When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, a not-so-uncommon conversation in my Northern California town was whether or not California should secede from the Union.
“We’d have the ninth highest GDP!”
“It’s embarrassing that we get thrown in with Alabama!”
While I thought that secession was a bit unrealistic, I tended to generally agree with these sentiments. We didn’t vote a racist into office, I’d tell myself. We generate so much revenue for the country—why should we be forced to live under a leader they choose? Given how evolved California and other wealthy coastal states like New York, Washington, and Oregon are, why should we sit pretty under a leader of whom we’re ashamed?
In coastal states, there’s an odd sort of moralistic apathy toward the fate of more rural and Southern states. Californians often reason that not only do these places vote in conservative bigots, they don’t even have enough capital to justify their political relevance. This argument makes sense in terms of vote share—the electoral college is designed to disproportionately advantage smaller states, and I would argue unjustly so—but in terms of finances, it doesn’t sit right.
Leaving entire swaths of Americans—poorer on average, by definition of their states’ income—to fend for themselves, in an America even further controlled by an unsympathetic government, doesn’t seem very progessive to me. The coasts see themselves as bastions of progressive politics and education, but all I see in these arguments is classism and indifference to the fate of the country’s most vulnerable.
When I started college in Georgia, I naively assumed that going to the South would amount to entering an intellectual warzone; it’d be me and my fellow students from the North versus born Southerners. In my mind, after all, everyone from the South fell into one of two binaries. There were those oppressed by the South’s conservative politics, and those who supported them out of hate for all who are different. I hate that when I used to tell people I was going to school in Georgia, I always followed it up with “It’s Atlanta, don’t worry.” Looking back, I’m ashamed to have thought this way, but I don’t think it’s so unique. I think that to discuss what’s so harmful and hypocritical about viewing the South this way, I have to note the hypocrisy I’ve perpetuated.
Just as I used to, many liberal Northerners view Southerners as fitting into two categories: the voiceless and oppressed, which accounts for queer folk and BIPOC, and bigots, which accounts for just about everyone else. While there are certainly people who exist in both of these binaries—in general, Southern states have more issues with LGBT+ protections than most other states, as well as greater support for Trump—looking at the South’s and rural America’s people in this way runs the risk of minimizing their residents’ tenacity and complexity.
I’ll start with unpacking the pitying tone Northerners use to discuss Black, brown, and queer Southerners. There are more Black Americans and LGBT+ folk in the South than any other region of the country. Though the research is inconclusive, by many measures of racial progress, such as education and housing segregation, Southern cities are more progressive for Black Americans than their Northern counterparts. Southern cities also boast thriving LGBTQ+ scenes; as comedian Sam Jay joked in her Netflix special (which I was lucky enough to attend), “Atlanta was pretty much the only place you could be Black and gay before 2012.” Let me be clear: non-white, non-het Southerners encounter plenty of inequality, both legally and at the personal level. But to speak as if they are helpless, when there are thriving communities of queer people and BIPOC throughout the Southeast, with advocacy groups and visible presence in Southern culture, is simply condescending. It also excuses discrimination toward these groups in the North.
Then, of course, there’s the demonization of conservative Southerners, particularly those with limited access to education. Note that when liberals from coastal regions mock conservative Southerners, it’s seldom old-money families with extensive political and financial connections in the region. It isn’t conservative politicians, who weaponize the Bible to blame immigrants for financial ruin. It’s always an imitation of a rural Southerner who speaks poor English. Instead of condemning American elites’ history of turning different swaths of poor folks against each other, coastal liberals mock the rural poor for going against their own interests. As if it’s their own fault that politicians prey on their frustrations and laypeople’s knowledge of politics.
Coastal states aren’t progressive paradises either. While these numbers are skewed by population size, California and Washington have the highest number of hate crimes in the union. Despite only 6% of the overall population being Black, 37% of San Francisco’s homeless population is Black. Housing costs in California and New York have risen to such astronomical rates that no working-class person could reasonably hope to buy a home. The North has major issues with racial and financial inequality, yet by pinning the blame on the South, the North takes away an opportunity for political accountability. And it does so with righteousness.
When I go back home to California, I make sure to tell those who ask “how I’m holding up down there” how much I love the South. How the people I’ve met—in Atlanta, Savannah, Chattanooga, Athens, New Orleans, and the little highway-lining towns I’ve stopped in for gas and a quick breakfast—were kind, interesting, and intelligent. How in my first semester in college, I had more educators of color than all of middle or high school.
I tell them how when I have the choice of where to go after college, I hope to stay here, if Georgia will have me. Not as it could be, not as an up-and-coming place, but as it is today.
By Sheena Holt
Illustration by Vy Nguyen