THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
The veneer of civilization is precariously thin. We seem to have forgotten to our peril that it takes only a spark to fan fear and prejudice into flame. Various interpretations of the exceptionality of the American experience are now being tested as the United States faces a double reckoning that is arguably the consequence of inequities too long ignored.
The first wave is the reckoning of race now being addressed by numerous scholars, commentators, politicians and civic leaders. The second, not well understood but perhaps better seen as a counterwave, is the reckoning of rural poverty. This group, preyed on by nativist, far-right, political snake oil salesmen, touches nerve centers across a number of complex issues related to class, social mobility, education and technological access and the ever-widening divide between urban and rural interests. Increasingly (and perhaps ironically given that, for at least the last half a century, it is often considered a phenomenon of the black south) rural poverty has become identified with white supremacy. Unfortunately for the national political discourse, the hijacking of these issues has allowed many on the left to dismiss any claims made on behalf of the poor, thus the gulf has continued to widen.
For those who felt unseen, the insurrection was an outpouring of rage. For those on the left, it proved there could be no redemption. The left’s assumption of stupidity on the part of Trump supporters moved to fear and bile and even less sympathy, to talk about the social damage being done to people in outlying areas who suffer without the means to effect change in their own lives and those of their families.
Yet, the charges against rural areas of being ignorant, parochial and outright racist - until proven innocent - bely reality. The demographics have changed, but the time-honored traditions of high civic involvement, volunteerism and charitable giving have not, despite poor education and health infrastructure and year on year rises in rates of unemployment, drug abuse and suicide.
West of the West, North of the North
Theodore Roosevelt once declared California to be “west of the west” and it is not difficult to understand why. At the time of his presidency, California felt removed from the ‘old west’ of cowboy country, the high plains or the deserts of the southwest. Even the state’s weather and terrain vary widely along both the axis of east to west and north to south. The state seemed destined from the outset to be something different and perhaps even unique. Today, it is not only the physical that creates divisions in the state, but a growing divide of wealth and opportunity. The queen of NorCal remains San Francisco, but there is a great deal of north above her in the places locals called the ‘far north’ or the ‘Northstate’ stretching for more than 400 miles to the Oregon border. The cruel disparities between this region and southern or central California has a place that can only be ‘north of the north’.
This juxtaposition makes the Northstate of California an excellent case study of the complexities of rural poverty and its role in the reckoning of state and national politics. Often said to be home only to ‘hippies and hicks’ or ‘pot farms and forest fires,’ the stereotypes of this region rarely include the fact that the area contains thirty of California’s 109 federally recognized tribes (and nine of only twenty tribes with enrolled memberships over 1,000, including the Yurok, the largest tribe in the state). There is a healthy international community coming from China, the Philippines and Mexico. Languages include Hmong, German and Vietnamese and of course Spanish as many counties have double digit percentage Hispanic populations. Sadly, some of these factors may also help explain why 10 of the 15 poorest counties in the entire state are found in this remote region and why the food banks that have always served a quarter to a third of the population are now serving more like a half to three quarters of the people in each of these counties.
The challenges of homelessness, access to the basic technology now required to participate in the essential economic, political and social life of any community and the growing scarcity of health care, mental health and a good education are intense in every setting. However, even the most severe problems can be rendered all but invisible in rural areas. The centers of power gravitate to centers of voters and efforts are concentrated on the needs of visible causes. The centralizing tendency of power, especially in such a huge state, easily get attached to a utilitarian view of resources. Even the best intentions on the part of state agencies and officials are undermined by a lack of understanding of the realities of distance, lack of technology, and poor health and educational options.
Yet, perhaps the most concerning in terms of our wider civil discourse and community engagement are the stereotypes that pervade conversations about rural poverty. This compounds the government’s lack flexibility, preventing the creation of systems that can respond to the particular circumstances of small and remote places. The urban power brokers are epitomized to the people in these areas by dinners at 5-star restaurants in the midst of a pandemic and the sports and media personalities who walk to the front of the vaccine queue. The majestic redwoods and the wild coastline of the far north are becoming a tourist destination and a playground for the wealthy while the locals are stymied in their efforts to create lasting economic development lest they disturb the purity of the area or the environmental cred of those ruling from elsewhere.
At the same time, adventurous well-paid urban tech workers are making plans to head to the ‘rural idyll’. They are buying up property for a ‘steal’ and driving up prices that locals have not been able to afford since the 2008 recession that still haunts the economy. Small local businesses, breweries and bakeries – the lifeblood after the demise of lumber and fishing – were already struggling but many have now been destroyed. COVID lockdowns, trying to control people who insisted on continuing ‘life as normal’ have utterly destroyed the livelihoods of people in a place with a low infection rate and few deaths. To read the world news, it may be shocking to hear that, in the far north of California, only 1 county has double digit positivity and only 2 counties have suffered over 100 deaths. Most counties remain firmly in double if not single digit mortality and the grand total of deaths for the entire region is less than 1,000. What else can the people of this area think but that there is one set of rules for the urban wealthy and another for the rural poor?
In places where opportunities are scarce if not impossible to find, conspiracy and paranoia grow in that void. When elected officials appear to be so willfully ignorant of the consequences of their decisions, people with a theory, however implausible, find a voice and an audience. When the daily news relentlessly demands an answer to the unanswerable question: ‘What can these people possibly be thinking?’ - the fact we have to ask, reflects the depth of the disconnect between people who have been trapped and ignored (and now reviled) and those who assume that the desires and goals of urban modernity are ubiquitous.
Governor Newsom entered office with the goal of creating a ‘California for all’. President Biden has called for unity and resolve, declaring this to be a time to repair, restore, build and to heal. California’s Northstate would be an ideal place to begin an urgent effort of understanding and reconciliation lest the rural poor remain ripe for radicalization.