Michael Lind’s “How the South Skews America” asserts that the United States as a whole would be more like other English-speaking democracies – less violent, less religious, more socially mobile – without the South. The South, Lind argues, generally makes the United States worse in terms of most social markers. I don’t know if this argument is true, but Lind definitely does not prove it.
On principle, I think we should call out sloppy thinking and poor argumentation, and I think Lind’s article is a good example of something that needs criticism. But I also find the underlying attitude deeply troubling. There’s this lazy approach that too many commentators take – if it weren’t for those dumb rednecks, the United States would be a more enlightened place. This is harmful to progress in all sorts of ways, akin to assuming that it’s the highly visible KKK member who’s the worst manifestation of racism (see this great Ta-Nehisi Coates article). Lind claims he wants to avoid “lurid stereotypes of a monolithic South,” but such an approach characterizes his entire article.
The most eye-rolling example of Lind’s bad logic is about economic inequality: “Apart from California and New York, where statistics reflect the wealth of Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley, the South is the region with the greatest income inequality.” Okay, so the South is most unequal, except for the largest and fourth-largest states, which are the two cultural leaders of the country and hold about a fifth of the nation’s population.
Lind doesn’t provide an exact citation for that claim, but this measure of economic growth between 1979 and 2007 (the first thing I found with a little googling) for a state’s 1% lists the most unequal states as Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Wyoming, New Jersey, and Washington before you get to the first southern state, Florida, and then down another five to Virginia at 12. By Gini coefficient, there’s a bit more southern representation, but DC, New York, and Connecticut are your most unequal states. And there’s just the smell test – when you think about problems with economic mobility and economic inequality in the United States, is it the South that comes to mind? I think of the economic and political elite, among whom I would hazard southerners are underrepresented. The country club set in southern small towns is frequently terrible, but those aren’t the guys really running the show in the United States.
Some of his other points seem to be less about the South than about poor and black people. Even if we take for granted (and I don’t) that open religiosity are harmful, it’s African Americans who who are more likely among other racial and ethnic groups to report formal religious affiliation. Black people are more likely to be religiously affiliated and to claim that religion is important in their lives, and they’re more likely to be comfortable with religious expression among political leaders. Similarly, poor people and countries tend to be more religious than rich people and rich country. Perhaps the South is more religious because it’s poorer and blacker than the rest of the country.
We don’t have to use vague concepts like “The pre-modern ‘culture of honor'” that allegedly continues to exist in the South to understand southern violence: poor people and rural people are more violent. You can also do some uncomfortable things with this approach: Linds writes that “the South as a region, containing only a quarter of the population, accounted for 40.9 percent of U.S. violent crime.” Approximately the same percentage of prison inmates in the United States are black, and blacks are about half of homicide offenders, making up an even smaller portion of the population than do southerners; does that mean black people are more violent than white people? Or maybe there are other socioeconomic trends that are more compelling reasons? Also, I don’t know how seriously we should take criticisms of how “Southerners disproportionately support sanctioned violence in all of its forms, from military intervention abroad to capital punishment to corporal punishment of children” from Michael Lind, who wrote a book called Vietnam: The Necessary War, which – you guessed it – justifies America’s involvement in Vietnam as a necessary battle in the larger Cold War.
Nor am I convinced that southern whites are necessarily more racist than whites are in other parts of the country. Southern whites didn’t vote for Obama, but that’s because southern whites are conservative, and in the nation as a whole Obama won white voters about on track with other Democratic presidential candidates. This study suggests that it’s the rural Northeast and South with the most racists, which sounds right to me. Looking by tweets doesn’t suggest a particularly racist South. On this list of the most segregated cities in the United States, the only southern cities are Miami and St Louis, neither of which I would really characterize as “southern.”
I don’t want to deny that the South has problems with race, violence, and so on, or even that these problems are worse in the South than in other parts of the country. But it’s both wrong and counterproductive to assume that the differences between the South and the rest of the country are so significant, that they are differences of kind rather than of degree. The problem isn’t just that the South is racist or unequal, but that the United States is racist and unequal; the South is a part of that.