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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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Talk does not equal progress, and despite advancements in our rhetoric, white supremacist attitudes remain. Ferrel Guillory thinks that, despite all the talk, there is still some denial going on. He notes that it’s difficult to measure the severity of racism in the South, because people have found ways of justifying their own racism without admitting to it. For example, you will rarely hear anyone admit to being a proud bigot, but white people sometimes speak in hushed tones to advise fellow white people not to move to a “dangerous” – that is, usually majority black – neighborhood. Likewise, Guillory says that voters may explain a vote to pollsters by saying, “‘I picked him because he’s more conservative” rather than “because he’s white.” And we sometimes defend ourselves with the claim that we are more integrated than the North ( which we are). But hastening to point this out sometimes obscures the changes we still need to make.

Guillory says, “I’m not trying to say that we don’t have real human issues to deal with, and we’ve got a polarized political system much as the rest of the country does. And part of the polarization has been that Southern white people – particularly working-class white people – have gotten increasingly mired – stuck -- in their cultural conservatism and the white Southern portion of the Republican party has helped pull the Republican party nationally to the right. So, it’s a complex picture, but it’s important not to say the whole South is 'Dukes of Hazzard' or Mayberry.”

He continues, insisting that “those who say…that Democrats ought to write the South off because they can’t make any gains in the South are mistaken. Obama showed that they were mistaken at least in” North Carolina, Virginia and Florida, which voted to elect him by narrow margins. But this wouldn’t have been possible a quarter of a century ago. And it was difficult, growing up in the Jesse Helms era, to believe that anything could ever change. Indeed, “We still matter when it comes to national politics. And we are increasingly diverse” in political opinion.

Guillory thinks the slight political shift – from moderately conservative to moderate – in these newer “swing states” is largely explained by increasing racial and ethnic diversity, as well as urbanization. He says, “The easiest way to say this is [that] people move to jobs, and political power follows the people. So, we in North Carolina and others on the East Coast – we’ve been partly lucky, but partly, we’ve been aggressive” in catching up with the rest of the country. “We’ve built highways. We’ve built good imports. We desegregated the schools… Wake County consolidated the old county and city schools to enforce desegregation. Our cities built good airports. We have good universities nearby. We have the Research Triangle Park.”

But convergence with the nation has happened for better or worse, and the changes are not universally progressive: “We have the banking industry… We have automobile manufacturing...We’ve got the pharmaceutical industry. We’ve got biosciences… We’ve built a modern diversified economy, and that has attracted people from all over.” The legacies of Old South plus all of these new changes have to be included in any characterization of the South. We are not a monolith. There are liberals and conservatives among us.

Simplistic stereotypes about the South do violence to the rather complex histories of struggle, resistance and industrialization in the South, as well as to the diversity of Southern experiences. Progressives and pundits who dismiss the South as a place that is “beyond redemption,” so to speak, miss out on the liberalizing effects of urbanization and increased diversity. They alienate – and ignore – political allies when they do this.

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