A devil's bargain on the prairie
Or what happens when you say "our country is willing to accept some suffering and death, but only in certain places."
Top note: Thank you, as always, for all your support—- for sharing these posts and for talking to me about them, either here or on Twitter or Instagram or in my inbox. Thanks also to all of you who’ve donated to The Barnraisers Project (slightly new website coming soon, by the way! slightly less ugly!). It’s how this train keeps chugging down the tracks. A special shout out to the folks in my current Barnraisers organizing cohorts- you all are so lovely and you make reading 145 homework assignments a delight.
Also: cool press this week! I was interviewed by Olivia Weeks at The Daily Yonder about rural organizing! It’s good (also, subscribe to their Path Finders newsletter, which is where they do thoughtful interviews like this one). Speaking of interviews, my book’s editor, Yahdon Israel, did a very lovely one over at Shondaland and you should check that out to understand why I’m so lucky to get to work with him.
Doland, South Dakota has always been a tiny dot of a town, one among many in the scatterplot of tiny dots that periodically break up the otherworldly flatness of Eastern, South Dakota. It is my parent’s hometown, which is why it holds an outsized place in my own heart. If it’s known by people who didn’t grow up in Spink County, however, it’s as the hometown of Hubert Humphrey. The future Senator and Vice President came of age in Doland in the 1920s, in the waning years of a very specific wave of progressive populism— where farmers and their allies across the (White) Upper Midwest banded together against railroads, banks and other titans of predatory capitalism. This was the era of Fighting Bob Lafollette in Wisconsin and the Public Bank of North Dakota. It was an era where so many little dots like Doland formed cooperatives— farm co-ops, electrical co-ops, water co-ops. None of these towns were liberatory utopias (there weren’t many radical visions for a new relationship with neighboring tribes, for example) but the fact remains— it was a promising micro-moment in American history, one of those sliding doors blips where we experimented with being a different, kinder country.
Every biography of Hubert Humphrey traces his stalwart liberal values to his father, Hubert Sr. (the town druggist), a true believer in the need for working people to band together in the face of parasitic capitalism. Dad Humphrey’s one-man crusade against the fast-talking private conglomerate that swooped into town to buy the town’s power and light co-op was of particular legend. For weeks on end, in town meeting after town meeting, he pulled out every rhetorical trick in the book to appeal to a spirit of neighborliness and collective care on the part of his fellow Dolandites. His message was simple: Don’t sell. Let’s take care of each other instead. Many disagreed with him, but the general consensus was that the pharmacist represented the town’s better angels.
Hubert Jr. did his best to carry on his Dad’s legacy in his public life. He wasn’t a flawless liberatory force by any means— his stubborn anti-communism and loyalty to and ambition within the Democratic Party led him to publicly support the Vietnam War in spite of his private misgivings, and while he built his reputation on standing up to the Dixiecrat and the Southern Democratic wing of the party, he let the Black Freedom movement down by seating contested White segregationist delegates at the 1964 convention. And yet, he truly was one of the mid-century Democratic party’s most stalwart voices for racial and economic justice. While none of us are perfect, the Doland-raised Senator was the key legislative force behind not only the Civil Rights Act but also the creation of both Medicare and the federal food stamp program. In a country with far too few big left-wing victories, that’s a pretty decent batting average.
The thing about the forces of power, though, is that they are incredibly effective at maintaining themselves. And throughout the history of our country, White communities across class and geographical lines have been easy marks for that maintenance project. This isn’t surprising, of course. It is our communities that have the most skin in the game to keep things rolling the way they are. It’s just frustrating with how easily and how frequently we fold. The good townspeople of 1920s Doland may have been impressed by Hubert Sr.’s oratory and passion, for example, but they were more impressed by the fast-talking money mens’ promise that the town would get new, free electric streetlamps if they sold their co-op.
So yes, Doland sold its utility. And of course, the slick-talking hucksters never made good on their promise about the street lights. And Doland wasn’t unique- that brief period of prairie collectivism was always going to be an anomaly. They didn’t call them pioneers because they loved consensus decision-making. The populist moment would soon give way to anticommunism and agribusiness, and before too long tiny dots like Doland would get even tinier. Again, you know the story: The center didn’t hold. Things fell apart. Towns like Doland no longer produced (or had much time for) voices like Humphrey or George Mcgovern or Henry Wallace. Eastern South Dakota’s most famous political export these days is Watertown’s own Kristi Noem, South Dakota’s governor and (at least until a scandal-filled past couple weeks) a true rising star in the national Republican Party.
Noem is a very skilled politician reading from a very popular playbook— her offer to the good people of South Dakota isn’t the “we’re stronger together” populism of Dad Humphrey’s era, it’s the same tired cocktail of individual liberty and ire for anybody who might strip it from you. Hers has been a governorship full of various culture war bromides— anti-CRT, anti-trans, etc., coupled with a “rev up your engines, live free (and) die” approach to Covid. Her decision to not only allow but personally marshall the 2020 Sturgis rally has been linked to the devastating fall Covid wave not only in her own state, but across the upper Midwest. As for the self-proclaimed “Land of Infinite Variety," one out of every 400 South Dakotans has died of Covid since the beginning of the pandemic. That’s about 2,150 deaths, which would rank as the 40th largest city or town in the state (or, put differently, that’s ten times as many deceased South Dakotans as there are current residents of Doland).
When people ask what I do for a living (a very good question! it isn’t always clear!), I usually give an exceptionally poor answer. I mumble out something about “training white people to do anti-racist organizing in their communities”— which more often than not makes the other person say “oh” and immediately wish they had run into somebody with a better answer, something like “teen Tik-Tok influencer” or “space camp counselor” or “Governor of South Dakota.”
I’ve stuck with that reply, though, because it is technically accurate, it’s relatively easy to cough out and because if I leave out the “anti-racism” part and just say “I train white people to organize in white communities” I am, um, evoking a very different type of organizing.
To be honest, though, I’m not in love with that answer. That phrasing implies all sorts of things, most of them pretty darn paternalistic. It raises questions about whether liberation movements need white people, about whether (if that is the case) other white people should be the ones pied-pipering us in, about what “anti-racism” even is in 2021 now that it has its own bookshelf at Target and its own sub-category of Instagram influencers. Most of all, though, it lacks the backward-looking or forward-imagining context that would give it any heft, any meaning. “Why anti-racism with white people?” “Towards what end?”
You may have seen the headline this week—- “Rural Americans dying of Covid At Twice the Rates of Urbanites.” Damn if that’s not such a gut-punch of a headline. Damn if it doesn’t call your attention to so many different realities that the heart can’t hold without breaking: that there are so many people dying in so many places, that if such a clear geographic pattern of death and destruction exists, it must be for a reason, and finally, that whatever that reason is, it can’t be good.
“Rural America” is not, of course, a synonym for “White America.” Rural America is Indigenous and White and Black and Mexican and Salvadorean and Filipino and Chinese and Hmong... you get the point. What is true, though, is that “rural America” as we know it is a wholesale creation of White America. There would be no “rural America” in its current form without Manifest Destiny, Homestead Acts and a trail of smallpox blankets in one direction, chattel slavery and the plantation/Jim Crow South in another and various outposts of extractive industry (timber! coal! copper! gold!) sprinkled throughout. America’s twin founding pillars— individual liberty and free markets— don’t work unless the recipients of that individual liberty (White men, initially by law and now, you know, just out of force of habit) aren’t given plenty of room to spread out across the country and establish their own personal fiefdoms. Nor does the whole thing work unless capital has the most frictionless path to money-making and fortune-enriching. Rural America is a product of land both taken and cultivated by force. It is the product of a particularly cruel variety of magical thinking: that there would be immense collateral damage built into the American project, but that if we limited the destruction to specific castes of people, that somehow we’d get away with it.
“Rural America is dying” headlines aren’t lamentable because rural death is any more of a tragedy than urban or suburban death. They matter because the story of “why rural America is like this” is inextricably tied to the story of “why America is like this.” Those headlines are alarm bells alerting us that the rickety tower that is the American experiment is teetering ever closer to a full toppling-over. They’re warnings that even the places we created as pressure release valves for our insatiable love of liberty and money are now straining under the weight of our sins.
Here’s all this was designed to work. Throughout American history, a relatively small number of people (mostly White but not solely) have gotten very rich (as Patrick Wyman points out, not all those economic winners are the much-derided coastal elites— these days rural and micropolitan American power structures largely exist for the benefit of a wealthy class of local gentry). Meanwhile, other White people may not have gotten rich, but at least have been offered some vague promise in return for their support (it usually hasn’t been as obviously flim-flammish as Doland’s street lights… instead it’s something more sophisticated like “your children won’t have to go to school with Black kids”). And of course, Black people, Indigenous people and immigrants from Asia and Latin America have borne the brunt of it all, often with their lives.
The first and most obvious problem with this, of course, is that this is an immensely cruel way to prop up a country. It’s built on the acceptance of death and dehumanization as a feature, not a bug. The deal White America has always gotten, though (and that for most of our history we’ve been willing to take) is that all that death and dehumanization will be concentrated in other people’s communities. And for generations, even though that story was false, we were still able to convince ourselves that it was real (for more on this, as always, check out the alpha and omega of “white racism is a snake eating its own tail” books — Strangers In Their Own Land and The Sum Of Us). What Covid (and climate disasters) are proving, however, is that once you accept human beings as collateral damage, no community will be spared. That’s the story behind a headline like “Rural Americans are dying at twice the rate…”
This is why I worry about the way we talk about “anti-racism,” (and the way my own ham-fisted description of what I do only adds to the problem). More and more, the term “anti-racism” has become shorthand for a self-perpetuating industry rather than a vision for a changed society. When we say “anti-racism” we’re often talking about rhetorical battles about what language is and isn’t acceptable in corporate boardrooms and college campuses. We’re talking about whether people with bachelor’s degrees will choose to buy an Ibram X. Kendi book or subscribe to a grumpy reactionary newsletter about how private schools are too woke these days. We are talking about individuals, disproportionally middle-to-upper-class progressives, trying to learn how to do less harm. And much of that is actually very important! I’ve been in enough schools and campuses and workplaces to know that “having the White people who directly interact with Black and Brown people stop being so freaking annoying” does matter quite a bit. I just worry that it misses the point.
My fear is that we have increasing evidence that our country’s lack of collective care has always been killing us, but that it will only get worse. I believe that— both because of demographics and concentrations of power and our Punch and Judy show electoral system— that White people still hold outsized influence on whether positive social change moves forward or stops in its track. That’s not the same as saying that White people should lead us into the new era, just that we’re disproportionally in the way right now.
I wouldn’t be an organizer if I believed that our addiction to cruelty is intractable— my roots are, after all, in a town full of White people that once upon a time did aspire to be less cruel. But I do think that the path forward is going to be really hard, and it’s going to take a lot of us being willing to relate to each other in a different way. And that won’t be possible if we’re not more precise about what it is we’re welcoming folks into.
I believe in anti-racism, but not as an abstract merit badge. I just want a country where fewer people are dying, where fewer people are alone, where fewer people aren’t loved. I want that for small towns full of Black people and big cities full of Mexican-Americans. I want that for suburban Vietnamese communities and for White people living in big cities. I don’t want that just for Doland, South Dakota, but I most definitely do want it for Doland, South Dakota. I work with White people not because we’re more deserving of dignity and life than anybody else, but because we happen to be standing in the way of all of us sharing in the dignity and life we deserve.
I haven’t figured out a way to say all that when somebody asks me what I do for a living, but I’m realizing now that the more I lean on pithy short-hand, the more that I strip this moment of the context it deserves. This isn’t about paternalism or charity or guilt over what people who look like me have done to people who don’t look like me. I’m just tired of how many of us are dying. I just think we all deserve so much more.
This was very fulfilling. I've spent more time in eastern Montana this summer than I have in many years, and have been thinking a lot about hollowed out towns and counties and what mass media narratives about rural areas completely miss (everything).