Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Southern = White? Since When?

Michael Lind, of the New America Foundation, has a piece out in which he describes the current  political culture in the South as a "fading demographic's last hope to maintain political control"--the fading demographic in question being white Southerners. The Old South, he writes, is doomed to political irrelevancy in the same way that old-stock Yankees in the Northeast and Midwest have seen their hegemony fade, thanks to successive waves of immigration in the 20th century.

The argument that increasingly ethnic diversity in the South should mean the death of all things Southern still strikes me as a little weird, mainly because it's based on the assumption that "Southern" equals "white." While it's true that some people in the South still feel that way--and, for that matter, some people in the South still talk about secession--I always find it odd when educated observers of the South fall into this mistake. Did anybody notice Beyonce at the Super Bowl saying, "Thanks, y'all"? Anybody here heard of the Great Re-Migration, or the fact that the Atlanta area has surpassed Chicago as the largest majority-black urban area in the country? Can't black people--and, for that matter, Hispanic people and Asian people--be Southerners, too? Lind seems dubious.

If Southern culture had a tradition of assimilating immigrants, then cultural “Southernness” could be detached from any particular ethnicity or race. One could be an assimilated Chinese-American good old boy or a Mexican-American redneck.  To some degree, that is happening. And Southern whites and Southern blacks have always shared many elements of a common regional culture.

It remains to be seen how much Hispanic culture can be assimilated into Southern culture, and vice versa, but early evidence indicates to me that the answer will be "a great deal." I also think it's fair to say blacks and whites in the South do more than "share many elements of a common regional culture." I'm with Wilbur Cash on this one; he believed that the influence of white and black Southerners on each other was subtle, profound and pervasive--a list to which I would add the term "miraculous." It may be that in 25 years, "Southern" will be as automatically associated with dark skin as some people now associate it with white. If that happens, it won't mean the Death of the South (which, by the way, people have been predicting for about 200 years now). It will just mean that the South has done what it does best: morphed into something else, while maintaining its regional distinctiveness.

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