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Ernest Owens Argues That 'Chocolate Cities' Should Be Viewed As America's Heartland

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When you hear the term America's heartland, who do you picture? Midwestern farmers and blue-collar workers? Is heartland really just a euphemism for the white people who live in more rural areas? Well, in this last election, if you look at Midwestern swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin, cities with large Black populations turned out in huge numbers for Joe Biden. Detroit and Milwaukee were crucial contributors to Biden's winning margin of votes.

And in a piece for The Daily Beast, Ernest Owens argues that chocolate cities should be viewed as America's real heartland, and he joins us on Skype to explain his thinking. Welcome.

ERNEST OWENS: Thank you for having me on, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You know, heartland is such a vague term. If you were to write up a checklist of what it takes to qualify for membership, what would be on the list?

OWENS: First, you have to be white.

(LAUGHTER)

OWENS: Second, in Midwestern and rural areas. You often do not have a college degree. You have sentiments of feeling neglected by both political parties. And you really carry this sense of optimism in spite of everything that's in front of you. And, also, terms like blue collar and, you know, Middle America defines you.

SHAPIRO: And why do you think that Black people who live in cities in those states like Wisconsin and Michigan have as much or more of a claim to that title as the mostly white people who you just described?

OWENS: Because they are the working class of this country. They, too, understand that both political parties have not served them as well. And when you talk about Middle America - you know, there are Black people that have grown up in the Deep South. They have grown up in the Midwest. They have grown up in all of these areas. They've fought for labor. They've dealt with all these inequities. And yet they still have this optimism for the sake of their children and their future generations. So those chocolate cities, they are the true American heartland.

SHAPIRO: Why does that matter? I mean, why is it important whether we think of America's heartland as urban Milwaukee or small-town Janesville, Wis.?

OWENS: Because our political systems set it up in a way that we don't prioritize people based on these tropes. So, for example, when you look at Middle America, most of the political coverage over the past four years, after Hillary's defeat in 2016, the narrative was, we have to pay attention to America's heartland, these white voters in these rural areas. And candidates shifted their, you know, campaigns based on that. Could you imagine if most of the political pundits actually shifted their focus on those communities who are often neglected?

SHAPIRO: On Saturday night, when Joe Biden gave his speech, he said, Black voters have always had my back, and I'm going to have yours. Do you think we're starting to see the kind of shift that you're hoping for?

OWENS: I think we're starting to see it more on the left, but I think that the right has to come to terms with the fact that their idea of what Middle America is is a lot more diverse than what they have projected it to be. And that's also moderate Democrats who did the same thing. I mean, are we trying to really say that the only people that's dealt with poverty and economic strife are people who live in Midwestern and rural areas? And so I think that we are dealing in a time where race has to not be conflated. It has to be dealt with as an individual issue and not something that we can just toss aside in larger socioeconomic and class discussions.

SHAPIRO: That's journalist Ernest Owens, editor at large for Philadelphia magazine, who wrote a column for The Daily Beast called Biden Won in America's Real Heartland: Chocolate Cities. Thank you for talking with us.

OWENS: Thank you so much, Ari. This was awesome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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