Sarah Smarsh

Sarah Smarsh: Reporting on Rural America and Class

April 18, 2017—Sarah Smarsh, a reporter on socioeconomic class, politics, and policy for The New Yorker, The Guardian, Harper’s online, and other publications, discussed media coverage of class in the U.S. Below are some highlights from her conversation with Shorenstein Center Director Nicco Mele, as well as the full audio recording.

The Construct of the “White Working Class”

Classism can be invisible to the economically privileged in a way that is not unlike how racism can be invisible to a white person.

“I’m a fifth-generation Kansas farm girl, and some of my family was in Wichita working on factory assembly lines, so I am a native of the so-called white working class…I made my way into this realm of discourse and the professional class, where I have always been aware of myself as a sort of economic ‘other’…Classism can be invisible to the economically privileged in a way that is not unlike how racism can be invisible to a white person, in a country that is whiteness and wealth privileged.”

“That term [white working class] was created by a middle and upper middle class culture that needed to somehow distinguish and note that one can be simultaneously white and economically disenfranchised in this country…we didn’t walk around self-identifying as ‘the white working class.’ We were people. It’s been kind of psychologically distressing to me…to see suddenly a fixation and a concern about a people that I know and love as human beings in a way that is only [focused on] reductive political frameworks, and to have that term become shorthand for a type of voter, or a type of person, bigotry even—a certain bent that actually does not represent the people that I know.”

Political Diversity

The Trump train is a white phenomenon, not a poor white phenomenon.

“The Trump train is a white phenomenon, not a poor white phenomenon. At every economic level, white people—including almost by the same margin, college educated white people—came out for Trump at the same rate. I don’t see any news stories or media narratives examining the great mystery of why middle class suburban white men with golf clubs and tidy garages voted for him—but there are a lot of obsessive reports going on about why coal country did. I have some theories on why that might be. For middle and upper class, mostly white media, to have this group that feels foreign to them and safely apart from them—i.e. the working class, or poor whites—that’s an easy scapegoat. Their relatives in Westchester might be a harder thing to face.”

“I was raised by mostly apolitical people who were largely disconnected and disenfranchised from political discourse and activism and the system…and I think that’s a large part of what we in clunky terms call ‘red America’…but for those who do come out and vote…most of the women that I know in those communities did not vote for Trump. There’s a real strong progressive history actually in Kansas, and in much of the Midwest, if you take a longer view than short-term American political memory—and there’s still some of that stronghold there. More people caucused for Bernie Sanders in Kansas than they did for Donald Trump.”

A Disconnect Between Politics and Everyday Life

The real divide in this country right now, and the one that we should be working on if we want to hold this society together, is not about red versus blue…It’s about the disconnect between the way we discuss politics and what is happening in people’s lives on the ground…as far as my community at large…every day was about survival, and politics and political activism…all have at their base a kind of impetus to effect some sort of change or move some kind of dial in the public sphere. We felt so disconnected from whatever that sphere is that even that impulse did not exist. We were there to put food on our own table and if our neighbors needed help, we helped them, and it was an incredibly—to use media language—hyperlocal way to live.”

Smarsh’s Approach to Storytelling

“We get into trouble with sensationalism and voyeurism when we say ‘I’m going to look in this person’s life for an example of x’ or ‘I’m going to look for a way in which this human being’s infinitely complex existence can fit into this story I’d like to tell.’ I come at it from the opposite direction. I feel the issue arising within the personal experience, and then move toward the research and the data…I think that it inevitably honors the people involved more.”

The Urban/Rural Divide

“It’s hard for me to read the narratives, and just to see even among friends of mine, a kind of settling in to using ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ as a shorthand for all sorts of things that those words do not necessarily represent. As far as how it shows up on the political map and election results…I can tell you that where I’m from in rural Kansas, most people don’t vote. They show up as red because there are extremist factions that have taken hold in this country…that have gotten a particular extreme presence within those communities to the polls, often leveraging hot-button issues like abortion. I think urban and rural, just like the red and blue thing, is more a feature of who is showing up and for what reason, than it is actually a reflection of the political texture of the place.”

Is There Any Hope for a Shared Public Sphere?

“We’re all in such different spaces and ‘bubbles,’ the only place that public exists at this moment is when we sit down in the same room and share space and have conversations. That’s a form of the public that can never be reduced to a statistic or dismantled by Breitbart, or misconstrued by a red/blue map. The only way I think we’re going to get through this perilous moment in the country in terms of disconnect, if our goal is to reunite, is going to be, paradoxically, to get out from behind the screens where our internet is and somehow find ways to engage each other.”

On Returning to Kansas to Work

There is a civic responsibility about where you decide to put your body in this country.

There is a civic responsibility about where you decide to put your body in this country. Whether that means that you identify as a liberal person and so you want to be a in a city–fair enough. For me, knowing myself now to be a political outlier in a place that I’m watching being eaten alive by big money interests and forces against which my home community has no chance—and I am somebody that might have a shot at getting heard—I don’t want to be somewhere where I’m talking about them in the past tense. I want to be there, and speaking among them…I can do the most good there.”

Article by Nilagia McCoy and photo by Jessica Colarossi of the Shorenstein Center.