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5 Big Media Stereotypes About the South (And the Real Story Behind Them)

Every election season, Southerners are reminded of the devastating misconceptions many Americans have about us.

Stereotypes about the south are nothing new. In fact, they often date back to the Civil War. They tend to denigrate the Southern poor, under-educated and rural in ways that bear striking resemblance to Republican rhetoric that demonizes the poor in general. But every election season, those of us who have spent most of our lives in the South are reminded of the devastating misconceptions that many other Americans have about us. The Right romanticizes us as the “ real America” while the Left treats us a punchline. Polling organizations like Public Policy Polling design studies that target Southern states and reinforce the national sense that we are backward and dim-witted. Here are just a few of the ways in which popular political narratives distort the contemporary realities of Southern life in historical context.

1. We are not predominantly rural.

This one should be a no-brainer. Of course, it is clear to people who live here that our economies no longer operate by way of large-scale plantation systems, if they ever did in the first place. Ferrel Guillory, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor in the school of Journalism and Mass Communication tells AlterNet, “There is this common wisdom out there that the South remains a rural place dominated by working-class people with no education past high school.”

But the reality is much more complex: “The truth is the South is much more of a metropolitan place. Three out of four Southerners live in metropolitan areas – some combination of cities, suburb and exurb. Throughout the last quarter of the 20th century – up until the recession hit – the South was the fastest growing section in the country. It had outpaced the nation in job and population growth.”

Guillory is the founding director of UNC’s Program on Public Life. He also teaches courses about the political history of the South. He does this, he says, to teach budding journalists how to write about the region in ways that provide appropriate context: “What tends not to be captured is how the South is still the South, but more complex, more diverse. True, you can go into some small towns and find classic Mayberry, and you can go into other small towns and find a lot of poverty. One of the tragic consequences of the recession,” he says, “is poverty in the South, which had been declining. It has gone back up to mid-1990s levels in the past few years.”

But it’s not just news media that perpetuate the rural stereotypes. It also happens in popular culture. Guillory says, “I tell my students that one of my favorite TV shows used to be ‘Designing Women’… What I liked about ‘Designing Women’ was that it was not country music. It was not NASCAR or the ‘Beverly Hillbillies.’ It wasn’t ‘Dukes of Hazzard.’ It was a group of women running a business in Atlanta.” The metropolitan backdrop, which included professional women, he says, provided a refreshing alternative to the usual stereotypical narratives about the South.

And it isn’t just that the South is no longer dependent on plantation economies. The truth is, the region was always more economically diverse than most realize. Jessica Luther, an Austin-based activist and PhD candidate in history at UT-Austin says that states south of the Mason-Dixon Line depended on slave economies at varying levels long before the Civil War began. She notes that, not long after the Revolutionary War, mid-Atlantic States like Virginia and North Carolina had already begun economic transition away from slave-based plantation economics. They had seen the writing on the wall over the slavery issue, particularly when the international slave trade stopped.

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