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The Hatred that Dare Not Speak Its Name (And Sometimes Isn’t Even Hatred)

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I was born in Alabama, grew up in Mississippi, and went to college in Tennessee. And I have a Ph.D. in Russian from Columbia University. So I have a double perception of the South and things Southern. I know the South from the inside, and I’ve chosen not to live there since I graduated from college.

That’s why I was recently intrigued to see a map that showed the county by county results of the 2008 election. It showed, in brown, the counties in which Obama ran behind Kerry’s totals in 2004 by 7% of more. These counties form a clear pattern, a rough crescent that begins in southwest Virginia, runs through West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas, and peters out in Oklahoma.

This pattern raises a number of questions, and let’s begin with this one: What do we call the people who live in these counties? Terms like “redneck” and “hillbilly” come to mind, but they bring their own emotional baggage. It’s much better — because less offensive — to say that they’re “crackers,” in the spirit of Gerald McWhiney’s Cracker Culture (1989).

So what can we say about crackers, the people who refused to vote for Obama in such significant numbers? The easy, obvious, and not untrue, thing to say is that they’re racists; these are after all white people who refused to vote for a black man. But to leave it at that is to give in to the common practice of using “racist” and “racism” as verbal stones to throw at people.

So I say let those who are without racism — white racism, black racism, brown racism, what have you racism — cast the first verbal stone, a stone that will hurt, and cast lots of heat and very little light. Categorizing people — even crackers — solely in terms of their attitude toward race is like categorizing people solely in terms of their sexual orientation. It’s not just demeaning; what’s worse is that it’s also old-fashioned.

Any serious attempt to understand why crackers didn’t vote for Obama must proceed from an understanding of Southern attitudes in general — of what you might call Southern social psychology. Take their attitude toward place, for example. More than the people of any other region, Southerners — crackers — are passionately committed to place, and derive their identity from place.

To put it simply, Southerners believe — or at least say they believe — that they live in what Henry James called “the Great Good Place.” In this, as in so much else about Southern life, country music provides useful clues — and it’s filled with praises of Home. That’s why Hank Williams Jr. could write a song with this quasi-blasphemous title “If Heaven Ain’t a Lot like Dixie, I’d Just as Soon Stay Home.” And let’s not forget country classics such as Waylon Jennings’ “Lukenbach Texas,” which presents Home as a safe haven from yuppie decadence. Don Williams’ celebrated “Livin’ on Tulsa Time,” where Tulsa offers something real, as opposed to Hollywood glitz.

So if deriving your identity from the place where you live has such overwhelming importance for crackers, how did this value affect their attitudes toward Obama?

That’s an easy question to answer if we consider his biography. Obama was born in Hawaii, grew up in Kansas, went to college in New York, and law school in Massachusetts. Then after all that he settled in Illinois. Obama is quite literally all over the place, so he’s without what my Alabama grandparents would have called “a home place,” and crackers just can’t relate to that.

Notice the contrast between Obama and my college classmate and sometime acquaintance Lamar Alexander, who was just re-elected to the senate from Tennessee. In this disastrous election year for Republicans, Alexander garnered a whopping 68% of the votes. He was born in Tennessee, and has lived there all his life, except for his three years at NYU law school and his service as Secretary of Education for the first President Bush. That’s a biography that crackers can understand and relate to.

Crackers have made what Frederic Henry, the protagonist of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, called “a separate peace.” It’s not just that they are the most marginalized group in America, with no prominent advocates in the media; they are self-marginalized. Jeff Foxworthy, the great blue collar comedian, and arguably the greatest standup comedian of his generation, once said of his audience, “They’re not hip and they don’t want to be.” Their disinterest in being hip and keeping up with what goes on outside the South — and especially in Washington — constitutes a kind of social secession. This social secession derives from the crucial fact of cracker life, a fact that anybody who wishes to understand the South must acknowledge: We Southerners lost The War. Which war? Why, the only war that counts: The Civil War. Or, as it was called in my junior high school textbooks in Mississippi, The War Between the States.

No less an authority on the South than William Faulkner once said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” The War isn’t over until crackers say that it’s over, so the trauma of losing The War lives on in their psyche, and explains their love of such surrogates for war as NASCAR racing and college and even high school football.

This unresolved trauma also explains crackers’ love of the military — and therefore why McCain had a lock on their affections. Although McCain never did anything heroic (he is a victim, with his own unresolved traumas), he was widely perceived as one. In any case, he was a military man who came from a military family, and was the first presidential candidate since the first President Bush with a military record. Then too, his years as a prisoner of war garnered him a large sympathy vote. It’s fair to say that many crackers were not so much voting against Obama as for McCain the soldier.

It’s also worth remembering that Obama didn’t run behind McCain just in the Appalachian counties dominated by crackers. In fact, Obama carried very few rural counties anywhere. This election showed that the urban/rural split that began to inform American life in the twenties continues to this day, and is unlikely to disappear any time soon. Counties with significant concentrations of crackers just create an extreme case of this split.

About 143 years have passed since the end of The War, and much has changed in the South. It’s also true that much has not changed in the South, such as attitudes toward home and family. In political terms, this means that crackers will ensure that the South remains the Solid Republican South — and that it will play marginal role at best in future national elections.

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About jcurtis

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    Interesting article – very interesting article. I know a few of these “crackers” personally – though they exchanged that “cracker” identity for an Israeli one – sorta – and came to live here in the mountains of Samaria. You may hear a few Rebel yells every now and then out of them, but you will never see the Stars and Bars floating at their homes – only the flag of Israel.

    When my neighbor Mike talks about how his family arrived in North Carolina in 1734, fought in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, there is real patriotic pride in his words. He once sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”, that pathetic knockoff of “G-d Save the Queen”, and when he did, he meant it in a way that I – whose father arrived in the States in 1921 – never could. That sense of place is all over his words and all over a lot of his interests.

  • http://www.joannehuspek.wordpress.com/ Joanne Huspek

    I spent a few years growing up in the South, and friends of ours have moved there and this is dead on. There’s a certain genteel-ness, even if your neighbor is dissing you. That sense of home and center is something that’s missing from the rest of the country.

  • Humungus

    It couldn’t possibly be that many southerners voted Republican because they/we disagree with punitive confiscatory taxation. No. It’s because Obama’s black. Funny that many white Kerry voters switched this time. I guess that makes the real topic of this article racist, xenophobic southern white Democrats. So that’s what a “cracker” is.

    See, southern Republicans would have voted for Alan Keyes, Condi Rice, or even Colin Powell before he jumped the shark. Will there be an article on the numbers of blacks who voted for the first time, and why? And will their most hated offensive racial slur be used?

    McCain was very, very heroic. To choose to vote for a man who has actually served his country over one who has been served by his shouldn’t be considered a southern phenomenon, but apparently it was.

    Sports are popular everywhere. The north has far more professional teams than the south. Several sports including hockey, lacrosse and soccer are more popular in the north. And if losing the Civil War is explanation for the popularity of various sports in the south, then what explains the popularity of sports in the north? Winning the Civil War? People like sports because people like sports.

  • STM

    South??

    I live in the deep, deep south, which is what makes it so hilarious when I’m in the US and Americans ask me if I’m from Boston because of the way I pronounce car and beer … “caaah, and “bee-ah”, thanks to the non-rhotic antipodean accent known as Strine.

    It’s a couple of hours by plane from my hometown of Sydney to Hobart, the state capital of Tasmania.

    Then, if you sailed directly south from the tip of Tasmania from Hobart, you’d end up quite soon in the Antarctic.

    I’ve also drunk in the world’s southernmost pub – the Bruny Island Hotel, just off the south-east coast of Tasmania.

    South schmouth.

    Shit, those Dixie crackers don’t even know what south really is.

    They’re not even in the right hemisphere to think of themselves as southerners.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    When my neighbor Mike talks about how his family arrived in North Carolina in 1734, fought in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, there is real patriotic pride in his words.

    Thanks for the reminder that up to the time of the civil war the slave trade in the south was dominated by Jews. A true, but rarely repeated fact of the tragic era. Not politically correct to mention it.

    I guess that makes the real topic of this article racist, xenophobic southern white Democrats. So that’s what a “cracker” is.

    Dead on, Humungus. Southern republicanism descends from the anti-slavery tradition of Sam Houston and other reformers who regained power after the Civil War. In the south Republicans were traditionally part of the progressive, educated elite, while the ignorant “crackers” were Democrats.

    Dave

  • STM

    “When my neighbor Mike talks about how his family arrived in North Carolina in 1734, fought in the Revolutionary War”

    On the good side or the American side??

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    Thanks for the reminder that up to the time of the civil war the slave trade in the south was dominated by Jews. A true, but rarely repeated fact of the tragic era. Not politically correct to mention it.

    From what little I do know of Mike’s family, they were farmers, not slavers, Dave. But, yes it is true that Jews figured prominently in the slave trade.

    Of course in may parts of the south Jews were forbidden from owning land or participating in a number of professions, so they did what they could do to make a living – also not politically correct to mention….

    ;o)

  • Cindy

    Dave what about this?

    The way I understood things is more like what this Kevin Young guy says:

    U.S. History – Republican to Democratic political Change

    QUESTION: I was reading about the time after the civil war, and, while looking at a election map of the nation, with Democrat votes mainly in the South and Republican votes in the North, I was wondering: At what time period of American history did this change occur? At this time, did their policies and views also “flip”?

    “The southern Democrat or Dixiecrat was always ultra conservative in their political philosophy. The North was somewhat moderate shading towards conservatism on most issues. The true change occurred after the reconstruction period when Blacks were elected to state and national political offices, much to the chagrin of the former Slave holding Democrats. Today the so-called religious right, the right-wing of the republican party and centrist are but splitters of the old southern political regime.”

    QUESTION: I also heard that blacks started voting democratic during the great Depression, since the Republicans would not help them. Is this true?

    “The Black vote was forced towards the Democratic party due to the constant reactionary ideological move within the republican party after the reconstruction era. additionally, the quasi-social movement within the northern democratic party and the new deal campaign of Franklin Delaney Roosevelt prompted the swing of Black voters to the democratic ticket. Neither party actually help us at all!”

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    All of which seems to show that conventional political ideologies mean nothing at all in the South. They’ll just go for whichever party seems at the time to best represent their – for want of a better word – patriotic interests.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    It is “for want of a better word.”

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Very good analysis, Curtis. The sense of rootedness is indeed one of the most salient characteristics of the Southerners. They may be dirt-poor, but they still love where they’re at and it’s a rare person indeed who would opt to leave their place of birth for greener pastures, like California. I tried to talk some of them into it, to no avail.

    Which doesn’t negate certain parochialism, resistance to new ideas, being entrenched in the past. And this includes of course – among other things, racism as well. So if the intend of your article was to show the roots of racism, then I believe you’ve more or less succeeded. But you haven’t shown us it doesn’t exist, only made us understand it better.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    All of which seems to show that conventional political ideologies mean nothing at all in the South. They’ll just go for whichever party seems at the time to best represent their – for want of a better word – patriotic interests.

    I kind of see that as a good thing.

    Dave

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    Cindy, I don’t really buy either of those answers.

    There were southern Republicans before and after the civil war. The division was not regional, it was by social class. Upper class and educated people in the north and the south were Republicans. Lower class and uneducated people were Democrats, of course with some exceptions both ways.

    The democratic party remained extremely hostile to blacks through the Truman administration. They only began to treat them decently starting with Kennedy. Prior to that most advancements for blacks had been initiated by Republicans and then reversed or opposed by Democrats, like Teddy Roosevelt trying to integrate the federal government and Wilson coming in and undoing it all.

    But IMO the real dynamic is this. When blacks were really downtrodden they were natural allies of the ruling class. Only liberal elitists would look out for them out of a sense of benevolence, and until relatively recently that meant Republicans and certainly not Democrats. At the same time the managerial and business owning class saw the blacks as the poorest as the poor and a source of leverage to use against the working class. So you had republicans at the very top and very bottom of the economic heap.

    Then as blacks began to rise socially they developed a commonality with the working class and began to emulate them to fit in with their economic status, including emulating their political allegiances.

    As those economic changes drew blacks into the democratic party it pushed the religious bigots out, and the Republicans, having no other allies made the mistake of accepting the religious types as allies. Thus, the downfall of the traditionally liberal, fiscally conservative GOP.

    Dave

  • zingzing

    dave: “Southern republicanism descends from the anti-slavery tradition of Sam Houston and other reformers who regained power after the Civil War. In the south Republicans were traditionally part of the progressive, educated elite, while the ignorant “crackers” were Democrats.”

    modern southern republicanism also descends from the white folks fleeing the democratic party when the black folks started to get the vote. there was a dramatic shift, maybe even switch, in what each party stood for during the civil rights era.

    so while what you say may be true, it’s also hopelessly outdated. it’s also a little bit insulting.

  • zingzing

    “Only liberal elitists would look out for them out of a sense of benevolence, and until relatively recently that meant Republicans and certainly not Democrats. ”

    mmmm, paternalism.

  • Cindy

    Dave, it’s not like I am defending Democrats above.

    Only liberal elitists would look out for them out of a sense of benevolence…

    Yeah that’s still a problem.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle


    modern southern republicanism also descends from the white folks fleeing the democratic party when the black folks started to get the vote. there was a dramatic shift, maybe even switch, in what each party stood for during the civil rights era.

    I already addressed that. Posted a whole comment about it, in fact. But it wasn’t a switch in positions, just the introduction of an element of traditionally democratic bigotry into a reluctant republican party which has since suppressed and repudiated it.

    so while what you say may be true, it’s also hopelessly outdated. it’s also a little bit insulting.

    If you’re insulted by the truth I can’t help you. As for being outdated, it’s true that now the elitist paternalism tends to rest with the democrats, and IMO it’s a form of racism in and of itself.

    Dave

  • Cindy

    funny how zing and i have the same take on it. wonder how we got that idea?

  • zingzing

    dave: “I already addressed that. Posted a whole comment about it, in fact.”

    yeah, you did. the same minute i posted what i posted. funny how i can’t read stuff that hasn’t been posted yet. the future is a strange thing. one minute goes by and it’s just THERE, dude.

    “But it wasn’t a switch in positions, just the introduction of an element of traditionally democratic bigotry into a reluctant republican party which has since suppressed and repudiated it.”

    well, the democrats began to back the civil rights movement and the racist dems had to go somewhere, and they found open arms and a home in the republican party, home of the wondrous “southern strategy.” with the dems in control of the north, the republicans HAD to welcome southern white racists into the fold, and it’s to their eternal shame that they did what they had to do in order to retain power.

    if you want to talk about elitist paternalism, you’d better check out your squeaky clean in the mirror, mister.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Correct me if and where I’m wrong here. I was under the impression that when LBJ was pushing for the Civil Rights legislation, the greatest opposition was from the (Southern?) Democrats. And this was the view in the liberal arts colleges. Where am I wrong?

    Roger

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Re #5 and #7 – the Jews in the South,

    A very interesting portrayal in Beach Music, a novel by Pat Conroy, especially of Max Russoff, aka “The Great Jew,” in quite sympathetic terms. But we’re talking here about the Vietnam era, and the place of action is South Carolina.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    “As blacks began to rise socially they developed a commonality with the working class and began to emulate them to fit in with their economic status, including emulating their political allegiances.

    As those economic changes drew blacks into the democratic party it pushed the religious bigots out, and the Republicans, having no other allies made the mistake of accepting the religious types as allies.”

    Actually, I don’t see anything particularly wrong with this analysis. It appears to make sense.

    zing, Cindy – what am I missing?

  • zingzing

    roger, it’s not that that’s wrong, but it’s only part of the picture. the bigots left the democratic party because the blacks came in, and the republicans took them in because they were a voter base they couldn’t afford to lose. it was a political maneuver that won them power, but it also changed the nature of their party.

    the south was solidly democratic until the civil rights era, and because of civil rights, it became solidly republican, as it remains… until obama came along at least.

    and as far as the southern dems being the ones to try to block the civil rights act, that’s true, but only in that they were southern. the split was along geographical lines, not party lines, and the republicans were more apt to vote against it (southern republicans vote 100% against the act, even if they didn’t have the same kinds of numbers the southern dems had).

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    zing,

    I always understood that the Southern Democrat (LBJ was one, wasn’t he?) was a different breed of the animal than the rest – not to be associated with the Democrats per se. As to the rest of your comment, I have to digest it.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    So zing, the argument you seem to be making, in essence, is this:

    1) Prior to the Civil Rights passage, the white South was essentially democratic (never mind the Southern Democrats)

    2) The passage of the Act (with or without infusion of the black voters into the Democratic party) diminished the party and turned over the reins of political power in the South to the Republicans

    3) And it’s been so until 2008, i.e., Obama’s victory, which resulted in an unprecedented numbers of Southern blacks participate in the political process (at least on the national level).

    4) The Southern Democrats throughout all this time, even till today, remained ideologically where they have been – there being no change there.

    Ergo: If the above argument is right, then Dave’s comment appears beside the point.

  • zingzing

    the southern democrats were somewhat different. hence the exodus. lbj, in signing the civil rights act, knew that he was destroying the democratic party in the south, but he also figured it was the right thing to do. he said something like “we have lost the south for a generation” as he signed it.

    of course it’s not quite as simple as that… it’s not completely a black and white issue. ha. sorry. oi. forgive me. dave’s right in that there many reasons why white southerners left the democratic party for the republicans. but the most powerful of these reasons is race.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I get it. But what of the Southern Democrats? Did they change party affiliation or are they still Democrats but in name only?

  • zingzing

    well, the bigoted ones either went to the republicans or were voted out… or stayed on and hid their true feelings. either way, the democratic party changed plenty from the late-40s through the late-60s, especially in the south.

    jim crow/white supremacy was a pillar of the social order of the south, especially during the first half of the 20th century. when civil rights and black voters started to move that pillar, then let it topple, the political landscape of the south was turned on its head.

    comparing the political parties of today with those in 1950 is an exercise in the absurd qualities of our national history.

    now as to your comment #25, which i didn’t see earlier… as i understand it, your points 1 and 2 are true, #3 is also true (but with the caveat that democrats, regardless of their race, came out in force for that election), but #4 is not quite true.

    the south has changed plenty in the 40+ years since the civil rights act. racism, while it obviously still exists, is nowhere near what it used to be. it’s no longer obviously and legally institutionalized.

    i’ve been reading a book recently, called “blood done sign my name” by a white man who grew up in oxford and wilmington, nc. the schools in oxford were finally integrated in 1970 or so. up until that point, shops, parks, theaters, even court rooms were segregated. in the spring of 1970, a white man murdered a black man for saying something to a white woman. the murderer got off and the town exploded with race riots, arson, etc. violence ruled all summer, but eventually, blacks boycotted white businesses in order to economically wear them down.

    i was born less than a decade later in a city in nc with a large black population, and i never noticed any such racial violence. apparently, there was a trial early during my life that brought up the racism of the justice system in my city (look up darryl hunt), but i was too young (or white) to take any notice. still, even during that decade, much changed in the south.

    southern democrats, these days, are pretty much like any other democrat. they’re just rarer in the south than the north. but even that is changing. i guess what i’m saying is that i’m a southern democrat, but i don’t think i have much in common with the democratic party that counted jesse helms amongst their number (before he jumped ship), and a vast, vast majority of southern democrats probably feel the same way.

  • leighann

    So why do they have to be “religous bigots,” why not just “bigots?” Are all religous bigots or all bigots religious? Maybe some bigots claim to be religous. Maybe some bigots do not claim to be religous. Maybe, just maybe there are some religous Southern folk out there who are not bigots. There may be many of them. What a concept!

    I am southern. That means that I live in one of the southern states of the United States Of America. I thought I would clarify that since some seem to think that we do not know there are other countries south of us. I now live in TN but lived in Mobile AL for the first 14 years of my life. I do feel that my roots are here and would never want to live any place else.

    Cracker? Seriously? That is a racial slur. I went to a school where I was one of only about 10 to 20 white kids there. I was the only white girl in some of my classes and have heard this slur directed at me many times as well as honkey, peckerwood and a few others. This was done by a few, not all.

    I did not vote for Obama but it was not because of his race and it was not becuase he moved around. It is because I do not agree with him on most issues. It is for some of the same reasons that I did not vote for John Kerry. If you remember the map from that election, John Kerry was unable to carry the southern states also. In fact, Al Gore did not even carry TN and he was from here. It had nothing to do with race then, so why does it have to now?

    I prefer not to call myself religous, but I am a Christian. Since I did not vote for Obama, am I now a religous bigot? I do not think so. Since I am a Christian, I know that my Bible tells me that I can not love God and hate my brother and if I say that I love God and I hate my brother then I am a liar.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am sure that there were some people who did not vote for Obama becuase of his race here in the South and elsewhere. I am sure that you could probably find some of them sitting in church Sunday. Just don’t ignorantly put a whole group of people in that classification.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    leighann,

    Who was commingling bigotry with religious bigotry? There is a close association, however, or at least a strong correlation, between fundamentalist religious views and bigotry, you’ve got to admit that. Religious fundamentalism is one of the major sources, isn’t so? because it rarely is restricted to matters pertaining to religion but does spill over to all areas and spheres of life. No?

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    well, the democrats began to back the civil rights movement and the racist dems had to go somewhere, and they found open arms and a home in the republican party, home of the wondrous “southern strategy.” with the dems in control of the north, the republicans HAD to welcome southern white racists into the fold, and it’s to their eternal shame that they did what they had to do in order to retain power.

    It has to be pointed out that by the time Republicans began accepting these former racist democrats into the party most of them had significantly modified their viewpoint on racial issues to be much more moderate, or to focus on issues other than race, like states rights.

    The southern strength of the GOP currently represents nothing racist. It’s more a function of a greater interest in a weak federal government and a smaller and more fiscally responsible government among voters in southern states, including many blacks.

    Dave

  • http://twitter.com/ZaphodBeblebrox Zaphod Beeblebrox

    It has to be pointed out that by the time Republicans began accepting these former racist democrats into the party most of them had significantly modified their viewpoint on racial issues to be much more moderate…

    Hey. I thought I was the only one here from a different planet. Nice to meet you Dean.

  • Dan

    After Democrats were dragged kicking and screaming into a new social order of racial equality, much to everyones surprise, (except white racists) blacks did not integrate as quickly as expected.

    Thus, equality evolved into preferential treatment, and the Democratic party was happy to oblige with a new paradigm of the US as an institutionalized social justice hell-hole where victim mongering and class division brought dividends at the ballot box.

    The calculated entrenchment of Democrats in government jobs makes voting an economic decision, and the near totalitarian exclusion of Conservatives in universities continue to feed the delusion of extreme social injustice to impressionable youngun’s so that they can reliably be counted on to vote liberal. At least until they wise up, in which time a new, even bigger, crop is indoctrinated to replace them.

    Patriotic, equality minded, traditional Americans had no choice but to leave this disgracefully cancerous institution.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    That’s a mouthful.