Columns

Kumar ’17: Don’t dismiss the South

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, March 17, 2016

Since this year’s primary season began Feb. 1, just over half of the 50 states have gone to the polls to express their preferences for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees. With the exception of the border region containing Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, all of the states typically considered to be part of the American South have cast their ballots and assigned their delegates. On the Democratic side in particular, supporters of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-VT, have voiced their dissatisfaction with a primary system that allots a huge number of delegates to population-rich Southern states that will ultimately vote red in November. Why, they argue, does the Democratic party not place more emphasis on swing states, none of which (other than Florida) are in the South? One of my Bernie-leaning friends even suggested to me that perhaps we would be better off if the South had succeeded in seceding from the Union.

It is undeniable that there is a slew of characteristics that differentiate the Southern states from the rest of the country. They reliably vote for the Republican presidential candidate in general elections. They have a historical attachment to the Confederacy and its flag that still persists in many pockets of the region. They drink their iced tea sweet — no need for the lemon-flavored concoction that the Ratty vending machines pass off as an alternative to unsweetened tea! Many Americans think only of these facts when they imagine the South and as such are carried back to an antebellum vision of plantations, verandas and stifling summer evenings punctuated by the roar of cicadas.

This reality hasn’t entirely disappeared — old Southern cities like Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia have preserved their historic charm. And my high school history teacher, who hails from Spartanburg, South Carolina, used to tell us about the “Confederate balls” that she regularly attended. But the truth is far more multidimensional than the stereotypes would suggest. Having been born in North Carolina and grown up in its largest city, Charlotte, my perception of the South is of a multicultural region that, though often mired in the weight of its past, also enjoys an enormous capacity for progress and modernity. In my eyes, there is a vibrancy and optimism in much of the South that doesn’t seem particularly prominent to me in, say, New England.

In fact, it seems to me that the traditional narrative of an enlightened, prosperous North and a backwards, poverty-stricken South is slowly becoming less and less true. Americans are migrating to the Southern states in droves: The populations of Florida and Texas have exploded in recent decades, and Georgia and the Carolinas all grew by more than 5 percent between 2010 and 2015. (Florida recently overtook New York as the third-largest state by population.) This shift in demographics has been accompanied by a shift in economic and cultural influence: Cities like Atlanta, Georgia, Dallas, Texas and Miami, Florida have become powerhouses of the national economy, and a quick glance at the lineup of reality shows on Bravo is a good indicator of the region’s cultural pull.

Another aspect of the South that cannot be overlooked is its racial diversity. Though many Northern cities have high concentrations of black residents, the top 10 states by percentage of African Americans are located in the South, according to the U.S. census bureau. These residents most often identify with the Democratic party, and because of the significant influence of the Republican party among white voters in the South, black voters make up a majority or a very large percentage of the Democratic electorate in Southern states. As a result, when supporters of Sanders discount the importance of those states to the Democratic nomination, they’re further disenfranchising a group of voters that has already been hit hard by disenfranchising measures like the North Carolina voter identification law, which many view as part of a gradual chipping away at the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

By holding onto antiquated views of the South, many members of the Brown community are missing out on an opportunity to broaden their understanding of the United States in all of its vibrancy. But they are also doing a disservice to the social justice movements that light a fire under much of the student body — including the Black Lives Matter movement. Lifting up black Americans ought to involve their political and electoral empowerment, and given their prominence in the Southern electorate, the isolation of Southern states from political discourse and consciousness at a national level is counterproductive. If students who feel the Bern take offense at oppressive laws like the voter identification measure in North Carolina, then they should also defend the significance of the Southern states — and, in turn, of black voters — in the path to the Democratic nomination, rather than writing them off as irrelevant to the political direction of the country.

Nikhil Kumar ’17 can be reached at nikhil_kumar@brown.edu.

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