Today we welcome a guest post by Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts, authors of The Resilience of Southern Identity: Why the South Still Matters in the Minds of Its People. The American South has experienced remarkable change over the past half century. Black voter registration has increased, the region’s politics have shifted from one-party Democratic to the near-domination of the Republican Party, and in-migration has increased its population manyfold. At the same time, many outward signs of regional distinctiveness have faded–chain restaurants have replaced mom-and-pop diners, and the interstate highway system connects the region to the rest of the country. Given all of these changes, many have argued that southern identity is fading. But in this book, Cooper and Knotts show how these changes have allowed for new types of southern identity to emerge. For some, identification with the South has become more about a connection to the region’s folkways or to place than about policy or ideology. For others, the contemporary South is all of those things at once—a place where many modern-day southerners navigate the region’s confusing and omnipresent history.
In today’s post, Cooper and Knotts discuss what a southern identity truly means today compared to how it has been understood in the past.
Driving to Western Carolina University, you pass through a fairly nondescript stretch of road known as Highway 107. Although the road sits nestled between two mountain ranges, it is lined with fast food restaurants, auto parts stores, dry cleaners, and used car dealerships. There’s even a Walmart Supercenter thrown in for good measure.
Even if you have never had the pleasure of traveling to Cullowhee, the picture we describe above is probably recognizable to most people. Most of us live, work, and exist in a manmade landscape that looks more and more homogenous by the day.
Given this modern reality, it is not surprising that scholars, journalists, and the like have argued that regions and regional identity are fading. After all, if there is no distinct South anymore, then what use would anyone have in calling themselves a southerner?
In our book, the Resilience of Southern Identity: Why the South Still Matters in the Minds of Its People, we argue against this narrative of declining identity. Instead, we contend that regional identity in general, and southern identity in particular, continue to be important in shaping how people think about themselves and their place in the world.
While the reasons for identity may vary across people, we find that southern identity is heightened when individuals are forced to contrast the South with other regions, and people. In writing this book, we had many people tell us that they became most aware of their southern identity when they moved away from the South for the first time. They recalled stories where someone questioned their accent, criticized their home region, or asked them if they spent their free time watching reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard.
People even told us how frustrated and embarrassed they were by how southerners are portrayed in the media. One person said that watching Jon Stewart make fun of the South on The Daily Show made him defensive and heightened his connection to the region.
This is not to say that southern identity is static. We find that while southern identity is resilient in its intensity, the shape of southern identity has changed considerably. For many, southern identity was once synonymous with white southerners, but today, black people are just as likely as their white counterparts to identify as southerners. Perhaps as a consequence, black people of all regions now evaluate southerners as a group more positively than they did just a few decades ago.
To explore these issues, we rely on an array of evidence including survey data, focus groups, and an analysis of regional business names. In each instance, the evidence reinforces our conclusion that southern identity is alive in the minds of its people, but the meaning of that identity has shifted.
While we offer some positive signs for the South and its future, our book is not without its cautionary tales for the region. Indeed, many politicians have appealed to what we call “the dark side of southern identity” to further an exclusionary, sexist, and often racist agenda. It’s our hope that efforts to use southern identity for nefarious purposes are halted in their tracks. Southerners must remind people that southern identity is not owned by those who seek to marginalize others.
In fact, we believe that the dominant form of southern identity is more inclusive than ever before. It’s less about Confederate flags and more about shared traditions that exist across race and class. As a mechanism for inclusion and a way to share the region’s unique culture and traditions, we believe that southern identity will continue long into the future.
Christopher A. Cooper (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University. H. Gibbs Knotts (email@example.com) is a professor of political science at the College of Charleston.