When You Dismiss the South as Racist, You're Putting Minorities Who Live There at Risk

rural america voting racism

The United States presidential election is less than 100 days away, and it could not have come at a more divisive and pivotal period in American history. The country is in the midst of a global pandemic and a civil uprising; with so much at stake, it is understandable why constituents are looking forward to November with equal parts hope and terror. 

As election fever continues to climb, eyes will be on constituents across America; but surveys predicting likely voting patterns in rural areas paint a monolithic picture of lower to middle class, white Trump supporters. This depiction of the country alienates a significant portion of Americans who are most affected by policy change: marginalized, high-risk southern communities who lack the visibility that could offer real change. 

One of the major criticisms of the current American political climate is the dominance of the “coastal elite” — well-educated and well-connected city dwellers in blue states, often characterized by their wealth and influence. Though “coastal elitism'' (manifested through the dismissal of rural America as a whole) is a point frequently weaponized by the right to demonstrate how “out of touch” the Democratic party is, there is an element of truth in it. Over the course of the nation’s history, there’s been a deep misunderstanding of rural America and those who inhabit it. 

As it stands, vulnerable communities in rural areas of the country still face constant erasure. For example, The Pew Research Center has noted that immigrants have migrated to rural areas at high rates, accounting for 37% of overall rural growth from 2000 to 2018. The South — especially Texas, New Mexico, Florida, and Alabama — is home to many indigenous communities. Even after the Great Migration in the late nineteenth century, a number of Black families stayed to populate areas like Alabama's Black Belt and the Mississippi Delta. 

But despite their roots in these rural areas, marginalized groups are still excluded from representation, both culturally and politically. Here is where coastal elitism becomes less of an attitude and more of an active threat to their livelihoods. Even though vulnerable communities in urban areas also face the same issues of homelessness, access to education, and food scarcity, that disparity runs even deeper for their rural counterparts as they lack the visibility that might encourage the sympathetic rich to help. 

This is perhaps what is the most difficult for the elite to understand: Those who have been marginalized the most by this country have suffered under the leadership of both parties.

More often than not, states in the Midwest and South are characterized by their large conservative population, and, as a result, condemned by the left. But experts have found that writing off rural states is doing a disservice to the nation as a whole as it suppresses the voices — and votes — of those who would benefit the most from liberal policies such as universal healthcare, abolition of ICE, and the decriminalization of marijuana. 

As Holly Genovese, a PhD candidate in American studies, explained it in her 2019 critique: “Popular depictions of rural life mostly involve white people, and discussions often focus overwhelmingly on rural white conservatives at the expense of everyone else living in rural America, leading some to wonder why rural Americans vote against their own interests. But many of them, including people of color, don’t.”

It’s these misunderstandings of geopolitics that allow it to be weaponized on a legislative, life-threatening scale. 

For example, one of the longest standing political myths is the one of the lazy nonvoter. As Sarah Jackel wrote in the  New York Times, it’s not a lack of interest that prevents most nonvoters from participating in democracy, but rather the (oftentimes unclear) regulations that dictate who is and isn’t an eligible voter. In rural towns, it’s a combination of gerrymandering and other means of voter suppression that prevent vulnerable communities from being able to cast their votes, effectively erasing them from the narrative. 

For example, a study conducted by Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) shows that Asian turnout is low due to the lack of translated materials available to non-English speaking communities. Other examples of voter suppression in rural America include strict voter ID requirements, extremely long poll lines, and general disenfranchisement of marginalized communities.  As Dr. Mara C. Tieken unpacked in her Washington Post column, “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.”

This election also brings about new challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic (which restricts large gatherings in some areas of the nation) and the Trump administration’s attempt to sabotage mail-in ballots. But in many other ways, the country is still mirroring the mistakes from the last presidential election. Following the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, many parts of the country expressed equal parts shock and outrage when Donald Trump was elected over Hillary Clinton. 

For many, Secretary Clinton was the clear contender. Not only did she have the political experience spanning decades, she also had the public support of celebrities, brands, and mainstream media. But the loud voices of the privileged cannot make up for the suppressed votes of the marginalized. Whereas the prominent supporters of the Democratic party have the luxury of leaving the country should the outcome not be in their favor, those who are less privileged are left to suffer under the wrath of Trump’s administration. 

To avoid a repeat of 2016,  Americans must confront their deeply rooted bias against their rural neighbors and extend their hand — and wallets — in place of a turned back. 

For the Democrats, it means repairing relationships with those who feel forgotten and abandoned by the party. There is no one in the United States who understands just how deeply white supremacy and classism runs more than radicals in rural America, and no one who is more excluded from the capital to make the foundational change needed.

In these last 100 days, it is up to candidate Joe Biden to truly earn the votes of rural voters by listening to their concerns — and changing his proposed policies to actually fit the needs of these communities. For his supporters, it means understanding the role of geopolitics and why rural constituents may not see his centrist stance as enough to alleviate the unique hardships they face. All of this must start with empathy, not judgment.

Guilt, for example, is not a productive tactic to win over voters who have been disenfranchised by the United States's political system. It is not enough for Biden to sway Americans simply because he is not Donald Trump. To truly make America great (arguably for the first time ever), Biden must prove himself a candidate worth following by his own merit, not just by the incompetency of his competition. 

In the months to come, in what many are calling a fight to save America’s soul, this country has an opportunity to peel back their miseducation of their rural neighbors and in doing so, perhaps saving the future of this nation. 

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