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Combatting Northern Elitism in Progressive Spaces

As someone from Northern Virginia, I had never thought of myself as “Southern.” I grew up 20 minutes outside of Washington D.C. in a largely wealthy, suburban, and progressive area. During my first couple of weeks at Boston College, I was tasked with introducing myself to others about a thousand times. At first, I made a point to clarify my proximity to D.C. because I wanted to avoid any negative stereotypes about the rural South. After a while, I got tired of over-explaining myself so I started saying “I’m from Virginia,” which of course, is true—I have the driver's license to prove it. But after I made the switch, I immediately noticed that some people responded to me differently. 

That may be because the South has many stereotypes, namely that its citizens are racist, bigoted, uneducated, religious, and poor. The South certainly has the history to back up many of these claims, and I am in no way trying to diminish that. However, I’ve noticed that the Northerners that perpetuate these generalizations tend to do so to make themselves look or feel superior. In reality, this entire country was founded on the backs of Black and Indigenous peoples. The North not only reaped the economic benefits of slavery, but they enslaved people as well. In her 1971 speech Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights activist and daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers, shared her experience in the North, saying “traveling around, I found one thing for sure: it's up-South and down-South, and it's no different.” 

These rigid stereotypes should be rejected and replaced with a more nuanced reality that takes into consideration the complex political and economic state of the South. While it's easy to label conservative, blue-collar Southerners as “stupid” because they “vote against their self-interest,” that does not capture the reality of the situation. One example is the city of Welch, West Virginia. Welch’s economy is heavily reliant on coal mining and as employment opportunities continue to decrease, more people have left. The sidewalks have become increasingly barren and the local businesses are struggling to stay afloat. This caused a lot of Democrats in Welch to switch to the Republican party after Trump falsely claimed he was going to increase jobs in the coal mining industry. They also felt left behind by the progressive environmental initiatives that put their livelihoods at risk. According to the Cardinal News, “the trade-off for Democrats nationwide has been they’ve traded blue-collar voters for white-collar voters.” As recent as 1996, Bill Clinton won nine southern and midwestern states that went red in the 2020 election. Many rural Southerners are not necessarily conservative because of ignorant beliefs. Similar to the workers in Welch, these Southerners felt dejected and saw hope in Trump’s inflated lies. 

Along with rejecting harmful stereotypes, it would be productive to be compassionate to one another. Southerners do not deserve to experience harm because of their voting history. In February 2021, 246 people died due to a monumental freeze in Texas. Instead of being met with support and love from others online, Texans that were freezing in their homes received a flood of hate saying that they deserved their situation because they voted for Gregg Abbott. Obviously, not everyone voted for Gregg Abbott and the progressive people of Texas did not “deserve” this incident. But then again, neither did the conservatives. Jillian Goltzman, a Texan and writer for Business Insider, eloquently stated that “your political party should not be a death sentence.” Texas is an incredibly large and diverse state. It is filled with progressives, people of color, queer people, disabled people, and so many more groups. Texas also has the largest Black population in the entire country at 3.9 million people. As a progressive person, it saddens me to see other members of left-leaning parties exhibiting such heartless behavior. Are these “woke” Democrats aware of who they’ve hung out to dry?

In my view, as seen through common stereotypes, it seems like Northern Democrats believe that the rural South is beyond repair, but I think that this mindset has partially encouraged the current geographical divide we see in our country. If we all approached one another with empathy and an open mind, without harmful and preconceived notions, perhaps we would be able to collectively create a better future for all Americans. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. identifies the Three Evils of America as poverty, racism, and war. These issues are not uniquely Southern, and the North is not absolved of perpetuating these evils either. They are problems this entire country should be looking to systematically change, and this change will not come if we give into negative stereotypes about one another and refuse to engage in reflective behavior about our own history.

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poli sci and history major who chronically rewatches movies/tv shows that were popular in middle school to feel something