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Whitewashing Trump Country

How the media erases people of color from rural communities

Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Rural America is white and in love with Donald Trump, according to reports. Since 2016 it has been depicted as the nation’s one true bastion of Trump support. A 2016 New Yorker piece announced that West Virginia, “the heart of Trump country,” had “practically no immigrants.” The state’s immigrant population actually increased at rates higher than the national average from 2010 to 2014, but media coverage of West Virginia and other Trump-friendly states typically did not include such details. In the hands of parachuting reporters, rural America became a frighteningly white place, devoid of people of color.

“I’ve never been to a place as white as Iowa,” Stephen Marche observed for The Guardian in 2016. “I heard a lot about how Obama has not been supportive enough of the police, of how white lives matter, too, and of how illegal—as in illegal immigrant—means illegal, just as robbing a bank is,” Roger Cohen wrote for The New York Times the same year. “For anyone used to New York chatter, or for that matter London or Paris chatter, Kentucky is a through-the-looking-glass experience.”

In December 2017, the Associated Press informed us that the town of Sandy Hook, Kentucky, still supported Donald Trump despite everything—but deep inside the usual Trump Country anecdotes there lurked a surprise. “I damn sure didn’t vote for Trump. I’d rather walk through hell wearing gasoline britches,” announced retired construction worker Terry Stinson. Not everyone in Sandy Hook loves Donald Trump, apparently—which seems like the only bit of real news in the piece.

There have been a few notable exceptions to the typical safari tour of Trump’s America. W. Kamau Bell filmed an episode of United Shades of America with black coal miners in eastern Kentucky. The AP has run two stories set in North Carolina’s most racially diverse rural county, Robeson County. But old stereotypes die hard, as black Kentuckians told The Washington Post in 2017. “When someone hears ‘Appalachia,’ the first thing that pops into their head isn’t an African American face, ever,” said Shaylan Clark of Lynch, Kentucky. In the press, the prototypical Appalachian still looks like a white man in Carhartt and coal miner’s helmet.

No one is disputing the reality of racism in red states. But the Trump-loving blue collar worker doesn’t represent rural America, which is composed of a collection of communities. While swathes of rural America are indeed mostly white, rural communities have always been home to black and Native Americans, and they also draw growing immigrant populations. Coverage that connects rural America so frequently to Trump and to the racial resentment that placed him in office is coverage that can whitewash. Not only does it obscure the experiences and activism of people of color and their allies, it reinforces rather than rebuts white supremacist narratives about rural people and places. Contrary to what the media might have you believe, the fight to save rural America is one aspect of the fight for racial justice.

Trump’s policies—the antipathy toward the welfare state, industry deregulation, immigration raids that break up families—rip the fabric of the entire country, but their effects can be pronounced in rural places. Children who live in rural communities are more likely to live in low-income households, and infant mortality rates are higher in rural areas.  These trends also contribute to the marginalization of people of color. In 2015, Stateline reported that 47 percent of Latino babies in rural communities are born poor, compared to 41 percent of Latino babies in urban areas. Many of these babies are born to farmworkers, who frequently endure substandard housing, low pay, and exposure to environmental contaminants like pesticides.

Native reservations, which are mostly located in rural areas, experience similar problems for different reasons. Michael Roberts, who is the president and CEO of the First Nations Development Institute, told me that the social ills plaguing rural America can be seen to trickle up from reservations, though this link frequently receives short shrift in the national press.  

“We like binary kinds of stories. We like urban vs. rural and liberal vs. conservative. And when you look at reservations, for the most part you see rural, brown, impoverished, and for the most part fairly liberal people,” he said. “So they don’t fit the nice neat package of farm life in rural America that national media would like to portray.”

When Native stories are excluded from national coverage of rural America, he added, we miss quite a lot. A recent example concerned the USDA’s proposed America’s Harvest Boxes, which would replace food stamps with boxes of non-perishable foods that had been selected for recipients. (Considering rural America’s disproportionate share of low-income households, it would presumably receive the lion’s share of the USDA’s boxes.) The agency already operates a similar initiative called the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), and at least one 2016 study found that the boxes provided through FDPIR often didn’t meet the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. “When you look at high rates of diabetes and hypertension on reservations, it’s not hard to trace it back to the FDPIR boxes,” Roberts said.

The USDA’s new proposal is unlikely to become law; if it did, its could retain the flaws of the original, which has been a mainstay for Native communities for decades. The gap between the outrage over the USDA’s new, “Blue Apron-style” boxes and the comparative media silence over FDPIR reveals another, broader problem: visibility.

“When I’m wrapping up interviews and I ask community members if there’s anything else they want people to know, they say, ‘Yeah. That we’re here. People don’t think we’re here.’ It doesn’t get included in the broader narrative about Appalachia,” said William Isom, who coordinates East Tennessee PBS’s Black in Appalachia Project. Asked why the stories of black Appalachians aren’t told more often, Isom responded, “Appalachia is a really easy place to dehumanize. One of my mentors said to me once that the way that the rest of the country looks at the South is the way the rest of the South looks at Appalachia. People have to have that Other to point to in order to say, ‘Well, at least we’re not them.’ Appalachia has fit that bill since the country has existed.”

That layer of enforced invisibility doesn’t just obscure the contributions of Appalachians of color to Appalachian culture: It erases their political needs as well. Dr. Clara Roman-Odio, a professor of Spanish and Latin-American literature at Kenyon College, told me that while Latinos are driving demographic transformation in Ohio, their presence in local communities sometimes doesn’t register with their non-Latino neighbors. Her project, Latinos in Rural America (LIRA), aims to change that: Working alongside Kenyon students, she collects oral histories from Latino residents in rural Knox County to showcase their experiences and contributions to local life.

“LIRA emerged from a question that was brought up by a member of the Knox County community organization. I sat on their advisory board, and we were discussing Latinos, so I brought up the question of, ‘How about the Latinos in Knox County?’ And the answer was, ‘Where are the Latinos in Knox County, and how can we reach them?’” she said. “I’ve been at Kenyon for 25 years and I know that the percentage around here is low, but there are still plenty of Latinos. I was intrigued by this question and I was taken a little bit by surprise.”

Roman-Odio and her students found that Latinos make significant contributions to local economies and cultures while still experiencing higher-than-average rates of unemployment and poverty. And while local Latino students are more likely than white students to finish high school, they’re less likely to go on to college, a trend that at least partially reflects a comparative lack of resources. It’s also in line with a broader problem: Rural high school students are less likely to attend college overall.

Rural communities may feel a world apart from urban centers and suburban strip malls, but in reality they’re much closer, and so are their problems. If rural high schoolers have difficulty matriculating at college, it’s not due to some rot inherent to rural places, but to increasing tuition costs and inadequate funding for public secondary schools. And just as America’s social ills disproportionately hurt rural people, they also disproportionately harm people of color. The root problems don’t differ, not really; they’re the same in the city and in the country.

Even in rural areas that trend conservative, these points of interlinking struggle represent an opportunity for progressive activists. Edwina Howard-Jack, an Indivisible organizer based in West Virginia, described her home of Upshur County as “one of the most conservative, if not the most conservative, counties” in an already conservative state. “Yet we continue. I feel like we’re building a broad base and I have been pleased overall with the community response,” she said, adding that her Indivisible chapter has grown. And she’s hopeful about one potential point of solidarity: The state’s public employees are currently engaged in a fight with state government over inadequacies in their pay and insurance coverage.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to be a progressive activist in rural West Virginia. When Howard-Jack organized an anti-racist rally in Upshur County, she encountered vitriolic resistance.“There were a lot of people who didn’t want to accept that hate exists in our town, and who didn’t understand why we would have an anti-racist rally,” she said. “But over 200 people attended. It turned out to be very successful, but it didn’t come without a lot of pushback from conservatives locally.” That pushback ranged from hostile social media posts to threats that a white supremacist biker gang would show up. Howard-Jack herself became a target. “I had my tire slashed. I had to relocate my family during the days leading up to the rally,” she said.

But local hostility hasn’t deterred Howard-Jack and activists in other conservative areas. Joyce Johnson, who serves as co-chair for the North Carolina branch of the Poor People’s Campaign, told me, “We live in a place where there are historically and currently folk who are members of extremist, racist groups; groups who are hostile to women and immigrants. That is here, but that is not the majority of people in North Carolina.” The campaign recently launched a 40-day series of coordinated protests, and while Johnson herself is based in the city of Greensboro, her organization works closely with the state’s significant rural population as part of an overarching strategy for political change.

“It really is person by person, group by group,” she said, adding that in rural areas, churches, labor unions and other civic groups are “key” to their efforts. The end result is a diverse campaign. “I’m a woman of color, an African American, but I’m also talking and walking and working alongside people who are white and Latino, who are of Asian American origin,” she said. “The hearts and desires are really the same.”