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Southerners Are a Mixed Bunch, as Voinovich Should Know

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By Sally Jenkins
Sunday, August 9, 2009

Where exactly does "The South" begin, anyway? At Harpers Ferry? Just left of Philadelphia? What is the crossroads that divides "southerners" from the rest of us, those of us in the East, Midwest, Southwest and West who don't talk with corn in our mouths?

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Somebody please buy Ohio Sen. George Voinovich a ticket to the real South, preferably on a slow-moving train, so he can observe the country he helps govern. Last month, Voinovich charged that Southerners are what's wrong with the Republican Party. "We got too many Jim DeMints and Tom Coburns," he told the Columbus Dispatch, talking about his colleagues from South Carolina and Oklahoma. "It's the southerners. They get on TV and go 'errrr, errrrr.' People hear them and say, 'These people, they're southerners. The party's being taken over by southerners. What [the] hell they got to do with Ohio?' "

Let's set aside the fact that Oklahoma's panhandle is closer to Santa Fe than the South and dwell on what Voinovich meant: The GOP is overpopulated by unrepresentative white fire-breathers isolated from the rest of America. When Voinovich refers to "southerners" with such Gone With the Windiness, he conjures images of backward, angry rednecks who scream at black schoolchildren, drive pickup trucks emblazoned with Confederate flags and believe the Civil War was about declaring independence from northern aggressors. These stereotypes all mislead in the same way: They define a unified, homogenous South, with virtually no trace of diversity or dissent.

You'd never know from these references that the Southeast has become the fastest-growing destination for foreign-born immigrants and Americans on the move. Or that most white southerners opposed secession and that thousands of them fought for the Union, from the Alabama hill country to Arkansas, including a band of guerrillas in Jones County, Miss., who effectively seceded from the Confederacy. Or that the white men and women who taught in the first desegregated classrooms had crosses burned on their lawns, too. Or that 5 percent of the population of Biloxi is Vietnamese American, just one more cultural influence in a town built by Poles, Slavonians, French Acadians and Italians. Same with New Orleans.

In 1861, the great British journalist William Howard Russell visited Mobile, Ala., then the South's second-largest seaport, and found it a stunning, multi-hued international city, a crescent of packed quays and warehouses set against the shimmering azure of the Gulf of Mexico, roaring with commerce and full of roustabouts and outlanders dickering in pidgin languages, "mestizos of all sorts, Spanish, Italians, and French, speaking their own tongues, or a quaint lingua franca, and dressed in very striking and pretty costumes."

So when Voinovich talks about unrepresentative "southerners," whom does he mean? The people of Clarkston, Ga., who have absorbed one of the largest refugee resettlements in the country, where Congolese, French Africans, Eritreans, Sudanese, Ethiopians, Burmese, Bhutanese, Burundians, Iraqis, Somalis, Turks and Afghans have revitalized the business and spiritual life of the region? Is he talking about the people of the Mississippi Coast who work in casinos and oil refineries, or serve in the military, like Johnny and Jo Rusin, who both retired as full colonels in the Army -- he served in Vietnam, and she was the senior female commander in the Persian Gulf War -- only to lose their home to Hurricane Katrina three months after they bought it?

Is he talking about Clinton Portis of Jones County, Miss., or Jason Campbell of Smith County, Miss.? Is he talking about James Hardy, who in 1964 did pioneering work in heart transplant surgery at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, or Pat Summitt, the head women's basketball coach at the University of Tennessee, who has done more for equal rights than any law or amendment?

The senator might be reminded that Mississippi had black suffrage (for a time) during Reconstruction when Ohio was still voting no on black suffrage. And that it was President Ulysses S. Grant's fear of losing Republican votes in Ohio that allowed ex-Confederates to reverse the social gains of the Civil War in 1875-76 and write the Jim Crow laws.

In fact, "southerners" are uniquely positioned to remake the Republican Party, because they are their country. The South was formed by extraordinary forces of mobility, migration and immigration. According to demographer-economist Harry Dent in his book, "The Great Depression Ahead," the states with the greatest net loss of population from 2003 to 2007 were North Dakota, Michigan, New Jersey, Indiana and New York. The state with the greatest net influx? North Carolina. South Carolina is fourth. Alabama is sixth. People are streaming toward Southern cities, from Raleigh to Nashville to Birmingham, seeking milder climate, lower rent, better lives. As Brookings Institution demographer William Frey notes, this "demographic dynamism" has implications for a large swath of policy issues, from immigrant reform to education gaps.

Voinovich's view of Southerners is the one that is unrepresentative and regionally isolated. He ignores the fluidity of American society, that great river of movement that brought the blues from the Delta to Detroit and Cleveland, and back again. If his party has a problem, maybe he should blame Republicans' lack of a broad spectrum of answers. Perhaps the problem lies less in Dixie than in the fact that an Ohioan who is the ranking Republican on a Senate transportation and infrastructure subcommittee doesn't seem aware of these basic interchanges and currents in American life.

The writer, a Post sports columnist, is co-author with John Stauffer of "The State of Jones," an account of Unionism in Mississippi during the Civil War.


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