This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.
The brouhaha over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has turned the spotlight on two different kinds of red-state hate: first, the discriminatory policymaking that is an obvious specialty of red states, and, second, progressives’ tendency to show disdain for more conservative states. Sometimes, I wonder which is worse.
Almost immediately after Gov. Mike Pence signed the act, which could allow for-profit businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people and others perceived to threaten their religious beliefs, social media was aflame with recommendations on how to hit back. These only intensified with Monday’s sentencing of Indiana woman Purvi Patel for conflicting charges of feticide and neglect of a dependent. Some argued for pulling conferences or boycotting corporations headquartered in the Midwestern state; others promised ballot-box retribution.
There’s certainly a lot to be unhappy with Indiana’s government right now. And so it should be that Americans make noise and use all the weapons at their disposal—from their money to their voting power—to express their political views and opposition to onerous policies. But the way progressives are reacting to Indiana’s politics displays how comfortable people in blue states are with making counterproductive, harmful assumptions about more conservative states.
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Tweets from around the country compared Indiana residents to slaveholders, attacked them as a monolith of Bible-quoting fundamentalists, and questioned their voting choices. Memes showed supposed white “Indiana residents” looking like “Beverly Hillbillies” or “Walking Dead” rejects with dirt-covered faces and mouths of rotting teeth. It was an insult that drew equally on contempt for the poor—particularly entrenched images of the “cracker” and folks from Appalachia—and the rural, as well as those assumed to be on the wrong side of history.
I’m not siding with Gov. Pence here, and Twitter is certainly not known for nuance, but progressives need to take a good look at how apparently easy we find it to call other people bigots.
It’s not as if social movements—including and beyond those concerning LGBTQ issues—only happen on the coasts and in metropolitan America. When you look at the national assault on reproductive rights, for example, the opposite should become more clear: Places like the South or the Midwest are ground zero for the intense and gut-wrenching work of protecting reproductive freedom. Take Tennessee, where reproductive justice and reproductive rights organizations have tried valiantly to beat back a law that allows women who use drugs during pregnancy to be charged with criminal assault. Or Mississippi—the state that, along with Alabama, may be the subject of the most Southern-smearing jokes—where voters defeated a “personhood” amendment in 2011. And that was a fight that few thought could be won.
Even so, people from outside America’s “nether regions” write off entire swaths of the country as backward. This issue has personal resonance for me: I grew up in North Carolina, a state that has swung wildly between being New South, meaning better economic prospects and less racial animus, and Old South, meaning states’ rights, a nostalgia for slavery, and massive resistance to civil liberties. Like Indiana, my state also voted for Obama in 2008—not a perfect indicator of progressivism, I concede—and then voted in a full statehouse of rogue Republicans at the next midterm election. This general assembly wasted no time in giving us arguably the nation’s worst voter suppression law and slipping abortion restrictions into unrelated laws literally in the middle of the night. As these legislators shredded the social safety net and our hearts in one fell swoop, my well-educated colleagues from points farther north would say to me, “How can you live there?”
For one thing, because it’s home—and let’s not even talk about the classist assumption that everyone can just uproot themselves in pursuit of life in some more cosmopolitan land of milk and honey. And because I know that although North Carolina may be red now, the vagaries of politics mean it won’t be crimson forever. And because politicians’ actions don’t have anything to do with my integrity.
Meanwhile, there’s the emotional payoff for people who live in blue states. They get to have a superiority complex purely due to accidents of geography and the perception that their largely Democratic governments are for the people. In fact, blue states aren’t even all that progressive: To use but a few examples, Oregon recently floated a 20-week abortion ban, and Rudy Giuliani’s regime in New York City and its “tough-on-crime” stance should disabuse notions of metropolitan progressivism when it comes to criminal justice.
And this kind of faux concern hurts more than just feelings—though I don’t want to disregard feelings, either. Yes, there are real differences between the reddest and the bluest of states, and many of those differences have to do with the types of families deemed ideal and acceptable. But saying “that’s just how they are out there” makes it easy to ignore these “marginal” states and difficult to build deep and sustainable relationships across regions and between grassroots, state, and national organizations.
It means that people who live in red states, who are often keenly aware of how others see them, may wonder if blue-staters can be effective partners; navigate our cultures with relatively few assumptions and missteps; and believe that we’re smart enough to know what it is we need. It means that potential supporters and funders are more hesitant to collaborate for the long haul with local organizations, which are often starting out behind in terms of resources, social capital within and outside of their home region, and infrastructure.
So there are far better questions to ask residents of red states other than those that amount to “Why don’t you just move?” or “What’s wrong with you people?” Instead, ask those that recognize the agency and variety of viewpoints from people in these states: “What do you think about the controversy?” “What are various takes on this issue in this state?”
Or let’s go one better: “Who’s working on this issue in your state?” followed by, “What can people outside your state do to help, if you want it?” That, to me, is much more helpful and productive—and a way to enact real change rather than falling back on tired stereotypes and suggesting mass migration to California and Canada.