Southern Living

The South often thinks itself misunderstood, but the problem is we understand it all too well

In the days leading up to Rick Santorum’s Southern twofer of Alabama and Mississippi, there was a minor contretemps among some pundits about the polling conducted prior to the Republican primaries. Specifically, some felt it unfair that Southern Republican voters were being asked questions — whether they support interracial marriage, do they accept evolution, do they believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim — that pollsters don’t ask of Northeastern and Western voters.

Of course, the reason why those questions were asked is found in the answers: a quarter of Mississippian and Alabaman Republicans are against interracial marriage; 60 percent don’t accept the science of evolution; and just under half believe Obama is a Muslim. (Only 14 percent believe the president is a Christian, as he actually is.)

Obviously, there are know-nothings and racists in the Northeast and West, and I would bet that a survey of Democrats in some those same deep-South areas wouldn’t reveal the world’s most progressive outlook. But these kind of numbers point to the fact that the South is still a very different kind of place from the rest of the country.

I’ve just recently read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, a history of the black migration out of the South during the Jim Crow era, which led me to a lot of thinking about my Southern background. I’m not deep Southern, being from Kentucky, but I certainly grew up surrounded by gun racks, rebel flags, Hank Williams Jr. and the idea that the South would rise again.

The legacy of Jim Crow was still alive when I was just a kid, despite its official end. Blacks lived in one area; whites lived everywhere else. My father did some repair work on a car for one of the black families in town; when the man came to talk my dad about it, my sister and I were confused about why he kept refusing to come inside the house. (When Dad finally got him to come in, he wouldn’t take more than two steps past the threshold.)

You don’t have to read a lot of Faulkner to understand that Southern history is barely in the past. I knew my great grandmother, Granny Polk, who was born in the late 1800s. My grandparents were born during the early years of Jim Crow. My parents came of age during the Civil Rights era. I was born the same year Loving v. Virginia overturned the nation’s miscegenation laws.

In other words, I’m almost exactly the same age as the right of every (heterosexual) American to marry without regard to race. And I’m not really all that old.

The point being, the insanity of Jim Crow and segregation ran deep and would never be uprooted in a matter of years or even decades. We still live among those who suffered it; we still live among those who fortified it. That racist and regressive attitudes would remain pernicious in corners of the South is hardly surprising, even if it’s an uncomfortable truth for those who live there or, like me, are from there. And despite these types of poll results, things actually are better now than they were then, and it’s difficult to see that arc changing.

Unfortunately, there remains a strong sense of grievance in too many Southern quarters, a belief that the former Confederate States are somehow downtrodden and misunderstood, when actually we understand them precisely too well.

Sean Bugg is Editor Emeritus for Metro Weekly.

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