NORTH CAROLINA — It’s still early in this election season, but the tired trope of how ignorant folks are down South has already appeared, prompted by a poll ahead of the recent Mississippi and Alabama GOP primaries—and it’s been accompanied by the expected cry that it’s unfair how people culturally profile the South.
Sadly, in some cases, the backlash summons stereotypes nearly as bad as those conveyed by the original stories.
It started when Public Policy Polling of Raleigh released results of its poll of GOP voters in Mississippi and Alabama on March 12. PPP’s news release stuck to the horse race, rather than highlighting the findings that sizable percentages of those surveyed thought Obama is a Muslim, that interracial marriage should be illegal, and that evolution is untrue. But those results were there, starting on Page 3 (PDF).
The poll results provided fodder for blog posts at national publications topped by traffic-driving headlines about dumb Southerners. And that coverage in turn set off a couple of defenders of the South, who know from experience that stereotypes emerge in election years.
Michelle Cottle of The Daily Beast, who spent part of her youth in east Tennessee, asked why these questions appear on a poll of Southern voters and not on earlier PPP polls elsewhere. “This PPP report has all the earmarks of a poll taken with the specific, if perhaps unconscious, goal of confirming all of the nation’s very worst biases about the South,” she wrote.
And syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker, who lives in South Carolina, followed up with a column that tried to both make fun of presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s fascination with grits and bash the PPP questions for dragging out the cultural stereotypes.
But the presentation of Parker’s column itself in news outlets around the country invoked some painfully lame caricatures of Southern identity. The Sacramento Bee, for example, gave the column the web headline, “Why d’ya reckon that politicos treat the South like a backwater?”
Or there’s this one, Thursday, from the site of the San Antonio Express-News: “South needs deliverance from outside politicians.”
I hear banjos.
And it wasn’t just outlets from outside the South that took that tack. The Charlotte Observer ran Parker’s column in print and online Wednesday with an image from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” The column had generated more than 200 comments by Thursday morning—some from Southerners cursing Yankees with U-Hauls moving into their fair land, and one or two that showed skepticism about the editorial framing.
Here’s one from someone using the moniker “NCIndependent”:
Wow—more than 200 comments on one silly opinion piece. The CO is loving you for falling right into their trap. As I said earlier, they love to incite these debates that yield lots of comments and clicks for them—and this is one of them. Why else would they put ‘redneck’ in the headline complete with photo of OMG, the Beverly Hillbillies! Fuels the flames.
I doubt that was the conscious decision. Rather, Parker’s column was just another syndicated piece that needed art on a day when staffers were cranking out several print pages in not-enough time.
But the traffic-generating potential of “redneck” in a headline in the South certainly is a bonus (just as the polling firm must have recognized the buzz-generating potential of such results). And cynical readers these days recognize SEO strategies and are quick to perceive link bait, even if that’s not the intention. More broadly, recourse to these easy tropes encourages commenters to fall back on familiar ideas and channels debate into predictable avenues.
There were more thoughtful responses. At the Observer’s O-pinion blog opposite Parker’s column, Fannie Flono smartly addressed the question of cultural profiling in the poll. Flono’s post nodded to Cottle’s comments, and also noted (and linked) an item by Margie Omero at The Huffington Post, which drew in context from other polls to argue that voters in the Deep South are less different than the rest of the country that you might expect.
A blogger for The Economist also turned to other poll data—and found that on the particular question of interracial marriage, support is weakest in the South, though it’s not universal anywhere. (Support is also weaker among conservatives, Republicans, the less-educated, and—by far the biggest outlier—the elderly.) And then he addressed Cottle’s question about why religion, race, and evolution are relevant now:
Ms Cottle’s complaint is that this isn’t news. Why are we polling on this question? What is the relevance to the Republican presidential primaries? This is partly a fair question, and partly not. On the one hand, it’s certainly true that one reason results like these make newspaper headlines is that they allow northerners and westerners (especially westerners; that’s where interracial marriage is most common) to feel superior about themselves, and look down on ignorant hicks. On the other hand, the fact is that higher levels of racial prejudice and resentment in the South are real and politically relevant, and pretending that political contests these days aren’t affected by racial attitudes is a form of deliberate ignorance that warps our political discussions.
It’s a good point that acknowledges both the disturbing reality behind these numbers and the impure motivations behind the demand to read about them—and that does it without encouraging outsiders to heap scorn on the South, or encouraging Southerners to feel aggrieved about how they’re perceived.
Sadly, this sort of nuance gets lost amid file images of hillbillies and drawling headlines. Going forward, let’s hope that media—with or without Southern ties—realize that fighting back against Southern stereotypes can sometimes amplify them. We should talk about race, and we should talk about ignorance, but with careful steps that move us forward.