms. We need to bring democratic education to rural places rather than expect those who are trapped in authoritarian worlds to escape and find it for themselves.
(6) Millions of children are born, raised, and trapped in rural American poverty. Save The Children’s annual 2018 “End of Childhood” report is “a first-of-its-kind comparison of rural and urban child poverty rates across America,” and it found that rural child poverty rates are higher than urban in 85 percent of states” The report also demonstrates that
when you shine a light on where poverty has the strongest grip on children’s lives in America, it’s most often in our wide open spaces. In 41 of America’s 47 states with rural designated areas, rural child poverty is higher than in urban areas.
These little human beings — who are at the mercy of adult humans who are also under tremendous pressure — are extremely vulnerable to power-stealing practices in the form of sexual assault, violence, and exploitation. Safe spaces for creativity, vulnerability, expression, warmth, and connection are rare. Those are trivialities when the priority is finding a place to sleep or something to eat. And the loss of human potential when those childhoods are snuffed out is beyond human comprehension.
(7) The 2020 Election. The rural-urban political divide is very real and devastatingly consequential, even if mainstream media have not framed it in those terms for you.
Even as badly as the 45th is doing in the polls, when it all plays out in a week or four, we’ll all see that the divide is clear if we have eyes to see. [We can now see the rural-urban divide in the election results.] We may also see the full extent of the “2nd amendment people” — who are grown mostly in white RAC — standing down and awaiting orders. It was clear in 2016, but mainstream media dropped the ball and missed the connections. Not because they are inept, but because everyone already thinks they get rural America, especially those who read what fellow colleagues in the urban media bubble write.
Disconnected worlds are the basis of our current relational crisis. Our disconnect from others who live in our country but exist in different worlds means we cannot understand the cultural conditions that got us where we are now. And that means we’re asking the wrong questions and looking in the wrong places for solutions.
The cultural conditions for the possibility of the 45th POTUS were grown in Rural American Cultures. We have been looking in the wrong direction for solutions to the American authoritarian problem since the 2016 election. We need to focus on how norms develop in mostly white RAC and what kind of humans grow in those patterns of practices (those norms).
Then, we need to face the answers head-on, and change.
Cathy B. Glenn, Ph.D. is an independent critical researcher, creative, and cultural worker whose areas of expertise are power, culture, and change. Formerly Private Principal Investigator for The Center for U.S. Rural Cultures Studies, she is now Educational Content Director and Developer for “The Relational Democracy Project.” She spent 5 years functionally outside capitalist demands, documenting the experience, and it changed her fundamentally as a human being. She is available to consult.
Portions of this article appear in The Human Basis of Democracy, a nonfiction manuscript in process for “The Relational Democracy Project” (under construction). A version of this article will also be available at Original Source, a new electronic publication in development devoted to firsthand knowledge and field research focused on power relations in various cultural contexts.
Feel free to use this content, with attribution.