If the pundits are to be believed, a recent expedition I undertook was either foolhardy or mission impossible. But it proved to be a uniquely instructive correction to what passes for wisdom in politics today.
I campaigned with members of the Socialist Workers Party for two days on the Minnesota Iron Range. Given my politics, the SWP’s history in the state, the economic reality of the Range and this unprecedented election cycle, there may be nothing particularly surprising or significant about that. That I’m visibly African-American, however, adds something to the picture.
As most Minnesotans know, there aren’t many people on the Range who look like me — although there may be a few more than in 1977, when I did something similar. About 1 to 2 percent of residents in the three towns I visited — Eveleth, Mountain Iron and Virginia — are African-American — maybe. Virginia’s total population is about 8,700; the other two towns are about half of that. So, it’s a region that qualifies for the label “small-town white America.”
Furthermore, the Range economy largely depends on iron ore mining, not unlike coal country in Appalachia. And for that reason, it suffers today, like Appalachia, from the world capitalist crisis and, thus, high rates of unemployment — about 8 percent, or twice that of the rest of the state. Virginia’s poverty rate, 26.5 percent, is higher than that of Minneapolis, 22.6 percent. The Iron Range, in other words, should in theory be “Trump Country.”
I’d read in the Militant, the SWP’s newspaper, that its supporters could get a hearing for its ideas from many of those who attend Donald Trump rallies. That resonated because of my time in 2012 in Newton, Iowa, collecting signatures for the SWP’s presidential campaign, including at the local NASCAR speedway. (Newton, by the way, is where conservative intellectual Charles Murray was raised, inspiration in part for his 2012 book “Coming Apart,” which anticipated the Trump phenomenon).
And in summer 2015, I visited friends in Appalachia, a few weeks after the Charleston, S.C., church massacre. When I arrived in the hollow where they live in eastern Kentucky, I noticed a number of Confederate flags on display. At the end of the visit, about a week later, virtually all had been taken down. I knew, therefore, not to draw easy conclusions about “poor whites.”
The Range, I thought, could offer another cautionary lesson.
We began in Eveleth. I’ll never forget my visit there in 1977, because that was where the “n-word” was hurled at me — the first of only three times that I’m aware of — from behind closed shades by what sounded like kids half a block away. Other than that (very nonthreatening) incident, I remember being cordially received. Hence, I had no qualms this year. Though I was part of a three-person team, the sole African-American, we each went separately to the households in a neighborhood or apartment complex. The particular neighborhood we selected in Eveleth had clearly seen better times — many abandoned homes not unlike predominantly black north Minneapolis (so much, then, for the contemptuous rant of the punditry about “poor whites not wanting to move”).
“Hi, my name is August. I’m here on behalf of the Socialist Workers Party,” I began on the steps of a house of a very young mother, a 5-month-old in her arms. Looking up at her as she stood in the doorway, I pointed to a piece of campaign literature that spelled out the name of the party. “We’re here today to see if we can get a hearing for our ideas. The elections reveal so far that working people are fed up with the Democrats and Republicans and are looking for a working-class alternative. We think we present that alternative, and we’d like to have a discussion with you to see what you think.”
The young woman was attentive and engaged during the entire 10 or 15 minutes we connected, despite her needy baby. At the end, she agreed to sign a petition to put on the ballot in Minnesota the SWP presidential and vice presidential candidates, Alyson Kennedy and Osborne Hart. The campaign literature I pointed to displayed prominent pictures of both candidates. Hart is African-American.
The next person I found (our biggest challenge was finding enough people at home that Memorial Day weekend) was a retired male in his mid-60s. After hearing my introductory rap, he insisted I sit on his porch to continue the discussion. He struck me as a possible Tea Party supporter because of his complaints about taxes he pays on family property on a nearby lake. After about 20 minutes, he, too, signed the petition. The exchange ended only because I wanted to go to speak to others in his neighborhood.
That’s how my two-day experience on the Range began; it only got better.
I talked with about 35 residents in the three towns, all white, except for a few Native Americans in Mountain Iron. They were men and women of various ages. Never did I encounter any hostility. One guy looked through his glass porch door at the campaign literature, shook his head and retreated; that’s about as harsh as it got. The vast majority were willing to talk and most, I believe, were appreciative — and probably surprised — that someone wanted to hear their opinions.
Most were willing to reveal their electoral preferences. I suspect, but can’t prove, that Trump supporters were less willing to do so; perhaps because it was to me. The one who did was a 10th-grader. “I like Trump,” he said, because there were “too many illegal aliens taking American jobs.” I respectfully disagreed. At the end of what must have been a 20-minute discussion that was joined by my two other team members, he wanted to sign the petition but realized he couldn’t because he wasn’t old enough to vote. Nevertheless, he asked for a copy of the campaign literature “to show to my history teacher.”
Our overall batting average, the ratio of people we spoke to who signed our petitions, was a bit better than .500.
I can’t detail here the rich discussions I had. But one point is worth mentioning. The Militant reports not only, as I highlighted in my spiel, on the class struggle in the U.S. but also elsewhere; the then-current issue featured the Verizon strike. What’s happening elsewhere, I said, is important, because the bosses are always trying to divide us, be it on the basis of skin color, nationality, citizenship, gender or whatever. I always got a positive nod to that point.
To one recently laid-off 55-year-old man in Virginia, I asked if he had heard about the latest strike wave in China. He hadn’t, not surprisingly. I provided details emphasizing how labor resistance in China strengthens the bargaining position of workers in the U.S., specifically on the Range. Perhaps that’s why he took up the introductory subscription offer to the newspaper, $5 for 12 issues. “You’re lucky,” he exclaimed after returning to the porch. “I wasn’t sure I had a five.”
No, we didn’t “convert” anyone to “communism” or get anyone “to sign up” for the SWP. What we did was to confirm that it is possible for not just reformist “socialists” like Bernie Sanders, but for revolutionary socialists, too, to get a hearing for their ideas even in supposed “Trump Country.” And the fact that one of our team’s members was an African-American speaks volumes about what’s open today for such a perspective.
The reception I got on the Range in 1977 was cordial, but perhaps, in hindsight, mostly “Minnesota Nice.” This time was different — a willingness to actually engage in discussion about the profound issues the working class is forced to confront. To subscribe, therefore, to the not-too-subtle “white trash” bashing of pundits, on both the left and the right, about the supposed racist character of this section of the working class who might look to Trump owing to the capitalist crisis (a drowning person, Marx once said, will grab hold to a twig for salvation), is to risk a prophecy of self-fulfillment.
Though brief, my two-day experience on the Minnesota Iron Range suggests that such facile thinking would be a grave error — a missed opportunity for all progressive currents.
One of the memories about my 1977 visit to Eveleth was the prior warning from a staff member in my University of Minnesota department office about going there. A black socialist, she implied, wouldn’t be welcomed in the town; it could even be dangerous. She was certain, because she was from there.
Speechless had been her response to my report when I returned the following Monday. Not only was I alive and well, but I’d had a good time in her hometown.
Ditto almost 40 years later.
August H. Nimtz is a professor of political science and African and American studies at the University of Minnesota. His latest book is “Lenin’s Electoral Strategy: The Ballot, the Streets — Or, Both.”