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Republicans Court the "White Trash" Vote in Alabama and Mississippi

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A lthough it was far behind Texas, in 2011Alabama executed more prisoners than any other state in the United States. Citizens of Alabama live in more mobile homes per capita than all but three other states. Alabama has the third worst infant mortality rate in the United States, the third lowest life expectancy, and the second highest obesity rate. Only four states have more single parent households per capita than the great state of Alabama.

Mississippi is worse. It has the lowest per capita income in the United States, the highest percentage of persons living below the poverty level, the fourth highest unemployment rate, the third highest percentage of mobile homes per capita, the highest infant mortality rate, the highest percentage of out-of-wedlock births, the highest percentage of single-parent households, the highest obesity rate, the second worst high school graduation rate and the lowest life expectancy.

In a word, Alabama and Mississippi are two of the nation's worst performers when it comes to providing a decent quality of life for its citizens. But they hardly stand out in the American South, the region that embarrasses the rest of the country with its egregious social pathologies. (For a chart demonstrating just how poorly the South performs, see ).

Students of the American South have provided a few plausible explanations for the South's interminable failure to bring about widespread social and economic improvement. W. J. Cash, in his classic study, The Mind of the South, concluded that the Southern plantations, which thrived by exploiting Negro slave labor, proved doubly beneficial to virtually every yeoman farmer and the landless poor white in the region. As Mr. Cash saw it, "Not only was he not exploited directly, he was himself made by extension a member of the dominant class -- was lodged solidly on a tremendous superiority, which, however much the blacks in the "big house' might sneer at him, and however much the masters might privately agree with them, he could never publicly lose."

However, "The grand outcome was the almost complete disappearance of economic and social focus on the part of the masses. One simply did not have to get on in this world in order to achieve security, independence, or value in one's own estimation and in that of one's fellows.[p.39] Unfortunately, when the economic focus disappeared, so too did the work ethic.

Like Mr. Cash, Professor Grady McWhiney also noted the absence of a work ethic in the American South, but he attributed it to the Scotch-Irish culture dominating the region, as well as to the many Southerners who "earned" their living by herding hogs and cattle. "Aside from marketing or branding their animals, Southerners had little more to do than round them up in the fall and either sell them to a local buyer or drive them to market. One could even raise livestock without owning land." [Cracker Culture, p. 67]

That aversion to work also undermined efforts to educate the masses; leaving untouched the region's infamous anti-intellectualism, which was largely a product of religious enthusiasm and Scotch-Irish culture. Henry Adams -- who observed Robert E. Lee's son and other Southerners at Harvard -- would note: "Strictly, the Southerner had no mind; he had temperament. He was not a scholar; he had no intellectual training; he could not analyze an idea, and he could not even conceive of admitting two-- [p. 99]

Nevertheless, being uneducated and emotional hasn't prevented the common white Southerner from believing himself intelligent enough to spot a liberal, socialist, communist, traitor, moral degenerate or godless atheist, whenever somebody challenges, questions or seeks to improve upon his culturally impoverished status quo. And it doesn't prevent 45 percent of the good folks in Alabama -- and 52 percent of the good folks in Mississippi -- from expressing the absolutely shameful, asinine, opinion that President Obama is a Muslim.

How many of them are racist white trash? In 2008, Obama received but 10 percent of the white votes in Alabama, compared with the 19 percent that John Kerry received there in 2004. Similarly, Obama received only 11 percent of the white vote in Mississippi in 2008, whereas Kerry received 14 percent.

(Readers of The South and America Since World War II, by James C. Cobb might recall that the author briefly discusses the work of "white-trash" writers like Rick Bragg, Dorothy Allison, Larry Brown, Harry Crews and Tim McLaurin. According to Professor Cobb, "the characters created by the white-trash writers seethe with class resentment while clinging tenaciously to a fierce sense of independence and pride that is often their undoing." See pp. 253-257)

More recently, Glenn Feldman has updated W. J. Cash's insight about the enervating superiority that, for centuries, -- immobilized the poor whites who luxuriated in their racial dominance. For Feldman, however, the issue now is not the South's cheap racial superiority -- which has been demolished by the Civil Rights movement -- but its equally cheap religious/moral superiority.

According to Professor Feldman: "People tend to lose sight of issues that have a relevance or their day-to-day lives in the rush to feel part of a majority that carries with it a sense of emotional well-being, even superiority. For so long in the South, that issue was race and white supremacy. Now, it is increasingly morality and religion, accompanied by a sense of moral superiority and righteousness." [Politics and Religion in the White South, ed. By Glenn Feldman, 2005, p. 332]

Why "cheap?" Because it often is based on only one or two issues -- especially abortion -- that allow many Southerners to feel complacently superior enough to ignore what would be, for any decent person, an obligation to engage in self-improvement, good works and the promotion of social justice. As Professor Feldman notes: Catholics in the Deep South litter their churches with anti-abortion literature that "instruct the faithful on how to clear all other issues from their conscience save abortion when going to the polls." [Ibid. p. 314]

Thus, we obtain a profound insight into how, historically, the South can teem with openly self-righteous Christians and, yet, make almost no progress in ameliorating the many pathologies that plague their society. It's a place where big-talking social conservatives like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich should do well.

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Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San (more...)
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