Guilty of Being Southern

by Lee Habeeb
Media and academic elites prefer to focus on the old South while a new one marches on.

Over the years, my African-American friends have shared with me stories of the senseless traffic stops they’ve endured for nothing more than driving while black. There’s an acronym for it: DWB. They admit it happens less than it used to, but it’s wrong, it’s bad, and Americans should not face a presumption of guilt for being who they are.

Which is why Paula Deen and the recent U.S. Supreme Court case involving the Voting Rights Act make for an interesting counterpoint. Both stories involve what’s perhaps the last socially acceptable form of bigotry left in America: bigotry against the South. It’s a brand of bigotry reinforced by our nation’s biggest media outlets — and by justices on the Supreme Court.

Let’s start with Paula Deen, who admitted to having used the “n” word — 30 years ago. If it had been, let’s say, Alec Baldwin instead, the media would have quickly given him a pass, because, after all, he’s one of them. Alec is a media guy. He’s smart and talented and thinks what they think about life. He’s also a northerner. He was born on Long Island! And my God, there’s no racism there.

Racism is a disease people catch when they cross the Mason-Dixon line.

Paula is from Georgia, and from that one slip, which she admitted and for which she apologized, was imputed all kinds of guilt. She was guilty of being born Southern, plain and simple. And the punishment she’s facing is so disproportionate to her three-decade-old lapse that it cries for someone in the media to defend her. No one has. No one will.

The Food Network will soon learn that their knee-jerk decision to fire her without any proof of discrimination, any proof of a racist past or present, will backfire. And fans who know she was fired, and canned by sponsors, for being born in the South, and for being proud of it — they’ll be waiting for her return, and will reward the network that hires her.

That brings me to the ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. What the Supreme Court essentially told the nation in that case was this: The states in the South used to do some really bad things a long time ago when it comes to elections, but they don’t anymore, so we are taking them out of the penalty box and treating them like any other state. As Justice Roberts said succinctly for the majority, “History did not end in 1965.”

It turns out that the decision by the court last week came less than a year after an African American was reelected president for a second term, an election in which African-American turnout in the southern states was well above the national average. Moreover, African Americans in the southern states registered at higher rates than did white people in those same states.

Mississippi, my home state and once the worst of the Jim Crow offenders, had the highest rate of African-American turnout in the nation. And Mississippi has more elected black officials than any other state. Not just more per capita — more, period.

Judging from the hysterical reports in the media, and from the headlines of the lead editorials in America’s biggest newspapers, someone could have easily concluded that the court had overturned the entire Voting Rights Act, not just one provision — and that it was now open season for white racists in the South to bring back poll taxes and literacy tests and to make a push to return not to the 1950s but to the 1850s, to slavery itself.

“An Assault on the Voting Rights Act,” shouted the headline of the New York Times editorial.

“A setback for voting rights,” declared the Los Angeles Times.

Where did the media elite’s sense of outrage come from? It’s simple, actually. To admit that the South had changed would mean letting go of their own cultural and moral superiority, of their sense of regional superiority with respect to the issue of race. Media and academic elites believe that, but for proper adult supervision, the South will return to its racist roots and that they alone can protect helpless black southerners from the perfidy rooted in white southerners’ DNA.

In his questioning from the bench back in February, as George Will pointed out, Justice Breyer revealed not only his distrust of southerners, but his disdain: “Imagine a State has a plant disease, and in 1965 you can recognize the presence of that disease. . . . Now, it’s evolved. . . . But we know one thing: The disease is still there.” Breyer’s disease metaphor was not only crude and condescending, it was rank regional bigotry — and from a sitting Supreme Court justice, no less.

That the southern states had now surpassed many northern states on the issue of electoral fairness did not matter to Breyer. That’s the thing about progressives: They don’t really care for progress, or facts. And here’s a fact that Justice Breyer didn’t care about: Massachusetts, as Chief Justice Roberts noted, now has “the worst ratio of white-voter turnout to African-American turnout.” Can it possibly be that northerners are more racist than Southerners?

Does Breyer not remember the Boston busing riots in the 1960’s? Or Newark’s? Some of the Irish and Italian racism in northern cities was especially ugly. But from Breyer’s lofty perch, only the South is still susceptible to this virulent “disease” called racism, so much so that it still needs a great big regional timeout.

Perhaps someone should send Justice Breyer a link to Joel Kotkin’s piece in The Daily Beast on the rise of the South, which included facts media elites either refuse to believe or willfully ignore. Over the past five decades, he reported, the South has seen dramatic gains in population. It was once a major exporter of people to the northern states. Today, Kotkin noted, the migration tide is flowing the other way. “The hegira to the sunbelt continues, as last year the South accounted for six of the top eight states attracting domestic migrants,” he reported.

Those six states, Justice Breyer might want to know, were red states: Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia. The top four losers? Blue states named New York, Illinois, New Jersey, and California.

And it wasn’t just white folks heading South. The nation’s African-American population grew 1.7 million over the past decade — and 75 percent of that growth occurred in the South. The percentage of the nation’s African-American population living in the South hit its highest point in half a century, as more black people moved out of declining cities in the Midwest and Northeast.

If the South is such a racially backward place, Justice Breyer, why are so many African Americans moving here?

In response to the latest census figures showing that Texas was home to eight — eight! — of the 15 fastest-growing cities in America, did media types commission some reporting on the subject? No. What you instead got was snide commentary like this from Gawker: “What is it that makes Texas so attractive? Is it the prisons? The racism? The deadly weather? The deadly animals? The deadly crime? The deadly political leadership?”

It would be funny if it wasn’t so willfully ignorant — and so emblematic of how liberal thought leaders think about the South. They refuse to acknowledge that the region has changed, let alone that it has become an economic powerhouse. Alabama and Kentucky are two of the top auto-manufacturing states in the country. The Gulf Coast corridor between Louisiana and Florida is now the fourth-largest aerospace hub in the world. Boeing’s Dreamliner is being assembled in South Carolina.

It’s quite a story. Black and white Americans are moving in record numbers to a part of the country that liberal elites think of as backward, where taxes are low, unions are irrelevant, and the locals cling to their guns and their faith.

And yet Americans heard almost nothing about this great migration. We know why. The ideological prejudices of our media and academic elites won’t permit them to admit the obvious. They’d prefer to focus, as Breyer did, on the old South because they are more comfortable with that narrative and more invested in it, while a new one marches on right under their upturned noses.

In the downtown of my hometown of Oxford, Miss., sits a statue of our local hero, William Faulkner. “The past is never dead,” he once opined. “In fact, it’s not even past.”

The line has some truth. But if I had told Faulkner in his time that Mississippi would soon have more African-American elected officials than any other state in the nation, he would have laughed me off.

If I had told him that a Japanese auto company would be making American cars in Tupelo and employing thousands of locals, he would have thought I was crazy. And yet there a new Toyota plant sits, near the birthplace of Elvis, less than an hour’s drive from Faulkner’s home.

The fact is, white Yankees migrants like me (I moved from Jersey), and African-American migrants from Chicago, and businesses from all over America — and the world — are investing in the South, and investing with our most precious capital: our lives. We are moving South because we see something here that academics, media types, and our most progressive Supreme Court justices can’t.

The future.

— Lee Habeeb is vice president of content for Salem Radio Network.

editor’s note: This article has been amended since its initial posting.