In the aftermath of this election, there has been a flurry of finger-pointing and hand-wringing by progressive folks trying to make sense of the result. One common narrative is that “we” urban liberals in blue enclaves live in a bubble and have no idea what “they,” the struggling working class of Middle America, are facing. It’s the idea of the Big Sort. America is getting increasingly divided as we self-segregate into ideologically polarized regions. You could easily place me in the urban, coastal, progressive bucket. I am one of the millions of small-town kids from the middle of the country who have settled on a coastal blue island. I live in New York and my career has taken me through three bastions of liberalism: academia, labor unions, and nonprofits. I’m an ardent Black Lives Matter activist. My story doesn’t fit neatly into this of idea of “we” and “they,” however, and it challenges a narrative that can cause us to write off communities that can be organized.
I grew up in Tamms, a tiny Illinois town at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Front Street, the old main drag, now has just one tiny post office amid a cluster of buildings that have been abandoned for decades. The per capita income is $10,333. My stepfather moved us there from a Washington, DC, suburb in 1993 after military downsizing forced him to leave. With a new family and small parting stipend from the US Army, he was looking for a family-friendly place where he could stretch a dollar. Both he and my mom had roots in Illinois. He had fond memories of spending childhood summers in his grandparents’ quaint rural town. Days there were spent ripping and running with cousins through the countryside and nights lying awake and listening to the sounds of train whistles and cicadas—a welcome escape from the harshness of his home in inner-city Chicago in the 1960s.
When we moved there, though, the town was already years into decline. A civil-rights uprising in 1967 and the ensuing white flight from the county seat of Cairo accelerated an economic descent that began with railroads replacing the river industries in the 1930s. Tomes could be written about Cairo—a Midwestern town that is actually further south than Richmond, Virginia—its violent civil-rights history and ensuing decline. But I grew up in nearby Tamms. We arrived at a particularly difficult time. Most of the region was underwater, having been recently battered by the Great Flood of 1993. My stepdad eventually found work at a Procter & Gamble factory assembling diapers and mom found work successively at the local laundromat, as a home care worker, and as a teacher’s aide. We went from the working poor to the middle class.
The new hope for the town’s economic turnaround in my youth came from President Clinton’s 1994 crime bill. Hoping to get some of the funding from the bill’s heavy investment in prisons, Tamms entered a bid to be the site of a new maximum-security prison. “Home of the First Super Max” was added to “A Good Place to Live” on the sign that welcomed people into Tamms. Residents were promised jobs, state funding, and an increased flow of people coming in and out for work. When the bid came through, not one local person was trained or hired and the town’s residents saw no revenue. Just an increase in their utility bills. The prison was off the highway so there was no need for workers to stop in the town and most prisoners held there had long been abandoned by their families and got no visitors. An extended campaign in Chicago against human-rights violations and death-penalty executions at the supermax shut the prison down in 2013.