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Race, Gender and Geography

Why place is a crucial identity category in contemporary America.

April 16, 2019
 
 

What shall we call the group of middle-aged white men who gather at Smitty’s Bar in Uniontown, Pennsylvania?

Uniontown is in the heart of Fayette County, which had the highest unemployment rate in Pennsylvania in 2016 (8.2%). Only about fifteen percent of residents have a college degree. The median household income is under $40,000, which is considerably less than the sticker price at Pennsylvania’s elite private colleges (UPenn, Swarthmore, Villanova, Carnegie Mellon).

The guys who sit on the barstools at Smitty’s have blown backs, beer guts and dead sons (heroin). They used to work in places like the Pittsburgh-Wheeling steel plant. Now they collect disability and live with their moms. They have retrograde views on gender and race, and they voted for Trump.

Is privileged the term that best describes these guys? Oppressor? Would you trade places with any of them?      

The scene above is taken from Tim Carney’s recent book, Alienated America, which I can’t put down.

Increasingly, I’ve found myself seeking out social and political analysis by non-Trumpy moderate-conservative types. The thinking done by the diversity progressives I tend to run with has become, well, a little predictable. The answer to every question seems to be either patriarchy/misogyny, racism/white supremacy or some combination thereof – often served with commentary about homophobia on the side.

There is NO DOUBT that these are among the central dynamics of our times, not to mention five alarm moral fires. But are they the entire answer to every question? Are they the only ethical considerations of our era? Shouldn’t people in higher education constantly be asking the question, “I wonder what else might be going on?”

Carney’s book presents some interesting theories about the territory beyond race and gender, while absolutely affirming that those identities impact life chances and condition experiences in America. What makes Carney’s book unique is that he doesn’t just focus on the factories that vanished from rural America and make the standard economic anxiety argument. Instead, he emphasizes the softball teams that disappeared and the bowling leagues that no longer exist and makes a human argument. The Carney war room would have a single sign on the wall – It’s the community, stupid.

In one of the most compelling passages of the book, Carney writes: “maybe the things that we think accompany the American Dream are the things that really are the American Dream. What if the T-ball game, the standing-room-only high school Christmas concert, the parish potluck, and decorating the community hall for a wedding – what if those activities are not the dressings around the American Dream, but what if they are the American Dream?”

And in cities like Uniontown, with the exception of the occasional bar like Smitty’s, the T-ball games and Christmas concerts are gone.

Carney presents study after study that shows that the places that lack basic community institutions are the same ones that exhibit high levels of human dysfunction and destruction – and the same ones that were all in for Trump early.

He also offers a creative theory on a fascinating question: why would places where the volunteer fire department no longer has volunteers grab on to a wrecking ball like Trump?

Because, Carney says, national elections are the most visible layer of our politics. Community institutions are the water that human beings swim in, and when they evaporate we’re like beached fish that don’t know what happened. We are so accustomed to patterns of community that it feels absolutely alien when they disappear.

Also, it’s slow, painstaking, unsexy work to relaunch the annual basketball tournament and set up practices for your team. Much easier to grab on to the rocket ship that flies by, blames people darker than you (yes, of course that’s racist and wrong) and promises to take you to the moon.

It’s interesting to think about the role of higher education in all of this.

There are a million wonderful things that college does, of course, but here’s one of the less wonderful things as it relates to geography: many colleges are set up to attract the most talented and driven young people from the Uniontown’s of the nation, educate them to sneer at the norms of where they’re from, encourage them to connect and mate with people who are similarly smart and driven, and then deposit them in cities where the knowledge-and-service economy is booming. It’s great for the cities, great for those individuals, great for the economy at a macro level, and terrible for their hometowns. The people who went off to college were likely the same ones who would run for mayor or volunteer to direct the school play.

(All of this makes me realize just how crucial a role regional colleges and universities play in the American landscape. We need more institutions that educate people who return to and enrich the places they are from rather than encouraging them to leave.)  

A separate question: Should campus diversity progressives pay attention to geography in the way that we pay attention to race, gender and sexuality?

Just as we are – rightly – proactive about hiring people of color and women, should we be equally proactive about hiring people from towns where the economic base has eroded and the community institutions have disappeared?

Just as we say – rightly – “No more all white male panels at conferences”, should we say “No more panels with people who all grew up in places with functioning community institutions?”

Doesn’t place influence our experience and our worldview? Doesn’t place merit a spot on the power/privilege/oppression chart?

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