The ru­ral Amer­ica ev­ery­one is ig­nor­ing

Even with a new fo­cus on for­got­ten com­mu­ni­ties af­ter the elec­tion, only one racial nar­ra­tive is be­ing told

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUN­DAY OPIN­ION - BY MARA CASEY TIEKEN Mara Casey Tieken is an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tion at Bates Col­lege and au­thor of “Why Ru­ral Schools Mat­ter.”

Last year’s earth­shak­ing elec­tion brought new at­ten­tion to ru­ral Amer­ica. This at­ten­tion is over­due — ru­ral Amer­ica has long been largely ig­nored by re­porters, re­searchers and pol­i­cy­mak­ers — and much of it is use­ful, as this in­creas­ingly ur­ban-cen­tric coun­try tries to un­der­stand and re­con­nect with those liv­ing far from cities.

But so far, the nar­ra­tive emerg­ing about ru­ral Amer­ica has been woe­fully in­com­plete, be­cause so much of the me­dia cov­er­age has fo­cused on only one slice of it: ru­ral white Amer­ica. Some sto­ries are clear about their scope: Their au­thors have in­ten­tion­ally cho­sen a par­tic­u­lar geo­graphic and racial pop­u­la­tion to ex­plore and ex­plain. Oth­ers are less ob­vi­ous in their fo­cus, though de­tails — re­gion of the coun­try or pho­to­graphs — soon make ex­plicit what is merely im­plied or as­sumed. Ei­ther way, though, a par­tic­u­lar racial nar­ra­tive is be­ing told.

There’s an­other ru­ral Amer­ica that ex­ists be­yond this ru­ral white Amer­ica. Nearly 10.3 mil­lion peo­ple, about one-fifth of ru­ral res­i­dents, are peo­ple of color. Of this pop­u­la­tion, about 40 per­cent are African Amer­i­can, 35 per­cent are non­white His­panic, and the re­main­ing 25 per­cent are Na­tive Amer­i­can, Asian, Pa­cific Is­lan­der or mul­tira­cial. And this ru­ral Amer­ica is ex­pected to grow in the com­ing decades, as ru­ral ar­eas see a rapid in­crease in Latino im­mi­gra­tion.

This ru­ral Amer­ica, much like ru­ral white Amer­ica, can be found from coast to coast. But these ru­ral Amer­i­cans tend to live in dif­fer­ent places from ru­ral whites: across the Mis­sis­sippi Delta and the Deep South; through­out the Rio Grande Val­ley; on reser­va­tions and na­tive lands in the South­west, Great Plains and North­west.

This ru­ral Amer­ica has a dif­fer­ent his­tory from ru­ral white Amer­ica: a his­tory of forced mi­gra­tion, en­slave­ment and con­quest. This ru­ral Amer­ica re­ceives even lower pay and fewer pro­tec­tions for its la­bor than does ru­ral white Amer­ica. And, as my own re­search shows, this ru­ral Amer­ica at­tends very dif­fer­ent schools than ru­ral white Amer­ica, schools that re­ceive far less fund­ing and other re­sources.

In fact, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween ru­ral white com­mu­ni­ties and ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties of color is much like the re­la­tion­ship be­tween ur­ban white com­mu­ni­ties and ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties of color: sep­a­rate and un­equal.

And it also ap­pears that these ru­ral Amer­i­cans vote for dif­fer­ent can­di­dates than ru­ral whites. A look at county-level vot­ing and de­mo­graphic data sug­gests that this ru­ral Amer­ica voted for Hil­lary Clin­ton.

In defin­ing ru­ral white Amer­ica as ru­ral Amer­ica, 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. Iron­i­cally, this story — so of­ten told by lib­er­als try­ing to ex­plain the re­cent rise in undis­guised na­tivism and xeno­pho­bia — serves to re-priv­i­lege white­ness. White­ness is as­sumed; other races are shoved even fur­ther to the mar­gins.

The era­sure of ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties of color has other, more im­me­di­ate risks, too. As com­mu­nity and ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tions rush to tem­per the ef­fects of re­cent im­mi­gra­tion and voter-ID poli­cies, they may fo­cus on ur­ban ar­eas and over­look the ru­ral pop­u­la­tions — im­mi­grants, refugees and black com­mu­ni­ties — also af­fected by this leg­is­la­tion. And as hope­ful pro­gres­sives mar­ket them­selves in the run-up to midterm elec­tions, they risk alien­at­ing their ru­ral sup­port­ers: ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties of color.

In­ter­est in ru­ral Amer­ica is wel­come. But we need to make sure it is com­plete and in­clu­sive — and gen­uine. We need to press the me­dia for more bal­anced, more rep­re­sen­ta­tive cov­er­age of ru­ral places and peo­ple. We need to push our politi­cians for leg­is­la­tion and pro­grams that sup­port ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties of color. And we need to or­ga­nize, build­ing po­lit­i­cal coali­tions that bridge lines of race and ge­og­ra­phy.

MELINA MARA/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Peter Smith feeds the cows af­ter the 6 a.m. milk­ing at James City Bi­ble and Agri­cul­tural Train­ing School Dairy near Wil­liams­burg, Va.

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