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The Old South's Last, Desperate Stand

Hysteria, aggression and gerrymandering are a fading demographic's last hope to maintain political control.

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It is clear from the map that most self-described unhyphenated “Americans” are, in fact, whites of British descent — many if not most of them descendants of the Scots-Irish diaspora that emigrated from Ulster to the British colonies in the 1700s.  The point is that many white Southerners do not think of themselves as having any “ethnicity” at all. Others — German-Americans, Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Chinese-Americans — are hyphenated Americans. White Southerners tend to see themselves as “pure” Americans, “real” Americans, “normal” Americans. Long after Mayflower descendants were submerged by waves of  European migration in New England, large regions of the white South remain the last places in the country where local majorities can trace their family ancestry back to before 1776 in British America.

As difficult as it may be, outsiders should try to imagine the world as viewed by conservative white Southerners, who think they are the real Americans — that is, old-stock British-Americans — and the adherents of the true religion, evangelical Protestantism. In this perspective, the rest of the country was taken over by invading hordes of Germans, Irish and other European tribes in the first half of the 19th century, leaving the South, largely unaffected by European immigration, as the last besieged pocket of old-stock British-Americans, sharing parts of their territory with subjugated and segregated African-Americans.

This local British-American ethno-racial hegemony in the South was eroded somewhat by the migration of Northeasterners and Midwesterners to the Sun Belt following World War II and the advent of air-conditioning. And now, predominantly nonwhite immigration from Latin America and Asia threatens to make white Southerners of British Protestant descent a minority in their own region. Texas and Florida are already majority-minority states. It is only a matter of time before the same is true of every state in the South. Southern whites will go from being a minority in the nation as a whole to a minority in the South itself.

If Southern culture had a tradition of assimilating immigrants, then cultural “Southernness” could be detached from any particular ethnicity or race. One could be an assimilated Chinese-American good old boy or a Mexican-American redneck.  To some degree, that is happening. And Southern whites and Southern blacks have always shared many elements of a common regional culture.

But it is difficult, if not impossible, for many white Southerners to disentangle regional culture (Southern) from race (white) and ethnicity (British Protestant). The historical memory of white Southerners is not of ethnic coexistence and melting-pot pluralism but of ethnic homogeneity and racial privilege. Small wonder that going from the status of localHerrenvolk to local minority in only a generation or two is causing much of the white South to freak out.

The demographic demise of the white South is going to be traumatic for the nation as a whole. A century ago, when European immigration made old-stock Yankee Protestants a minority in much of the Northeast and Midwest, one response was hysterical Anglo-American nativism. In a 1921 essay in Good Housekeeping titled “Whose Country Is This?,” then Vice President Calvin Coolidge, an old-stock Yankee from Vermont, explained:  “Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend. The Nordics propagate themselves successfully. With other races, the outcome shows deterioration on both sides.” Patrician Yankees promoted immigration restriction to prevent “inferior” European races from further contaminating America. Some eminent Americans of New England descent, including Henry James, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, all of them nasty anti-Semites, took the extreme step of expatriating themselves. James and Eliot became British subjects and Pound made anti-American broadcasts for Mussolini during World War II.

 
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