By August 1 the three year experiment of combining Ed and the Deep South will come to an end. I will move back to the flatlands of the Midwest from whence I came. Right off the bat, let us note that I am not leaving because I hate it, but rather out of professional necessity. I no longer have a job here and a school in Illinois was willing to hire me. If it was up to me, I would stay, all kidding and "Ha ha the South blows" jokes aside.
I did not expect to like living here; as many people from Up North do, I moved here with many preconceptions of what life in the South would be like. For the most part, these assumptions proved…remarkably accurate. People assume that the South is barely survivable in the summer (Check. I don't know how anyone lived here before air conditioning. Oh, wait: not many people did, and they were really emphatic about buying other people to do manual labor for them.) It is mild and pleasant during the winter (Check). Many of the rural areas are incredibly depressing (Check). People are really conservative (check) and into the Jesus (check). And then there's the big one that people assume: that everyone is racist. Eh…
My experience has been that race is indeed the 900-pound elephant in the room in the Deep South. People remain very sensitive about the topic, and many people, especially older ones who retain pre-1960 memories, still have a muted sense of "knowing one's place", if you follow me. Overall, however, I have not come away convinced that race is a much bigger issue/problem here than anywhere else. It is probably closer to the forefront of social and political issues here – i.e., more issues end up being "about" race to some extent – but not by as large a margin as one might expect. Hell, there's probably more racial tension in LA, Cincinnati, or Chicago than in Atlanta.
One thing about the race issue did, in my experience, stand out like a sore thumb, though. Living around the Midwest, overt racism – the "I hate this group of people and have actual malice toward them" kind – always seemed to be a lower class phenomenon. The people in Chicago, for example, who are most likely to sit around a bar bitching about Darkies or whatever are knuckleheads from the bottom of our high school classes who regularly get fired from their job delivering pizzas. This has very much not been my experience in the South; the "Bubba" types – lower class, thick drawls, driving red pickup trucks – are not the people from whom I have heard terrible, racist things. Down here the racism seems to be, or at least feels like, a suburban, private school kid phenomenon. That's just my impression. I have no data here. It's merely an observation.
Look, I am not saying that no one who lives in the suburbs and has a lot of money in the North is racist. My point is that I was expecting the South to be populated with racist hillbillies when for the most part the hillbillies are pleasant people (although not free of unpleasant ideas, thanks to their involvement in the more lunatic branches of Protestantism). On the occasions on which I did hear really racist stuff, it was inevitably coming from the mouth of someone who did not fit the Redneck stereotype at all. I heard people say some horrible shit – eugenics appears to have a strong underground following among well-off suburban white kids – and not appear to have the slightest idea that they were saying something racist.
Although this surprised me, it makes sense. Lower class people, black and white, probably have some un-PC ideas about one another but regularly have to interact (going to the same dilapidated public schools, working the same shitty jobs, etc). For the people with money down here, the segregation is complete and the white kids of Marietta are raised on an unbroken diet of Boortz/Beck/Limbaugh, Falwell-type religion, and private laments about how much better things were before…You Know. Before the "social order" was changed by meddling outsiders.
In other words, the people who should know better – the ones with high incomes and access to education, culture, and so on – seem to be more likely to hold and express racist beliefs than the ones who wear the stereotype of being racists. Part of this reflects sample bias; I live in a college town (obviously) and college kids are notoriously parochial, sheltered, insensitive, and at times arrogant. Sometimes younger people say racist things because they are repeating things from people who raised them. Regardless, although it pains parts of my brain to admit it, I do believe that the Redneck Southerner might get more crap than he deserves. Conservative as hell? Religious in the extreme? Culturally unrefined? Sure. But they're hardly roaming the streets complaining about The Negroes or refusing to work next to a black person. The only Southerners I've encountered who appear to have attitudes of that kind are named things like Mason and Ashley and went to $25,000/yr high schools.
And that, in short, is the exact opposite of what I expected based on 30 years of South stereotypes from my Yankee upbringing.