In many cases, these neighborhoods have literally been left behind by people like me. I spent most of my life focused on getting ahead by education. I left my rural hometown and got into elite schools, which got me into elite jobs, which got me into an elite neighborhood. I was not unusual. My office, my neighborhood, and most of my adult friends were like me. Almost all of us had used education to get out of a hometown that we saw as oppressive, intolerant, and judgmental.
We were the kids who sat in the front row, eager to learn and make sure the teacher knew we were learning. We were mobile, having moved many times to advance in our careers, and we would move again. Staying put was a form of failure. Our community was global, allowing us to proclaim it to be diverse, despite every resident’s having followed a similar path after high school.
Our isolation from the bulk of the country left us with a narrow view of the world. We valued what we could measure, and that meant material wealth. Things that couldn’t be measured—community, dignity, faith, happiness—were largely ignored because they were hard to see, especially from so far away.
We had compassion for those who got left behind, but thought that our job was to provide them an opportunity (no matter how small) to get where we were. It didn’t occur to us that what we valued wasn’t what everyone else wanted. They were the people who couldn’t or didn’t want to leave their town or their family to get an education at an elite college, the people who cared more about their faith than about science. If we were the front row, they were the back row.
Had I asked people in my hometown why they were still there, I would have received the answer I heard in neighborhoods from Cairo to Amarillo to rural Ohio. They would have looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Because it is my home.”