Originally created 12/12/04

Who is a true Southerner

The home of good ol' boys, okra and Scarlett O'Hara is changing.

Every year, more people move to the South, and as time marches forward, it inspires us to confront a question almost as old as the republic itself:

The study

From 1991 to 2001, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill conducted 19 polls of 18,000 people in 13 states, asking whether people considered themselves Southerners. When Larry Griffin, a Vanderbilt University sociology professor, analyzed the results last year, he found that only mainline Protestants, political conservatives and the most affluent stood apart from a decade-long decline (from 78 percent to 70 percent) in those who identify themselves as Southerners.

Dr. Griffin, now the Reed distinguished professor of sociology and history at UNC, wasn't shocked by the findings.

"For a generation or more, the Southern identity has been in decline. In fact, there was a book in 1958 called An Epitaph for Dixie," he said.

For Dr. Griffin, it was more interesting that responses included a wide range (black, white, wealthy, poor, city dweller, suburbanite) of people who shunned the moniker. The expectation was that liberals, Democrats and other groups might be more likely to reject the label.

"But in general, all groups shed their identity at equal rates," he said.

The reasons for the dip, small as it is, are complex.

One undeniable impact is the influx of newcomers. Since 1995, more than 1.8 million people have migrated here from other parts of the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Dr. Griffin noted there were poll respondents who were born and reared here who did not call themselves Southerners, and others who moved here decades ago and now identify more with the South than their home states.

The identity

W. Todd Groce, the executive director of the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah, said it's understandable that the South would be obsessed with its identity. He noted how profoundly different the region's history is from the rest of the United States.

"It shares a lot, but I know this region and this people have experienced a different set of events," Dr. Groce said.

"It's a history that's full of tragedy. We know what it means to be defeated, we know what it means to be poor, and we know what it means to be occupied. I think it's given us a richness of our soul."

The Civil War often is mentioned when the Southern identity is discussed, but Dr. Groce noted that residents of states once belonging to the Confederacy now define themselves in other respects. For some, it's an affinity for regional dishes such as collard greens and sweet tea; for others it's strong attachments to family, God and land.

The South has special meaning for Waynesboro resident Ernest Gough, who pens a newsletter for the Brigadier General John Carpenter Carter Camp chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Embarrassment might have lead some to forsake their Southern identity, he said, but the things that make Southerners different from the rest of the country are nothing to be ashamed of now.

"There are hundreds of years of tradition, from the way we feel about land to our family ties," he said. "When I went up to school at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, people were shocked that I even knew my third cousin."

Mr. Gough, whose cell-phone ring tone plays Dixie, questions those who think the label is for just anyone.

"A Southerner is someone whose family has been here 200-plus years, and is a part of this culture, from the food to church to manners," he said. "Just being born here doesn't mean you're a Southerner. I don't even know if I can describe it, but we know it when we see it."

University of Georgia history professor James Cobb, whose book Old South, New South, No South: A History of Southern Identity will be published next year, said the pursuit of identity has become complicated.

"It's internalized, and it's something you're likely to have as many answers as you have people to ask," he said. "Because of globalization; you have these issues of preserving local cultures."

Dr. Cobb suggested looking closer to home for answers.

"If you're really trying to figure out who you are, you're going backward by looking at the region," he said.

"The real question is where have you come from and what are your associations? That's the people who you grew up with, and the people who have influenced you."

The future

Will the South be a place where your neighbors hail from Toledo instead of Tuscaloosa? Dr. Groce wondered how long Southern states can absorb newcomers and continue to maintain a regional identity.

"I mean, can we really argue that northern Virginia is part of the South anymore?" he asked.

Dr. Griffin observed that blacks were the least likely of all the ethnic groups polled to reject the Southerner label. He said it might reflect a relationship that's existed only in the past 40 years. In the national discourse, "Southerner" has meant "White Southerner," so this change interests him.

"I think this data suggests that possibly African-Americans are also laying claims to the label, particularly in the post-civil rights South, where they have more of a voice and more clout," he said.

Mallory K. Millender, a Paine College professor who was born in Birmingham, Ala., and came to Augusta from New York City in 1961, said it made sense that one race might reject the label more forcefully.

"The South has historically been identified with racism. Certainly the rest of the nation views it that way," he said. "I come across almost no one who views themselves as a racist, so I'm not surprised when they distance themselves from that image."

As attitudes have changed, so too has the meaning of the word "Southerner."

"People who stood in schoolroom doors and kept blacks from coming in do not oppose integrated schools at this time. They did not help, but that's part of a social evolution, and they're part of that change," he said.

"Part of the reason blacks do not try to distance themselves from the term is they weren't viewed as racists, so they had nothing to run from."

Dr. Groce believes the South will always be viewed as different from the rest of the country, even as it changes itself.

"We tend to identify with a place that other Americans don't. When we roam, we tend to come back, and I think it's all tied to this unique experience," he said. "There is this mystical connection to the land. There's something about the swamps and the cypress trees and the pines; people form this kind of connection."

Reach Patrick Verel at (706) 823-3332 or patrick.verel@augustachronicle.com.


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