White rural America is playing an outsized role in America’s political narrative, and with reason. As J.D. Vance and Nancy Eisenberg write in their respective books, Hillbilly Elegy and White Trash, rural high-school educated white voters are facing dramatic social and economic hardships. These hardships and consequent frustrations were major forces that propelled Donald Trump from a long-shot candidate to the office of the presidency.
Yet, lost in the narrative are the stories of some 600 plus rural counties that are far from majority white.
Spanning from East Texas to Southern Virginia the “Southern Black Belt” first found its name in the dark rich soil that many white men owned and black slaves tilled. Today, African-Americans make up the majority population in these Southern Black Belt counties and most if not all maintain a direct lineage to slavery of years past.
Many residents of these counties have been refused their civil rights and bodies. After centuries of being owned, African-Americans in the Southern Black Belt faced de jure racism, and the implementation of an agrarian system that denied any right to own property. Racism instituted by law slowly faded in the 1950s and 1960s, but structural inequalities perpetuated by acts of terrorism and augmented by less overt acts of implicit racism continued to marginalize entire African-American communities. By the 1970s, racial terrorism largely gave way, leaving entrenched, structural inequalities that continue to have powerful social implications.
These inequalities today, in many ways, shape the African-American life and are defined by market forces and government structures that inherently favor whites. Robert Bullard writes how environmental degradation disproportionately affects black rural counties in Texas, Mississippi, and North Carolina. Bryan Stevenson and others point to how America’s police force kills and incarcerates African-Americans at a disproportionately higher rate than any other race.
Residents in the Black Belt experience significantly lower levels of economic mobility than the white rural areas of the Midwest. You can see this unfortunate phenomenon in the two graphs below.
The first map highlights the racial distribution of the United States based on the 2010 census.
The second map, based on research by Raj Chetty and his team depicts economic mobility for a child in the bottom quartile for family income and the effect of place (in this case counties) on the child’s income when he/she is 26 (in other words, economic mobility).
If you were to overlay these two maps you would see that the counties with the lowest economic mobility are rural black counties that make up America’s Black Belt.
This matters, because while rural white voters are rightfully gaining attention, they experience some of the highest levels of economic mobility. Said in another way, white rural voters in the midwest and northern plains experience some of the largest jumps in income earnings over a lifetime. The same is not true for rural black counties. Blacks living outside of metro areas have the highest poverty rates and some of lowest rates of economic mobility.
I want to be clear, the plight facing many rural whites is incredible. Collapse(d)ing economic systems especially in the Appalachian mountains are marginalizing a way of life for an incredible number of people. Vance and Eisenberg do a great job of illustrating this fact in their books (though be wary of Vance’s policy prescriptions).
What’s different though about black rural voters is the overwhelming lack of coverage surrounding their political preferences and livelihoods.
For centuries, blacks have been marginalized through enslavement, lynchings, institutionalized murders, and systemic racism. Today African-Americans are marginalized through a political narrative that places the rebellious white over the horribly and historically wronged black. All the while, a white man with questionable opinions of the Ku Klux Klan leads America’s prosecution and another white man with endorsements from white nationalist groups is the President’s chief strategist.
The impact of Trumpian politics on rural white populations will be indisputably large. But we should not forget that rural does not equal white. Rural black populations must be included in a narrative they’ve long been left out of.