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The Great Divide

In discussing adversity, the white, working poor of rural America are often absent from consideration.

I will never forget the moment last semester when that became abundantly clear to me. While attending a faculty panel hosted by the Graduate School of Education, I heard a question posed asking what the professors thought could be done for socioeconomically disadvantaged groups that do not value education. One professor responded by saying that that was not the case—that marginalized groups in America did, in fact, see the merits of a proper education for their children. He then began listing various demographics that fit under the umbrella of “disadvantaged,” including inner city minorities, new immigrants, first generation Americans, and blacks in the rural South.

But he failed to mention the working poor in rural, white America. Now, when I consider who is discriminated against in America, white people, as whole, do not come to mind. But to hear a professor at the most powerful, free-thinking institution in the world discuss educational disparities and disregard poor whites led to a startling revelation.

I know, with firsthand experience, that the people of my community struggle to appreciate, or even recognize, the values of education. That is why it’s common for half the kids from my school who enroll in college to drop out after their first semester. My father is one of 13 children raised on a dairy farm, and because of that, on his side of the family alone, I have about 60 aunts, uncles, and first cousins. Though almost all of them are older than me, I will only be the third of us to attain a bachelor’s degree.

My family is a working family. We respect people who have grit, not degrees. The highest compliment you can receive from one of my relatives is that you’re “one hell of a worker,” which is usually a reference to your proficiency with, and high tolerance for, manual labor. Of course we know that education is “good,” but the people of my town don’t go out of their way—and, in fact, do not even know how—to make sure they receive a great one. It’s a different world back in my home of Madison, N.Y., and it’s not the world that was suggested by that faculty panel.

That day at GSE, I witnessed the great divide that now plagues our nation, a divide between the political right and left. In that moment, I saw a Harvard professor, a member of the liberal elite, overlook the issues facing the people of my conservative, poor, and white community. There are plenty of logical reasons for why that professor considered the groups previously mentioned as facing larger obstacles in the realm of education, but relativity does not make my people’s problems any less real. The lack of mutual awareness between America’s conservatives and liberals is perhaps our greatest challenge today.

It is the burden of us rural whites at Harvard to exist on either side of that divide. We walk a thin line connecting our conservative hometowns with our more progressive college campus. A significant amount of my time freshman year was spent trying to reconcile these two parts of my life.

At home, I am an over-idealistic liberal, out-of-touch with reality. Here, I am a staunch conservative who has a lot to learn about life. In some regards, both depictions are accurate; I consider that the hallmark of true political mediation. But in that moment at GSE, I found myself not just situated in the middle of the divide but also falling down the crack.

By now, many Americans are exhausted of the never-ending sociological analyses and political commentary on Trump’s core demographic of voters, which includes my family and hometown. And yet, I still find myself explaining why my relatives found a Trump presidency preferable, even though all rationality suggests that a Trump presidency is not in the best interest of common Americans struggling to make ends meet.

When I think of Trump supporters, I think not of the screaming, white woman in a rally crowd or of the human garbage that marches through the streets carrying a torch and declaring white supremacy. Instead, I think of my father, the same man who has always defended welfare because some people just “don’t have any money,” who was quick to accept me after I made the decision to sleep with other men, and who once described how much he teared up while listening to a Bosnian coworker narrate his escape from a war-torn country.

He voted for Donald Trump, not because he is hateful, but because he is frustrated with the state of our nation. He is tired of a government that continues to make empty promises, is aggravated by a popular culture that paints his family as stupid hicks, and is pained to see menial jobs outsourced when that type of work has been what sustained him and all of his siblings—my aunts and uncles—when they did not have the money to finance their own educational pursuits for in-demand technical skills.

When I was home this past summer, I found myself having a lot of conversations about things that people in my small, racially homogenous town would never otherwise consider. Simple things like what it means to be transgender, how racism isn’t always intentional, and why the election of Trump is, justifiably, terrifying for so many people. These are conversations that need to be had and that need to go both ways. It’s just one more step in working to bridge that great divide.

Brandon E. Buell ’20 lives in Leverett House.

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