Thursday, June 21, 2018

A damning commentary on how northern elites/academics see rural, white southerners

Adam Kirk Edgerton published a powerful essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week.  The title nicely sums up his points--and speaks volumes in doing so: 

In short, northern academics (and I would say northern elites more broadly) exhibit enormous know-it-all type hubris that casts the South as not only monolithic, but monolithically toxic.

Like Edgerton, I grew up in the rural South.  I left nearly three decades ago and for 19 of the intervening years have been an academic in the West.  Based on my experience as one in whom both southern accent and southern identity linger, I'd say the word "West" could well be substituted for "North" in that Chronicle headline.  I've written some about the phenomenon and my experiences here.  I hold myself out as an ally for progressive causes, but progressives are typically (at least) a little suspect of me.

Edgerton, now a PhD student at Harvard, writes of his journey through academia, beginning as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina.  A gay man who dressed in pastels and white linen, a favorite teacher summed him up favorably and then asked how he had "escpae[d]" the rural community where he grew up.  His professors judged not so much him as they judged his community of origin; he was viewed as an anomaly by those who assume the worst of his prior neighbors and friends.  Things got worse when he headed north, into more elitist territory.  Edgerton writes:
In the well-educated Northern imagination, the rural South is a vast, forbidding wasteland of poverty, prejudice, and despair.

That kind of crass regionalism creates well-earned suspicion of ivory-tower elites. The stereotyping works in both directions. Each sustains the other, leading to electoral results that help neither the professors up north nor the pig farmers where I grew up. Regionalism creates openings for populists to exploit and worsen these divides. These attitudes pit rural against urban, college-educated against non-college-educated. If those of us in academe are truly so smart, we ought to be the ones taking the first step toward bridging this divide.

Unfortunately, the opposite is occurring. In the age of Trump, anti-Southern attitudes seem to have crystallized and worsened throughout higher education. Any Trump-voting area, in fact, seems to be fair game for ridicule. These attitudes undercut the efforts of those seeking to advance the rights of marginalized groups in regions of the country where evidence-based scholarship might be needed the most.
* * * 
It is strange to me that so many academics cannot see when they show prejudice against the rural, the religious, and the less formally educated. We are trained to recognize systematic bias in terms of race and gender — but we remain too often unaware of our geographic prejudices. These prejudices are casual and rampant, and undercut the credibility of much good work. Too often I find myself in academic settings where the white working-class phenomenon—the Trump-voter stereotype—is taken as fact at the expense of more evidence-based conversations about the suburban affluent, where many academics grew up and Trump voters are also concentrated.
Edgerton's entire column, beautifully written, is well worth a read in its entirety. My current law review article, which makes many similar points, is here.

Edgerton's focus on this North-South divide brings to mind the words of Prof. Arnold Weinstein who does a series of Great Courses lectures on American literature. Weinstein, of Brown University, says this (which I've had transcribed) about a scene from Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom!, a scene between a "Northerner" and a "Southerner" in a Harvard dormitory:
Now Shreve, you may remember, is Canadian, which is another way of saying, he’s a Northerner. And like many Northerners, I can speak to this teaching from a Northern university, coming from the south, having taught Faulkner to audiences of students who were predominantly from the North. For the North, the South is one grotesque place – it certainly was, at least, at the time Faulkner was writing – it’s a circus! And uh, you’ll have phrases like “it’s better than Ben Hur,” which is what Shreve will tell Quentin. Or there will be other references as well, to the South as a kind of, a really odd place. “Tell me about the South,” Quentin says, what he keeps hearing up in Cambridge: “Tell me about the South.” “What’s it like there?” “What do they do there?” “Why do they live there?” “Why do they live at all?”

Uh, the South is exotic, unreal, like Mars – and, some of the oddness, the quaintness, the extravagance, the quirkiness, of the South – is in the narrative framework, is in Shreve’s questions, it doubtless comes from Faulkner’s own experience living up in the Northeast, and, the beauty of the book is, Faulkner puts this squarely in the middle – he deals with it. So that, whatever you as a reader, particularly a Northern reader, an incredulous reader, as a reader that wants to guffaw and say “this doesn’t make any sense, what kind of crazy people are these?” it’s already happening in the book, it’s right in front of your eyes.

So this story of Sutpen, who is Faulkner’s central figure from the Civil War, a plantation owner who was the novel’s tragic hero, or tragic center, I should say, he’s a pretty weird type, for Shreve, as I said Shreve says “it’s better than Ben-Hur!” Shreve can’t get over the way that everybody is related to everybody in the South, everybody is Aunt this, Uncle that.

Now what I want to say is, this conversation between Shreve and Quentin, between a Northerner and a Southerner, is more than just a kind of clever frame for containing the story, for getting the story out. Because you could say that, you could say that, “well it’s just a device, let’s get to the real stuff,” for example, this is during the Civil War. It’s much, much more than that. It’s more intricate, and it’s more interesting than that. Think the way I represented it – the conversation between a Northerner and a Southerner – can you see that at the dialogue level – at the storytelling level – Faulkner sets out to replay the Civil War. He’s going to once again, test what kind of understanding, what kind of relationship, what kind of conflict, takes place between Northerners and Southerners. So that the telling of the story is constantly to be thought of as in subsets, a kind of commentary on the story, or is a way of re-imagining the story, as a way of perhaps getting out of the tragic determinism of the story.

And so, in this Harvard dormitory, something very important is going to take place. We’re going to see a paradigm of Northern/Southern relationships.
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Edgerton's essay also brought to mind this op-ed, published in the New York Times earlier this month, by Alabama native Alexis Okeowo.  The headline is "No One Really Understands the South," and she opens with an anecdote of a black friend from Chicago who who asked her "Why do black people still live in the South"?  :
My friend was viewing the Deep South through the lens that popular culture and most of the country outside the South also use — the same stereotypes I heard when I left Alabama to go to college in the Northeast.
I also liked Okeowo's attention to attachment to place and the power of home:
I’ve long seen a strain of thinking that residents of rural areas, with their failing infrastructure, closing health centers and diminishing jobs, should simply leave, pick up and move to cities for more opportunities and a higher standard of living. Why stay in a place that is falling apart? Or that has a history of oppressing people who look like you? But over a family’s generations in one place, the idea of home solidifies, becomes unshakable.
I cannot help wonder if Edgerton and Okeowo can be apologists for the South in ways I cannot because of their other identity characteristics.  Do Edgerton's gayness and Okeowo's blackness insulate them from some of the suspicion that I, a straight white woman, evoke among progressives?

Lastly, Edgerton's comment also brings to mind a comment by Helen Gurley Brown, long-time editor of Cosmpolitan magazine, who once said of her Arkansas upbringing, "I must go home periodically to renew my sense of horror." Gurley Brown had apparently crossed over to the other side--that of northern elites.  Maybe her emotional and cultural migration was entirely voluntary, or maybe Gurley Brown felt social pressure to disown the South, in the same way class migrants often feel pressure to disown their families of origin.

Cross posted to Working Class Whites and the Law.

1 comment:

mandy red bluff, ca said...

Then there's the stereotype of rural being synonymous with being southern.