Recently we had a young married couple from California over for dinner. Everything was going fine until we finished dessert. That was when they mentioned that they’d recently driven from Northern Virginia—where we all live—to southeastern Tidewater to visit Virginia Beach. “We didn’t like it down there,” the wife told us. “People were…different,” she added, her linguistic vagueness a manifestation of her diplomatic profession. I told them I had family in Tidewater. “Oh, well, it wasn’t so much the beach itself,” the husband cautiously offered. “It was more the parts of Virginia in between.” Like Richmond, I suggested. “Yeah,” he acknowledged, while his wife nodded silently, thinking perhaps now we were understanding each other. I have family in Richmond, too, I told them. Within five minutes, they awkwardly said their goodbyes.
In polite company among the technocratic elite, it’s acceptable to ridicule the South, Southern culture, and Southern politics. The Left has especially skewered Southern states for seeking to restrict abortion “rights.” Before that, North Carolina suffered ridicule—and punishment at the hands of corporate America—for its Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, or “bathroom bill.” Historian and foreign policy commentator Robert Kagan in a July opinion piece for The Washington Post claimed that conservatives suspicious of liberalism are stoking the fires of Southern white nationalism, much as their intellectual forefathers, Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley Jr., allegedly did in the latter half of the 20th century.
Kagan’s is part of a broader attempt to undermine the virtues of the conservative and Southern intellectual tradition as inescapably second-rate and even contemptible. In presidential election years, liberals circulate maps showing that the former Confederacy overwhelmingly votes Republican, supposedly to prove that the South remains backward or racist.
Some of this criticism is couched in elite paternalism—look at all the data that shows how screwed up she is, they say. And certainly the South lags behind much of the rest of the United States in important categories—education, access to health care, happiness levels, and so on. Yet it’s not as if other parts of the country are immune from these problems, including racism. Apart from routine contemporary allegations of bigotry in the Chicago police force, does anyone remember the 1992 Los Angeles riots, incited by police brutality against Rodney King? As writer Harry Blain recently noted, “for every Jackson, Mississippi, there is a Flint, Michigan. For every opioid overdose in Kentucky, there’s at least one in Massachusetts.”
Moreover, the South is not nearly as monolithic as its detractors would have us believe. Former governors of South Carolina and Louisiana, Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal, respectively, are both Indian Americans and defiant Southerners. Of the only four states in the country that have had black governors, two of them are in the South. I’ve had friends of Korean and Vietnamese heritage who proudly identify as Texans and Tennesseeans—indeed, their accents are thicker than many white folks from gentrified parts of those states. Southern identity—contra the opinions of a declining number of Southern racists—has nothing to do with whiteness. For goodness sake, many black families have been in the South far longer than whites, myself included—and many of them are proud of their Southern identity.
Despite its problems, the South has much that’s worthy of admiration. It gave the nation its most uniquely American musical genres: blues, jazz, country, bluegrass, and, of course, rock ‘n’ roll. Its literary tradition includes the likes of Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Harper Lee, Robert Penn Warren, and Alice Walker. Its delicious and varied cuisine includes barbecue, fried chicken, jambalaya, gumbo, biscuits and gravy, po’ boys, peach cobbler, and, of course, bourbon. Its landscapes are magnificent, its flora and fauna varied and beautiful.
The South encompasses a remarkable diversity, but manifests certain essential cultural traits visible from Virginia to Texas. Southerners bear a deep appreciation for their traditions and history. They embrace a strong sense of hospitality, neighborliness, and charm, often evinced in a slower pace of life focused on relationships and family. And distinct from most other parts of the country, Southerners remain vibrantly and vocally religious. Seven of the top 10, and 12 of the top 20 religious states in the country are in the South.
Southerners have an unparalleled pride in their regional identity. Perhaps this is why people not even from the South have been eager to be adopted into its ranks. When I attended high school in Northern Virginia, there remained a small minority of kids whose families were of an older, working-class Virginia culture. Some would call them rednecks or hicks. One kid, a first-generation Peruvian, started hanging out with them. Before long, I saw him sporting camo, driving a pickup blasting Lynyrd Skynyrd, and going fishing with his buddies. It was a bit comical, but God bless him. He had discovered the South, and he liked it.
Yet many, rather than admiring, seem almost jealous of the South’s stubborn sense of dignity, sneering at her culture and mocking her problems. Another California native with a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins told me that after the spate of recent abortion legislation in Alabama, Mississippi, and Missouri, it was time for another Sherman’s “March to the Sea.” Perhaps she can be forgiven for not knowing how destructive this historical event was for the region. I’ve heard others say with dripping derision, “only in Alabama,” and welcome economic sanctions against Southern states that buck the coastal elite’s ideology regarding reproductive rights and sexual identity. However, as even liberal Southerners have noted, such punishments end up hurting everyday people in the same states the Left patronizingly claims are so far behind the rest of the country. So much for social and economic justice.
My family’s Southern identity, though a bit more robust than my Peruvian classmate’s, is also relatively recently acquired. My father grew up in Alabama, but his parents were Poles from Detroit. My mother grew up in Virginia, but her parents were of Irish extraction from New York and Kansas. Yet what they communicated to me was more Southern than anything else. This was cemented at the University of Virginia, the old “Harvard of the South.” Having married a Georgia belle with a direct ancestor captured at Gettysburg, Southernness—its bad and its good—will be what our children learn to appreciate. And for anyone who has a problem with that, well, bless your heart.
Casey Chalk is pursuing a graduate degree in theology from Christendom College and is senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative.