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Tami Winfrey Harris Headshot

Middle Americans Are Not Just White, Christian, Working Class Folk

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I've been struggling for awhile to put this into words, but there's definitely an odd demographic vision among US pundits in which white voters -- and particularly older white working-class voters who live in between California and New York and in sparsely populated cities -- are somehow the most authentic foundation on which to build an electoral majority. And this is true among liberals as well as conservatives.

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, and working class. Just last week, at a fund raiser in North Carolina, Sarah Palin offered: "We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation. This is where we find the kindness and the goodness and the courage of everyday Americans. Those who are running our factories and teaching our kids and growing our food and fighting our wars for us."

There is nothing wrong with being Joe the Plumber. I just disagree that Joe is a symbol of the authentic American. And I say this as a Middle American.

Sarah Palin's view of Middle America, and that of the political media, 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 southeastern corner of Ohio? Are they the people who frequent Chicago's gay-friendly northside "boy's town" or families in the heavily Hispanic neighborhoods of eastern Chicago? I submit that Middle America includes all of these areas and all of the people who live there, but the pundits 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 Middle America 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 machinist in Queens, the professor in Wisconsin better than the professor 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, racial 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.

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 offhandedly. 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, Chevrolets, and whiteness.

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 from some talking head on a cable news channel. These statements reflect a narrow 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, which erases whole groups of people and keeps us from examining important issues in a real way.