I grew up in a town of 700-ish people in eastern Iowa. This is true, and is also a thing you say to establish your bona fides to talk about something related to Iowa and small towns and to do so critically.
I could share anecdotal tales of an idyllic youth in a Rockwellian Everytown to cement this, to show I know a good side to small-town America, but in this moment in American history, we need to talk about those decent, kindly, small-town Americans shouting racist epithets at a Black kid playing baseball. And we need to not mince words that small-town America is the cauldron that brews this behavior and that it is unconscionable, vile and inhuman and that it needs to end.
Most Iowans have read by now how 17-year-old Jeremiah Chapman of Charles City went to play for his high school at Waverly-Shell Rock and, as he manned center field, received a cascade of racist bile from WSR fans. The local racists shouted that Chapman should have been George Floyd, a man prosecutors say was killed by Minneapolis police on suspicion of a misdemeanor crime, and, even worse, that he should "go back to the fields."
Really try to get that. The assailants not only wished death on a kid for the crime of nothing, but also blithely suggested that how he was born meant he, and all who looked similar to him, should be reduced to the state of slavery. A teenager, a four-sport athlete who studies hard and has his whole life ahead of him, stands out there with his town's name on his uniform, playing a game for his school, and some yahoos decide this is a crime worthy of Klan-esque terrorism.
They also shouted, for some strange reason, "Trump 2020," Chapman reported.
I'd say this makes me ashamed of where I'm from, but this is not about me, it's about something endemic to where I come from. We write these off as "bad apples" every time they happen — Creston, Forest City, Dallas Center. All towns in Iowa. It was just "that guy," or "those kids," but it's never us.
Small-town America is its own bubble
The red/blue divide of cities and more rural communities is no secret, but we too often leave it at that; that's just how "conservative" and "liberal" stack up, "heartland values" versus "cosmopolitan modernism" or whatever. In Iowa, like everywhere in the country, small-town denizens look at their nearby municipal hubs as unclean, tainted with "diversity" and "liberalism" — so-called bubbles where heresy and unAmericanness were reinforced.
Cities are not bubbles. They're America. They're where you actually meet people who didn't grow up exactly like you, who don't look like you, who bring different cultural backgrounds and stories and politics, some of those shaped by dealing with racism.
Of course no city is perfect, and they have their share of bigots and charlatans, but they're where you become less "bubbled" and less racist because, in learning other people's stories firsthand, you get that they're people. They have things to do and families to raise and dreams to pursue like anyone else. You learn to love people as people, whatever they look like or where they worship, by living with them, daily, and realizing the things you have in common and then actually empathizing with the things that make their lives harder through no fault of their own. Those things exist. And if you haven't noticed, a lot of people are pretty pissed off about them.
You'd have to be in, say, an actual bubble to not understand that.
Of course, white small-town conservatives inevitably say "I'm not racist," and maybe cite a Black or Latinx person they are nice to, thinking this sidesteps the broader dynamic involved, which is that they act politically to support sweeping racist violence. Having been a young small-town conservative, I will tell you that people who fear Muslims or Jews or people of color, people who specifically vote their fear of an America that looks like the cities and for Trumpian prescriptions to that, for the most part don't know any Muslims or Jews or people of color.
That insularity is the catalyst of bigotry.
Let people different from you just live
The contemporary conservative inclination is to compartmentalize, to cling white-knuckled to abstract bromides like "America is great," so that every outcrop of horror, like the Waverly-Shell Rock racists, has to be an aberration, just a rogue variable. But it's not. It's the yield of a particular worldview, which is why it keeps happening. There is absolutely a correlation here.
There is a correlation between people who raise people who shout "go back to the fields" and people who called Colin Kaepernick a traitor and dismissed his cause out of hand and voted for the battery of racist garbage that is Trumpism. There is a correlation between targeting of DACA kids who grew up American just because they happened to have been born elsewhere, and never actually knowing Latinx people or bothering to empathize with their stories. There is a correlation between living only among white people and blindly dismissing the genuine grievances of the Black community when yet another pointless death sets the country aflame.
It helps in absolving you of responsibility to fix problems in your society — the essence of "conservatism," such as it is in America now. It's easier to believe that, after all, when you don't know any Black people and can remain blissfully in your bubble, where other people's problems are far away, off in the scary cities. There is, at last, an absolute correlation between insisting you live in utopia and demonizing people for pointing out hard realities that it's not.
Which is the crux of the problem. Are all citizens of small towns racists? Of course not. But this defensive posture incubates and insulates a distinct, homogeneous tribalism, a sense that horrible liberals — or, by some twisted logic, a 17-year-old kid — are coming to take their idyllic Rockwellian values from them. This predisposition is wrong in one regard, which is that no one is coming for anything. People who don't look like you just want to live with the same freedoms and rights you do and not in perpetual fear of their neighbors, much less people who swore an oath to keep them safe.
But I will state categorically that, yes, people who don't shout "go back to the fields," and people who don't abide or enable that poisonous bile in their communities, are definitely better than people who do.
That's an actual, hard metric of whether someone is "good" or not.
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This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Iowa racism: Why small-town values are a cauldron that brews bigotry