Donald Trump elicited sensational headlines with his broadside about Baltimore, labeling the city a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.”
Despite his racist, politically motivated complaints about poverty, crime and social disorder in urban America, the president has yet to draw similar attention to equal or worse conditions in rural America. And it’s unlikely he ever will.
That’s because, for all the woes afflicting the out-of-sight pockets of impoverished southern and midwestern states, Trump’s most faithful white supporters live there, often in greater distress than the urban, black residents in communities he so bitterly condemned.
Olugbenga Ajilore, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress, emphasizes this point in an illuminating study this week that urged policymakers to pay greater attention to the plight of black Americans in rural communities. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.)
Arguing that politicians, like Trump, tend to equate poverty in the United States with black people living in Chicago, Newark, N.J., Washington, D.C. and other metropolitan areas with large and highly visible minority populations, Ajilore notes that black people are less noticed across rural America. But they are there, struggling no less than their relatives in the big cities.
Yet, Ajilore observes that when political leaders speak of hard times in rural America “they seemingly only focus on these areas’ white residents, neglecting the fact that they are home to a significant number of African Americans.”
Drawing upon data contained in the American Community Survey, Ajilore calculates that African Americans make up 12.3% of the nation’s overall population and comprise 14.3% of the population in southern nonmetropolitan counties. But poverty and social distress doesn’t respect geographic boundaries — or racial identity.
James Ziliak, director of the Centenaries for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky, believes the nation’s rural communities are suffering more than cities.
“Things are worrisome in rural areas,” Ziliak said in a recent interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Jobs aren’t being created there at the same rates as in urban centers, and whatever jobs there are tend to be low-wage.”
Of the nation’s 15 poorest states, 11 are in the South, according to a compilation of federal statistics by World Atlas. Still, 14 of the 15 poorest states supported Trump in the 2016 election. What’s more, a recent USA Today listing of the 35 poorest towns in the United States, with poverty rates as high as 40%, 27 of them are in states that voted for Trump, and the vast majority of them are in Southern states.
So it’s little wonder that Trump is loath to criticize white people living in the heartland of his political support. However, the president and his supporters show little inhibition about attacking people whom they perceive as antagonistic to his political views.
To be sure, the language and narrative that Trump and other conservative politicians and policymakers employ tends to set apart minority populations and undermine public support for addressing deep social ills. Even the nomenclature of public policy employs race-neutral euphemisms to signal what Harvard University sociologist Michèle Lamont calls “symbolic boundaries” to isolate and protect white Americans from the effects of multiculturalism and globalization.
In studying Trump’s speeches, Lamont found that he repeatedly talked about separating people using solid, protective structures — such as building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico — and demonizing minorities to engender support for physical barriers.
“Trump’s electoral speeches also appealed to the white working class because they were a vehicle for boundary work toward groups that white working‐class men typically view as inferior to or below them: immigrants; African Americans and Hispanic Americans; and women and LGBTQ people,” Lamont wrote in an abstract published in the November 2017 edition of The British Journal of Sociology. “Thus, Trump’s speeches performed as speech acts that affirmed workers’ superior standing and symbolically raised their status in relation to these groups.”
By scapegoating the people who live in urban areas with often wildly inaccurate and frightening descriptions, Trump distorts public understanding of the serious and persistent problems afflicting poor Americans of all races. Worse, it builds resentment and anger toward any effort to alleviate the causes of poverty.
“He’s talking about cities and urban areas and using it as a proxy for minorities,” Cornell Belcher, a Washington, D.C.-based pollster for Democratic candidates and issues, said in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times. “He’s pretending to be benevolent, but he’s locking in the stereotype that ‘these people need us to take care of them — those people can’t govern themselves.’ It’s this white savior idea — that is as fundamentally and historically racist as it comes in this country, the idea that people of color need to be saved by the white man.”
Ajilore told ThinkProgress that “there’s a misperception that rural Americans are like the American Gothic, a white farmer on a tractor, not that it is diverse with African Americans, LGBT people, people with disabilities and all the other people who are a part of the nation.”
Given the broad diversity of people living in rural America, Ajilore said his prescription for improving outcomes for black Americans were broad enough to help anyone who lives in the region. Among his recommendations are raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, garnering support for greater unionization in southern states, and encouraging increased voter participation in rural communities by removing structural barriers that limit voting rights.
“What I’m talking about doesn’t only help black people,” he said. “It helps everybody.”