My home region of the Deep South is known for many things. It’s known for its hospitality and Spanish moss, its sweet tea and cornbread and its Bible-thumping, slow-paced, barefoot way of life.
It’s also known for its bloody legacy of racism and for vicious white mobs screaming at small Black children going to school. It’s known for pervasive poverty and for dirty, toothless rednecks spitting out of pickup trucks. It has a rather wretched reputation when it comes to voting patterns too, as the South overwhelmingly rallies behind borderline far-right politicians during elections.
I have lived in this place, endowed with both an endearing, nostalgic mythos and horrid socio-economic landscape, for the better part of my life — 13 years. I first became ashamed of Alabama as an adolescent, as I realized that the rest of the country leered and scoffed at my home for its peculiar backwardness and cruel ignorance.
As I became more politically cognizant my shame grew far deeper. I lived in a place that narrowly avoided voting an accused child molester into office in 2017 — a state with some of the worst racial and economic progress in the nation.
But, like it or not, the South is where I grew up. And it’s in Alabama that I realized how cynical rhetoric about the South, especially spouted by wealthy urban self-proclaimed leftists, is not funny, but directly antithetical to the pro-labor, pro-equality missions of the left.
When people on the left give up on the South or decry it is an embarrassment, it is not the rich white conservatives who suffer. It’s everyone else.
The Deep South is the opposite of the white, conservative monolith that it’s often described as. It is a deeply diverse region by almost every metric. Texas and Florida possess the second and third largest immigrant populations, the South houses the largest population of Black Americans and of the ten poorest states in the country, Southern states comprise nine.
Now, these statistics do lend themselves to some confusion, as people of color, immigrants and people with low incomes do not usually vote for conservatives — which the South is infamous for. But that is partly why I am so incensed by claims that people in the South are just idiotic and vicious, cheerily voting for monstrous politicians and dragging the rest of the United States with them. In fact, the reality is far more disheartening.
Most Southern states engage in extreme voter suppression — largely because the demographics of these states indicate that Republicans would be swiftly voted out of office if voters were not suppressed. And those Southerners who manage to evade suppression tactics do often vote against their interests, but not because they hate themselves or are idiotic hillbillies.
It’s because the education system in the South is an abysmal failure, and there are many Southerners who simply don’t possess the political knowledge and savvy that those in liberal states do. It’s because poor Southerners watch storms sweep away their homes and disproportionately suffer from poor healthcare — and see politicians do nothing.
You can — and probably should — despise conservative politicians for many reasons, but one thing they know how to do is appeal to their voting base. They know how to work the system. Republicans use legislation to suppress the votes of people of color, and then use ideological and religious tirades to coerce impoverished, uneducated, God-fearing white Southerners into voting for them.
But Democrats seem to ignore that Southerners, on average, are members of groups that should be of utmost importance, both morally and politically — working-class people, people of color, immigrants, victims of failing education systems, decrepit infrastructure and dismal healthcare systems.
So these disillusioned, ignored Southerners simply don’t vote for Democrats.
There is still profound bigotry and discrimination in the South, and to be frank, there is no excuse for voting for conservative politicians. I do not write this to defend white Southerners or to vindicate the South for its sickening history or bleak political landscape.
But every time people bring up how backwards the South is, perhaps we should not only think of the white people who engage in racism, but also remember the millions of Black people in the region who still endure racialized hatred. When people discuss how stupid and trashy Southerners are, perhaps we should consider that they are beaten-down members of the working class, far more integral to the labor movement than software engineers in Silicon Valley. When people claim that the South is a lost cause, perhaps we should be reminded of Stacey Abrams and Bryan Stevenson conjuring up progressivism in the Deep South against all odds.
The South is not going away, and if the left wants to grow in power and strength, it cannot lambast or ignore the millions of would-be progressive Southerners who are failed by our political systems and deserve to be heard, recognized and respected.