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Does the Rural/Urban Divide Matter?: Race, Voting Patterns, and Education in a ‘Stratified’ Country

Thu, November 9, 8:00 to 9:45am, Hyatt Regency Chicago, Skyway 260, Skyway Level East Tower


The image of a rural/urban divide carries significant weight in our current political climate. In the wake of Donald Trump’s rise to power, liberal commentators are quick to blame rural America for all of our social ills, and mark it as the root of the conservative base. While there may be some use value in understanding the distinctions between urban and rural America, blaming rural communities for our current political climate obscures a much greater social divide.

The field of rural queer studies gives us one set of tool to counter these assumptions. Rural queer studies begins with a challenge to the idea that urban spaces are inherently safer for LGBTQ communities, while rural spaces are always more dangerous. This framework challenges the myth of what Kath Weston has termed the Great Gay Migration, that is, the idea that all LGBTQ individuals living in rural spaces want to migrate to the relative safety of the city. Rural queer studies forces us to challenge our assumptions about what makes an ideal life for queer communities, and undermines the implicit biases driving the belief that rural spaces are backwards, uneducated, and always dangerous. Applying the insights of rural queer studies to our current political climate may give us a better language to understand why the framework of the rural/urban divide misses the greater picture.

Data from the 2016 presidential election highlights a surge in conservative voting in rural areas of the United States. Commentators have been quick to speculate about the Trump campaign’s ability to make populist claims translate for rural communities, highlighting moments of blatant racism, xenophobia, and sexism originating from regions of our country understood as less cultured. However, if we look at that same data set through a different lens, we see a very different picture of the Trump base. 54% of white men with college degrees voted for Donald Trump, along with 43% of white women with college degrees. These voters make up a significant portion of the 63% of white men and 53% of white women who voted for Trump overall. Far from being a symptom of under-educated rural spaces, Donald Trump rose to power at the hands of silent white people. These voters were overwhelmingly uncomfortable with the hate-filled rhetoric of the Trump campaign, but not uncomfortable enough to cast their vote elsewhere. Rural America is not the problem here. The problem is an environment that makes racism, xenophobia, and sexism palatable to more than 50% of white voters.

This paper will consider what happens when we read data from the 2016 election through the lens of rural queer studies. In particular, I will discuss why educators, particularly those who live in ‘Red’ states, need to be mindful of the biases created by the image of a rural/urban divide, and the ways in which those biases may adversely affect students from rural areas. I will conclude by proposing an alternative model for understanding conservative populism, dismissing divides based on geography, and centering race and education.


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