Life Actually Does Work Here
A brief response to a bad take
Alright, once again a man with a half-baked opinion, U.S. Census data, and a web platform have lured me out of a stress-work hole to air my grievances (if you’re my thesis advisor and reading this, no you aren’t). Philip Bump, national columnist and self-proclaimed data man for the Washington Post, responded to last week’s sparring between Governor Gavin Newsom (D - CA) and Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R - AR, as you well know, sigh). Ignoring the realities of net migration in favor of in-migration, Bump’s commentary is an easy jab at SHS supported by selective data analysis masquerading as regional commentary.
I’ve already gotten on my high horse about Newsom’s take on SHS’s response to President Biden’s State of the Union address last week. In a rather glib tweet (without responsible data citation!), Newsom criticized Sanders’s discussion of public safety, citing the fact that Arkansas has “one of the highest murder rates in the nation.” True enough, violent crime in Little Rock and Arkansas more broadly is demonstrably increasing. Recent national-level analysis has likewise identified a so-called Red State murder gap, which attributes increasing murder rates in states that voted for Donald Trump in 2020 to a range of factors including gun access, higher poverty rates, lower educational attainment, and disinvestment in social services in favor of bloated law enforcement budgets.
Plenty of things are not alright in the state of Arkansas, and I’m not just talking about the men’s basketball team’s loss to Mississippi State last weekend. The reality that we’re stuck with a Republican trifecta of state leadership that simply can’t seem to govern because of its contrived moral panic du jour (e.g., drag queens, trans children, librarians, minority- and women-owned businesses) weighs heavy on my heart and head as a sad sucker interested in honest to goodness policymaking. But demonizing an entire place and its people instead of a particular politician’s inability to localize policymaking as she worships at the altar of national GOP talking points ain’t it!
Arkansans will suffer while our Governor makes a grab at media darling status and eyes a vice-presidential nomination alongside FEMA-gogo-boot-wearing, fool-without-boundaries-at-best, child-groomer-at-worst Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
As evidenced by Bump’s analysis of the reply to response to the address (our poor, media-addled brains), the inclination to condemn southern states suffering from chronic leadership failures and intergenerational social problems is widespread. Bump asserts that Sanders’ task to “[sell] the state” of Arkansas is “a task almost as tricky as her effort to improve Trump’s own popularity.” My immediate response is, of course, a few choice words violating the few noble editorial standards we’ve set out here at Diet Austin.
Bump goes on to draw on data from the American Community Survey (ACS) to assert that Sanders’ critique of California was inherently pig-headed because nobody *checks notes* wants to move to little ol’ Arkansas (shhhh, nobody tell the Northwest Arkansas Council that Life Doesn’t Work Here?). Sure enough, it’s pig-headed, but not for the reasons Bump outlines. He cites interstate migration trends from 2021 to support his argument, pointing out that California was the third highest destination state while Arkansas was the 31st. Notably, he admits that this likely correlates with total population, but doesn’t attempt to mitigate this data analysis quandary with, say, a ratio?
ACS is a survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau which produces 1-year and 5-year estimates about various demographic and housing data with the intention of providing local officials and community leaders with population information that can inform a range of activities from federal grant applications to strategic city planning. But, as the case with virtually any survey tool, the data is imperfect. In particular, more recent ACS data is likely impacted by understandable collection difficulties during the COVID-19 pandemic.
All data visualization is data manipulation to some extent. We select sources and cross-cuts and axis increments to motivate a point we want to make. But it’s also important to be a good steward of information—as a data journalist in particular, you are shepherding folks through raw data they might not be able to interpret on their own, information that necessarily shapes their worldviews. Unsurprisingly, the comments section of this piece range from smug to hateful.
Sidenote: if one more person doesn’t know the postal abbreviation for the state of Arkansas, I’m going to scream.
If I can be candid with you on this maiden Diet Austin voyage of mine, my sweet readers, I have to tell you that I am so very tired of this particular kind of scuffle. Perhaps a decade of “Oh you’re from where?” and “Arkansas…interesting…” said without the slightest tinge of warmth in casual conversation with folks on the east coast has left me weary.
I vividly remember a conversation with my mother as my family made the 14-hour drive through the Arkansas River Valley, Little Rock, Memphis, Nashville, and the Great Smoky Mountains the weekend I was dropped off for my freshman year of college. I was practically bursting at the seams to live somewhere new and truly couldn’t shut up about that fact (I am immensely contrite for my adolescent short-sightedness, and nobody could make me feel worse about it than I currently do, so please don’t try). My mom grew uncharacteristically serious as we careened into the Piedmont Plateau of North Carolina.
You have to be a good representative for Arkansas, Marlee, I’m serious. You might be all they will ever know about the place.
I recognize how dramatic this might sound (Stark broads are as serious as they are fun), but it’s something that I’ve carried with me my entire adult life. And unfortunately, I don’t think she was wrong. In a School of Government with approximately 1,000 graduate students, I’m the only one that hails from Arkansas, and there are few from the southeastern U.S. or rural communities more generally. Genuinely smart and decent people here say some truly unhinged and contemptible stuff about places they’ve never visited.
I entered my undergraduate years with a fair share of anxiety that people would assume I was backwards or inexperienced or, worst of all, a Republican. With a second graduation on the horizon, I’m exiting my graduate school experience mildly to moderately livid that the policy world doesn’t think about southern and rural folks as if they’re real people facing real problems of policy and power alike. Bump’s article reads as regional incuriosity, geographic ignorance.
As any good Diet Austiner would know (especially those familiar with the local developers’ obsession with building Dallas Princess Palaces instead of—I don’t know—actual affordable student housing and starter family homes in the neighborhoods adjacent to the U of A campus!!), the piece’s closer is borderline laughable.
I suppose my natural aversion and response to this sentiment demonstrates just how easy it is to fall into the trap of dogmatic regionalism, to flatten the rich history and diverse denizens of a place into a singular narrative for the sake of Writing About It. To that I humbly implore us all to resist reduction, to try our best to see a place through the eyes of the people that love it in spite of its thorns and warts. Attempting to care about someone’s home and its history is perhaps one of the easiest and personally enriching activities in which we can engage.
Happy Valentine’s Day, with deep, radical love and a belief in the power of collective care from Diet Austin. <3