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How Would Southerners Describe the South to Outsiders?

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• If American Southerners had to describe the South to someone not from the South, would they offer positive or negative descriptions of the region?

• Among their descriptions, which aspects of the South would they articulate?

• Would native Southerners, converted Southerners, and non-Southerners (who live in the region) describe the South in different ways?

• Would there be any differences between White Southerners and Black Southerners, males and females, older and younger citizens, educated and not-so-educated individuals, rich people and those less-well-off, born-again Christians and non-born-again respondents, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives?

Residents of the American South are used to seeing their home region depicted in stereotyped derision. Some Southerners try to deal with such disparagement with various strategies, such as polite silence or impassioned rhetoric about their "New South" homeland. Often, "rebels" delight in such criticism; and they give as well as take in outrageous debate.

But how would most Southerners respond if they had an opportunity, in a reasonable conversation, to describe the South to outsiders?

Some of my political science colleagues recently reported the results of such hypothetical conversations at the Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics in Charleston, SC. Scott H. Huffmon and Allie Briggs (both of Winthrop University) and Christopher N. Lawrence (Middle George State College) conducted a study among South Carolinians. In April, 2013, as part of the Winthrop Poll series, interviewers asked for responses to the following probe: "Imagine that you had to describe the South to someone who had never been to a Southern state in America in just two words or two very short phrases." The co-authors then coded the responses for substantive analysis.

Positive or Negative Self-Descriptions?

As might be expected, this survey elicited overwhelmingly positive comments about the South. Over two-thirds of the responses were positive and only about a fourth were negative. Combining first and second mentions, around 60% gave two positive terms or phrases; and only 14 percent offered two negatives.

The positive mentions related mainly to the region's people and culture (32 percent of first mentions) and quality of life (26 percent of first mentions). The respondents seemed ambivalent about the economy and government.

Using a scale from +2 (both first and second mentions of a positive nature) to -2 (both first and second mentions of a negative nature), the authors derived an overall positive score of +0.81 for their collective audience.

Natives vs. Converts vs. Non-Southerners.

The authors found, again expectedly, that native Southerners and converted Southerners (with mean scores of +0.84 and +1.06 respectively) had more positive evaluations than those who considered themselves non-Southerners (+0.21).

Race, Gender, Age, Education, Income, Religion, Party, Ideology.

Race was a significant divider among the respondents. African-Americans were more likely to offer negative terms and less likely to offer positive terms (mean score of +0.39) compared to Whites (+0.99).

Gender differences were insignificant; men (+0.78) and women (+0.81) scored substantially the same.

Age played a role. Older respondents had more positive views of the region, with each additional decade of age corresponding to an increase of +0.07 in the average score.

Education seemed to make no difference. No pattern appeared and there were no statistical differences in descriptions based on educational attainment.

Income produced complex and unclear patterns. A general trend suggested that higher incomes were associated with more positive evaluations; but the authors expressed little confidence because of the few respondents with high household income.

Religion also was of little value in distinguishing among these respondents. Born-again Christians had a net positive rating of +0.85 and non-born-again respondents had a score of +0.77.

Party was a divider. Republicans scored +1.22 and Democrats scored +0.56 (independents scored +0.67).

Finally, differences surfaced in terms of ideology. Very conservative respondents had an average positivity of +1.04 compared to a very liberal score of +0.29.

Conclusions.

My colleagues found that most of their respondents would describe the South positively; but there were important differences in how they would describe their region to outsiders. Natives to the region or those who have adopted a Southern self-identification were substantially more positive than those who have moved into the area but retain a non-Southern identity. There also were noteworthy patterns along racial, age, party, and ideological lines.

Commentary.

As a native Southerner, I found this study generally confirms what most of us might expect. But it does more. It provides statistical data under-girding these expectations. And I'm sure it will generate some strong responses from readers of this post.

AUTHOR NOTE: This column is part of a series of posts about Southern Politics. These posts derive from the 2014 Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics, a gathering of regional specialists in historic Charleston, SC. This Symposium has been held every-other-year since 1978; and it has become a "main event" for serious South-watchers from around the country. A hundred specialists -- representing scholars from about fifty academic institutions -- participated in the most recent conference, March 6-7, 2014. In this series, I will attempt to incorporate pertinent aspects of the presented papers and some of my own comments into various themes.