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Random: What is "Southern?"

This was a rather fascinating sociological AP story that grabbed my eye today, and was interesting enough for me to share it. Who knew that you could marry your first cousin in Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island? This was definitely not encouraged in my family....

Definition of South, Southern Is Changing

Nov 23, 9:42 PM (ET)


CARY, N.C. (AP) - The joke around here is that this town's name is really an acronym for "Containment Area for Relocated Yankees." As far as Vernon Yates is concerned, they haven't been contained well enough.

Nearly surrounded by pricey subdivisions, the cinderblock Yates Grocery and Farm Supply sells neither anymore. As if things weren't bad enough, style maven Martha Stewart has chosen this Raleigh suburb to build a signature neighborhood of houses designed after her homes in Maine and New York.

Holding court near a potbellied stove, the 69-year-old man in the suspenders and NASCAR shirt laments that his old customers have been replaced by fast-talking, SUV-driving Northerners who don't seem to be able to read a STOP sign.

"It's all gone," Yates, pausing for another spit of tobacco juice, says of the Southern town of his youth. "Everything is completely different from what it used to be."

Things are indeed changing in the South. And so is the notion of what it means to be "Southern."

In this most maligned and mused-upon of American regions, the term conjures a variety of images. Magnolias, front porch swings and sweet tea for some; football, stock cars and fried chicken for others; lynchings, burning crosses and civil rights marches for still others.

We've had the Solid South, the Old South and the New South.

But are we heading toward a "No South"?

As the South's population booms - projected to comprise 40 percent of the nation's population by 2030 - a new Associated Press-Ipsos poll finds that the percentage of people in the region identifying themselves as "Southerners" is slowly shrinking.

The AP-Ipsos poll conducted this past month found 63 percent of people living in the region identified themselves as Southerners. That mirrors a trend from a University of North Carolina analysis of polling data that found a decline of 7 percentage points on the same Southern identity question between 1991 to 2001, to 70 percent.

"Does it mean that being a Southerner no longer has any meaning? I don't think it does," says Larry Griffin, a sociologist at North Carolina who analyzed the AP polling data. "It just has a very different kind of meaning."

Are the qualities that have long been ascribed to the South really true anymore? Are Southerners really more hospitable than other Americans? Does family really count for more down South? Are depth of faith, loyalty to home, reverence for history and sense of place identifiably "Southern" traits?

The South has become "sort of like a lifestyle, rather than an identity anymore," James Cobb, author of the newly published "Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity," would argue. "The things now we would base Southern distinctiveness on are so ethereal."

And sometimes contradictory: In a region that once tried to break away from the Union, people are generally considered more patriotic than the rest of Americans; in a place where blacks were oppressed for hundreds of years, poll after poll shows them identifying themselves as "Southern" even more often than whites do.

"The South is a region of irony," says Bill Ferris, co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. "It's both un-American and deeply American."

New York City-born Bob Petrolino has lived in Raleigh for 30 years and has heard his share of snide remarks about "damned Yankees." When the local paper recently ran a landfill story with the headline "N.C. set to become Yankee dump," he fired off an angry letter wondering when we'd finally get beyond the Civil War references.

"I find a lot of people who are still fighting that war," the 71-year-old IBM retiree told the AP. "They still have that chip on their shoulder, like, 'Hey, we would have been better off if you'd never come here.'"

About a third of the Southern residents responding to the AP poll say they were born outside the region. But of those born in and living in the South, only 77 percent choose to call themselves Southern.

William Andrew Johnson was born in Savannah, Ga., and lives just outside Charleston, S.C. - where the first shot of the Civil War was fired. But he rejects the label "Southerner."

Why? Because of the political baggage he associates with the term.

"I'm not a red-stater at all," says the 61-year-old retired investment banker from Mount Pleasant, whose family has been in the region since the 1800s. "You know how a Southerner defines 'patriotic'? He supports any and every war."

So how do you measure patriotism?

Studies have found that people in the region enlist in the military out of proportion to their percentage of the overall population. But that could be as much a factor of economics or the predominance of military installations in the region as love of country.

And what about the so-called Bible Belt? Are Southerners really more religious than other Americans?

Church attendance figures compiled by David Olson, director of the American Church Research Project, show Southerners are much more likely than the average American to go to church - though, as a region, their Midwestern brethren have a slight edge. The Arbitron broadcast rating service finds that Southern dwellers are 48 percent more likely than people in the rest of the country to listen to religious radio programming.

And what of the closeness of extended families associated with the South?

Six of the states in the top 10 for highest divorce rates are in the South. And the Census Bureau recently reported that the South is home to 7 of the top 10 states with the highest percentages of out-of-wedlock births. (The Census counts Delaware and Maryland as Southern states.)

According to the AP poll, geographic Southerners appear to have a higher opinion of themselves than do others.

Of those asked whether Southerners were more courteous than other Americans, 55 percent of those living in the region said yes, while only 35 percent of non-Southerners felt that way. And non-Southerners have a much dimmer view of race relations in the region.

From the earliest days of the Union, social scientists say, the South emerged as a kind of "internal other."

"It became kind of like a negative subreference ... where any American problem or the worst American problems could always be identified with the South," says Cobb, a historian at the University of Georgia. This was the South of Jim Crow laws, bottom-of-the-list school test scores, the backwoods of "Deliverance."

Sometime in the 1970s, the region morphed into what author Fred Hobson called the "suddenly virtuous" South. Today, many of our notions about the South seem based on some long-gone reality. This is the South of country music lyrics, carefree Sunbelt retirement, schoolkids who answer "yes, ma'am."

The South is now the nation's most industrialized region; though traditional textile employment and the like has largely moved offshore, the region has attracted high-profile employers such as automakers. About three quarters of Southerners now live in metropolitan areas.

But if you're looking for the "real South," retired Dallas salesman Patrick Phillips says don't bother going to Charlotte, N.C., Birmingham, Ala., or even Atlanta, the presumptive capital of the New South. It's not there.

"I think the true Southerner is pretty much lost in the metropolitan area in today's time," says the 56-year-old Tulsa, Okla., native, who identifies himself as a Southerner. "I think you have to get off in the back roads of the Southern states to really get into it again."

The AP found that people who live in rural areas are much more likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to consider themselves Southern.

For novelist Cassandra King, who grew up on a southern Alabama peanut farm, the South will always be "the agrarian South of the hardworking, reddened-neck farm family."

"Southern identity," she says, "comes from the red clay or white sand or black dirt which produces our peanuts and corn and okra and field peas and sweet potatoes."

The region is still set apart by its poverty, and some old stereotypes hold water. Eight of the top 10 states with the highest percentages of mobile homes are in the South, as are nine of the states with the highest rates of adult toothlessness.

Other stereotypes are way off.

States with the highest percentage of households without indoor plumbing? Six of the top 10 are in the West and Northeast. And while you can marry your first cousin in Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island, it's legally taboo in Kentucky, Mississippi and West Virginia.

John Shelton Reed, author of numerous books on the region, says the South has stopped being "the regional odd man out" in some important ways. In terms of income, literacy and the racial attitudes of whites, "the differences between Southerners and other Americans have now become so small, by historical standards, that they hardly matter at all."

And, Reed says, some "ancient regional differences" have reversed themselves. The region has gone from having a higher birthrate than the national norm to a lower one, from net out-migration of blacks to net in-migration.

In many ways, he says, the rest of the country is starting to look more like our image of the South - particularly in its tastes in music, sports and food.

"We have exported country music, NASCAR, and the Southern Baptist Convention so successfully," he says, "that they may not be 'Southern' institutions much longer."

Rather than being pleased with this so-called "Southernization" of the country, some are more concerned about what they see as the blandification of the South.

Graham Banks, chairman of the pro-secession Southern Party of South Carolina, says there's something wrong when the Country Music Awards are being presented in New York and Southern stock-car tracks lose race dates in the name NASCAR expansion.

"Every time there's something good that people like, it becomes 'American,'" says the 38-year-old investor and writer from Bamberg, S.C. "They co-opt it and then call it something else and then begin to slowly morph it into something that isn't Southern, and then it dies."

Oddly, when asked by the AP whether the South is a distinct region with its own culture, only 58 percent of native Southerners considered the region significantly different from the rest of the United States, compared to 66 percent of people born elsewhere.

We're now a couple generations removed from the Voting Rights Act, and the last Confederate widow has finally passed on. But for Ferris, the South will always be more than just a convenient grouping of states for statistical analysis - because history matters.

"I think the region is, always has been and always will be different - distinctly different - from the rest of the nation," he says. "We have a long memory here. ... The memory of a war lost, and occupation and Jim Crow and civil rights. These are powerful memories that shape our everyday lives."


The AP-Ipsos poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 21-26 among 658 adults in the South and 1,345 in other parts of the country. Sampling error was plus or minus 4 points for people in the South, 3 points for people elsewhere.


EDITOR'S NOTE - Allen G. Breed is the AP's Southeast regional writer, based in Raleigh, N.C. AP researcher Monika Mathur in New York analyzed data for this report.
Tags: cultural, historical, random

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