Regional Racism: What It Is, and Why It's Getting Worse
In One South: An Ethnic Approach to Regional Culture (LSU Press, 1982), sociologist John Shelton Reed wrote convincingly of what he called "regional racism."
The accepted definition of "racism" is "prejudice against members of a different ethnic group," with "ethnic" defined as a "subgroup ... with a common national or cultural tradition." By this definition, the South and the West, with their distinctive cultural traditions, may constitute "ethnic groups," and there is a great deal of prejudice in our national culture against both.
The relationship of these ethnicities, and particularly of the South, with the nation as a whole, has a long and painful history. Long before the Civil War, there were economic and ideological rivalries between the South and the North, especially over questions related to internal improvements, tariffs, and the creation of a national bank. By 1861, these and other issues led to a fierce division, not unlike what we see today, between two competing ideas of America.
After the war, the South continued to oppose the American System, as it was called — its greatest proponent being Abraham Lincoln. Today, regional differences remain much the same, with southerners supporting limited government and with northern and coastal regions attempting to expand government in exchange for perceived economic advantages. The latest example of this conflict is southern and heartland opposition to Build Back Better.
White Southerners have been the object of the worst stereotyping, though the West, with its caricatures of dumb "cowboys" and blowsy saloon girls, comes in close behind. One would think such racism would have died out long ago, but today's progressives are actually boasting of a second Reconstruction in which whites — not just Southerners, but all whites — are to be made "woke" and forced to admit their supposed privilege and guilt. An integral part of this process is the demand for reparations, such as were passed by the California Legislature at the end of March.
The idea that whites must endure classes in racial sensitivity and that they must pay reparations to blacks — such as the enormous racially targeted sums included in BBB — is predicated on the false view that whites, especially Southern whites, are responsible for income disparity among the races. In fact, under 50 years of affirmative action, blacks have enjoyed enormous advantages over whites and Asians. Yet, according to the latest numbers, high school graduation rates for blacks (79.6%) were far below those for whites (89.4%) and Asians (92.6%). College graduation rates showed the same pattern, with 74% of Asians, 64% of whites, and 40% of blacks graduating, despite preferential treatment for blacks. These low black graduation rates are not the fault of whites.
If anything, whites and Asians should be granted reparations to compensate for the effects of affirmative action.
At last, whites are beginning to see how badly they are treated. According to a study by Tufts and Harvard researchers, whites in general "now believe that anti-white racism has increased and is now a bigger problem than anti-black racism." Even blacks admit that anti-white racism is rising. Those beliefs reflect the reality that whites are discriminated against at every turn, from college admissions to professional advancement to social recognition.
And for whites in the South and West, that discrimination is amplified by the fact that blacks and liberal whites often treat them with contempt and exclude them from opportunities on the basis of accent and other cultural qualities. How many whites from the South and West are serving in the Biden Cabinet? There are none.
One would imagine that in 2022, more than 160 years after the Civil War began, the regional wounds would have healed, but that is not the case. In a popular culture that appeals especially to Northern and coastal liberals, white Southerners are depicted as hillbillies, buffoons, racists, and religious extremists. In depictions stretching from Tobacco Road to The Grapes of Wrath to Driving Miss Daisy and beyond, and in hundreds of thousands of films and television episodes, national audiences have despised, laughed at, and condescended toward the South. The long-running series Hee-Haw was the Southern equivalent of Amos and Andy, with southern whites rather than blacks (or whites in blackface) being the butt of the humor.
It's not just Southerners. In spite of admiration for its natural beauty and the romantic cowboy culture, the West has always seemed irrelevant to the national debate. Its population is too small and, according to progressives, too culturally illiterate to count for much. George W. Bush was derided as a "cowboy," which meant an uncultured, poorly educated, and mentally inferior individual, despite his degrees from Yale and Harvard and his membership in Skull and Bones.
In reality, Bush was far from uneducated or unintelligent. Likewise Westerners Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. The view that almost everyone residing between the Mississippi and the Coastal Range is a dense cowboy with no right to be heard amounts to racism, and liberals need to admit it.
More than anything else, regional racism is based on economic rivalry. New England was always a poor cousin of the South and West as tobacco made Virginia rich, and then cotton, oil, and ranching brought wealth to other heartland states.
The assault on fossil fuels, mostly produced in the South and West, includes racial overtones. From the progressive point of view, only ignorant heartlanders, especially Texans and Okies, would continue to produce such "dirty" fuels — even though the use of natural gas has driven America's carbon emissions to 1990 levels, well below those of China or even Europe. Yet the national culture has long depicted the "Texas oilman" as crude and uncultured, using his wealth to buy whatever he wants. It's the same old prejudice based on oil rather than cotton.
Through it all, Northerners maintained their air of superiority. "We may be poor," they reasoned, "but at least we don't live in the heartland," failing to realize that the wealthiest U.S. states, adjusted for cost of living, are Utah and Virginia, while California and New York are subpar. Adjusted for both taxes and cost of living, living standards in Kansas (9th) and Oklahoma (15th) rank far above New York (29th) and California (37th).
Not only are real incomes higher in the West and the South, but the future is looking worse for the North and the coasts. In 2021, the "cost index" in California was 152% of the national average; New York was 139%, and Massachusetts was 132%. Meanwhile, Tennessee was 88.7%, and Texas was 91.5%. No wonder Elon Musk moved his operations to Texas.
It's not just money. Crime is lower in most heartland locations. The climate is better. And, though harder to quantify, people are happier and friendlier.
The only thing going for the average New Yorker is the false sense that he is better than those in the South and West. That baseless prejudice is the essence of racism. And those feelings of superiority translate into actions.
Regional racism is deeply embedded in American culture, and the Obama and Biden years have seen an uptick in policies that discriminate against heartland whites. Biden's policies are filled with mandates, minority carve-outs, and race-based exclusions and preferences that advance minorities over whites.
Conservatives have worked since the 1850s to create a racially neutral society that would be supportive of Americans from all backgrounds. It is only progressives who continue to push for more regional division. Surely, it's time to bury our regional prejudices and work together, equally, to build an even greater nation.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on politics and culture in America.