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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.

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North Carolina politics are often reduced to the “Jesse Helms legacy.” Helms, of course, was the segregationist and Cold Warrior who served as a North Carolina senator between the early 1970s and into the 21st century. But as Guillory says, this is not the whole story of North Carolina politics. Living in urban North Carolina, one gets the impression that the civil rights movement is far from over – and that current political fights are widely understood in the context of a longstanding commitment to progressive activism in the South.

Certainly, the civil rights movement gets romanticized in dishonest ways. For example, Duke University literary theorist Mark Anthony Neal tells AlterNet that the “civil rights movement was ultimately about [providing] access to a small percentage of blacks, who were outside of institutions etc. The expansion of the black middle-class in the 1970s is the most visible example of that access. In terms of attitudes about race, it means that certain black folk are accepted and the others are still left to the margins.”

This has been true, of course, of most metropolitan civil rights activism throughout the South – and elsewhere – that focuses on civil rights often at the exclusion of economic justice. It is easy to understand why it happens in light of the severe repression against interracial labor movements during the 1940s. It also means that the strongest civil rights advocates in the South are committed to working within the system. Though Remes does not diminish the importance of such advocacy, he does think the Occupy Movement’s decision to operate outside the system is instructive inasmuch as it may open up greater possibilities for transformation.

In any case, Neal says, “however progressive and cosmopolitan the Triangle [comprised of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill] is and how ‘crunchy granola’ Asheville is, there are still pockets throughout the state that reflect Helms' ideology.” And whatever anyone’s take on the civil rights movement as such, the South remains largely conservative, and is still beset by problems like racial injustice and income inequality. But once again, that isn’t the whole story.

5. We are not a monolith.

For better or worse, Jim Crow is a part of the South’s recent history. Jessica Luther speculates that this may have something to do with the way we experience civil rights as omnipresent in our communities in ways that the North does not. We see the old “whites only” and “colored only” water fountains – signs now removed – in old buildings. We remember that some of our college dorms (including mine at  UNC-Chapel Hill 12 years ago) were designed first to segregate the university when blacks began to be admitted. We have vigorous fights about whether or not statues of civil rights heroes should be removed from university grounds.

Much of the country assumes that Southerners are even more inept at discussing race than other Americans. But I think its omnipresence has made it impossible for Southerners not to talk about race. It does not surprise me when my elderly relatives – including those with only a high school education – from the rural South can recognize entrenched racism in their own attitudes and then trace them back to the bigotry they learned growing up. So, we do talk about it, and we talk about it in interracial contexts, and we also talk about it regardless of political affiliation (at least historically).

Jacob Remes points out that Jim Crow was organized in a way that enforced strict segregation, but in some ways depended on day-to-day interactions between blacks and whites in the South. “Colored” water fountains were not always found in separate buildings. Many black working-class people worked for white people on farms or as domestic laborers. So, white supremacy was enforced by way of daily interaction. I sometimes think the fact of “being together” for all these years has enabled us to talk about our history more honestly than we might if segregation had involved the kind of strict urban segregation and non-interaction that is prevalent in the Northeast. That we talk about it just means we’re more socially comfortable with each other. It doesn’t – and didn’t – necessarily disrupt white supremacy.

 
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