Sunday, April 28, 2013

A cluster of rural vignettes in the New York Times

The national page of yesterday's the New York Times featured three stories that present vignettes of rural America.  The stories are from different regions and about very different issues and events, but all rural.

One is a follow up on the recent explosion of the fertilizer plant in West, Texas.  (See an earlier post with references to the disaster here).  The headline is "In Texas Blast, Horseman Died Trying to Save Animals He Loved." The story, by Manny Fernandez who reports from Texas for the Times, focuses on Buck Uptmor, 45, one of the 12 men who died "serving officially or unofficially as volunteer firefighters" and first responders.  Uptmor died trying to save his horses, which were in a pasture near the fertilizer facility.  Fernandez provides a vivid vignette of a "a youth baseball coach, a racehorse jockey, a bull-riding and bareback-bronco-riding rodeo cowboy, and the former drummer of the family country band Billy Uptmor and the Makers."

But the story is more about the town of West than it is about a single victim of the April 17 disaster. Fernandez writes of those who died:
They were an unpretentious lot, not unlike the town they died saving. They were deer hunters and Nascar fans, practical jokers and backyard BB gun marksmen. They tinkered with their cars — Kevin W. Sanders, 33, had a Superman logo painted on his — and they went by their nicknames so often for so many years that their real names faded, as happened to Mr. Uptmor. 
They were goateed, mustachioed McLennan County country boys, with wives and ex-wives, children and stepchildren, grown sons and newborn babies.
Call me nostalgic, but I loved--even treasured--this depiction of ordinary, working men in middle America--small-town America.  

The next story definitely does not make me nostaligic.  It is headlined"A Racial Divide Closes as Students Step Up."  The dateline is Abbeville, Georgia, where two Black students and two white students planned the first integrated prom at Wilcox County High School.  Robbie Brown writes:
The rural county in central Georgia is one of the last pockets in the country with racially segregated proms.
That is the story's only reference to rurality, but Brown implies that the persistence of segregated proms has been a phenomenon associated not just with the South--but with the rural South:
Across the South, segregated proms have gradually faded away. In 2008, Charleston, Miss., held its first mixed-race prom after the actor Morgan Freeman, who grew up there, offered to pay for the event. In 2010, Montgomery County, Ga., stopped its segregated proms after they were featured in an article in The New York Times Magazine
Paul Saltzman, who directed a film about Charleston’s desegregation, “Prom Night in Mississippi,” said he did not know of any other proms that were still segregated. 
The population of Charleston is 2,198.  It is in nonmetropolitan Tallahatchie County, population 15,111.  Montgomery County, Georgia is also nonmetropolitan, with a population of 8,963.  

I suppose that one would expect rural places to be more resistant to integration because they tend to be more static and traditional in most regards.  They also tend to fly under the radar of national news scrutiny.  That is obviously less so in relation to high-profile issues like racial segregation, as suggested by what happened in Charleston, Mississippi and Montgomery County, Georgia.   

The third story is really just a photo and its caption.  It shows high school students in Fargo, North Dakota, stacking sandbags in preparation for the crest the Red River.  The caption notes that students have done this each of the last four springs.  I know that Fargo, a city of more than 100,000, is technically not rural, but the NYT so often refers to states like North Dakota as rural in their entirety, so I am taking a similar liberty.  Certainly, what the students are doing reflects what is popularly seen as the spirit of rural community.  

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Rural exceptionalism in gun control legislation

I have been writing about the renewed debate on gun control, in relation to rurality, since the Newtown, Connecticut massacre last December.  Read those posts here and here.  Accommodating rural residents' need and or desire to buy guns is an issue that has cropped up in the last month in particular in relation to the federal debate over new gun control legislation.  A recent effort to close the loop-hole that permits those purchasing guns at gun shows and in private transactions to avoid background checks failed last week with 55 votes in support before Harry Reid changed his vote to "no" in a procedural measure to preserve the parliamentary right to bring it up again. That bill was a bi-partisan effort co-sponsored by Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania.  Among the Democratic Senators who crossed party lines to vote against that bill were Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Max Baucus of Montana, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.  A few Republicans, along with Toomey, went the other way, supporting the measure:  John McCain of Arizona; Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois; and Susan Collins of Maine.

Back before the Senate vote that defeated the Manchin-Toomey bill, Jennifer Steinhauer had described in a Times story a possible 11th hour change to the bill:
One approach designed to entice lawmakers representing large rural areas, particularly in Alaska, would exempt residents who live hundreds of miles from a gun dealer. Lawmakers are hoping that they can attract support from both Republicans and Democrats who are weighing the political costs and benefits of a bill against the perception that they are chipping away at gun rights.
Nothing else in Steinhauer's story illuminated what Manchin and Toomey had in mind, but yesterday's New York Times, reporting on renewed efforts to pass a federal law that would strengthen gun control by focusing on anti-trafficking measures, mentioned the rural exception to expanded background checks.  Journalist Jeremy Peters notes that Manchin is considering reviving his bill.  He would
tweak[   ] the language of his bill in a way that he believed would satisfy senators who, for example, felt that background checks on person-to-person gun sales would be too onerous for people who live in rural areas far from a sporting goods store. 
Those concerns were an issue for Alaska’s senators, Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, and Mark Begich, a Democrat.
Recent Times coverage further highlights regionalism in gun control (or lack thereof) politics by noting that Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire, was the "only one out of 22 senators on the East Coast north of Virginia who voted against strengthening background checks."

In an op-ed in today's New York Times, Robert A. Levy of the Cato Institute endorses some revived version of the Manchin-Toomey plan, including its rural exception.  Levy writes that any new proposal "should also exempt certain rural residents who live too far from a licensed gun dealer for a background check to be practicable."

All of this talk about a rural exception to background checks has me more than a little annoyed because of law's failure in other contexts to acknowledge or respond in a helpful way to the spatial isolation and attendant lack of rural services and amenities.  These include the right to vote and the right to terminate a pregnancy.  I have written about the jurisprudence of the latter here.

Above is a photo I took last week-end along Pleasant Valley Road, near Placerville, California, in El Dorado County.  El Dorado County is metropolitan by virtue of its population (180,561) and the fact it is contiguous with Sacramento County.  Yet the county has significant rural pockets, a relatively low population density and, many would say, a rural culture.   

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Water wars divide a Montana community

Jack Healy reports in the today's New York Times about a proposed water compact in Montana, a 1400-page agreement that is a decade in the making.  It allocates water on the Flathead Reservation in northwest Montana among the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes of the Flathead Nation on the one hand and local farmers and ranchers on the other.  In fact, the compact would also settle Indian claims to fishing rights across western Montana--rights promised to the Indians as long ago as 1855.  Plus, the compact provides $55 million in state funding to upgrade the Reservation's water system.

Part of what makes the compact so controversial--and tensions so great--is that these groups have lived amidst one another, intermarrying and attending the same schools, for decades.  Indeed, white settlers permeated the reservation so completely that only 7000 Indians are among the 28,000 reservation residents.

The story's lede highlights the history and the current tensions:  
In a place where the lives and histories of Indian tribes and white settlers intertwine like mingling mountain streams, a bitter battle has erupted on this land over the rivers running through it. 
A water war is roiling the Flathead Indian Reservation here in western Montana, and it stretches from farms, ranches and mountains to the highest levels of state government, cracking open old divisions between the tribes and descendants of homesteaders who were part of a government-led land rush into Indian country a century ago.
The Montana state government considered the compact this spring, with Democratic governor Steve Bullock and some Republican lawmakers supporting it.  But others in the Republican dominated legislature ultimately killed the compact after farmers turned out to oppose it.  

Pursuant to the compact, farmers and ranchers would get 456,400 gallons/year for every acre they irrigate. Potato farmers fear this will be insufficient to support their crops, and ranchers say it won't be enough for their cattle and the crops grown to feed them.  

Monday, April 22, 2013

Gender Disparities in Farm Transmission

The North Dakota Law Review has jut published an article called "Rural Inheritance:  Gender Disparities in Farm Transmission."  This is a thoughtful gendered critique of why sons rather than daughters tend to inherit family farms.  It concludes that families and rural society groom boys to farm, but do not cultivate this interest in nor pass the know-how on to girls in the same way.  Gender stereotyping and its consequences remain the culprit, even in the face of changes to the Uniform Probate Code that made it gender-neutral.

The author of "Rural Inheritance" is Hannah Alsgaard, a 2012 graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law (Boalt Hall), who is currently clerking for Judge Roberto Lange of the District of South Dakota, in Pierre.  Ms. Alsgaard grew up in Yankton, South Dakota, so she knows well the milieu of which she writes.  The abstract for the article follows, and you can download the full text here:
Farmers are farmers’ sons. Notable in our modern day, heralded by many as a gender-neutral society, it is farmers’ sons, not farmers’ daughters, who become farmers and take over ownership and management of the family farm. It has long been true that agricultural knowledge and land have passed through generations of men. In contrast, daughters, even today, are neither considered to be farmers nor likely to inherit family farmland. This Article begins by chronicling how farmland is inherited (by sons) then discusses why the pattern of excluding women continues. There have been substantial legal changes in the United States impacting land inheritance and ownership, culminating with the Equal Protection Clause’s extension to gender discrimination and the gender-neutral Uniform Probate Code. Social changes have also been tremendous, but even legal and social developments have been unable to correct gender disparity in farm inheritance. After exploring many legal and social factors, I conclude it is grooming – at the familial, governmental, and social levels – that plays the most vital role in training future farmers and mainly accounts for the gender difference in farm inheritance and the farming profession. This Article ultimately proposes girls must be groomed to farm in order to rectify the vast gender disparity in the ownership and management of family farms. A three pronged approach will be needed to remedy the situation, specifically: changing the role of lawyers, educating girls and women, and educating testators. What remains most important is that daughters are given the same opportunity as sons to farm based on merit, rather than being excluded from farm inheritance merely because of their gender.
Cross-posted to the Ag Law Blog.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Protest, Nebraska style

This week, Nebraskans had what may be their last formal chance to comment on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.  Many attended public hearings that the U.S. State Department hosted at an events hall in the state fairgrounds at Grand Island, in central Nebraska.  Dan Frosch reported for the New York Times, describing the scene:
Hundreds of people braved heavy snow and wind on Thursday, streaming into this central Nebraska town to speak out on the Keystone XL pipeline at what may be the final public hearing on the project. 
The hearing, conducted by the State Department, drew hours of emotional testimony, mostly from opponents of Keystone XL, who whooped and applauded when anyone from their ranks spoke, and solemnly hoisted black scarves that read “Pipeline Fighter” during comments by the project’s supporters.
Nebraska rancher Ben Gotschall was among those who spoke in opposition to the pipeline at the hearing:
The Keystone ‘Export’ pipeline is not in the national interest, and it is most certainly not in Nebraska’s interest.  ... Our landowners have been left to fend for themselves against an onslaught of dishonest land agents and corporate bullies.
While opponents of the pipeline seemed to considerably outnumber supporters at the Grand Island meeting, an Omaha World-Herald poll last year indicated that Nebraskans support the pipeline by a ratio of 2 to 1.  But another poll, this one by the University of Nebraska’s Center for Applied Rural Innovation, found that 65% of respondents believed the pipeline should avoid the Sand Hills and the Ogallala Aquifer.  Whether the path currently proposed for the pipeline would avoid the Sand Hills and the Aquifer is debatable.  

The day before the Grand Island forum, Mary Pipher of Lincoln published this op-ed in the Times, titled "Lighting a Spark on the High Plains."  In it, Pipher describes the strategies Nebraskans have used to oppose the pipeline, and I found her characterizations reminiscent of at least one strand of rural culture. Here's an excerpt:
Newly minted activists organized potlucks, educational forums, music benefits, tractor pulls, poetry readings, flashlight rallies, wildflower drops in Capitol offices and pumpkin-carving protests. Grandmothers created the Apple Pie Brigade and arrived every Monday at the governor’s mansion with small gifts and letters opposing the project.

* * *  
Our activism was polite and respectful. Our common language was our love of our state and our hopes for our children.
* * *  
In part, our unity came from our shared history and geography. Many of us are the relatives of homesteaders and modern farmers and ranchers. Whatever our politics, we all believe in the sanctity of home.  (emphasis added)
Mary Pipher quotes Nebraska activist Randy Thompson to illustrate how "[f]armers, ranchers, urbanites, Republicans and Democrats, students and senior citizens as well as native peoples" have come together to to oppose the pipeline:
There is no red water or blue water, there is clean water or dirty water.
Pipher closes by highlighting the unexpected in all of this, as well as Nebraska's place in a larger environmental movement:
Our remote, conservative, flyover state seems like an odd place to make a stand for clean water and fertile land, but we will be at the heart of those battles. We are fighting not only for ourselves but for people all over the world.
As for what comes next, President Obama will make a decision about the pipeline later this year.  Or, as Randy Thompson expressed it, "We're about at the final bell" in this "heavyweight bout between the ordinary citizens of this country and a foreign corporation."

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A tribute to volunteer (rural) fire fighters

Volunteer Fire Dept. Station in Mt. Judea, Arkansas, April, 2013.  Mt. Judea is a tiny community in a persistent poverty county in the Arkansas Ozarks, Newton County.   
It took me a while, along my journey as a ruralist, to realize that volunteer fire fighting is a rural issue.  That is, places that rely on volunteer fire fighters tend to be rural places.  More populous and wealthier places, places incorporated as cities, tend to establish and invest in professional, well-compensated fire departments.  After I came to that epiphany, I started taking photos of volunteer fire departments wherever I went, and I feature just a few in this blog post.
Rico Volunteer Fire Dept., in
Dolores County, southwest part of Colorado
July, 2012 
In California, rural folks are especially aware that volunteer fire departments are a rural phenomenon because they have been paying a fire fee (or tax, depending on who you ask) for several years now.  It's been controversial, in part because the money goes to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection rather than to any of the numerous volunteer fire departments that actually defend the homes of California's rural residents.  Read news coverage of the fee here, here, and here.  

Volunteer Fire Dept. in Blairsden- Graeagle, California, in Plumas County,
in the northern Sierra-Nevada Mountains, March 2013.
I am writing this post now because two recent events have highlighted the sacrificial courage of volunteer fire fighters. The most recent was the explosion in West, Texas, last night, in which the town's volunteer fire fighters valiantly fought the blaze at the fertilizer facility until they realized it was getting out of control and moving toward the highly volatile storage tanks.  That is when at least some of them began evacuating the nearby nursing home and apartment complex.  In doing so, they saved many, many lives.  Yet news reports tell us that 3 to 5 of those firefighters are now missing, and they may be dead.  See coverage of these events here and here.  The Dallas Morning News currently features this headline: "Dallas Fire-Rescue captain, West City secretary among those missing after devastating explosion." The current New York Times headline also (awkwardly, language-wise) focuses on the local first responders as likely victims of the blast, "Ruins Searched for Firefighters after Blast at Factory Kills Five."  

Volunteer Fire Dept., Jasper, Arkansas, Newton County
November 2011 
The other event was the December, 2012, murder of two volunteer fire fighters responding to a fire in rural Webster, New York, on Lake Ontario.  The New York Times reported these events here and here.  An excerpt from one of the stories follows:
As Christmas Eve dawned in this suburb of Rochester, local authorities say, [William Spengler, Jr.] set fire to a car, as a trap. When an engine company came roaring down the street, he started shooting at the first responders, most likely from his Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle.
* * * 
The authorities say Mr. Spengler fired shots that killed two volunteer firefighters from long range and seriously wounded two others, and set a “raging inferno.” The police found him dead on a berm about five hours after the siege started, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Jondaryan Rural Fire Dept.,
Southern Queensland, Australia, August 2012
So, here's to volunteer (rural) fire fighters, who face a range of perils.  They not only train and courageously respond, they and their communities often have to raise their own funds, as the bottom photo illustrates.
Advertising a fire department fundraiser, Bodega, California
Sonoma County, March 2012 
N.B.  Moments after publishing this post, I came across this on the Dallas Morning News regarding 2011 cuts to volunteer fire departments in Texas.  Here is an excerpt from Christy Hoppe's story:
State lawmakers, struggling to erase a $27 billion budget shortfall two years ago without raising new revenue, slashed money throughout governmnet — including to volunteer fire departments. 
The Legislature cut its annual grants to such fire departments from $25 million to $7 million, leaving many of the 1,400 small communities scrambling. 
Asked if those cuts should be restored, following the fertilizer plant explosion in West that was fought by a volunteer fire department, Gov. Rick Perry said budget decisions are made by the Legislature. 
He also faced similar questions in November 2011 when volunteer firefighters were overwhelmed by wildfires in Bastrop County.
And here is a post script from the NYT, in its coverage of the West explosion.  The story by Manny Fernandez and John Schwartz focuses on one volunteer fire fighter:
Perry Calvin, 37, a married father of two with a third on the way, was one of the missing volunteer firefighters. He had been attending an emergency medical technician class in West on Wednesday evening when a firefighter in the class got a page about the fire at the fertilizer company, said his father, Phil Calvin. 
Perry Calvin and another man drove to the scene together and got there before the explosion. The other man was found dead Wednesday night. 
“It doesn’t look good, but we don’t have anything confirmed yet,” Phil Calvin, the fire chief in the town of Navarro Mills, said Thursday afternoon. About an hour after he spoke those words, he got the news, sitting by the phone at his home in nearby Frost: his son was indeed among the dead. 
Perry Calvin was not even a firefighter with the West department. He volunteered with another department in a nearby town, but had rushed to the scene to help, because he happened to be close. He is the kind of person who would be right at the head of the line, his father said. “He would do what he could to put the fire out or help find people.”

Monday, April 15, 2013

More on the Arctic as rural

Last month, a student wrote this thoughtful post about the Arctic as rural.  That made me read this NPR story on Arctic Russia a bit more closely.  The headline is, "As Arctic Melts, It's a Free for All for Oil ... and Tusks."  An excerpt follows:
In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey released a report estimating that 13 percent of the world's remaining undiscovered oil and 30 percent of the remaining undiscovered natural gas could be in the Arctic. 
* * * 
But petroleum products aren't the only commodities appearing where Arctic ice once was.
In Siberia, the tusks of long-dead mammoths, which have been encased in ice for centuries, are now becoming exposed. That's bringing along tusk hunters and ivory poachers. 
"After the international ban of elephant ivory trade in 1991, mammoth tusk became sort of a substitute for [elephant ivory]," says photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva who grew up in a town in Siberia and heard about the rush of local men selling mammoth ivory. "So I would say from 1991, people really started to see it as a business." 
There are millions of tusks out in the tundra. Many of them are buried very deep in the ice, but some are near the surface, and that's where local hunters are finding them.
So, that's the basic NPR story, but what really caught my attention was an exchange between readers commenting on the story.  A writer named Steve Beeman wrote:  
Thinking about this rationally, it doesn't seem quite as bad as trading in elephant ivory. After all, they are not killing the mammoths. The amount of scientific information from 100 tusks is not ten times the amount of data from 10 tusks. Still the damage done by the ivory trade is so devastating, anything similar has to be condemned.
To that, a writer calling him/herself decora, decora responded:
yes. lets be sure to condemn the activity of remote rural hunters in the remotest reaches of siberia that hardly anyone ever visits, ever, and that we have never heard of, whose names we can't pronounce, who we didn't even know existed 5 minutes ago. obviously impoverishing them is the solution to chinese business men hunting elephants in africa.
Just another reminder of the disconnect between rural and urban--and how rural livelihoods may suddenly seem like they matter to urban folks, if only because of the urban desire to control valuable resources that happen to be present in rural places.  

Sunday, April 14, 2013

American Indians part of the great rural-to-urban migration

That is the primary point of Timothy Williams's story in the New York Times today, dateline Minneapolis and headlined "Quietly, Indians Reshape Cities and Reservations." Williams notes that this migration is "largely unnoticed" but cites Census Bureau data for the proposition that more than 70% of American Indians and Alaska Native now live in metropolitan areas.  That figure was just 45% in 1970, only 8% in 1940.

Of course, this migration tracks our nation's broader move from rural places to urban ones:  more of the U.S. population last lived in rural areas than in urban ones at the 1920 census--nearly a century ago.  More specifically, Williams compares this Indian migration to that of millions of African-Americans from the rural south to northern and western cities during the so-called Great Migration of the last century.  But Williams also notes an important difference between the two groups:
[W]hile many black migrants found jobs in meatpacking plants, stockyards and automobile factories, American Indians have not had similar success finding work.
Further, according to Dr. Philip R. Lee, an emeritus professor of social medicine at the University of California, San Francisco:
When you look at it as a percentage, the black migration was nothing in comparison to the percentage of Native Americans who have come to urban areas. 
Williams discusses the pros and cons of Indian life in the city, comparing, for example, poverty rates among Indians in metropolitan areas with those on reservations.  Here's an excerpt from the story which focuses on Indians in Minneapolis in particular:  
Despite the rampant poverty, many view Minneapolis as a symbol of progress. The city’s Indian population, about 2 percent of the total, is more integrated than in most other metropolitan areas, and there are social services and legal and job training programs specifically focused on them. 
The city has a Native American City Council member, Robert Lilligren; a Native American state representative, Susan Allen; and a police chief, Janee Harteau, who is part Indian. But city life has brought with it familiar social ills like alcoholism and high unemployment, along with less familiar problems, including racism, heroin use and aggressive street gangs.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Commenting on the commentary about "Accidental Racist"

I don't watch TV or follow much pop culture, and most of the country music I occasionally listen to is on old albums by the likes of Sara Evans, Faith Hill, Martina McBride and Alison Krauss.  But this was apparently a big week in country music thanks to Brad Paisley and his new album Wheelhouse.  I was on the road on Tuesday, but by the time I was catching up on email early Wednesday morning, I had lots of messages from friends giving me a heads up on the furor associated with Paisley's new song, "Accidental Racist," which includes a cameo from LL Cool J.  Commentators have varyingly discussed Paisley and his new song thusly:
In short, as one commentator put it, the song has attracted "an unusual amount of ... sneering." Another called the response "overpowering vitriol."

Eric Weisbard did not sneer in his piece for NPR. His headline references the history of white southern musical identity, and Weisbard touches on biases against the South, as well as white-on-white biases:
As you may have heard, Paisley is sifting through some rubble of his own right now, having been declared a national laughingstock by virtually all commentators coming from outside mainstream country. But then, this condescending dismissal is nothing new. There is a history to "Accidental Racist," the history of how white Southern musicians — heatedly, implicitly, at times self-servingly and not always successfully — try to talk about who they are in answer to what others dismissively assume they are. 
After all, while the Jim Crow South was Anglo supremacist politically, American culture offered a very different dynamic. Ever since white Northerners started putting out their records, Southern whites have represented a backward rural mindset in a national culture of jazzy modernity.  ... Variety loved jazz but scorned the hillbilly in 1926 as " 'poor white trash' genera. The great majority, probably 95 percent, can neither read nor write English. Theirs is a community all to themselves. [They are] illiterate and ignorant, with the intelligence of morons."
This reminds me of some of the points I made in The Geography of the Class Culture Wars about contemporary bias against Southerners, rural denizens, and the ever burgeoning group of people who get labeled "white trash." I note that various commentators of this Paisley/Cool J duet speak ill of the South in a broad-brush way that is not so different to what Variety had to say nearly a century ago.  This has me wondering if Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder's "Ebony and Ivory," to which many commentators are comparing "Accidental Racist," elicited such ridicule when it was released?

Let me be clear: I do not defend slavery or the Confederate flag, and I see the latter as inextricably linked to and signaling racism. Further, I offer no comments on the artistic merits of "Accidental Racist," the song, though I will admit that this media frenzy about it led to my first country music download ever just so I could have the full musical experience, first hand.

Mark Kemp, too, puts "Accidental Racist" in historical musical perspective and notes regionalism's role in this kerfuffle.  Kemp observes that this is "hardly the first time a song by a Southerner dealing with white blue-collar issues has produced strong reactions among the Northeastern-based media."

Weisbard's piece goes on to comment on the "choices" available to southern white musicians in the 1960s and 1970s:
They could embrace black music and contemporary life and cross over, like former Texan Janis Joplin. They could go bluegrass singing the Carter Family's now revived "Can the Circle Be Unbroken." Or they could join the notion of regional separatism to new concepts of identity: In songs by Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn, that great euphemism, country, became something you could be proud of like James Brownwas proud to be black.
I find encouraging--and authentic--this recognition of "country" (rurality?) as identity.  (Describing "country" as euphemistic is similarly insightful).

Which brings me to my single favorite commentary on "Accidental Racist, "from NYT's "Room for Debate" series about the song.  (Yep, that's right, this little ol' country number was the topic of Room for Debate forum a few days ago, which might be seen as progress for both shunned rural whites and for blacks). One of the commentators, novelist Will Shetterly, makes the point that Paisley and Cool J didn't write or perform this song for the liberal elites who have responded to it in mostly sneering ways.  In a contribution headlined, "Why Elites Hate this Duet," Shetterly writes of the song's many failings--from the perspective of elites/elitists, that is:  
The song’s first sin is it’s earnest. There’s no irony to please hipsters. 
Its second sin is it’s about members of the U.S.’s racially and regionally divided working class, a southern white Lynyrd Skynyrd fan in a Confederate battle flag T-shirt and a northern black rapper in a do-rag, gold chains and sagging pants. This song wasn’t made for, by or about people who consider themselves the cultural elite, and elitists hate the idea of being irrelevant, especially in a discussion of an issue as important as race. 
Its third sin is featuring a rap artist. Many elitists hate rap as much as they hate country, though they don’t like to admit it for fear of appearing racially insensitive. 
* * *  
Elitists are too smug to consider the possibility that a person from a culture may know it better than they do, so they make easy jokes about “Accidental Racist” being “accidentally racist”.
I like this affirming comment on Shetterly's post, from one who identifies himself as a "liberal elitist":
As a private-school-educated, deep blue liberal elitist, I find I agree with Mr. Shetterly, and in fact said a similar thing about Mr. Coates's piece just the other day. Let's be frank: this song isn't for me and mine. It's for a totally different audience. The problem with people like me is that we want important issues like race and poverty discussed, but only in the way we think is appropriate. We want to set the tone of every conversation. Then we laugh at or scorn guys like these, who take on the same subject in a different way. There are an awful lot of people out there who didn't go to Harvard, yet could greatly benefit from being party to a real conversation about race. However ham-handed it may be, I think there is real good intent behind this song, on the parts of both Paisley and L.L. Cool J, and I hope it does reach their intended audiences.
This, from NPR's Code Switch bloggers, is more typical of the (quasi-)scorn being heaped on Paisley, Cool J and their single:
Most folks, though, seemed to agree that it was at least a well-intentioned, if cringeworthy, gesture. Which we see a lot of in conversations about race, right? 
* * * 
Luis Clemens, our editor, was pretty adamant that this was some kind of elaborate joke. "This is all an elaborate and knowing gag meant to provoke a real conversation about race unlike the pseudo-discussion in the song," he said. "Think of it as a Derridean act of derring-do." 
But nope — Paisley and LL insist that it's the real thing. So if it's a well-intentioned mess, aren't their intentions a little dubious? 
MT: There's probably a mix of intentions, at work, right? I mean, Mr. Paisley and Mr. Cool James had to know that there was going to be a reaction. A lot of reaction. You don't tread into 'Solve Racism' Land lightly. Paisley's tweet yesterday indicated as much. 
So you can take it at face value, and many folks did: this is a serious effort to bridge cultures, to extend a hand and try to embrace someone else's humanity.
I can't resist coming back to this conclusion from Shetterly's piece: 
[I]f you think “Accidental Racist” is racist, accidentally or intentionally, read a few comments at a white supremacy site like Stormfront. So long as they call Paisley a race traitor, he and LL Cool J are doing exactly what the elitists claim they want: furthering the conversation about race in the U.S.A.
For a commentator calling Cool J a race traitor, look no further than this Room for Debate contribution by M.K. Asante.

Mark Kemp asserts that Paisley's accidental racist in the Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt is not necessarily Paisley himself.  No, that man is arguably just a persona that Paisley (who, according to some commentators, is known for his "left-wing" views), has adopted for purposes of prompting a discussion about race.  If Kemp is right, maybe there's a bit of irony or something akin to it in this song after all.  Or maybe the irony is in the knee jerk responses of those who have missed this point.  

I can't help think of the firestorm "Accidental Racist" has wrought this week in relation to Shirley Sherrod, the former USDA official who was unceremoniously fired in 2010 after Andrew Brietbart publicized an out-of-context video excerpt in which she hinted at having failed to assist a poor white farmer. (That was, in fact, not the case) Matt Bai observed then the "depressingly familiar pattern in American life, in which anyone who even tries to talk about race risks public outrage and humiliation." Paisley and Cool J seem to be providing another example of that sad phenomenon.

Cross-posted to UC Davis Faculty Blog, SaltLawBlog, and ClassCrits.  

Friday, April 12, 2013

So much rural/ag news, so little time to blog

Here are a few rural (really ag) stories of the week that I didn't get time to attend to in a more timely fashion.  Both are out of California.

The first is an NPR follow up to an earlier piece on so-called "ag-gag laws", which were also the topic of this NYTimes story last week. (I wrote this post about that story, and Susan Schneider commented here on the AgLaw Blog.)  Alastair Bland writes for The Salt, NPR's food blog, about a proposed California law that is varyingly seen as good or not so good from the animal rights perspective.
Consider Assembly Bill 343 in California. Introduced in February, this bill would not prohibit a person from seeking employment at a slaughterhouse under false pretenses, which Iowa and several other states have outlawed. Nor would it forbid anyone from using a hidden camera while on the job, which Utah recently made illegal. All that AB 343 would do, in fact, is require that anyone who videotapes or records animal abuse turn over a copy of the evidence to police within 48 hours. 
It sounds like the type of bill that animal welfare groups would welcome — but it isn't. Rather, these groups have branded AB 343 as simply a new, and subtler, attempt to stifle undercover investigations of animal cruelty. 
"The 48-hour time limit is a new twist to stop people from compiling information," says Amanda Hitt of the Government Accountability Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that helps investigate reports of animal abuses. 
According to Hitt, in order to prove that a serious animal abuse problem is occurring, undercover investigators must gather lengthy documentation. "You can't prove that animal abuse is systemic and recurring through one snapshot or video of an abused cow," she says.
The other recent story I want to highlight is also about California agriculture--or more specifically, aquaculture.  It is this NYTimes piece headlined, "Oyster Farm Caught up in Pipeline Politics."  The alternate headline is more detailed:  "Public Land Battle over Drakes Bay Oyster Draws Unlikely Allies." Norimitsu Onishi writes of the strange bedfellows that have been made as a result of Drakes Bay Oyster Company's pending loss of lease on public land in Point Reyes National Seashore, Marin County, north of San Francisco.  

The Lunny family, who own the Oyster Company, sued to retain their lease after Ken Salazar, as Secretary of the Interior, declined to renew it.  (Note that the the Lunnys bought eight years of a 40-year lease in 2004, knowing it would expire in November, 2012).  A federal court will decide next month whether the Lunny suit can move forward.  

Environmentalists seem generally to oppose the lease, but others support the Lunnys. Those "others" include posh Bay Area restauranteurs like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse.  Patricia Unterman, an owner of the Hayes Street Grill, which specializes in local seafood, endorsed the Lunny's suit, calling their Oyster operation "'such a rare and beautiful use of land and water' in an area with a long history of agriculture."  She called environmental groups' opposition to the oyster farm "very doctrinaire and unnuanced."  

But here's the really bizarre part:  They Lunny's Drakes Bay Oyster Company has become allied --sorta--with those seeking approval of the Keystone XL pipeline:   
Under the ... Energy Production and Project Delivery Act of 2013, permits for the nearly 2,000-mile Keystone XL pipeline would be expedited, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska would be opened for gas and oil development, more offshore drilling would be allowed – and the oyster farm’s operating permit would be extended for at least 10 years.
Kevin Lunny, one of the owners of the oyster farm, commented:  
Now people are saying we’re connected to right-wing groups, that we’ll have offshore drilling and it’ll be Drakes Bay Oyster’s fault that the Keystone pipeline gets built.  And we’re saying: ‘Where does this come from? Oh, my gosh.’ Other groups that we may or may not agree with have taken up the cause.
* * *
We realize that's not really in our best interest. 
You'll have to read more of the story to get a better sense of how the interests of a small-ish oyster farm and big energy converged, but I'll give you a hint that anti-government, Tea Party-type forces are implicated.

By the way, Onishi refers to the Drakes Bay Oyster Company as a "modest, family-run business," but many readers who commented on the story dispute that characterization, noting that the Lunnys have significant ranching interests in the Point Reyes area.  

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Rural America's lawyer shortage

That issue was on the front page of the New York Times today, where Ethan Bronner's story featured this quote from the Chief Justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court, David Gilbertson:
A hospital will not last long with no doctors, and a courthouse and judicial system with no lawyers faces the same grim future. We face the very real possibility of whole sections of this state being without access to legal services.
Not a bad analogy if you ask me, though Prof. David Wilkins who directs a project on the legal profession at Harvard Law School, offered this observation for Bronner's story:
The health care model is unbelievably subsidized, and while I favor finding some version of it for legal needs, it is never going to be ratcheted up to that level. ... We should think more about public-private partnerships and loosening up some of the restrictions on law practice without junking them all. What we need now is experimentation, like what is happening in South Dakota.
South Dakota's experimentation is manifest in a new law passed last month which will pay lawyers a subsidy of $12,000/year to live and work in rural areas.  In passing the law, South Dakota became the first state to heed the 2012 call of the American Bar Association to "stem the decline of lawyers in rural areas."

But Wilkins is right that the South Dakota program, called Project Rural Practice, is not nearly as generous as the 40-year-old national program that seeks to put health care professionals in underserved areas.  The National Health Service Corps offers medical, dental and mental health professionals up to $60,000 in tax-free loan repayment for two years of service or up to $140,000 for five years.  Half of those who take advantage of that program serve in rural places.

The story features lots of data indicative of the shortage of rural lawyers nationally:  Small firms (with fewer than 50 lawyers) are concentrated in urban and suburban areas; only 2 percent are in "rural regions," however that term is defined.  Perhaps more telling are these stats:
  • 65% of South Dakota's lawyers live in the state's four urban areas.
  • 70% of Georgia lawyers are in the Atlanta area
  • 94% of Arizona's lawyers are the Maricopa and Pima counties
  • 83% of Texas lawyers are in around Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio 
Contrary to the suggestion of one of the headlines for this story--"Rural States Need Country Lawyers, and One is Set to Pay" (continuation page of the print edition), this is not a problem facing only "rural states."  This is a problem facing rural areas within all states.

But Bronner's story is focused on a "rural state":  48.2% of South Dakota's population live in rural places, following the Census Bureau definition of less than 2500.  And he certainly sets the story in a rural place within that state:  Martin, South Dakota, population 1,071.  Martin is the county seat of Bennett County, with a population of just 3,436.  I can't help note some other interesting demographic information about the county, which Bronner does not mention:  a 35.5% poverty rate, a population that is 60.2% American Indian, a high school graduation rate of 80% and a college graduation rate of 15%.  The mean travel time to work in Bennett County is nearly 18 minutes.

Fredric Cozad, Martin's only lawyer, is the face of Bronner's story.  Cozard, who is retiring at the age of 86, says he "never imagined that younger lawyers would not follow him."

Bronner quotes several local officials regarding the need for lawyers.  Martin's mayor, Gayle Krocer, says:  
We need lawyers.  Our state attorney drives down from Rapid City. It’s crazy. We haven’t had a full-time city attorney in years. For any legal issue, we have to look out of town.
Bronner also mentions Carla Sue Denis, a drug-rehabilitation counselor in Martin, where "addiction is a raging problem," who said that people who want a divorce or have other legal needs sometimes come to her because she can do the research online and download relevant forms.

His quotes of Bennett County Commissioner Rolf Kraft reveal a whole other angle on this story--the burden that the lack of lawyers places on local government coffers.  That is, counties like Bennett can't qualify to get one of the 16 lawyers authorized by the state pilot program unless they pony up half the cost.  And that is no small burden on these counties.  

Bronner provides this related vignette of "court day" in Bennett County:  
The lunch place at the Martin Livestock Auction, where 1,000 head of cattle had been sold the previous day, included a table of lawyers, the ones in suits, ties and no hats. All had driven more than two hours from Rapid City and Pierre, paid by Bennett County, which also pays to transport prisoners 100 miles away because it has no functioning jail.
Bronner notes that neighboring states, like Iowa, are watching what South Dakota is doing. Here's a post from last year about a new Iowa scheme to attract lawyers to rural places.   

One thought:  If we care about access to justice for rural populations--which I cynically think is a big "if"--we need to value state law schools like the University of South Dakota.  Yes, it and many schools like it are decidedly non-elite, as measured by status symbols like U.S. News and World Report rankings.  But these schools, with relatively low tuition, are far more likely to educate lawyers who will seriously consider devoting their careers to rural backwaters like Bennett County.  They are also where people who grew up in rural areas are more likely to get their legal educations.  And, as a spokesman for the National Health Service Corps said, research shows "that residents who train in rural settings are two to three times more likely than urban graduates to practice in rural areas."  I suspect the same is true of lawyers.

An earlier post about the shortage of lawyers in rural South Dakota is here.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

New laws label investigative ag reporters "terrorists," expand defamation laws in favor of Big Ag

The New York Times reported today under the headline, "Taping of Farm Cruelty is Becoming a Crime" on new state laws that effectively insulate ag producers from undercover surveillance and exposure of cruelty to animals by imposing penalties on those who who engage in such surveillance and disclosure.  Here's an excerpt from the story by Richard Oppel, Jr.:
[Pr]oposed or enacted bills ... would make it illegal to covertly videotape livestock farms, or apply for a job at one without disclosing ties to animal rights groups. They have also drafted measures to require such videos to be given to the authorities almost immediately, which activists say would thwart any meaningful undercover investigation of large factory farms. 
In the past year, Iowa, Utah and Missouri passed laws of this sort, referred to by critics as "Ag Gag" bills. Indiana and Tennessee are expected to vote soon on similar measures, while states from California to Pennsylvania continue to debate them.  Bills of this sort have died recently in New Mexico and New Hampshire, and legislation in Wyoming stalled after animal rights activists, including Bob Barker, mounted vocal opposition.  Read more here.

The director of Congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, which lobbies for agricultural industries, noted that the videos "may seem troubling to someone unfamiliar with farming,"but "caution[ed] that some [of these] methods represent best practices endorsed by animal-care experts."

Prof. Jedediah Purdy responds to that point, in a sense, in this op-ed response to Oppel's Story.  Purdy's piece is headlined "Open the Slaughterhouses."  He writes:
[T]ransparency ... is why we should require confined-feeding operations and slaughterhouses to install webcams at key stages of their operations. List the URL’s to the video on the packaging. There would be no need for human intrusion into dangerous sites. No tricky angles or scary edits by activists. Just the visual facts. If the operators felt their work misrepresented, they could add cameras to give an even fuller picture.

Friday, April 5, 2013

NPR now also sees Kaufman County as rural

Here's the latest report from NPR on the Kaufman County killings of the prosecuting attorney Mike McLelland and his wife.  Whereas prior reports had noted the place's proximity to Dallas, a matter I commented on here, this report follows the New York Times lead and refers to Kaufman County as rural.  Here's an excerpt from Wade Goodwyn's story, which ran yesterday:
"People are, I don't know that they're walking around in fear, but it's not the same county that we lived in two months ago. A lot has changed since that time," [Kaufman County Judge Bruce] Wood says.
Rural Texas prides itself as a place where people can take care of themselves, many are not only armed but well armed. And McLelland was a man among them.
Goodwyn notes that the Aryan Brotherhood, which apparently has a stronghold in Kaufman County, has come under early suspicion in the murders, but others speculate that Mexican drug cartels are responsible.  Goodwyn's story closes with this:
The murder of law enforcement officials has grown commonplace south of the Texas border. The question now is: Has a new front opened, the first shots fired in a rural county east of Dallas?
I do note that the reasons that seem to be the basis for Goodwyn characterizing Kaufman County as rural appear to be primarily cultural, not necessarily spatial or ecological.  I also note that Goodwyn is now doing the reporting on these events for NPR.  Though he seems to be based in Texas, Goodwyn reports on lots of rural issues across the nation.  I thus would expect him to pick up on the rural angle of any story that even arguably had one.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Varying depictions of a Texas place: is it rural or not?

The tragic events of this past week-end in Kaufman County, Texas, where the county's chief prosecutor and his wife, Mike and Cynthia McLelland, were found shot to death in their home in Forney, has drawn attention to various aspects of the place.  The initial New York Times report of the crimes referred to Kaufman County as "rural," and today's longer report does, too.  Here's the lede from the latter:
To scan the crime blotter of this largely rural county is to get a snapshot of life in small-town Texas. 
Report of a dog bite on Grandview Drive. Report of cows loose in the 32000 block of Farm-to-Market 429. A stolen vehicle on Bradeen Drive. Donkeys on a property on County Road 4125. Reports of trespassers and abandoned vehicles, thefts and domestic disturbances. No one from Kaufman County, it turns out, sits on Texas’ death row. 
But nothing about the county’s crimes has helped answer the question that perplexes and worries local officials and residents — why have two county prosecutors been shot and killed in the span of eight weeks?
Manny Fernandez and Serge Kovaleski go on to admit that the county's crime record reveals no obvious observe in the next paragraph of their story that while the Kaufman County line is just 20 miles from Dallas, "it is a world away from the city’s neon-lit skyline." The largest city in Kaufman county, they note, is Terrell, with a population of about 16,000, though Forney is not far behind with a population of about 14,000.  Referring to other markers of rurality and urbanicity, Fernandez and Kovaleski note the presence of fast-food restaurants, along with "men in cowboy hats who actually know how to ride a horse, and houses with backyards that can be measured not in feet, but acres." Other metrics they use inlcude land area, noting that at 780 square miles, Kaufman County is "slightly smaller" than Rhode Island with 1,033 square miles, but more than twice as large as New York City, with 302.  

Yet in spite of all these efforts to depict Kaufman County as "rural," I see that it is by several official measures urban--or at least metropolitan.  First, with a population of more than 100,000, it is metropolitan rather than nonmetropolitan. Second, it is part of the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington Metro Area.  Third, it is has a population density of more than 132 persons per square mile. That is neither center-city dense nor sparse. In fact, most of these indicators make it seem exurban.  

Fernandez and Kovaleski discuss the county's crime rates and types, too.  Within those "wide county lines," they write that a "fair share of violence, drugs and other major crimes" occur.  During a single week earlier this year, the Sheriff's Department responded to 683 calls, including 10 burglaries and 25 domestic disturbances.  They do not, however, note one theory regarding the motive for killing the prosecutor and his deputy, who has gunned down near the courthouse in late January:  the two had, according to some reports, assisted in investigating crimes by a white supremacist gang.  

While the New York Times does not take up this angle, NPR does, including this explanation of the possible links between the Kaufman County murders and the recent murder of the Colorado prisons chief at his home:
The suspect in that murder was a white supremacist, who was killed in a gunfight with Texas police. 
While officials aren't yet saying whether the prison-based white supremacist group called the Aryan Brotherhood is linked to any of the murders, Kaufman County is considered a regional stronghold of the gang known for violence. 
Notably, NPR also does not depict Kaufman County as "rural," instead referring to Forney, the site of the latest deaths, simply as "near Dallas."

Guess it all goes to show how malleable--and variable--the concept of rurality is.