Sunday, November 27, 2016

In Defense of Rural America

Let me be clear from the outset: I am not defending anyone's decision to vote for Donald Trump. If you know me in any context, you know that I am working day and night to try to prevent Donald Trump from becoming President. I respect differing viewpoints, but I believe there is a line where the question crosses from one of differing political views to one of character.

In theory, it's very black and white to me: a decent human being does not vote for someone who has threatened to force all Muslims to register with the government, who has suggested that Mexicans are rapists and criminals. That's an easy concept, in the abstract, and I have seen it voiced loudly, frequently and often viciously among the people at my side in the trenches over the past weeks.

I get it.

But, I'm burdened by reality.

I've lived in the rural Midwest for most of my adult life. I currently live in a county that went 59.32% for Donald Trump, and I suspect that number would have been higher had Gary Johnson not been in the running. During the years that I lived in the suburbs, one of my primary life goals was to get back to this small town. There were many reasons for that, but one of the most significant was the way people treated one another.

I heard what you just thought. I can see it in your head, that lily white little Mayberry town where everyone treats each other well because they're all exactly alike.

23.5 percent of my little Mayberry town is Hispanic. Our public schools were in the first wave of testing dual language education. Though the numbers are smaller, we are also home to African Americans, Asians of various descent and a small number of native Americans.

On my block alone there are whites, blacks, Mexicans and two Muslim families whose national heritage I do not know. By and large, no one gives a crap. And yet, there is a kind of ingrained racism in many.

My daughter works in a farm store, and several times each week someone--usually an older farmer--makes a snide comment about how he has to select English on the card reader. This is America, isn't it?

It makes her blood boil to the point that I fully expect that one day she will quit or get fired as a result of one of those conversations. Yet, having lived among these particular people for more than ten years and people like them for longer, I can tell you with absolute certainty that if any of them had an elderly Mexican neighbor who didn't speak English, the vast majority of those crochety old farmers would bend over backward to help her.

It was in this town that my white, agnostic-Wiccan blend daughter met her autistic, Mexican, paganish boyfriend while they were both volunteering for a Christian charity that embraced them both with open arms.

I've heard that kind of dissonance described as hypocritical, but I think it's something else entirely. The person standing next to you is a person, regardless of race, color or creed. You hear the things he says and see the way he behaves and share a laugh with him, and it's impossible to miss the fact that he's more like you than he is different. You don't assume a man is lazy when he's working beside you--you observe that he is or is not. You don't apply statistics from possibly-biased news sources to determine whether the single mother who lives next door to you depends on welfare--you see her leaving for work in the morning. In the face of three-dimensional humanity, those superficial characteristics like skin color and marital status fade into the background.

Black, white, Christian, gay, Muslim, Hindu, Middle Eastern, Mexican, straight..those are concepts. It's easy to attach a stereotype to a concept, or to seize hold of the stereotype that's offered to you. In theory, it shouldn't be. In theory, the idea that black men are criminals should clash in your mind with the fact of the black accountant down the hall at work who plays chess with you during lunch. But concepts are different from individual human beings around them--just like the concept of a person who would vote for Donald Trump is different than the individual humans around me.

That doesn't make the things they say okay. It doesn't make the fact that they've elected a crazy man who seems to hate everyone except the President of the Russian Federation to the presidency okay. But, it does bear thinking about, because while that war is going on between the minorities and liberal activists on one side and the guys in white rural America who bitch about the card machine but don't think much about race when confronted with an actual human, the real enemy is largely unattended.

The guys who voted for Trump not believing he could do what he said, taking it as the same kind of rhetoric as bitching about the card reader, believing he'd be a change and another career politician was the last thing we needed--they're an easy target. But, they're an easy target because they're not suited up for battle. They're just going about their lives. They're guilty, perhaps, of not thinking things through to their logical conclusion, of making decisions in the abstract, of not considering those individual human who will be affected. They're guilty, perhaps, of focusing too exclusively on how they and their families will be affected and not giving enough consideration to the world at large. That's wrong.

But, it doesn't change because we villainize them. It doesn't change because we force them down off the fence and onto the other side.

There are more good people in this country than there are bad ones...today. We can't spare any.

I haven't come to writing this post easily. Like many of you, I woke up on the morning after the election feeling like I'd been transported into a strange and hostile territory. I didn't feel entirely safe going outside, and I'm a white professional. That hasn't magically disappeared. I don't know how to tell which of these people around me is part of the "he says what we've all been thinking" brigade. It troubles me deeply that I might unwittingly be sitting next to someone who has been secretly thinking those things.

But here's what I know: these people around me, people the returns say overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump, have been by my side stocking shelves in the food pantry, Christmas shopping for children in need, feeding the hungry, raising funds for any number of important causes, running food drives and coat drives and making nursing home visits and donating books and...(you get the idea) to help people of all races and religions.

And, they're people who take the time to listen. People who don't mind giving you a ride even though you live ten miles outside town. People who will offer you their umbrella to take with you, or the coat they're wearing.

They're imperfect, like all of us. Some of them have big things to learn about the world beyond the borders of their little towns and the harm that casual, theoretical racism can do. But we're at war. And, we have limited resources. Do you want to go to war with the guy who bitches about the card reader and then drops off a nice big check to the soup kitchen serving the Mexican-dominated trailer park, or with the ones who spray paint slurs on walls and assault people who don't look like them and gather together in back rooms to work out a viable plan for registering Muslims?


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