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Southern Problems


George Packer’s comments on the terribleness of Southern politics has inspired a number of responses, most notably from Gary Wills.

These discussions frustrate me though for a number of reasons. First, the South is equated with reactionary white people in both articles. The reality is much more complex. Second, it ignores the fact that 35-40% of the South votes for Democrats and that many of these people are extremely liberal (and not just African-Americans). Third, it holds Southern culture to be entirely negative.

No one has to tell me how the politics of white supremacy has damaged this nation. But let’s be bloody well clear, this is not a Southern problem. It is perhaps a greater problem in the South than other parts of the country. Still, my reading of American history remembers the Detroit Hate Strike of 1943. It remembers the Boston busing protests of the 1970s. It remembers the Zoot Suit Riots. It remembers the lynching of Malcolm X’s father. It remembers the housing campaign conducted by Martin Luther King in Chicago in 1966, when King said he never felt so much hate.

And my understanding of the present is informed by white supremacy in Idaho, by Michigan-native Timothy McVeigh, by Paul Ryan and Steve King and Sam Brownback and any number of awful northern politicians.

My understanding of both past and present is also informed by the reality of poverty in the South, both black and white, and how capitalism played the races off against each other. If this failed, and the races aligned too closely, then you saw the real backlash, in Wilmington at the end of the 19th century, in the killings of Populist organizers, in the backlash against Operation Dixie.

This stereotyping is why I’m not comfortable with American elites like Packer and Wills talking about the South. Even if, like Wills, they have southern roots, they ignore the basic fact that racism and right-wing politics are national problems. Yes, they might be 20% worse in the South for reasons of the slave legacy, capitalist playing of the races of each other, etc. But none of these problems are southern problems. They are national problems and until we think of them as such, we are going to do more work in stereotyping the South than solving said problems.

Also, the title of this post is totally stolen from my friend Andy Bowen’s DC-based band. Check them out.

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