The DNC and the National Media—Bringing Southern Stereotypes to a City Near You

As you know by now, Charlotte, North Carolina was selected to host the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and between Michelle Obama’s email announcing the decision and the national media’s comments on said decision, there’s a lesson or two in how the South continues to elicit both positive and negative statements about its character that are drawn from the same tired old bag of regional stereotypes.

True, the First Lady really stepped in it when she made the claim that Charlotte has “great barbecue,” thus igniting what USA Today columnist David Jackson called “the Carolina barbecue wars.” But it was those other traits she associated with the region that caught my attention. The one about the city being “marked by its Southern charm” and “warm hospitality.” Just because Charlotte is in the South, does not make it of the South, at least not in the traditional sense. And the terms “charm” and “hospitality” seem to me, at least, to be holdovers from the generation before the modern civil rights movement. The local chapter of the NAACP, as well as some members of the LGBT community, aren’t exactly won over if recent editorials are any indication. (See for example Matt Comer’s comments in The Advocate.)

Still, Michele Obama’s comments were intended to be complimentary, and they pale by comparison to those of national newswire services. Although Charlotte serves as a major airline hub and the area has nearly one million residents, Reuters believed it important to explain that Charlotte is in North Carolina and should not be confused with Charleston, South Carolina. And the Associated Press described Charlotte this way:

“Located about 250 miles northeast of Atlanta, Charlotte has long straddled the line between New South and Bible Belt. Residents call their downtown ‘uptown,’ travel on a major thoroughfare named after evangelist Billy Graham and flock to NASCAR races in nearby Concord.”

Oh, really? Such a statement suggests, in tone, that only southern rubes would call their downtown “uptown,” that merely traveling on Billy Graham Parkway must mean an evangelical spirit permeates the air, and that, like lemmings, when Queen City residents hear the speedway beckoning them, they scamper to worship at the altar of NASCAR.

As a southerner, a southern historian, and an observer of how the mass media shapes perceptions of the South, I understand that cultural stereotypes have long existed as a way for people to identify regional differences, and in some cases, make them feel superior about their own region’s character. And yet, this sort of drivel sets my teeth on edge—mostly because it’s ill-informed. In truth, I personally use the term “downtown” for “uptown,” and I’m just as likely to travel on a major thoroughfare named Freedom Drive, and I’ve only seen the speedway in Concord once—as I drove by it.

Given the spotlight that will be on Charlotte and the South as election season gets into full swing, those of us who reside here will undoubtedly hear more from the national media about the region and its people. I imagine some of it will make us happy, some of it will surprise us, and then there will be those comments that will make us roll our eyes and shake our heads. It’s only just begun.

Karen L. Cox is associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is the author of the forthcoming Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture as well as Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture, which won the 2004 Julia Cherry Spruill Prize for the best book in southern women’s history. You can become a fan of Dreaming of Dixie on Facebook.

5 Comments

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  2. One of my biggest fears is that when the national media swarm us en masse they will intentionally seek out the worst stereotype of what the south is perceived to be and interview that person who will undoubtedly have no concept of subject/verb agreement and make statements that have racist overtones. I have been nervous about this from the start when the DNC made their choice.
    I’m pretty certain there will be more focus on the Nascar Hall of Fame than there will be on the Becthler or on the things that make Charlotte special like gallery crawls or the statue of the man who used to stand at the intersection of Queens and Queens, and Providence and Providence directing traffic. I would like it if they would not only think about the good barbecue, but also the diversity and how the city has embraced different cultures. If they drive down Central Ave. they would be amazed at the different types of restaurants and stores that are there.
    I am a native Charlottean, and in those times that I have lived elsewhere these are the things that I miss about home. I’m not even going to try to lie I also miss grits and biscuits. When I lived in New York the store only had one brand and type of grits and the box had a layer of dust on it about an inch thick. I happily purchased it.

  3. I’m afraid Michelle Obama is wrong about one stereotype. Charlotte does not have any good barbecue, at least not the kind of eastern barbecue that NC is known for. I know a lot of people will disagree (insert Spoon’s BBQ), but you have to drive to Shelby before you can find any respectable cue. Charlotte’s best BBQ is western style at the Old Hickory House imported from Georgia.

    I’ve lived in Charlotte my entire life. Back in the day, everyone referred to Trade and Tryon as “downtown”. I guess folks thought it was a more positive spin to say “uptown”. Yes, I find it annoying, but maybe I’m just old fashion.

    As far as southern stereotypes, you don’t have to watch an old copy of “Song of the South” to find them. I live 5 minutes away from downtown. My next door neighbor flies a rebel flag on his roof with a sign on his door that reads, “Protected by the blood of Christ”. The neighbors across the street are usually out in the yard with wife beaters on, high on Oxycontin. Both of these households have been on welfare, long before the recession hit. Talk to them about politics, and they’ll mumble with a cigarette in their mouth about their fears that Obama is converting this country to socialism , while asking if you can give them a lift to the store, so they can buy some groceries with their EBT Food Stamps card. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. I just have to look out my window to see the fire.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad Charlotte is a bit more progressive than other parts of the state, but let’s not forget that we’re still in the south. Better yet, let’s not forget we’re still in America. In fact, within the last six months, an employee at one of our premier national banks, asked me what the name of a “colored” guy’s was.

    Yes, the spotlight is going to be on progressive Charlotte and its national airline hub. It would be nice if we could talk about the diversity of Central Avenue with its fusion of Asian and Latino cultures. As far as I’m concerned, the AP got it partially right. Charlotte is still straddling the line between the New South and the Bible Belt. It would be nice if the media did not focus on the holdovers from the past. Too bad, because they’re still here.

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  5. Why should cultural diversity–the presence and influence of other cultures from other places–be the thing that is most praiseworthy about a place?

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