Building an American caste system, part 1: rural folk

Sometimes my personal and research worlds collide.  Thursday night I was thinking about a good, recent article on the continued suckage of rural broadband and starting to write about it.  My readers know that this is a very immediate problem for my work and family.

At the same time I was getting feedback on my conference keynote from Thursday morning.  In this speech I dwelled on the impact of economic inequality on American culture and education.  Some people responded that this was interesting, but didn’t impact them, because they were shielded by very wealthy institutions.  Others agreed, yet appreciated the talk, as it connected them with the present content (several used the word “reality”).  Still others celebrated the talk, really wanting me to talk more about economic class – but they only approached me in private, not public.

Meanwhile, I was taking notes in another tab about another grim idea that’s been occupying my brain in dark hours.  The idea is that America is developing a caste system, within which education plays a powerful and constitutive role.  These three came together in a kind of brainstorm.

Robert Putnam described recent socioeconomic developments as building up into something like a caste system. Eric Schmidt (a Google leader, for a while the Google leader) wrote about the possibility of “a digital caste system”.  The last Obama administration education secretary used this language to describe American higher education:

When it comes to student access, we need to acknowledge the ways in which we are becoming a caste system of colleges and universities – in which wealthier high school students get personalized college counseling, rigorous coursework like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, and disproportionate admittance to the nation’s top universities, while, all too often, poorer students get shortchanged on these things. (emphases added)

…That is an embarrassment. It is a death sentence for our historic promise of social mobility.


Some of that caste metaphor insight appears as well in several of our book club readings, which have emphasized a deepening of class differences in/with/through education, like Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price, Madeline Ashby’s Company Town, Ernst Cline’s Ready Player One, Paulo Bacigalupi’s, The Water Knife, and Robert Putnam’s aforementioned Our Kids.  Other recent books I’ve been reading contribute to this theme as well, like Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton’s Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, Scott Gelber’s The University and the People, and Christopher Newfield’s recent Johns Hopkins books, Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class and The Great Mistake.  The Big Sort looms large on my Kindle… looking back on this paragraph, I see a very recent and growing bibliography about  class differences widening into a new social order.

Caste has also come up on the Future Trends Forum.  Sara Goldrick-Rab spoke to it in March:

Gardner Campbell referred to adjuncts as an emergent faculty caste.

Or as one person put it more darkly on Twitter:

So why are some of us thinking of caste as a metaphor to illuminate the present day?  Economic inequality, while rising, isn’t automatically caste, obviously.  Moreover, caste requires a complex system of hereditary roles, internalized position, religious support, clearly understood hierarchy, controls over romance and reproduction, policing, and maybe race/ethnicity.  America doesn’t have any of these, do we?

…and yet we could be heading in that direction right now, in the United States.  Not perfectly, no, but we’re very creative people.   Americans are working on realizing many of the above features, starting with reducing intergenerational economic mobility – you might remember this old idea under the hoary nickname “The American Dream.”   Controls over romance and reproduction?  We’re already seeing economic forms of assortative mating settling in.  Policing daily life by class?  The velvet rope economy brings caste out quite clearly, from medical care to air travel and resorts.

But using caste as a metaphor quickly brings to mind many differences between the reference and the thing itself.  America isn’t becoming a copy of India or Edo Japan, of course.  Our emerging caste model isn’t openly acknowledged and celebrated (yet).  We don’t have a religious structure backing it (setting aside the prosperity gospel for now), although instead of religion we might now have a stabilizing mix of media and neoliberalism.  The same goes for internalizing one’s caste position, a lack of explicit social norms, but a set of quietly emerging ones.  (Maybe we’ll generate a new term to replace “caste” in order to flag its 21st-century American specificity.  Perhaps “iCaste,” or “American Dream 2.0.”)

In short caste here is a conceptual tool, not a literal comparison.  It’s one I’d like to use to derive some visions of possible cultural evolution.  Consider it a futuring tool or prompt.

So I’ll explore this futures idea over a series of posts.  I’ll come back to the general idea, and dive into possible new castes.

Today’s caste: rural folk.

Hypothesis: America’s rural population is emerging as a distinct identity, restricted to certain roles.

It’s clear that this population is distinct from the urban and suburban demographic.  City versus country is as old as cities, after all, but things are sharpening now.  Country folk are increasingly older and fewer in number than people in cities, who are burgeoning.  Rural people tend to be more politically conservative than their urban counterparts.

US population urban and rural 1950-2050_UN

The countryside is also poorer, generally speaking, than the rest of America. The urban Rust Belt is paralleled by a relatively immiserated world of rural counties where capital doesn’t accrue as rapidly, where jobs pay less and money usually flows out, rather than in.  The urban sphere is growing, economically, while the rural zone stagnates at best.

Rural infrastructure helps keep that population in its low (and lowering) place.  Cyberinfrastructure is desperately lacking, with broadband far scarcer than it is in cities and suburbs.  This has enormous impact, blocking access to a growing swath of the digital world.  Rural people have less opportunity to learn online, make stories and share them through YouTube, start businesses, shop, be entertained, research politicians – i.e., a very large part of 21st century life.

(On Facebook one friend recollected that the rural Dakotas actually have good connectivity… thanks to convict labor in the 1990s.  I’ll get into prisoners as caste later on.)

More: according to the US Census, “People who live in rural areas are more likely to own their own homes, live in their state of birth and have served in the military than their urban counterparts”.

One way a caste system survives is by inter-caste competition and disdain.  Despite centuries of American culture valorizing bucolic settings, a significant chunk of today’s culture now entertains some serious hatred for that world.  Don’t underestimate the wealth of sneering contained in the popular slur “flyover country.”  Here’s another example of that spite, handily aggregated by an author looking at responses to Case and Deaton:

Bunch of deplorables, and if they die quicker than the rest of us that just means the country will be better off in the long run…

It’s bad news they are dying off if you happen to love one of them or are one of them. But, it’s the welcome news of hope that without that demographic dwindling and eventually gone, our chances of another Trump are significantly less.
Now that’s good news…

If anything, these poor whites will be hired to dig grave pits and assemble their own coffins….

They have every know advantage in America; culturally, environmentally, educationally, etc. There is absolutely no reason that they should be in such despair. They should pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

That wrath is partly ideological, with progressive Democrats despising Trump supporters.  But it also reflects a kind of caste supporting tactic, as people living in cities and suburbs can mock and disdain those inhabiting the countryside and in so doing boost their own status.  “We’re smarter and more progressive.  We don’t deserve to die of despair, unlike those untouchables rubes.”

Naturally rural folk return the favor.  They inhabit the heartland, after all.

Ideology: as anyone who’s lived in both country and city knows, and as a recent Washington Post survey shows, political and cultural attitudes differ.

rural versus urban attitudes towards immigration

Rural residents are nearly three times as likely (42 percent) as people in cities (16 percent) to say that immigrants are a burden on the country….

When asked which is more common — that government help tends to go to irresponsible people who do not deserve it or that it doesn’t reach people in need — rural Americans are more likely than others to say they think people are abusing the system. And across all areas, those who believe irresponsible people get undeserved government benefits are more likely than others to think that racial minorities receive unfair privileges.

All right, so we have a sense that the countryside is increasingly distinct from the city and suburbs.  Let’s look at it from another angle.  What is the function of the rural caste in the overall system that is America?

The ancient and still important role is growing food.  This is where factory farms and CSAs alike dwell.  Automation increasingly appears in the ag sector, but still occurs in the countryside.  (Now, a special subsector of the rural caste is the elite food grower.  Fans of Michael Pollan and slow food can cultivate speciality farms which supply not major grocery chains but farmer’s markets.)

The countryside also provides transportation services for those traveling by means other than air.  A rural population staffs restaurants, gas stations, garages, hotels, and tourist spots.  Entire towns exist to support and feed off of interstates.

Rural folks also feed the military in greater numbers that their urban and city counterparts.

Beyond those literal functions, the countryside plays a powerful symbolic function.  People living in small towns or in isolated settings remind the rest of the nation of a key part of our collective identity.  It is distanced and unrealistic, but we maintain some remnant of respect, alongside our disdain.  We don’t talk about the pioneers in positive terms any longer (or at all, really), yet we can admire what it takes to live off the grid, or at any rate far from the nearest Starbuck’s.  For the rest of America rural folk serve the important function of bucolic historical reenactment.

Let’s take this rural caste model into the future.  Population trends suggest the number of inhabitants will plateau or shrink.  If cities remain the nation’s engines of economic growth, the countryside will fall even further behind, which might increase the appeal of populisms or dangerous drugs to the isolated inhabitants .  Automation might speed this process by removing jobs.  Trump-era political polarization could wide the city versus country political divide.  The caste, in other words, could harden.

I’m not sure what this means for education.  Rural colleges and universities could lose student numbers and even merge or close as learners prefer to attend urban and suburban campuses.  Bad broadband could stymie options for rural online learning.   Perhaps the countryside will fall farther behind in academic attainment.

Are you seeing the rural caste emerge?  Is my American caste future implausible?  If it is plausible, which castes are you seeing surface?  Do you have to cleanse yourself after reading this post?  Let me know while I draft the next several posts in this series.

(thanks to Ceredwyn for helping develop many of these ideas; thanks to Rolin Moe for sharing the WSJ article; thanks to George Station and other Facebook friends for more discussion; thanks to Steven Greenlaw for the WaPo link)

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15 Responses to Building an American caste system, part 1: rural folk

  1. Tom Haymes says:

    What happens when automated cars explode the traditional rural-urban divide? If you can get to work at 120 mph with an automated car and no fear of traffic, what’s to stop you living scores of miles from work? Rural flight could become a new realitiy and with it demands for better infrastructure. Additionally, new forms of connectivity are coming online that don’t require physical cables or even towers such as Elon Musk’s plan for low earth orbit satellites.

    Besides education, what do most Americans pay for? Transportation and housing. By creating a loaner car economy and a widely distributed “urban” area, the cost of both of both of those will plummet. Of course, that will have profound economic ripples that will extend far beyond the rural-urban divide. So I ask, could this just be a transitional phenomenon?

    • Self-driving cars: I’m not sure. Telecommuting had a similar promise (if you could work from anywhere, why not an arcadian setting?), and we moved further into cities and suburbs. Moreover, the infrastructure is very costly in $$s and political capital. It’s easier to have your car drive you between different interesting suburbs and cities.
      If the # of cars declines, there’s going to be city and suburb room freed up for more living and experimentation- I bet your new colleagues are thinking about this.

      If cars cost less, hurrah! But if the caste hypothesis bears out, each caste will have its own car genre. Imagine the 1% car, and the car of the 1%’s 1%. Conspicuous consumption doesn’t seem to be going away.

      I’m curious to see who’s the last to give up driving. Will it be the country folk? Or will the elite demonstrate their skills?

  2. Joe Murphy says:

    Like Tom, I find myself wondering about the cultural impacts of suburbanization. Is it mostly a gentrification process, where people with means move into an area, discover the downsides of the “charms” which drew them there, and promptly work to supplant them with sterilized analogues? (I can’t help but think of the convention that housing developments are named for the thing they plowed under…) Or is there meaningful cross-pollination between the communities, at least for a while, and what are the long-term impacts of that interaction?

    Another thought is that you lump together “transportation services” and “tourism”, which I suspect deserve to be separated. Being a waypoint is different than being a destination. In a way, I think being a vacation destination might be more poisonous. Urbanites understand that they’ve entered someone else’s community when they’re just passing through, but there’s an Ugly Tourist tendency to assume that vacation spots have been set up for the traveler’s convenience, including the preferences and practices of their home culture. (Ruralites are just as vulnerable to this, as any Yelp or TripAdvisor search will show, but I think it’s more corrosive when there isn’t the rest of an urban economy to support community and human development.) So there are two “reenactment” problems – the arms length one of “you live near a farm! How quaint!” and the close up one of “I came here to get away from it all! Where’s Starbucks and Target?”

    • cross-pollination can occur within a caste, if it’s big enough. With 320+ million people, there’s plenty of room to innovate without breaking caste.

      Alternatively, that’s how the caste system could fall apart, via a kind of cultural exogamy.

      Great point about tourism. I’m hearing that kind of complaint pretty much wherever I go. Vacationers demand broadband, certain foods – man, the caste differences just swim into focus in such scenes.

  3. emdalton says:

    For a view of how our castes are internalized, see Terry Pratchett’s _Unseen Academicals_ and watch for the term “crab bucket.” Granted classism is more overt in the UK than in the US… I’m not sure it isn’t just as entrenched here. We just don’t like to talk about it. It goes against the popular mythology of the “self made man.”

  4. actualham says:

    You’ve probably already seen this, but if not, maybe worth a look for your work. The 2015-16 Report of the Rural School and Community Trust (published this June, I think):

  5. Emily says:

    This will not come as news to anyone who grew up in a small town. Most city folks don’t even realize the degree to which they disdain rural folks, while being totally dependent on them.

  6. Pingback: On the solstice, dark thoughts for 2018 | Bryan Alexander

  7. Hammerheart says:

    This says much that needed saying (ditto part 2).
    It has 2 faults/failings, one of which isn’t the writer’s fault:
    1) It was written before the Covid19 pandemic & what even its suppporters call ‘the re-set’;
    2) These things–the caste system etc–aren’t some vague distant thing on or over the horizon, something that might happen (‘if we don’t do x, y etc’): they’re already here.
    Many of these topics (eg picked almost randomly) like eg rural etc gentrification, are now regular topics on (liberal bastions like) NPR’s Marketplace, etc, where they are no longer denied as happening/being real, etc, but rather their merits, downsides, unintended side effects/consequences etc are discussed.

    I thank this writer for drawing attention to the scam of the euphemism “upper-middle class” (“nothing or not much middle about them at all”). “Lower-upper class” maybe sounds clunky but it’s much more honest & accurate. It’s all part of the false-modesty, ward-off-envy-the-evil-eye mental problem/disorder afflicting this class especially, & manifesting itself in cognitive elite Newspeak.

    The top 1-10% class(es) make sure the culture & also the educational system remains status quo with reference to providing people with a vocabulary to discuss class (in anything except 1 or 2 dimensional cartoon terms Americans, including the top 1-10%, use); as Allan Bloom (et al) observed (with or without reference to Orwell), deprived of words ie vocabulary for various things, people cannot discuss, or usually form any mental model of, those things.

    Of course, there is a class of people for whom “Biden won the US election, all’s (now) right with the world,” & in my experience it’s pointless attempting to communicate or discuss with that type.

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