Thursday, February 7, 2013

Michael Lind's Southern Narrative

What do you think of Michael Lind's take on the "white Southern" historical narrative?  Here is a taste of his article at Slate:

Mainstream American history, from the point of view of the white majority in the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast, is a story of military successes. The British are defeated, ensuring national independence. The Confederates are defeated, ensuring national unity. And in the 20th century the Axis and Soviet empires are defeated, ensuring (it is hoped) a free world.

The white Southern narrative — at least in the dominant Southern conservative version — is one of defeat after defeat. First the attempt of white Southerners to create a new nation in which they can be the majority was defeated by the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Doomed to be a perpetual minority in a continental American nation-state, white Southerners managed for a century to create their own state-within-a-state, in which they could collectively lord it over the other major group in the region, African-Americans. But Southern apartheid was shattered by the second defeat, the Civil Rights revolution, which like the Civil War and Reconstruction was symbolized by the dispatching of federal troops to the South. The American patriotism of the white Southerner is therefore deeply problematic. Some opt for jingoistic hyper-Americanism (the lady protesteth too much, methinks) while a shrinking but significant minority prefer the Stars and Bars to the Stars and Stripes.

The other great national narrative holds that the U.S. is a nation of immigration, a “new nation,” a melting pot made up of immigrants from many lands. While the melting pot story involves a good deal of idealization, it is based on demographic fact in the large areas of the North where old-stock Anglo-Americans are commingled with German-Americans, Polish-Americans and Irish-Americans, along with more recent immigrant diasporas from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

But even before the recent wave of immigration from sources other than Europe, the melting pot never included most of the white South. From the early 19th century until the late 20th, the South attracted relatively few immigrants. Who wanted to move to a backward, rural, apartheid society dominated by an oligarchy of a few rich families? Apart from several encapsulated minorities — Cajuns in Louisiana, Germans in central Texas — most white Southerners remained descendants of colonial-era immigrants from the British Isles, chiefly English and Scots-Irish. And while Irish and German Catholics and Jews diversified the religious landscape of the North, the South was dominated by British-derived Protestant sects like the Episcopalians, Baptists and Methodists from Virginia to Oklahoma and Texas.

Two maps illustrate the demographic distinctiveness of the white South. The first shows the close correlation of evangelical Protestantism with the states of the former Confederacy. The second map is even more revealing.  It shows the concentration of individuals who identified themselves to census takers as non-hyphenated “Americans.”

It is clear from the map that most self-described unhyphenated “Americans” are, in fact, whites of British descent — many if not most of them descendants of the Scots-Irish diaspora that emigrated from Ulster to the British colonies in the 1700s.  The point is that many white Southerners do not think of themselves as having any “ethnicity” at all. Others — German-Americans, Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Chinese-Americans — are hyphenated Americans. White Southerners tend to see themselves as “pure” Americans, “real” Americans, “normal” Americans. Long after Mayflower descendants were submerged by waves of  European migration in New England, large regions of the white South remain the last places in the country where local majorities can trace their family ancestry back to before 1776 in British America.

2 comments:

cg said...

Could quibble with some of the historical references (for instance, plenty of Germans around my parts--always has been; or the dominance of evangelicalism at certain periods), but the overall idea of ethnicity-under-siege rings true, historically and presently. I wouldn't lay all the defeats at the hand of the Feds, though. Much of that sense of loss comes from the popular-cultural battleground. In this sense, Dayton, Tennessee is as important as Appomattox or Little Rock.

Jimmy Dick said...

Is the real issue to do with race and ethnic developments or is it more about the loss of political power by a small group of elites? I get a feeling that in many ways this issue of political power in the hands of a smaller group of elites has been the dominant factor within the South since before the Revolution.