5 Big Media Stereotypes About the South (And the Real Story Behind Them)
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Plus, he points out, older citizens throughout the South have often had trouble adapting to modernization: “They haven’t been trained. They don’t have the education that allows them to adapt… Some [rural towns] haven’t modernized their infrastructure.” So, despite modernization and industrialization, we are still poor states.
Guillory says, “Southerners themselves too often buy into the ‘laziness’ narrative.” But it has very little basis in truth: “Southerners work hard. You know, people worked in fields, in small factories in the heat. Southern states used to attract industry by advertising relatively inexpensive labor but people who would work hard and work independently.”
This linked to a long and troubled history of violent labor suppression in the South that has resulted in some of the worst working conditions in the country – and contributed to the region’s never-ending poverty. Indeed, Southern states often attracted industry based on the fact that they had crushed working-class activism in ways that ultimately produced a pliable – and fearful – labor force. During the 1940s, Jacob Remes, founding member of the Southern Labor Studies Association and assistant professor of public affairs at the State University of New York Empire State College, tells AlterNet, interracial civil rights activism sometimes combined the causes of racial justice and labor rights. But labor organizing was violently put down. People were killed, and both race and Red panic were used as wedges to divide white and black workers. Over time, says Remes, national labor rights activists sometimes gave up on organizing the South, and Southern workers were cowed into poor working conditions and low wages. Just as corporations have moved jobs overseas for cheaper labor, northern industry first came to the South because labor costs had risen in the north, and corporations – like the textile industry that ultimately landed in North Carolina – needed a cheaper labor force.
The entrenchment of Southern poverty may not have happened by design, but capital and history led to the circumstances that made it possible. Though the region was dominated for a time by industrial labor with high wages compared to what had come before, these jobs are no more. This is one reason why so many Southerners have begun flocking to cities, and why metropolitan areas have become, as Guillory points out, the locus of Southern political power.
In contemporary American politics, of course, stereotypes and insults are often leveled at Southerners without regard for historical context. The idea of “Southern white trash” is just one of many problematic tropes that accompany nearly every narrative about poverty in the United States. The Reagan era gave us “welfare queens,” and Southern poverty has given us “poor white trash.” The stereotype, in the latter case, goes something like this: It’s a more aggressive – more denigrating – take on “redneck” culture. “White trash people” – many of them male – are thought to lounge around and, rather than work, collect junk cars for the front yard, drink cheap American beer, knock up 14-year old girls, bet money they don’t have on NASCAR, hate gays and Mexicans, and personally relate to Robert Earl Keen’s comedic country hit, “Merry Christmas from the Family,” which begins, “Mom got drunk and Dad got drunk at our Christmas party.”
We in the South may laugh at these absurd stereotypes, but we know the story of poverty in this region is far more complicated than that. Guillory says the South was slowly climbing out of poverty in the years leading up to the economic crash of 2008, but has since suffered much of that catastrophe’s worst damage. To the rest of the nation, it sometimes seems as if we are – and have always been – “poor white trash.” We are static and unchanging, and people of color rarely figure into these narratives at all. Blaming people for their own poverty is part of the United States mythology of the “American Dream.” It’s not specific to the South, even if the “white trash” trope gives the denigration of poor people a regional flavor.