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Is the South a Nation of Toothless, Ignorant, Racist Rednecks?

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Once again, according to news programs and pundit chatter, the presidential campaign is taking shape as a choreographed tug of war among various constituencies -- liberals versus conservatives, whites versus blacks, men versus women, old versus young, us versus them.

I used to be a campaign consultant, so I understand the hows and whys of the electoral game.

But one of the things that most irritates me is for media folks and political pundits to use gratuitous, disparaging stereotypes about groups of people and their cultural affinities. And it seems that a common target for ridicule is the South and Southerners. The most trite and insulting references for Southerners are usually variations of "ignorant hicks" or "racist rednecks." One TV funny guy was especially cute, dismissing this past week's GOP primaries in Alabama and Mississippi as "Toothless Tuesday."

Ugly frogs, endearing charms, and enduring faults.

I'm not a Republican; but I am a native of the South -- I was born and grew up in South Carolina, lived in Georgia for awhile, and have spent most of my adult life in Alabama. Most Southerners know that we have earned our reputation; and we are used to such insults. We like to brush it off with some reference to "being called ugly by a frog." But it does sting to be called ugly so often by froggish people who are uglier and meaner.

We don't object to all laughter at our expense: "Redneck" (actually, many of us cherish being called a redneck). "Y'all" (but spell it right). "Grits" (just don't over do it). We similarly laugh at ourselves and our neighbors. Watch or listen to the Rick and Bubba Show or read Jeff Foxworthy's You Might Be a Redneck. Or, better yet, join us in the laughter by checking out Wal-Mart Nation on YouTube.

To be sure, there's some truth to the stereotypical depiction of the South and Southerners. Historically, outsiders have alternated their fascination between our endearing charms and enduring faults. We are more intense, extreme versions of blessings and shortcomings present throughout American society. That's why Southern politicians, writers, entertainers, and criminals make such interesting focus for national fixation.

But, let's move on to the real purpose of this discussion. I'm often asked, as a Southern educator and former public official, to try to explain some things about my region -- usually, "What in the world is going on down there? And why are you people so weird?" Therefore, I'll try to address the issue in a three-part discussion. Pardon me if I sound sensitive and boring in my responses; but you have to remember I am a Southerner and professor at heart.

What is the South?

I taught a visiting professor course on Southern politics at Harvard a few years ago. My host friends seemed to accept it back then, so I guess I'll answer with what I told them.

The South is an American subculture defined by regional history, geography, climate, demographics, linguistics, religion, economics, politics, and other factors. The South began and prospered as a rigidly aristocratic, agricultural society, alongside rabid individualism, perverted originally by slavery and forever since troubled by racism and poverty. The region developed as a culturally different part of the country (and often pursued conservative ideas and societal ways outside the mainstream of American identity); and southern politics reflected important afflictions associated with its wayward culture (such as legalized discrimination, backward populism, and its one party political system).

These afflictions have dramatically shaped Southern history, both internally and in national affairs, in ways that often contradict the course of American democracy.

What is the South not?

Unfortunately, some analysts foster mythical and inaccurate presumptions about the South.

In the first place, the South is not a monolithic region. The "Old South" was very homogeneous relative to the rest of the country, but the region today is very diverse by all measures. Simplistic characterization as the "Solid South" serves little purpose beyond dramatic and historic commentary on elementary American politics.

Furthermore, race is not the totality of Southern existence. Slavery and segregation dominate discussion of Southern history; and race is still very important, with unsavory impact, in the contemporary South. But the southern people generally live their lives without constant, dominating thoughts about white supremacy.

Finally, the South is not a threat to American democracy. Concerns about the "southernizing" or "dixiefying" of our nation miss the important dynamics of contemporary America.

How and why is the South different from the rest of the country?

According to my simple concept, Southerners are Americans, probably white and likely born and reared in the South, who, because of their cultural experience, think of themselves as "Southern."

Most Southerners, while diverse and individualistic in their backgrounds and attitudes, share a felt heritage reflecting, in varying degrees, the impact of a distinct "southern experience." The principal elements of the collective southern experience are stark historic realities (slavery, secession, war, reconstruction) and contemporary residues (race and poverty, regional pride, and common stereotyping). Regardless of whether they have ever wanted to secede from the Union, practiced racism, or suffered privation, this shared experiential legacy has shaped the lives of most Southerners; and, quite unconsciously, the southern experience reinforces their mindset and standing as a distinct subcultural society.

Continuing legacy of differential outlook and perception

In summary, the South has secured for itself a mixed, problematic legacy that gives Southerners a histrionic outlook about themselves as special beings, with either positive or negative connotations; and that legacy marks Southerners for differential perception among other Americans.

In my next discussion, which I will present in a couple days, I'd like to talk about the South's "hard history" and its "flawed democracy"; then, in the final part, I'll offer some suggestions for folks who would like to read more about southern politics and history.