Juxtaposed with ongoing discussion (online, at least) of chef-personality Paula Deen, today’s SCOTUS decision striking down part of the Voting Rights Act raises certain questions about racism and geography in the public imaginary.
A common theme in many responses to and defenses of Deen–on public trial for a raft of racist utterances–is reference to her Southernness. These comments take the form: ‘What do you expect from a white woman raised in the South? It’s just backwards down there.’ Or alternately, ‘She left the South. She should have learned better by now.’
Perhaps Deen invites this with her folksy persona, an intense performance of a certain style of nostalgic Southern hospitality. She herself leans on “the South” to disclaim racism, claiming “I feel like the South is almost less prejudiced because black folks played such an integral part in our lives. They were like our family.”
This, of course, strikes many as patently absurd: the South, as we all know, was the home of slavery, Jim Crow, KKK lynchings.
Responses to Deen reveal an imagined geography in which “the South” contains racism. There might be racists elsewhere, but nowhere else (we imagine) is anti-black prejudice that bad, that pervasive, that immortal.
Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, likewise, located racism (here in the form of discriminatory voting laws and districting) largely in the South, as is obvious in the map above. Certainly all states are equally forbidden from discriminating at the polling booth, but these were the places nationally recognized for being especially likely to do so. Again, the imagined geography of racism.
There’s a certain benefit to the rest of us in creating such an imaginary: racism is a thing that happens ‘down there,’ in that backwards, uncivilized area. We can blame ‘hicks’ and ‘rednecks’ and ‘good ol’ boys.’ We can, in a Durkheimian fashion, periodically bond over our advanced tolerance by identifying and collectively punishing a sinner, easily done when she’s halfway to being an outsider anyway. What do you expect, she grew up in the South. She’s not really one of us, just a backwards Southerner.
Meanwhile, of course, we’ll push aside the voter ID laws and the discriminatory mortgages and the disproportionate policing of drug use. We know racism when we see it, and it’s down there.
Of course, it’s just wishful thinking that the Supreme Court’s decision will (or even was intended to) be the start of a shift to recognize structural racism everywhere, and not just in certain regions. At least for the conservatives on the court, the new imaginary locates racism neither in the South nor in the country as a whole, but instead relegates it to a different geography altogether, an altogether foreign country: the past.