I’VE LIVED IN North Carolina off and on for over thirty years, and a couple of months back I had the idea to write an essay called The Old Ignorant Racist Woman-Hating South: The Last Acceptable Regional Generalization? Because I kept coming across all these news articles about the Old Ignorant Racist Woman-Hating South, the knuckle-dragging slack-jawed South that just couldn’t seem to join the rest of the world in modernity, with titles like: The South Still Lies About the Civil War and Why Can’t Progressives Reach White Southern Men?
Whenever I saw that stuff I thought: “Alabama is at it again.” I never took it personally. I never felt like they were talking about me, but rather about some dumber poorer relations of mine who live deeper in the heart of Dixie. But it bothered me. I know a lot of people down here who bear no similarity to the white-trash redneck racist in his bed sheet and pointy wizard hat, or the julep-swilling, whip-cracking rapist plantation owner in his white suit and bolo tie. Or Gomer. Or Goober.
The authors of these articles never seem able to agree on what The South is, either. Nobody can. You’ve got the Deep South, which is East Texas to South Carolina. The Old South includes the original colonies: Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Then there’s “Dixie,” which includes the Confederate States of America—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee. According to the United States Census Bureau, West Virginia and Delaware should be on the list too.
But that’s just semantics. We all know what the South is. The South is that bigoted place where they teach creationism in schools and want nothing more than to go back in time. The South is not a geographical region, with borders lying somewhere between Duck Dynasty and Swamp People; it’s a state of mind.
Let me be clear. I don’t want to deny or mitigate responsibility for the African Holocaust, or the subjugation of women, or the Trail of Tears, or the lynchings or the cross-burnings or the bombings of little girls, or any of the other millions of offenses to humanity committed by demonic white bastards from The State of Mind. The blame for this stereotyping should be placed squarely where it belongs—in the deplorable actions of a racist society.
But it bothers me because “the South” is inaccurate, vague both geographically and linguistically. And because it doesn’t even begin to describe the wide variety of people I have encountered while living here: intellectuals, artists, poets, painters. Non-racist, liberal, anti-authoritarian, culturally-aware people. Cosmopolitan people. Many of whom aren’t white. Or male. It’s kind of like calling the Germans Nazis. True, most Germans were Nazis, and some still are. But you don’t see a host of articles with titles like: Why is it So Hard For the Germans to Stop Being Such Nazis? Why? Because everybody realizes that would be a really stupid generalization, right? You’re talking about enormous masses of people; it’s ridiculous to characterize them all in the same way.
The South is not only The Old Ignorant Racist Woman-Hating South, but also the Resistance to the White Supremacist South. The Resistance to the Misogynistic South. The South of civil disobedience, of the Greensboro Four and Rosa Parks—civil rights activists who pushed the entire region into the twenty-first century. It is also the South of John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, and Nina Simone, of Bessie and Sadie Delany, of Minnie Evans and Selma Burke—all this contradiction in spite of itself. Not to mention John Cage and Black Mountain College. Or Bob Moog and George Masa. And then there’s the cities: Hotlanta, gay capitol of the East, the Dirty South; the Big Easy—all the liberal enclaves, even my own town, too-hip-for-its-own-good Asheville, islands on the neck-red sea.
But every time I turn around it seems like somebody with roots in the South does or says something completely idiotic. Something that seems to justify the characterization. Governor Bobby “Let’s-stop-being-the-stupid-party” Jindal signs the Louisiana Science Education Act into law, opening the door to the teaching of Creationism in the public schools. Brad “bigotry-apologist” Paisley releases his “Accidental Racist” song, or Paula “deep-fried-Twinkie” Deen says, “Of course I used the n-word, what’s the big deal?” It brings no comfort to recall that Jindal is from Louisiana, that Paisley is from West Virginia, that Deen is from Georgia.
I’m from North Carolina. I voted for Obama in 2008, the year our state finally went blue for about a minute, and I was proud to be a part of that process. Here we go, I thought. The future has arrived.
And then, the elections of 2010 gave the GOP control of both houses of the North Carolina general assembly for the first time since 1896. And in November 2012, Republican Pat McCrory was elected Governor. And in the short period between June and July of this year the Republican majority has made every conceivable effort to return civil rights to 1960, if not further back.
And the desire to combat the stereotype, to correct the semantic error, dies. Maybe it’s true: maybe the South is just a seething cauldron of ignorance after all.
RACIAL JUSTICE ACT
On June 19th, 2013, Governor McCrory repealed the Racial Justice Act of 2009, a law that allowed convicted murderers on death row to have their sentences commuted to life in prison if they succeeded in establishing a claim that racial bias was a basis for the verdict. In the four years since, four men have had their sentences commuted (three were fully exonerated) by proving the existence of juror bigotry, police corruption, prosecutorial misconduct, and the exclusion of qualified black jurors from duty.
The Republican rationale for the change was that everybody on death row had started filing appeals under the act—even white people—stalling due process and muddying up the court system. There simply wasn’t enough time to hear all those appeals.
There has not been an execution in North Carolina since 2006, but both proponents and detractors believe the repeal of the Racial Justice Act will restart the execution process.
VOTING RIGHTS ACT
On July 26th the North Carolina state legislature passed a series of strict voting guidelines in the wake of a controversial Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Winning with a 5-4 vote, conservative Supreme Court justices succeeded in crippling an act that has had almost complete bipartisan support in Congress since its inception. Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Southern states with a history of racial discrimination had been required to obtain pre-clearance from the Justice Department before making any changes to local election laws, and for almost fifty years it was extremely successful in ensuring the voting rights of minorities, having been applied hundreds of times to block discriminatory practices.
The new rules imposed by the North Carolina Republican majority include a much-publicized change in voter ID laws, requiring all voters to possess a certain type of picture ID (according to one poll twenty-five percent of African-Americans do not have the required ID), new limits on early voting (a popular choice for black voters in the last two Presidential elections), along with a laundry list of other changes, as a whole representing a new and repressive shift away from minority representation in state politics.
The Supreme Court decision also opens the door to unchecked redistricting, which will allow the GOP to redraw the electoral map at will. The Republican rationale for these measures is that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 worked. It worked so well that discrimination is no longer an issue.
On July 29th, 2013 Governor McCrory signed into law a measure that would have state officials regulate abortion clinics on the same standards as outpatient surgical centers, a move which has forced all but one of the sixteen abortion clinics in North Carolina to close.
In a meeting with protesters Governor McCrory arrived with milk and cookies saying: “These are for you. God bless you. God bless you. God bless you.”
The Republican Majority also voted to cut federal employment benefits for 170,000 unemployed residents and changed the tax code to favor the top one percent of taxpayers. In the span of three months the Grand Old Party has completely disenfranchised North Carolina minority groups and women.
So, you know, “Go Heels!”
How could I possibly find myself defending a place like this?
I am proud to be an American. But there’s a series of gradations to that statement, caveats. I am proud to be an American when our actions benefit humanity. But I am ashamed of much of our history. I am proud when I consider times that people have risen to combat inequality, like the revolution against the British monarchy, like the Civil Rights movement, and to a smaller but significant degree, like Moral Mondays.
Moral Mondays is the grassroots protest movement led by Rev. William Barber, head of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP. It was formed in protest to the new laws and attempts to wrest back the mantel of religious decency appropriated by the right. Moral Mondays demonstrators primarily engage in non-violent civil disobedience at the state legislature building in Raleigh and peacefully submit to arrest. Also, Rev. Barber’s chapter of the NAACP has filed suit to halt the new Voter ID law from being implemented.
On August 5, Rev. Barber, a charismatic orator with a resounding baritone voice, delivered a rousing speech on the steps of the Buncombe County Courthouse in Asheville, to a diverse crowd of ten thousand. He blasted the Republicans on their assumption of ethical ascendancy, on the moral indefensibility of their actions. He hammered the message home with the refrain “Something’s Wrong.” The crowd called back “Something’s Wrong!” And then he took aim at the memory of conservative icon Ronald Reagan:
“There’s something wrong! When this leadership raises taxes on nine hundred thousand North Carolinians by ending the Earned Income Tax Credit. There’s something wrong with that! . . . Even Ronald Reagan said that the Earned Income Tax Credit was good. When the legislature in North Carolina makes Ronald Reagan look like a liberal, something’s wrong! That’s morally indefensible, constitutionally inconsistent, and economically insane!”
“Now they want to suppress the vote. Passing laws that create 21st century Jim Crow through a new form of poll tax that they call voter ID that will hurt the elderly and hurt women and hurt minorities. Over three hundred thousand North Carolinians don’t have the kind of IDs that they are calling for, and 67 percent of them are women, and more than 20 percent are African American . . .”
Rev. Barber’s speech went on for some 30 minutes and was met with deafening applause. Several other speeches were given, songs were sung, some of the protesters formerly arrested in Raleigh were introduced on stage and cheered by the crowd. The Moral Mondays protests have gone on to other American cities.
It’s exciting to see democracy in action, to see people stand together in opposition to what they know to be wrong, and it’s especially encouraging that Moral Mondays is a local movement, a Southern movement. The Republican party must feel the draft. Having failed to win the hearts and minds of minority voters. Knowing that they might never win a major election again without rigging it. Their desperate measures surely echo the desperation they feel. But it’s 2013, not 1965. The idea that Americans would still be fighting this fight today, that somebody would still have to stand up and say, “By the way, this isn’t right, this isn’t the way it should be. Remember that act we passed 50 years ago, when we said this wasn’t right? And all that we fought and bled for, you’re just erasing that? And now we have to hold marches and sit-ins and give speeches again?”
It boggles the mind.
Significant to a few of the attendees of the rally, perhaps, was the location of the stage where Rev. Barber gave his speech: in front of the County Courthouse on City/County Plaza. Just off the plaza to the south, behind the police station, is the old Asheville ghetto, what they used to call N—–town, which remains a historic black neighborhood, with an African cultural center and an annual street festival. On the opposite side of the square, a couple of blocks to the north, is the hotel where Glen Edward Chapman works, one of the three men from death row exonerated by the Racial Justice Act. There poised between the two is the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Stage, where on Saturday nights in summer the bluegrass bands play hillbilly music and little white kids in gingham shirts and tap shoes do clogging routines.
No doubt it is very tempting, when looking for the source of our collective ignorance, to call my home “The South,” and to publish stories with headlines like: Why Does the South Want Blacks to Fail? or Why Does the South Want to Rescind Voter’s Rights in Underprivileged Neighborhoods?
I don’t know if it’s fair, or even accurate. But I do know what the GOP is doing in my backyard.
Go ahead and call it the South; everybody knows what you mean. It’s that racist, backward, ignorant place whose residents want nothing more than to go back in time. To blindly support tradition, law-and-order, religion, small government, low taxes, limited regulation, and free enterprise. To embrace support for school prayer and oppose freedom of choice and homosexuality.
But that’s not my South, and it never will be.