Diminishing racism in rural America

There has been an upturn in far-right militia groups in the last few years, but what is currently going on in a small North Dakota town goes far beyond even that. Craig Paul Cobb, 61, recently moved to Leith, N.D., population 16, and has since been advertising the town, by way of web forums, as a haven for white supremacists.

Leith residents have taken a mature approach to Cobb’s plans. Bobby Harper, a 52-year-old black man who neighbors Cobb’s plot of land said, “I don’t think we should get too excited. I believe right will prevail.” Cobb’s unconscionable plan is symptomatic of the type of racism that both technology and the free flow of information could potentially render obsolete.

Cobb is moving full speed ahead with his plans to establish a colony of Anglo-Saxons in North Dakota, buying at least a dozen plots of land in the town. Unfortunately for him, no one has moved in yet. Because the town of Leith is so small, however, it is not unconceivable for his plan to succeed. Cobb said, “I only need 17 people [to move in]. You have to have a majority to win an election. If we get 22, we’ve got a landslide.”

The reason why racism seems to thrive in rural America, as opposed to urban or suburban areas, is that small populations are more spatially and socially isolated from the rest of the country.

At least this was true in 1990 when Ann Tickamyer and Cynthia Duncan, both professors with Ph.Ds in sociology, published the study “Poverty and Opportunity Structure in Rural America.”

Since then, the use of the Internet and cell phones has made information much more accessible to residents of rural communities. Ironically, Cobb has been relying on these means of communication in order to spread his beliefs, yet those same means will keep his plan from succeeding.

As communication increases among people, so does a more nuanced understanding of other beliefs and cultures. A town as small as Leith therefore becomes less tolerant of people like Cobb. Furthermore, as news spreads about Cobb’s antics, residents in Leith receive more support from all over the country. In this way, the outcropping of information vitiates the ignorance that fuels racism. Cobb may have had better luck 20 or 30 years ago.

Of course, there are still acts of racist violence that need to be directly addressed and actively suppressed. The more subtle racism that exists in the form of offensive jokes and crude statements can be undermined by a resolve to “not get too excited,” as Harper said, and to scoff at such ignorance until it pitters out in the continually growing expanse of information, communication and sense of universal community.

Cobb’s racism is the kind that must be watched with a keen eye – which will soon occur, as Leith and Grant County authorities have made the decision to keep watch on Cobb’s residence – and laughed at for its total inanity.

As Harper said in reference to the cold hatred of his newest neighbor, “I believe right will prevail.”