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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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But liberal-leaning media can be particularly unhelpful when it comes to contextualizing lack of education in the South. She points out that Southerners are specifically polled with the kinds of questions – “How do you feel about interracial marriage?” “Do you believe in evolution?” – designed to confirm our collective ignorance. Of the recent polls on Alabama and Mississippi collected by North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling, for example, she says, “when I went back and looked through the rest of PPP’s polls from this year, I couldn’t find any other states that were asked about evolution. Ditto questions about whether Obama is a Muslim. And in only one other state did I see voters being asked about interracial marriage: South Carolina. (Surprise!).” Instead, she points out, other states were asked more predictable campaign year questions: Who do you support? Does a candidate’s electability figure prominently in your vote?

And yet she notes, “On the flip side, missing from this year’s polling were questions about how, say, Arizona or Colorado Republicans feel about Hispanics—immigration, unlike mixed-race couples, actually being a hot political potato. I mean, if we’re going to plumb voters’ innermost prejudices, why not dissect those likely to have real policy implications going forward?”

Luther notes out that statistics like those from PPP fit dominant narratives about the South – people just read the information as “crazy Southerners doing crazy Southern things.” Plus, she notes, Santorum is not really considered a fringe candidate by many Republican primary-voters even if he is dismissed as such in the media.” So, when he establishes Republican support bases in places like Texas, Luther sees it dismissed as common Texas politics. She is keenly aware of the subtext: “Of course that’s what they do in Texas. They elect idiots.”

Not to mention, of course, that Santorum is from Pennsylvania – itself a former slave-owning society and current home base to one large offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan. Plus, Santorum has proven popular throughout the Midwest as well as the South. And in any case, it isn’t entirely clear whether Santorum’s success is any more rooted in anti-intellectualism than in the fact that Santorum speaks like a populist. And populism arguably has as much historical currency in working class regions of the country as evangelicalism. Romney, in contrast, makes ridiculous comments about “cheesy grits,” and the nation is surprised that voters see this as pandering and condescension.

The problem, Luther says, is the relative simplicity with which the media often covers issues like the PPP polls from Mississippi and Alabama. That is, the media usually omits context. Luther rarely sees, for example, analyses of corporate influence in Texas politics. For example, in January, Michael Barajas wrote in San Antonio-based independent newsweekly the Current that corporations like Koch Industries, ExxonMobil and Wal-Mart had poured $16.2 million into Texas in just the past 10 years.

Also ignored, Luther says, are the social realities of Texas. She points out that the state “has so many problems with poverty and education” that this “make[s] it so hard for people to know what’s happening politically.” Last year, a CNN Money report noted that poverty had increased in Rick Perry’s Texas so that 18.4 percent of Texan residents now lived below poverty level. This is a problem that is replicated in most every other Southern state, where poverty levels usually exceed the national average of a little over 15 percent.

And of course underfunded education remains a problem in Texas and throughout the South. Just this week, Southern Education Desk explained that Alabama has historically kept education funding low by using race – once again – as a wedge to keep white working-class people from supporting education funding. White working-class farmers had always opposed tax increases in Alabama, but the desegregation of schools left white Alabamans less committed than ever to funding public schools. Unsurprisingly, though, there has always been something in it for the moneyed classes, not the working class – that is, measures to defund education always “played into the hands of large landowners who wanted cheap, non-unified labor, more land, and very low property tax rates, which they have enjoyed ever since the state Constitution centralized power in Montgomery to the state’s planting class. One result of all this is that, across Alabama, there are significant hurdles to raising property taxes to increase local school funding, including mandatory referenda in a very anti-tax state.”

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