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.