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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.

Doubts on Romney’s Conservatism Help Santorum in the South,” reads the ABC News headline from March 13. The headline would have you believe that Rick Santorum trounced Mitt Romney in the Alabama and Mississippi GOP primaries. It obscures the fact that Santorum beat Romney by just 44-39 percent in Alabama and 42-39 percent in Mississippi. In other words, nearly half of GOP primary voters in these states voted for Romney.

The headline not only obscures the kinds of political divisions that divide the rural and more liberal urban parts of the South; it also feeds into the idea that Southern conservatives vote primarily on “family values” issues, and takes it on good faith that Romney -- who has moved awfully far to the Right during primary season – is somehow the more civilized, sane, humane and/or liberal of the two.

In January, CNN contributor John Avlon wrote about the ugly stereotypes about South Carolina that he saw as that state’s primaries kicked off: “You know, the characterization of South Carolina as a swamp of sleazy politics and brutal attack ads, a Bible belt bastion of rednecks and racism, a state defined by Bob Jones University. Sometimes these stereotypes are floated in political conversations as evidence of how ‘real’ the state is in determining the true feelings of the conservative base.”

These stereotypes 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.”

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