What It’s Like to Be Black or Brown in Trump’s Rural America

We all know that rural areas in this country are predominately populated by white people and that they voted for Donald Trump overwhelmingly. Both before and after the election, there were countless articles in the media in which these voters were interviewed, along with calls for the so-called “coastal elites” to show some empathy for their situation. My only issue with that was that there weren’t many calls for mutual empathy and it left the impression that white rural voters mattered more than anyone else.

That’s why I appreciated that Becca Andrews has done something to balance things out a bit. She traveled back to the rural community in which she grew up, Crockett County in West Tennessee. The demographics and culture she describes sound pretty familiar.

The county is 83 percent white—I am also white—14 percent black and 10 percent Hispanic. (For comparison, according to 2016 Census data, Tennessee’s population is only 17 percent black and 5 percent Hispanic.) The median household income is $35,000, and 19 percent of the county’s 14,411 residents live below the poverty line. Most of the people I went to school with are still there. The area is deeply rural—the main highway that winds through the county is framed by cotton fields and pastures where cows keep a lazy watch over passing cars. Friday night football reigns supreme; game attendance is only second in importance to church. Many families have been here for generations, passing down their farmland and businesses to their children and grandchildren.

But instead of talking to white people about why they supported Donald Trump, Andrews interviewed African-American and Hispanic people in her hometown about what it’s like to live there following the election of Trump. The stories point to the fact that, whether or not economic anxiety explains part of the reason these communities voted the way they did, the result is that racism has come out of the closet.

Here is Andrews describing the experience of an African-American friend of hers.

Turner tells me in the past year, life for her family has changed. She hints that her parents have been in West Tennessee long enough to know which families fought against civil rights “back in the day.” Since Trump’s election, they’ve warned her to steer clear of a list of people that is too long for comfort.

The day after the November presidential election, Turner went with her mother to the store, and they both kept their heads down. “We just feel like we don’t belong here anymore,” she says.

Turner’s mom, who cleans houses in town for a living, went to work a couple days after that, and her employer, an older white woman, brought up the results of the recent election. The two had talked politics before—Turner’s mom is a Democrat, and her employer is a Republican. “Well, you might as well come and live with me now,” the employer said. “You gonna be mine eventually.”

She called her daughter in tears. Turner immediately got in her car and picked her mother up to bring her home.

For Hispanics in the county, the threat of deportation seemed to be the theme. Here is the experience of one family who has lived in the county for generations and are business owners as well as citizens.

When José came to America, he worked on a farm with his father, picking strawberries and squash. They lived on the farm—José, his parents, and his brothers—and were told by their employers that they were not allowed to go into town, and they were specifically not allowed to speak to anyone outside the farm who was not Hispanic. During the off-seasons, they migrated back to Mexico, but when the drug wars escalated in Michoacán, they stayed in the States for good, opening several taquerias like this one.

The businesses have been successful, but now, Guadalupe tells me they are seeing less frequent visits from the Hispanic customer base. People are afraid to leave their homes, just as they are in Romero’s congregation. Her brother told her he saw an ICE truck out in the county recently as he was returning home from work at night.

Guadalupe and her siblings are the first in the Tomas family to be able to attend school. José says that his father’s generation and then his generation of the family were never allowed to leave their agricultural work to get an education. Their story is about as “American Dream” as it gets, but for some folks, American only equals “white.” And changing their minds, even while living among them, is a tall order.

The people Andrews interviewed aren’t living with the kind of armed revolt we witnessed last weekend in Charlottesville. Instead, they are experiencing the racism Trump unleashed on an every day basis. Here’s how one of them described the change:

When Trump began to gain popularity, Garcia felt betrayed by people she thought she knew, people we both grew up with. Late last year, Garcia began to see a pattern on her Facebook feed. One post said, “I can’t wait for Trump to take over, so we can start building this wall.” A commenter added, “Yeah, and the Mexicans are going to pay for it and work for it.”

She stared at her screen in disbelief. “Some of them I even thought were my friends at one point.”

Before Trump started to gain traction in the rural Southeast, she didn’t see or hear comments like that. Before, she says, the racism “was in the darkness, the shadows.” She felt like she was part of the community, and she earned her place here.

That captures what it’s like to be black or brown in Trump’s rural America. Can we muster up some empathy for them too?

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.