“They don’t want our intelligence,” a classmate of mine confidently proclaimed to our 75-person Late American Political Thought class last spring. The statement was followed by many nods of agreement from the class. Surprisingly enough, he wasn’t talking about some form of extraterrestrial life, but rather about people living in rural America.
Our discussion was on America's invisible poor a topic we had been reading about in “The Other America: Poverty in the United States," an acclaimed book by Michael Harrington published in 1962. Harrington described the ever-growing economic divide in the country during the era of affluence, talking about how as the middle class grew, it was becoming farther removed from the realities of the impoverished, often rural or deeply urban, American communities. He used the Appalachian region as one example of a community that was not seeing the increase in wealth that other parts of America were. In a very brief summary that does not do the book any justice, he talked about how this inequality was affecting the psyches of the people in these communities and those who were blind to their struggles. He called these people “The Other America” and described the effect of being forgotten on the residents and society as a whole.
The student in my class’s response was in answer to the question “Why is there a cycle of poverty in these communities?” His answer was that these people simply don’t want our intelligence. His definition of “our” referred to the people who have been able to move up the socioeconomic ladder— those in the suburbs and cities who, in his view, made it due to their heightened intelligence. What was surprising was how much of our class seemed to agree with his statement.
If this had been the only time I had heard a student at the University of Michigan voice such a negative opinion about America’s rural class, maybe I would have chalked it up to one case of ignorance, but, on the contrary, I have heard many similar statements among my peers. In another conversation in an earlier class, I overheard two people discussing what it was like to live in a small town. A girl said, “I grew up in a small town and it was awful.” The boy she was talking to, in an attempt to connect with her, said, “Yeah I can imagine you must have wanted to get out of a place where people’s minds are so small.”
After the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, I found myself shocked by some of the statements made by my peers describing what they thought anyone who voted for Trump must be like. Adjectives that I’ve heard used include but are not limited to: ignorant, stupid, bigoted, racist, evil and abhorrent. I felt an immense amount of duty to defend the people from rural America as these were my people. I grew up in rural communities and have a deep respect for the people in our country who work our farms, fix our cars, build our houses and keep our streets safe from crime.
By now, many sociologists, psychologists and journalists have taken on the task of looking into what caused so much of working class America, particularly regions such as the Rust Belt, which have historically voted Democrat for almost 20 years, to make such a drastic switch by voting overwhelmingly for Trump. Every source from Newsweek to CNN to USA Today has published articles citing various studies and proposing a myriad of theories.
One thing I know, however, is that there has been very little empathy in these articles for the people they are analyzing, as if they are nothing more than animals in a zoo to be evaluated and yet not truly with whom to be related. Often times these people’s feelings, whether they are said to be based on economic hardships, cultural concerns or some form of paranoia, are portrayed to be inherently false, not grounded in rational logic and out of touch with reality.
Yet, it is not very often that the people writing these articles have truly seemed to step into the shoes of these individuals. They draw a very hard line based on what they deem to be unacceptable political affiliations. They protest all over the country in cities like Ann Arbor that are touted as some of the most “inclusive” places to live in America, and yet they seem to have little concern with actually empathizing with a portion of the population large enough to come together and vote Trump into office as the president of the United States.
What I see on our campus is a deeply rooted classism and elitism that breeds a superiority complex that has enabled our student body to create an “us” and a “them”. We see ourselves as the educated, and therefore the superior minds. Yet, and maybe as a symptom of arrogant youth, we lack an understanding of how the environment and livelihoods of the people in these communities have shaped the way they think.
I have intentionally avoided delving into the myriad of theories as to why people in rural America believe the things they do because that is not the point of my article. Rather, my point is this: On a campus that preaches so much “tolerance,” it is undoubtedly hypocritical to hear people talk so disgracefully about rural communities the way they do. Is it okay to generalize and stereotype them because we see them as majority white? I certainly don’t think so. Is it okay to call them “stupid” or “ignorant” because they don’t have what we perceive as a high standard of education? The average liberal student may not say so considering they’d never make such statements about people from other cultures or of differing education systems because this would be seen as racist and culturally arrogant. Yet we catch ourselves saying these things about those in rural America. It is time we evaluate our own “tolerance” as well as our own perceptions of ourselves. If we truly are “the leaders and the best,” it is time that we realize that the best leaders listen to those who are struggling and truly hear what they have to say with compassion and humility.
Abbie Berringer can be reached at email@example.com