In the age of scarcity (for many) and excess (for the few), the language and policies of diversity become zero-sum. What another gets, you lose, so goes the polarized thinking that has turned our public square into a fever swamp of resentments and recriminations.
For too many rural Americans, the term diversity is synonymous with otherness because residents of remote regions don’t realize that we, too, are underrepresented and misunderstood. Policies and structures strand and marginalize us.
We rural Americans need to focus on correcting this, finding allies in other demographics who are similarly left out of the modern American economy and higher education and top levels of the judiciary — and yes, even my profession, journalism, where rural voices can be absent or hard to find in key power centers.
Rural Americans served in wars and farmed and mined coal and built the manufacturing base, and increasingly there is little, if any, role for them in the new economy — one in which wealth is scooped and segregated to coastal tech clusters.
The Seattle computer engineers make six figures, and we are supposed to be excited about night-watch positions, jobs of surpassing boredom and little pay, guarding data centers or warehouses the tech giants locate in Des Moines and Council Bluffs because of bet-the-farm tax incentives and cheaper electricity (that’s more reliable, as Texas just showed us).
U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, understands this. Which is essential, because he represents Silicon Valley.
“When you have Google or Facebook out there making money, it doesn’t necessarily benefit someone in Iowa,” Khanna told me in a recent interview. “It doesn’t necessarily benefit someone in Michigan, other than them being consumers, so what I am saying is we’ve got to think about how, in a modern economy, can we create wealth generation in the new technologies across America?”
We’ve detailed the congressman’s extensive work for rural America in this column space. He’s one of the more effective and well-positioned advocates rural America has living outside of rural America.
One publication rural Americans should read is an online national rural newspaper, The Daily Yonder, which recently interviewed University of California-Davis law professor Lisa Pruitt. The Yonder notes that her article “Welfare Queens and White Trash” reports that “white poverty remains largely undiscussed in legal scholarship and in the media.”
“I started to observe the ways in which legal scholars and appellate judges tended not to understand rural people, rural places, rural realities,” Pruitt said. “Law suddenly looked urban-normative, so I decided to undertake the project of peeling away that metro-centricity, of figuring out how rurality was legally relevant — because legal scholars only write about that which is legally relevant.”
Pruitt, a native of rural Arkansas, says these judicial dynamics help explain rural attitudes of self- sufficiency and antipathy toward the government.
“Legal scholarship’s silence on rural issues means judges don’t have a full opportunity to understand how spatiality — distance — and the social consequences of that distance — including lack of anonymity — influences how rural people engage with the law — or choose not to do so at all,” she told The Yonder.
Here’s an exchange during an interview I had with then-President Obama during his first term.
Douglas Burns: “Thank you, sir. The U.S. Supreme Court right now lacks a rural voice. There’s no one on it right now with any rural background on their resumes. Trenton, N.J., just one American city, has more representation — (Samuel) Alito and (Antonin) Scalia were born there — than rural America, which is 20 percent of the nation. Is it right to have the nation’s final-say panel populated exclusively by urbanites who see land and environmental issues from an outside observer’s perspective?”
President Obama: “You know, that’s a great question. I’d like to see more diversity on the Court, and when people hear diversity, a lot of times they think racial diversity or gender diversity. I’d like to see more diversity of experience on the Court.
“I think it’d be great to have somebody who comes out of rural America. I’d like to see more folks who have more practical, hands-on experience.
“Obviously, I’m very proud of the two nominations and Supreme Court justices that I’ve placed on the Court.
“But if I have the opportunity to place a few more, then I think taking into account what their life experiences are is as important in many ways to shaping their legal philosophy. Obviously, there’s got to be a threshold of somebody who knows the law, and knows the Constitution and is whip-smart and is able to understand and listen and pay attention to arguments from across the board. But I also would like some folks with some practical experience as well.”
On the journalism front, here at the Times Herald in Carroll, Iowa we collaborate with our friends at the La Prensa Iowa Spanish-language newspaper on an internship program.
One of the reasons I work aggressively to get a mix of students from urban and rural areas is I want them to interact, to see rural Iowa up close and personal.
It’s good for our rural communities to be covered by people with different, non-local perspectives. But just as important, when we have former interns go on to become ascendent professional journalists and writers and producers at The Chicago Tribune, Marvel Studios, CBS News in New York City, Boulder (Colorado) Daily Camera and The Sioux City Journal — as we have in recent years — they bring an understanding and empathy of rural Iowa to decisions on how we will be covered at the national level.
By embracing diversity as a community with these student journalists, we help to form world views in which we are considered beyond easy-reach rural stereotypes — for the diversity we bring to the American experiment. That’s not zero sum. It’s new math that adds up to good things for us — all of us.
This commentary was first republished by the Iowa Capital Dispatch, a States Newsroom affiliate. It originally appeared on Douglas Burns’ blog, “The Iowa Mercury” and is shared here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.