Anthropologists: Heartland Imagery Distorts History of Midwest, Elevates Whites as Real AmericansBreaking News
tags: agriculture, racism, anthropology, Midwest, Rural History, visual culture
Britt Halvorson is a cultural anthropologist who studies global Christianity, aid, medical waste, and whiteness in the Midwest U.S. and Madagascar. She is also the author of Conversionary Sites: Transforming Medical Aid and Global Christianity From Madagascar to Minnesota.
Josh Reno is a professor in the department of anthropology at Binghamton University in New York. He is the author of Waste Away: Working and Living With a North American Landfill and Military Waste: The Unexpected Consequences of Permanent War Readiness.
A DESOLATE WINDSWEPT field, bisected by a two-lane road, fills the television screen. The camera pans over a man’s dusty hat on the seat of a truck, the tip of his cowboy boot, then up to a pair of grain silos, and finally to a tiny clapboard Christian church. A gravelly masculine voice intones, “There’s a chapel in Kansas, standing on the exact center of the lower 48.” Swaying wheat stalks move through the frame, light filtering through their silhouetted branches.
The narrator of this two-minute Jeep ad, which aired to around 96 million viewers during the Super Bowl in February 2021, is none other than singer Bruce Springsteen. With few visual references to Jeep products, the ad is focused instead on reaching across political divides by identifying commonly shared U.S. values. “All are more than welcome to come meet here,” Springsteen says, pausing before adding, “in the middle.”
He continues: “It’s no secret the middle has been a hard place to get to lately, between red and blue, … between our freedom and our fear. Now, fear has never been the best of who we are.”
While Springsteen talks in a solemn, almost reverent tone, more images follow in quick succession: a shiny-coated horse, a waving American flag, a diner. Springsteen himself kneels and lets a handful of soil fall through his fingers as he reminds viewers to remember their “common ground.” A crescendo of fiddle strings sonically closes out the ad, the setting sun again visible across the rural landscape.
There is a lot going on in this ad, pointedly titled “The Middle.” Perhaps most obviously, it communicates an overriding sense of mourning or nostalgia for a certain version of the United States—a tacit understanding of the way things once were and perhaps should be. In some ways, this longing is connected to the real hardships of deindustrialization in the Midwest and beyond. What the commercial does not do, at least not in a direct way, is talk about race. And yet, it is implicitly about white folks—or, better said, about white suffering and white loss.
Our new book, Imagining the Heartland, is about the Midwest and its role in shaping white supremacy in U.S. culture. Whiteness, we argue, is often inchoate and hard to recognize—and that’s key to its enduring power. Not only is it a form of identity or a reference to a person’s skin color but also a cultural system of power and resources that many individuals participate in without being fully aware of it. Narratives and practices centering white individuals and families remain dominant precisely because they are so ubiquitous and seem neutral.
Portions of this essay have been drawn from the authors’ book Imagining the Heartland.