Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Why is the descriptor "rural" used in this story?

A story in today's New York Times tells of the retirement of Ernie Chambers from the Nebraska State legislature -- after 40 years. Described as an "irascible firebrand," the African-American -- a former barber from Omaha -- is quoted as saying, "I'm not liked at all." The story is basically about Chambers' unconventional and controversial ways -- his four decades in the state's unicameral legislature now brought to an end by term limits. Twice in the story (one of them in a photo caption), journalist Susan Saulny describes Nebraska as a "mostly rural," conservative state. Here's the full textual passage:
Liked or not, Mr. Chambers, a black, divorced, agnostic former barber from Omaha with posters of Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass decorating his office, managed to rise to an ultimate level of power in a mostly rural, white conservative state on little more than sheer determination to do so.
Here's my question: Of what relevance to the story is the information about Nebraska being a largely rural state? What "work" is this information doing for Saulny? I ask this especially in light of the fact that Chambers has represented an urban area (Omaha); he is not from small-town Nebraska. We (readers, that is) already know that Lincoln and Omaha are not New York or Chicago, and Nebraska is not the South.

Is that point that blacks don't ascend to power in rural places? that rural people are racist? that rural places tend to be racially homogeneous -- white, that is? If so, isn't that information conveyed by the word "white"? Does "white" make "rural" redundant? Does "conservative" make "rural" redundant? I recall other stories from other parts of the country that have suggested a link between rurality and racism. I've suggested it myself in earlier posts. This link -- or the specter of it -- seems to me to invite attention and analysis.

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