I've been struggling for awhile to put this into words, but there's definitely a odd demographic weighting among DC pundit types wherein white voters -- particularly white working class voters, and even more particularly older white working class voters, and even more particularly older white working class voters who live in between California and New York and in sparsely populated cities -- are somehow a more "authentic" foundation on which to build an electoral majority. And this is true among liberals as surely as among conservatives. Read more...
Like Ezra Klein at American Prospect, I've been struggling to make sense of this unquestioned fawning over middle Americans--not all middle Americans, just those who fit neatly into a mythical picture of Americanness: white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, small town, heterosexual, minimally educated and working class. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with being any of these things. I just disagree that these traits make one a better or more authentic American or a more important part of the electorate.
And I say this as a middle American.
The political media's view of middle America is overly simplistic. Who are middle Americans really? Are they the folks in tiny Tripoli, Iowa (pop: 1,310) or the citizens in the predominantly black, Rust Belt city of Gary, Indiana? Are they the farmers in Missouri or the factory workers on the southside of Chicago? Are they the culturati in the college town of Madison, Wisconsin, or the tourist shop owners in Nashville, Indiana? Are they the tony denizens of The Windy City's Magnificent Mile or poor folks in the Appalachian southeast corner of Ohio? Are they the people who frequent Chicago's gay-friendly northside "boy's town" or families in the heavily-Hispanic East Chicago, Indiana, Harbor neighborhood? I submit that middle America is all of these areas and all of these people, but the punditry and many Americans insist on seeing everyone in "the flyover states" as some version of the figures in Iowan Grant Wood's famous American Gothic painting. The idea is as much an affront to the diversity of the middle United States as it is to the good people of either coast. What makes the farmer in Kansas better than the farmer in rural New Jersey, the machinist in Illinois better than the one in Queens, the professor in Wisconsin better than the one in Washington State?
The myth of the Midwest is so foolish that I shouldn't be jealous of being left out of it. But I am, a little. Or maybe "jealous" isn't the right word. The obvious, yet ignored, race-bias inherent in identifying who is "authentically American" pisses me right off. I resent that when pundits speak reverentially of middle America, they exclude me. I... who was born and raised in The Hoosier State, educated in Iowa and have spent every day of my working life in the Midwest...I...the granddaughter of a steelworker and family farmer...I...whose ancestors came to this country long before those of many media-anointed "authentic Americans"...I don't count. I don't count for a variety of reasons, education and time spent living in urban areas among them, but mostly it is my blackness that is the problem. In fact, it is my absence from the narrative that allows people to romanticize where I'm from. The middle states can't be home to true, traditional, God-fearing Americans if there are educated, middle-class, secular black women here.
Why is it so easy for the right to paint Barack Obama as both a foreigner and anti-American, despite the fact that he has served the country on a community, state and national level and is currently running to become president of the United States? It is easy because in the American psyche, whiteness = American and colored = something else. Back when I was in college, a diverse dining hall table evoked an interesting comment from a white friend--one of the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, Midwestern, small town sort. She looked around at the group gathered for lunch, which included several white students, a Hispanic student, a student of Asian ancestry and myself. "Wow! We've got a Mexican, a Chinese person, a black and three Americans sitting here!" Of course, I pointed out that the people of color at the table were Americans, too. All of us were born and raised in the United States. "Well, you know what I mean,"she countered off-handedly. I do know what she meant. She meant that, even in the minds of some good people who mean well, America is synonymous with baseball, apple pie, Chevrolet and whiteness. If America = white and middle American = "true" America, then middle American = white. I'm out of luck.
Middle America won't vote for a black man. Middle Americans identify with Sarah Palin. Middle Americans don't understand complicated issues. No doubt you've heard all of these things before before from some talking head on a cable news channel. These statements reflect a narrow, race-biased and inaccurate view of the majority of our country. And they highlight the immaturity of our political discourse. We'd do well without the unquestioned and exclusionary myth of the Midwest that erases whole groups of people and keeps us from examining important issues in a real way.