Thursday, May 8, 2008

You Don't Know Me: Part II

Despite the portrayal of my home state as a white wasteland, Indiana has a long, compelling history of competing ideas and interests. Yes, it was a hotbed for the Ku Klux Klan, but it also had several integral stops on the Underground Railroad. The state housed some of the first utopian societies in the United States, and boasts an internationally known center for modern Quaker society. Indiana was home to Eugene Debs, Socialist Party presidential candidate in the early 1900s and one of the founders of the International Labor Union and the Industrial Workers of the World. Today the work force is heavily based in manufacturing, more so than in agriculture, and as such is heavily unionized. Where Indiana was once largely a white state infamous for its “sundown towns,” the African American and Latino populations are growing exponentially, and within the last decade the university in my backyard hosted among the largest percentages of foreign students in the United States. But somehow, whenever an outsider writes about Indiana, it's all corn, religion, white supremacists, pickup trucks, and, goddamn it, basketball.
You tell it, sister! My fellow Indianian Lauren Bruce lets off some Hoosier frustration in a recent article in The American Prospect. My readers know that I am equally weary of the Midwest hayseed stereotype, especially since it erases my very existence. There is no room for an educated, liberal, secular black woman in coastal redneck fantasies, where everyone West of the Appalachians and East of the Sierra Nevadas is a ruddy-faced, uneducated, Bible-toting rube.


I find ironic pleasure in a state so patronized by progressives having become an important front in this ongoing primary. Contrary to what some experts believe, this long, drawn-out Democratic nomination process might be good for the party because it's taken the race outside of predictable territory. The last few weeks have set my little world so abuzz that I pray nobody drops out in June, as Howard Dean suggested, so other neglected states can get this shot of liberal adrenaline. First Bill Clinton spoke at the high school across the street, flooding my neighborhood with black sedans driven by serious-looking men in collared shirts and mirrored sunglasses. My friends and I sat on the front porch watching the attendees walk back to their cars after he spoke, debating the pros and cons of another Clinton presidency, high on the excitement of having seen such a prominent public figure in the flesh. A week later my co-workers sped out of the office to see Obama speak on the other side of town, and came back to the office describing the event with tears on their faces after seeing the potential first president who looks and believes as they do. Hillary Clinton arrived last Thursday and spoke downtown in an open-air, town-hall forum, and friends who saw her speak report that she was charming, whip-smart, nothing like what you see on television. The political yard-sign wars have begun in my neighborhood, Obama here, Clinton there, Obama, Clinton, Obama. Despite an occasional garden nod to Ron Paul, McCain is nowhere. People who never showed any political inclination are energized. Even my Republican parents are taking another road this year – both will reportedly vote for Clinton this primary season, one for Operation Chaos and one in earnest.
While I wish the Democratic primary had ended long before it reached my state, I too was energized by the political attention we received over the last few weeks. I attended an Obama rally on the town square of Noblesville, Indiana, 30 miles north of Indianapolis, and was proud to see a crowd that belied the stereotypes being floated by pointy-headed pundits. Black, white, Asian and Latino, young and old—all cheering and bonding on the American flag-festooned city center.

Now, I won’t pretend that I don’t shake my head at my fellow citizens from time to time. There are people here, too many in my estimation, who are dangerously close to the Hoosier stereotype—naïve, incurious, ill-informed, xenophobic and fearful. I, frankly, have no patience for the Operation Chaos folks--those who think it is clever to subvert the democratic process. But those folks don’t represent everyone in Indiana—not even most. And, more importantly, those people can be found all over this country--from sea to shining sea. (Yep, that means the coasts.) So, my progressive friends, stop discounting us. Your condescension reveals self congratulation that you really haven't earned.

I’ll leave the last word to Lauren Bruce:
This primary season, Democrats ought to take note of what kind of response they get when they actively campaign in the states they usually abandon. Here in Indiana, I don't know a soul who will pass up the chance to vote today, and none I know are voting Republican. You might be surprised at what happens when Democrats and the media spend some time in our state, rather than reduce us to uniformly conservative, marginal stereotypes because it’s easier than respecting local culture and diversity of opinion. We are educated, unionized, literate, racially diverse, economically desperate, and as concerned about our course as the rest of the nation. We also know that the Democrats are campaigning in Indiana in 2008 because they must, but we’ll take that if we have to.
Read Part I of "You Don't Know Me" here.

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