What Could End the Scorn Wars?

After living in the coastal cities of America for all of my life, I met rural white people for the first time in 1995. They were my sociology students at the University of Wisconsin, and I had assigned them the usual fare, heavy on the causes and consequences of urban poverty and racism. These students bristled, saying that their problems were just as bad. I was sure they must be wrong, of course: even if they were poor, they still had white privilege.

But they persisted. They described empty towns without jobs from which everyone tried to leave as soon as they could; small farmers who worked so hard to compete against agro-businesses that they had to pass up on sleep; and small communities with big drug problems.

By the middle of my first semester, hearing enough of their tales, and smelling their resentment, my emotional, moral, and political alarm bells finally went off. I realized that something big was missing from the story that urban elites, progressive journalists, politicians, media producers, and academics like me had been telling about rural white Americans for decades: we talked about everyone else’s plight except their own.

Katherine Cramer’s book, The Politics of Resentment, argues that part of the reason rural whites resent urban elites is that they think that we know nothing about them—that they and their hard work and intelligence are invisible to us and that we scorn them anyway. We eat the cheese from Wisconsin farms but we don’t think about the lives of the people who produce it.

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