When members of a sketchy militia took over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in January, I braced myself for one of the inevitable outcomes: People on social media smugly talking about rural hicks and their inability to grasp the nuance of fine social issues. These kinds of things — takeovers of federal land in the name of political freedoms — are just exactly the sort of thing we should expect from people who can barely sign their own names and probably ride horses to school, at least until they stopped going to school at twelve. Naturally.
Oh good, let's watch 'liberal' Twitter mock rural communities because har har rednecks am I right?
— s.e. smith (@realsesmith) January 5, 2016
Knocking rural people around the ring isn’t exactly anything new, as we know. Urbanites have an obsession with mocking country bumpkins who just fell off the hay truck. Aside from being inaccurate — something I’ve repeatedly pushed back on — it’s also evidence of deep classism, something that doesn’t come up in many circles in the United States because people in this country don’t like to admit that class is an issue. And they don’t like to admit that the class divide between rural and urban communities is extremely stark. If you live in an urban area, you are statistically more likely to be wealthier, better-educated, and close to resources to improve your social status. Rural people occupy very different lives and have very different experiences.
Urban people like to sneer at rural people with a sense of deep superiority, claiming that people in rural areas are ignorant or ‘stupid,’ bigoted, and not worth the oxygen they consume. Of course, aside from the fact that there are plenty of rural communities with people who are in fact sensitive to social issues and opposed to bigoted jerks, like, say, the residents of Burns, Oregon who didn’t appreciate being invaded by a militia, they don’t look into why there’s such a divide between urban and rural spaces. And they don’t explore how classist attitudes influence their opinion of rural communities.
Why are rural people so much more likely to be undereducated? It’s not anti-intellectualism or an enjoyment of ignorance. It’s the fact that education funding to rural communities is extremely limited. Rural schools struggle with high resource demand and limited availability, especially when it comes to disabled students who may require additional accommodations to reach their full potential. Some rural people have to travel considerable distances to get to school, and many schools lack the resources needed to offer AP courses and valuable extracurriculars that can help people get into quality colleges and universities.
There are few economic opportunities in rural areas, in part because of changing social structures, but also because of larger social policy. Rural communities primarily focus around farming and support for the agriculture industry, or some forms of manufacturing. Thanks to an erosion of workers’ rights, it’s harder for people to earn fair wages and benefits, to form unions, to defend themselves against exploitative employers. That leaves rural people with limited economic advantages, certainly in comparison with their urban counterparts. It’s not surprising that some come to resent the federal government that they view as the force keeping them in poverty and making it difficult to survive — for example, farmers may chafe against regulations that disproportionately affect small farms, even if that’s not the intent and even if the laws are sound environmental and social policy.
Rural communities tend to be older — because of the limited chances for social advancement and mobility for young people in rural areas — which leaves many struggling to survive as older residents die off. The notion of a ‘ghost town’ may be laughable to people living in lively urban areas, but it’s no joke to people who are struggling to keep their communities alive. Small rural communities may fight for economic independence, but it can be challenging, and many don’t receive adequate health services, social benefits, and other supports because they’re logistically too large to service — their population is too small to dedicate the resources needed to provide things like a full-time health clinic, because the cost/benefit doesn’t weigh out.
Rural communities are left out to dry, and that causes the gap between rural and urban areas to increase, radically, over time. That creates not just social inequality but also social tensions, because rural people rightly feel as though they are not receiving fair treatment, while urban people see only the aftermath of poor rural policy and think it’s evidence of their superiority. However, models of what rural communities experience can be seen closer to home — for example, low-income urban communities experience many of the same achievement gaps, and communities of colour are often left largely to fend for themselves, becoming understandably restless under unfair, imbalanced, and unjust treatment from the white communities around them.
Every time urban people mock rural areas, it’s a painful reminder that many people haven’t bothered to educate themselves on rural issues, let alone take steps to address them. People who think rural people are undereducated might want to explore why that is and what can be done to address the problem. People who believe rural people are anti-government and conservative might want to explore why that is, and whether it’s actually true, and what might be contributing to it. People who believe that rural people are bigoted might want to ask themselves why there’s a lack of diversity in rural regions of the United States. Every time urban people mock rural areas, it widens the gulf between the two, ensuring that never the twain shall meet.
Image: Rural Sonoma, Chris deRham, Flickr