A lot of people are hating on Alabama, and the South in general lately. As the whole Roy Moore debacle unfolded, there’s been a refrain of “how can those people [read: ignorant/backwater/redneck/white trash] elect a sexual predator to public office??” As though Alabama was some foreign country that exists under its own set of values, apart from the rest of the union. As though “southern” culture [read: uneducated/poor/uber-religious] could emerge in a vacuum.
Well, the good news is, they didn’t elect him. Though it was an uncomfortably narrow margin, in the end, they finally gave him his marching orders (him, and the horse he rode in on. ha ha). Meanwhile, folks want to act like the rise and near-affirmation of such a man is an anomaly unique to regions that know how to make sweet tea the correct way.
But Alabama was never the problem. There’s a man sitting in the Oval Office who once said “you have to treat women like shit.” Who bragged about “grabbing women by the P*$$y,” “do whatever you want,” and who, just yesterday, essentially called a U.S. Senator a slut in a public forum. Alabama didn’t elect that guy. We all did. The whole dang country.
The South is not the problem.
The problem, broadly speaking, is poverty. The problem, on the whole, is racism. The problem, at the root, is misogyny, and a culture in which even women have been programmed to vote against their own interests, for the cause of upholding the patriarchy. (More about this in my new book, available for pre-order now).
Those things run deep in all of America. They are sometimes more deeply felt in the south, for many reasons. But they are everyone’s problem.
Yes, racial tensions are more evident in that part of the world. People proudly display Confederate flags and talk of “pride,” as though pride of whiteness should not be offensive to people of color. The shadows of slavery are long, and do not easily pass away in a generation or three. But that same racism winds its way through every part of our culture in every part of the country. In the Midwest, it is more polite. But you better believe it’s there, and it affects the lives and opportunities of POC every bit as much as the overt racism of the south.
And yes, poverty is often more pronounced in the south. The reasons are many and complex, but in short–southerners grow stuff. Vocation, identity, and family connections are more closely tied to the land, as is livelihood. As the rest of our culture devalues the earth–what it produces, what we eat, where it comes from, and what we’re willing to pay for the good stuff–who do you think feels the brunt of that shifting economy? The folks downriver, that’s who.
So of course, there is resentment of outsiders. There is devaluation of education, and, by extension, the educated. But you know who else doesn’t value education? An electorate, a Congress, and a Senate who, across the board, confirm a Secretary of Education with literally no experience in education. One who is utterly obtuse about how the middle class lives, not to mention the working class or those who struggle in the generational cycles of poverty.
My house is in Kansas; my heart is in Arizona; but my roots (and my accent) are pure Eastern Kentucky. Appalachian culture differs from southern culture in many ways, but is misunderstood and undervalued in similar fashion. What I saw play out in my hometown in the previous election cycle is representative of how things went down in other economically challenged areas.
It goes like this: Republicans swoop in and say some stuff about Jesus, family values and bootstraps. They appeal to a deep sense of autonomy and local pride that, somehow, survives in a region crippled by poverty and poor health. It’s a spirit of “my family has survived this long without help from anybody, we don’t need the government telling us what to do.” And then, with that narrative firmly enforced, the GOP deals an even lower blow–they start talking about coal. (In Kentucky it’s coal; further south, it’s soil. Pick your poison). Anyway, they say we’re going to “bring back” coal jobs/farm jobs/labor, climate change isn’t real, and liberals are the ones trying to keep you from making an honest living. They appeal to that staunch autonomy, layer it over with nostalgia, and mix in a healthy dose of toxic religious claptrap.
AND THEN, to seal the deal for the far-right ideologues, the DNC looks down their noses and say “those people will never understand our message anyway. Those people don’t want good schools or healthcare. Those people don’t want good jobs. Those people are not worth our time/energy/campaign dollars, because they are too entrenched [read: backwoods/ignorant/white trash] to know what’s good for them.” And so the narrative of “liberal snobs who don’t know what it’s like here” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That’s how the Roy Moores get the kind of traction they do. That’s how the Donald Trumps weasel their way into the White House. Layers and layers of religious dysfunction, racism, hatred of women, fear of change, and–above all–a fearful ignorance about anyone who is different from us, doesn’t look/talk/believe like us. That’s America now, and it’s on all of us. Liberals and conservatives, rich and poor, educated and not, etc.
You know who saved us this time? Black people. The African American population of Alabama got organized, got their messaging on point, and generally got out the vote to save us from ourselves. As the Rev. Mike McBride said on Woke Vote this morning: “Evangelicals who claim they have a corner on Jesus? The black church stood up tonight and said the True Jesus of liberation and justice will always beat the Jesus of dominance and racial hierarchy.” I hope Democrats suffering from a bit of liberal elitism can hear that same message, aimed straight at our own hearts. This is on us too.
He is right. And I know many of us are grateful today that our brothers and sisters of color found the courage that so many of us have failed to summon in the face of a deeply divided union. The truth is, our divides are not across north/south boundaries any more. They run far deeper than geography, and much further into our past than last year’s election. Our best hope is that we can all name our own accountability in upholding those barriers, and sustain this imperfect union long enough to move past them.
Don’t blame Alabama. They can claim many victories: space shuttles, for instance. Sweet tea done right. Charles Barkley, the Alabama Shakes and Forrest Gump. But what they’ve given us today is even more valuable: hope. And marching orders for a better day.