By Eden Levitt-Horne & Ava Ransbotham
Graphic by Aleeza Amitan
As we move deeper and deeper into election season, the heat is rising in the South — and not just because of the record-high temperatures and our failing climate initiatives.
Living in a homogeneously liberal Massachusetts city, it’s easy to throw our hands in the air and look down our noses at the Southern states that are largely represented by conservative politicians. We assume this is because they are all uneducated, right-wing extremists instead of trying to understand the people behind the polls.
As a friend of mine quipped following the 2020 election, “Trump’s 500-word vocabulary makes him relatable to Southern voters.”
But here’s the catch: the South isn’t a monolith, and to treat it as such is both reductive and harmful to Southern activism.
For example, Tennessee, where I’m from, is home to not only national treasure Dolly Parton, but also a rich history of environmentalism. In fact, their first state constitution protected the right for equal participation in the free navigation of the Mississippi River.
In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp and his administration chose to prosecute former president Donald Trump for attempting to overturn the election results and interfering with the election process. This was a historic decision: a Republican leader publicly going against his fellow Republican in the name of democracy.
It’s all too common for us to separate ourselves from our fellow Americans, facetiously summing up Southern politics to illiteracy and ignorance. At their core, these comments are sanctioned ways to conflate poverty with unintelligence.
It’s undeniable that poverty is more rampant in the South than it is in the North; according to 2021 data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), nine out of ten of the states with the highest poverty rates were located in the South.
A long-standing combination of unequal power resources, widespread income inequality and a lack of upward mobility continue to fuel this chronic inequity. But a person’s intellect is not a by-product of their tax bracket, education level or geography.
In fact, the 2016 presidential election exit polls show that the lowest income group made up the highest percentage of voters for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee.
And while those with more education did tend to vote for Hillary, college degrees are not an accurate measure of intelligence: the underlying factors that contribute to lower education levels, like inability to afford college, disproportionately affect poorer and marginalized populations, of which the South has a higher percent than the North.
Pop culture also serves to perpetuate these stereotypes, with songs like “Sweet Home Alabama” being manipulated to portray the South as a place full of cousin-marryin’, cowboy hat-wearin’, gun-totin’, uneducated people, when in reality, it is too big of a region with too much nuance in its society and geography to make such generalizations.
However, making generalizations the other way around — glossing over the hate and discriminatory legislation — is just as dangerous.
We must condemn the Florida lawmakers who criminalized children’s gender and sexuality expression and education in the bill commonly referred to as “Don’t Say Gay,” but we also must celebrate the thousands of kids who walked out of school and risked expulsion in protest of the bill.
These young people are on the frontlines, and their activism is the relentless drive for progress and celebration of diversity we should aspire to emulate.
I’m tired of feeling the compulsion to combat assumptions when I tell someone I’m from the South. “Don’t worry, they’re not crazy conservatives” should not need to be in the same sentence as “my family”.
In its purest form, the South I’m lucky enough to know is just that: family. It is not the reciprocal of the North; rather, it is a rich collection of intricate traditions, pertinent progress and individual identities. To place all Southerners into one bucket is embodying the ignorance we cast on them.