MAXWELL:   Southerners dwindling in the New South

2/4/2004 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

The South is just now emerging from its adolescence, and there have been a lot of fits and starts along the way, to say the least.

_ Andrew Gilstrap, Associate

Music Editor, PopMatters

The South is many things, some based in reality and some of the imagination.

Every four years, the region becomes an obsession for anyone running for president. If you doubt me, stay tuned as November gets closer, when echoes of the Rebel yell will resound.

Dixie is singularly unique among the nation’s many regions. Many people refer to it as our most “romantic” region, but it is more than the nostalgic images of genteel ladies in long, hooped dresses strolling beneath moss-draped live oak, aristocratic gents sipping mint juleps, and dark-skinned black women serving fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits and pecan pie.

Perhaps more than anything else, the South is a place of contradiction and paradox. Its story, as Brooks Robards writes in her book Historic America: The South, is “a fascinating tale that interweaves hope and promise, poverty and plenty, elegance and sophistication, conflict and deep loss _ all set against a landscape of diverse and unparalleled beauty.”

This sense of contradiction and paradox is the focus of an essay music critic Andrew Gilstrap wrote in 2002. “Our storytelling tradition has generated some of the nation’s best writers, but low SAT scores in reading sweep across the region,” he stated. “We’re roped in by the Bible Belt, but we have no shortage of Saturday night sinners. We’re known for Southern hospitality, but you should hear how freely folks in my neck of the woods use the term “carpetbagging Yankee’ when Northern retirees start buying up all the lake property.”

In their album Southern Rock Opera, Drive-By Truckers aptly describe the region’s angst of identity as the “duality of the Southern thing.”

Since the heyday of author William Faulkner and his contemporaries, critics and historians have been intoning about the emergence of the New South _ the disappearance of the Confederacy and its secessionist tendencies. The New South, they argue, is slowly becoming like the rest of the United States.

In his article “Enough About the Disappearing South _ What About the Disappearing Southerner?” Vanderbilt University sociology professor Larry Griffin documents a trend that would have been unthinkable for Jefferson Davis, the first president of the new Confederate States of America. He found that, thanks to the large influx of outsiders from all parts of the nation, the number of people claiming to be proud Southerners is dwindling. He found a hard core who outright reject being referred to as Southern.

Working with researchers at the University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of the American South, Griffin analyzed data from 19 polls conducted from 1991-2001. The polls surveyed 17,000 residents in all of the Southern states, including Texas, and found that the number of people living in the Land of Cotton who identified themselves as “Southerners” fell 7.4 percentage points, from approximately 78 percent to 70 percent.

Griffin speculates that as with the rest of the nation, the South’s old esprit de corps is crumbling under the profound influences of urbanization and immigration. In September 2003, SouthNow, the journal of UNC’s Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life, underscored the rise of urbanization: “In 1980 Census, the South had only 10 metropolitan areas of one million people or more. Now, the region has 22. Nearly three out of four Southerners live in metro areas.”

The researchers were surprised at some of the findings. They were surprised, for instance, that the disassociation with Southern identity spanned all age groups, ethnicities and races.

The trend that remained the most constant was not surprising: Republicans, political conservatives and the wealthy continue to describe themselves as proud “Southerners.” Republicans, for example, still see themselves as “Southern” at 74 percent, political conservatives at 78 percent and the wealthy at 69 percent.

“Though the South has changed (since 1991-2001), those three groups still see themselves as in the South or of the South,” Griffin said. “For persons of color, the poor, for political liberals or Democrats, it may be an image they reject.”

Although the South is a place of contradiction and paradox, Republican and Democratic presidential candidates alike know that one thing remains constant: To win in the South, the candidate had better be mindful of race _ especially race _ religion and all of the other cultural issues that distinguish the region from the rest of the nation.