Since The Bitter Southerner began, readers have asked us to define the South. One thing’s for sure: The old definitions are now completely wrong.
Research assistance by Seth C. Clark
Dearly beloved, I come not to praise Dixie, but to bury her.
Let’s face it: “Dixie” has become one of those empty words whose only purpose is to convey stereotypes. For political pundits, it’s shorthand for White People South of I-64 (or I-40, it depends) Who Vote Republican. (Mysteriously, although black people can be found in vast numbers in Southern states and arguably have more collective sweat equity in the region than anybody, whenever pundits say “Dixie” they are always talking exclusively about white people.) For TV sitcom writers, “Dixie” is shorthand for a small town where there isn’t a Wal-Mart in sight and all the ugly people have been mysteriously culled from the herd. (See: “Hart of Dixie” — if you can stand it. I can’t.)
I would go so far as to say that anybody who uses the word “Dixie” these days is unwittingly advertising his ignorance about the very subject of his professed expertise. I would, that is, if it weren’t for the fact that a lot of Southerners are equally culpable. Our self-image is cluttered with lies, half-truths and staggering omissions — and worse yet, we’re as defensive about that as we are about outsiders’ stereotypes. If there’s anything Southerners hate worse than some outsider opining about the way we are/were, it’s actual facts about the way we are/were. (See: Paula Deen.)
All of which leads me to the project at hand, one in keeping with The Bitter Southerner’s self-imposed mandate to see the South as it really is, not as what people imagine it to be.
What is this “Dixie” of which people speak, anyway? Where are its borders? Who lives there? And what’s happening to our collective identity?
As we all intuitively sense, Southern identity is by no means what it used to be. The South has never been a homogenous region, but regional differences about barbecue recipes and accents look downright cute compared to the tribal affiliations we now see forming — tribes including, but not limited to, the Liberal Intelligentsia, the Church of the Foursquare White Conservatives and the Black Belt, plus an increasingly significant number of various immigrant groups. Increasingly, the South has become a region where, just as in the rest of the country, residents are grouping themselves into clusters which share similar political affiliations and socioeconomic class — “balkanized communities,” writes Bill Bishop in his book The Big Sort, “whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible.”
Southerners finding other Southerners culturally incomprehensible? The death of “Dixie”? What is the world coming to?
Hang on. We’re going in to find out.
Defining the borders of the South has been a pastime for historians and sociologists ever since there was a South, and it’s kept generations of academics in business ever since. But to begin with, let’s start with a simple premise: The South is where the red dirt is.
Red dirt is the stuff that escaped the ravages of sitting under a glacier during the most recent Ice Age. It’s red because of all the iron oxide in it, which is all that’s left when water-soluble key nutrients, like calcium and phosphate, have been leached out — which is what happens when dirt has been sitting exposed to the elements for a couple million years longer than dirt that was hiding under miles of ice. A geological map of where the red dirt is traces a pretty good original outline of where the South came into being. The coastal South and Mississippi River regions aren’t red dirt, but they are included; western Pennsylvania, which is red dirt, is also included because in cultural terms it’s basically an extension of Appalachia. Red dirt is not lush farming territory, and one or two generations of 19th century cotton growing was enough to seriously deplete it (which helps explain the push to expand slavery westward, by the way). But when all else fails and the soil is utterly exhausted, you can at least scratch around and eat the kaolin in it. This, my fellow Scots-Irish rednecks, is our patrimony.
Fast-forward to the 20th century and the co-founder of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Center for the Study of the American South, John Shelton Reed, who has probably spent more time trying to delineate the borders of Dixie than anybody. As a sociologist, Reed based his approach on living things — plants, sometimes, but mostly people and their many idiosyncrasies. Over the years he has compiled maps that show, among other things, where members of The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Association live, where kudzu grows, where grits are sold, where cotton was cultivated in 1860, where there are county courthouses with Confederate monuments and many, many other fascinating things.
But for our purposes here, the most instructive is his research on the so-called D Score, which maps where there are businesses with the names “Dixie” or “Southern” in them.
John Shelton Reed's D and S scores, as updated in research by Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts of Western Carolina University.
Those three tiers — Southern to the Core, Pretty Darn Southern, and Sorta Southern — fit with my own anecdotal evidence collected from years of purely unscientific roaming around. Anybody who has ever driven through the South can describe the different “feel” of its various regions. But that’s just it: Already we’ve arrived at the partitioning of a region that Wilbur Cash described in The Mind of the South as “another land, sharply differentiated from the rest of the American nation … exhibiting within itself a remarkable homogeneity.” Cash wrote that in 1939, just before the sweeping changes wrought by World War II, the mechanical cotton picker and urbanization utterly transformed the South he was describing.
Can anybody tell us what happens next, boys and girls? You, Aunt Pittypat, there in the back row?
The center of gravity for the U.S. population has been slowly shifting south for more than 50 years, but as the overall population increases and the economy rebounds, that trend is picking up steam.
Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia and Florida are all in the 10 fastest-growing states in the country. Seven of the top 10 urban magnets for domestic migration are in the South: Atlanta, Dallas, Charlotte, Austin, Houston, Orlando, Tampa. Atlanta by itself has attracted nearly half a million new black residents in the last 10 years alone. But not all newcomers are alike: An influx of white Midwesterners into northwest Arkansas has helped cement that area as a Republican bastion, while the influx of black newcomers to Atlanta has helped turn that metro area strongly Democratic.
In 1955, the year I was born, 95 percent of people living in Georgia were native Southerners, and the vast majority of those were native Georgians. That explains why it caused such a stir in my seventh grade class when a new student arrived from the Frozen North.
“I’m from Minnesota,” she said to us in her strange accent. “Where are you from?”
She was met with a room full of blank looks. Nobody had ever asked us that before.
Today, only 70 percent of Georgia residents were born in the South. Ten percent come from the Northeast, including three percent from New York state alone. The Carolinas and Virginia have seen a similar influx of newcomers, and domestic immigration is on the rise in Arkansas and Tennessee. Only Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama — those Southern to the Core states — are still stuffed with born-and-bred natives, but their time is coming.
The other big change, of course, is foreign immigration. Until the early 1980s, the South was unique in being the only region of the United States that had never had the experience of absorbing large numbers of people from other countries.
That changed in the 1980s, when a wave of newcomers from rural Mexico and parts of Central America began making their way into the Deep South and, unlike previous generations of migrant workers, stayed to put down roots. Today, the children of those immigrants are U.S.-born young adults, and growing numbers of them are eligible to vote. In the 2012 Presidential election, Hispanics comprised 11 percent of all eligible voters, up from 8.2 percent in 2004 — and 17 percent of all eligible Hispanic voters live in so-called battleground states, three of which are in the South: North Carolina, Virginia and Florida.
The South is the center of the fastest-growing Hispanic population in the nation, and births to Hispanics, Asians and multiracial parents accounted for all of the increase in the under-18 population in the last decade. In fact, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee lead the nation in births to Hispanic mothers. A huge crescent-shaped stretch of the Deep South, from southeastern Arkansas down into the Black Belt of Mississipppi and from there upward to the Carolinas, is now majority-minority, or soon will be.
That’s the real Dixie — not the unbroken expanse of Republican hegemony the political pundits keep talking about. The pundits are right on a superficial level, for now. But it’s no accident that the last 10 years have seen an increasing amount of Republican-led efforts on the state level to redraw voting districts in ways that quarantine or dilute the influence of black voters, as well as the passage of various laws that make it hard for immigrants to access the ballot box.
Republicans know long-term demographic trends in the South are not in their favor. Most ominously, from the Republican point of view, is the fact that the South (along with the Southwest and the West Coast) is today among the most racially diverse areas of the country. Virginia leads the nation in the percentage of interracial marriage between blacks and whites, and millennial-generation voters of both parties tend to be far more racially enlightened than their parents’ generation.
The old Republican “Southern strategy” of appealing to white voters by subtly appealing to their racist instincts is not going to work when the target of that racism is the voter’s wife, a daughter’s boyfriend or the husband of a co-worker.
As for Democrats, their future in the South will depend on how many of the roughly 7 million black, Asian and Hispanic potential voters who now live here can be registered to vote, how many actually show up at the polls, and how well those minority groups can form alliances with white progressive voters. The last one is the tricky part. Due to the whole “big sort” phenomenon Bill Bishop describes, we’re talking about increasingly defined ethnic and demographic enclaves whose respective residents may have to go out of their way to interact.
Which brings us to tribes.
If politics today seems like a mud wrestling in a toxic-waste dump, we can find some meager comfort in the fact that things have been worse.
The Late Unpleasantness also known as the Civil War, bloody textile workers’ strikes and tenant-farmer revolts, that thing that happened on the Edmund Pettus Bridge — all these offer abundant evidence that Southerners are more than capable of expressing their political differences by beating the shit out each other.
The South has many tales of what historian Carl Degler called the “other Southerners” who challenged the party lines of their day and suffered for it. At the same time, ours is a region with a long and rich history of clamping down on political dissent. Southern historians have documented countless instances of such clampdowns. We’ve hounded college professors out of town for teaching any version of history that was not properly reverential about the mythical Lost Cause, we’ve vandalized the printing presses of anti-slavery newspaper editors, we’ve invoked an unwritten consensus called the Southern “way of life” to defy the federal government and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Still, up until the last quarter of the 20th century, divisions of politics, race and sub-regional differences in geography, culture, social class, accent, barbecue recipes and music could all be neatly packaged under a single shrink-wrap of born-again evangelical Protestant religion and regional pride. No matter what part of the South you came from, Southerners of my generation would have agreed that “Southerner” was a unifying concept (one celebrated in songs like “Are You From Dixie,” a 1915 song resurrected by Jerry Reed in 1969, and Johnny Cash’s “Hey, Porter.”)
But that was last century. Today, Southerners belong to tribes. The fact that you are reading this is most likely evidence that you are a member of a Southern tribe, called Bitter Southerners, which explicitly excludes certain Southerners. Just look at our manifesto: “If you are a person who buys the states’ rights argument … or you fly the rebel flag in your front yard … or you still think women look really nice in hoop skirts, we politely suggest you find other amusements on the web. The Bitter Southerner is not for you.”
As this statement implies, there’s a vast chasm between a typical white voter in, say, Baxter County, Ark., and his white counterpart in some in-town liberal enclave in Austin or Durham. Chances are that each will find the other culturally incomprehensible — and both of them will, in their own way, be culturally alien to the black voter in Coahoma County, Miss.
“The differences are ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and the ‘us’ and ‘them’ are Republican and Democrat,” Bill Bishop said to me in an e-mail recently. “People in some ways discriminate more today based on [political] party than on race.”
These days, there are plenty of conservative white Republicans in the South who would 10 times rather see their sons or daughters marry a person of another race — maybe even a person of another race and the same gender — than marry a person with liberal political beliefs.
“To me, when you say far-left liberal, that tends to imply certain value judgments that I may not necessarily share,” one Arkansas Republican Party functionary told me recently when I brought up that hypothetical question. “To have someone become part of your family….”
His voice trailed off; it was clear he found political intermarriage too distressing a concept to contemplate. And lest I sound judgmental, I should add here that if one of my daughters wanted to marry a fan of Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, I’d feel the same way.
Tribalization is happening in the South so clearly you can see it on a map — or at least, you can see clues that it’s happening. A couple of years ago, I was doing research for a book on the 21st century South and what it was becoming. I was looking at presidential election returns by county, and ran across an article in "The Daily Yonder" (a website which Bill Bishop edits) talking about the counties that had flipped from Democratic to Republican, or vice versa, in the 2008 election. The interesting thing about the map to me was that all of the counties that flipped from Democratic to Republican were in the South — the upper South, specifically, starting in southwestern Arkansas and moving from there to west Tennessee and from there roughly up the Appalachians into western Pennsylvania.
Intrigued, I looked a little closer. What I wound up with was a list of counties which, in a historic Presidential election year featuring unprecedented voter turnout and the election of the nation's first black president, chose to march resolutely in the other direction and moved toward the Republican candidate by more than 8 points than four years earlier. Here’s what it looked like:
Red counties are where more than 75 percent of voters went for John McCain in 2008. Blue counties are where more than 75 percent went for Barack Obama. (The original version of this caption mistakenly said the figure was 62 percent.)
I am embarrassed to admit how much time I spent coloring in various counties on that stupid map before I realized that their exact location didn’t matter as much as the fact that they existed in the first place. That, and the fact that all the red counties shared one very prominent feature: They were white — anywhere from 70 to 95 percent white, even in a region which is home to more than half of the country’s African-American population. The blue areas on the map are either Black Belt counties or they mark urban areas, and you can guess who they voted for in 2008. Younger white voters in the South, by the way, went for Obama in rates comparable to younger white voters everywhere else (around 40 percent) — except in North Carolina, where 56 percent of them went for Obama.
Hence, tribes — or as Bob Moser, in a 2013 article in "The American Prospect," put it, “Over the next two decades, it will become clear to even the most clueless Yankee that the Solid South is long gone.” I don’t think it will take two decades. I think it’s breaking apart before our eyes.
So what does this mean for that elusive thing we call Southern identity?
It has, after all, persisted through one wrenching social upheaval after another, surviving regular predictions of its imminent demise. The South, Wilbur Cash wrote, “is a tree with many age rings, with its limbs and trunk bent and twisted by all the winds of the years, but with its tap root in the Old South.”
I call myself a Southerner, but the person I recently unfriended on Facebook because his anti-Obama rants had finally, I thought, crossed a line also sees himself as a Southerner, and just as profoundly as I do. As does my friend Patrice, who is black and who lives in an otherwise all-white gated community in South Carolina.
What is it we are all claiming? An accent? A shared taste for hominy grits? The accident of being born at a certain latitude and longitude?
I think it’s more; I think the tap root is memory. Historian Arnold Toynbee once described his recollection of watching Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations when he was a boy in 1897, and sharing in the collective feeling that Great Britain was a global colossus that ruled her global empire by some kind of divine decree. To his boyish imagination, history consisted of unpleasant things that happened elsewhere.
“Of course,” he added, “if I had been a small boy in 1897 in the Southern part of the United States … I should then have known from my parents that history had happened to my people in my part of the world.”
That’s what Southerners know, however imperfectly we sometimes grasp it. History happened to us. It either happened to us personally, as some who were on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that day in Selma can attest, or to our direct ancestors, or (in my case) right across the street from the house where I grew up, where Sherman's soldiers tore up the railroad one day in August 1864 (he describes the location very precisely in his memoirs).
Differing interpretations of our history divide us — and up to a point, that’s OK, as long as we don’t mistake myths for history.
“Dixie” is just such a myth. She was a myth 100 years ago, and she is most definitely a myth today. It’s time to take her out back and stick her in the ground.