South being unfairly criticized

Region more racially progressive than it's portrayed in the media

Posted: Wednesday, December 18, 2002

The smoldering controversy over racially insensitive statements made by Sen. Trent Lott has been elevated to the status of a fare-thee-well wish toward the Mississippi Republican by large contingents among civil rights leaders, Democrats, Republicans and the media.

I have nothing to add with regard to Lott's misguided comments. But while we are at work collectively criticizing bigoted statements and impugning motives, it's instructive to note that many leading media commentators took to the airwaves this past week and -- apparently with little reflection and no sense of irony or hypocrisy -- revealed once again their own ever-present bias and bigotry toward Southerners. Presumably as an antidote to Lott's obtuse praising of centenarian Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina -- a long-ago segregationist -- one national TV program on Sunday asked a group of political and journalistic gurus whether the policies of President George W. Bush were, in essence, an embracing of the supposed backward worldview of the South. Talk about a callous, cavalier outlook!

The fact that most who engaged in similar TV chitchat over the past few days meant no offense just goes to illustrate their unconscious ignorance of what does and does not comprise the modern South.

It's easy to talk about racial issues when one is enveloped in a cocoon with other Washing-ton insiders or Hollywood artists. But these self-assumed social and racial experts discount the fact that most Southern states have a much higher percentage of African Americans than do their allegedly more progressive sister states. Beyond that, census information reveals that more and more blacks are leaving supposedly more progressive regions to relocate to the South.

Why would African Americans risk the expected insults, indignities and social and professional exclusions of living in the former Dixie? Because even though instances of racial discrimination linger in the South -- as elsewhere -- the bigger story is that the region has witnessed an admirable, underreported transformation. Many Southern cities are more racially progressive than their Northern or Western counterparts.

In Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Fla., New Orleans, and many other big towns, a burgeoning African-American middle and upper class has emerged with an attendant political leadership to reflect it. Blacks, in fact, often dominate the political cultures of these cities, and make up ever more of their economic heft.

And counter to the mostly unspoken assumption of so much national media, most Southerners don't obsess over "how to keep blacks down." Such a sentiment would pollute many a working environment in which Southern whites spend toiling alongside African Americans, as well as Asians, Hispanics and other "minorities" (to me, a term that itself belittles). And when not working with blacks, many Southern whites are entertaining them, or -- as in the case of my own son -- inviting them to a weekend sleepover. For many of us -- yes, even those who tend to support those Southern Republicans -- the notion that among our friends might be a black one isn't really a cause for consideration. It certainly isn't for my son, of whom I am proud.

This column isn't an attempt to whitewash the fact that vestiges of bigotry don't still exist in the South. But they also manifest themselves everywhere from Boston to Seattle.

Those of us who live in the South aren't perfect. We sometimes say and do stupid things. But it would serve the pundits well to think twice before intentionally or unwittingly denigrating an entire region of the nation -- and a growing one at that.

Seems that I've recently read about a fellow Southerner -- one Jimmy Carter -- accepting a Nobel Peace Prize. Maybe there's more to a Southern upbringing than is commonly supposed.

Matt Towery writes a syndicated column based out of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, Fla.

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