The White South’s Last Defeat

Michael Lind
February 5, 2013
Hysteria, aggression and gerrymandering are a fading demographic’s last hope to maintain political control.

In understanding the polarization and paralysis that afflict national
politics in the United States, it is a mistake to think in terms of left and
right. The appropriate directions are North and South. To be specific, the
long, drawn-out, agonizing identity crisis of white Southerners is having
effects that reverberate throughout our federal union. The transmission
mechanism is the Republican Party, an originally Northern party that has now
replaced the Southern wing of the Democratic Party as the vehicle for the
dwindling white Southern tribe.


As someone whose white Southern ancestors go back to the 17th century in
the Chesapeake Bay region, I have some insight into the psychology of the
tribe. The salient fact to bear in mind is that the historical experience of
the white South in many ways is the opposite of the experience of the rest of
the country.


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.


AR-SA”>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.


As difficult as it may be, outsiders should try to imagine the world as
viewed by conservative white Southerners, who think they are the real Americans
— that is, old-stock British-Americans — and the adherents of the true
religion, evangelical Protestantism. In this perspective, the rest of the
country was taken over by invading hordes of Germans, Irish and other European
tribes in the first half of the 19th century, leaving the South, largely
unaffected by European immigration, as the last besieged pocket of old-stock
British-Americans, sharing parts of their territory with subjugated and
segregated African-Americans.


This local British-American ethno-racial hegemony in the South was
eroded somewhat by the migration of Northeasterners and Midwesterners to the
Sun Belt following World War II and the advent of air-conditioning. And now,
predominantly nonwhite immigration from Latin America and Asia threatens to
make white Southerners of British Protestant descent a minority in their own
region. Texas and Florida are already majority-minority states. It is only a
matter of time before the same is true of every state in the South. Southern
whites will go from being a minority in the nation as a whole to a minority in
the South itself.


AR-SA”>If Southern culture had a tradition of assimilating immigrants, then
cultural “Southernness” could be detached from any particular ethnicity or
race. One could be an assimilated Chinese-American good old boy or  
a Mexican-American redneck.  To some degree, that is happening. And
Southern whites and Southern blacks have always shared many elements of a
common regional culture.


But it is difficult, if not impossible, for many white Southerners to
disentangle regional culture (Southern) from race (white) and ethnicity
(British Protestant). The historical memory of white Southerners is not of
ethnic coexistence and melting-pot pluralism but of ethnic homogeneity and
racial privilege. Small wonder that going from the status of local Herrenvolk
to local minority in only a generation or two is causing much of the white
South to freak out.


The demographic demise of the white South is going to be traumatic for
the nation as a whole. A century ago, when European immigration made old-stock
Yankee Protestants a minority in much of the Northeast and Midwest, one
response was hysterical Anglo-American nativism. In a 1921 essay in Good
Housekeeping titled “Whose Country Is This?,” then Vice President Calvin
Coolidge, an old-stock Yankee from Vermont, explained:  “Biological laws
tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend. The Nordics
propagate themselves successfully. With other races, the outcome shows
deterioration on both sides.” Patrician Yankees promoted immigration
restriction to prevent “inferior” European races from further contaminating
America. Some eminent Americans of New England descent, including Henry James,
T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, all of them nasty anti-Semites, took the extreme
step of expatriating themselves. James and Eliot became British subjects and
Pound made anti-American broadcasts for Mussolini during World War II.


Just as white Southerners today are gerrymandering congressional
districts and contemplating gerrymandering the Electoral College to compensate
for their dwindling numbers, so the outnumbered Yankees of the North sought to
dilute the political influence of European “ethnics” in the early 1900s.  When
the 1920 census revealed that largely European urbanites outnumbered mostly
old-stock Anglo-American rural voters, Congress failed to reapportion itself
for a decade, because of the determination of small-town Anglo-Americans to
minimize the power of “white ethnics.”


By the 1970s, the social divisions among old-stock Anglo-Americans and
the “white ethnics” had faded to the point that most white Americans in the
North had ancestors from several Western European nationalities. Similarly, the
trans-racial melting pot in the U.S. will probably blur or erase many of
today’s racial differences by the middle of the 21st century.


AR-SA”>But the old-stock Yankees in the Northeast and Midwest did not accept
their diminished status in their own regions without decades of hysteria and
aggression and political gerrymandering. The third and final defeat of the
white South, its demographic defeat, is likely to be equally prolonged and
turbulent. Fasten your seat belts.

AR-SA”>Michael Lind is the
author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States and
co-founder of the New America Foundation
AR-SA”>Source: Portside (Salon) 2/5/2013