Tag Archives: South

Why Black Lives Still Matter: An American Saga

The notion that #BlackLivesMatter became one of the defining social protest calls of 2014.

The notion that #BlackLivesMatter became one of the defining social protest calls of 2014.

The year 2014 was an especially tumultuous year if you happened to be a black person or a police officer in the United States. The high-profile killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice revealed the continued high cost of existing-while-black in America, while the cold-blooded murder of New York police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos by a mentally ill sociopath named Ismaaiyl Brinsley on December 20 has left New York City’s police force embroiled in a dispute with the city’s black community over issues of police safety and the NYPD’s checkered history with people of color. As the Big Apple’s police force tries to move forward in the wake of the brutal slaying of two of its own, the tensions between minorities and cops that so ravaged America in 2014 once again bubbled to the surface of the national consciousness.

But amidst the tensions in New York, a small group of protesters braved the cold and debauchery of New Year’s Eve to hold a vigil reminding America that #BlackLivesMatter. Because, above all else, the historical association of blackness with crime in America is at the heart of the controversies between police and minority communities that wracked the nation in 2014. This piece will explain why the interconnectedness of blackness and criminality in U.S. history continued to fuel tensions between police and the black community in 2014.

As the bodies of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice lie alongside those of thousands of other black men taken out by America’s ivory-wrapped justice system, one thing remains abundantly clear: the U.S. has moved beyond the need to have a “conversation” about race and has lunged head-first into the intervention deep end. You can’t converse about something that you don’t understand, and what far too many white Americans don’t understand is that, in the land where All Men are Created Equal, black lives have always mattered less than white ones. In the U.S., blackness has historically been associated with criminality, and to the nation’s trigger-happy white majority, crime still wears a permanent blackface. Citizens like Brown, Garner, and Rice were killed because they were perceived as the worst kind of threat to white America: a black one. Continue reading


Rise of the paranoid South: How defending against “outsiders” brought the region together

Ted Cruz (R-TX) certainly knows that he's  an exceptional southerner.

Ted Cruz (R-TX) certainly knows that he’s an exceptional southerner.

My latest post is an article for Salon that explains why the American South continues to be exceptional in its own unique way.

The Civil War ended in 1865. Before the war, it was common parlance in America to speak of two regions: the “North” and the “South,” which were divided, above all else, over the issue of slavery. After the war, however, the idea of the “North” gradually disappeared from American culture, but “The South” as a regional, cultural and ideological construction has lived on.

Read the whole thing over at Salon.

Phil Robertson, Duck Dynasty, and the Historical Legacy of Southern Manhood

Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson trades in southern identity tropes.

“Duck Dynasty’s” Phil Robertson trades in southern identity tropes.

A few weeks back, Phil Robertson, the hirsute, camo-sporting, duck pelting patriarch of the hit A&E “reality” series “Duck Dynasty” nearly gave the internet a pulmonary aneurism when he expressed, shall we say, less-than-enlightened views about gays and African-Americans.

In a rather revealing interview for GQ, Robertson, a self-identified “bible thumper” who “just happened to end up on television,” claimed that the so-called normalization of homosexuality nurtures a culture in which “sin becomes fine.” Robertson claimed that when you “start with homosexual behavior,” a host of other vile forms of sexual immorality follows suite, including bestiality and rampant poliamory. Robertson even paraphrased Corinthians to assert that “the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers” wouldn’t “inherit the kingdom of God.”

Robertson’s comments elicited a predictable and entirely justified pushback from LGBT organizations and other groups. His remarks proved so controversial that A&E briefly suspended Robertson from his own program before reinstating the bearded celeb following an outcry from right-wing coach potatoes who view “Duck Dynasty,” as I noted in an article for Salon, as a reassuring beacon of religious conservative values in an entertainment wilderness populated by alleged Godless liberal hedonism.

Robertson’s views on gays are hardly surprising — coming as they do from an old, white, male, southern religious fundamentalist. After all, Deliverance aside, Bubbas have never been outwardly comfortable with buggering. But in the same interview, Robertson also made some dumbass comments about African-Americans. As the Atlantic’s Jonathan Merritt noted, Robertson expressed what amounts to a mind-blowing ignorance of the horrors of Jim Crow: the South’s historical apartheid system that relegated blacks to second-class citizenship for a hundred plus years following the Civil War.

‘I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once,’ Ole’ Phil claimed. ‘The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy,” Robertson continued. He concluded by affirming that he ‘never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.’

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates appropriately summed up Robertson’s comments as evidence of the lingering American belief “that black people were at their best when they were being hunted down like dogs for the sin of insisting on citizenship.” Indeed, Robertson’s combined contempt for gay people and apparent ding-batted belief that blacks were “happy” under American apartheid echoes a long tradition linking white southern manhood to the concept of “mastery” that dates back to the nineteenth century and still reverberates today.

In their now classic collection Southern Manhood: Perspectives on Masculinity in the Old South, historians Craig Thompson Friend and Lorri Glover note that mastery involved southern men’s internalization of “a sense of manliness through relationships to wives, children and slaves by subverting challenges to white male authority leveled by these dependents and by heading autonomous, self-sufficient households.” This type of “masculine mastery” was also known as “Paternalism” or “Patriarchy,” and the maintenance of mastery depended on white southern males’ socially sanctioned dominance over less powerful groups, especially blacks.* The idea that blacks were “happy” under Jim Crow is rooted in the old concept of mastery because such a sentiment rests on the assumption that any deviations from the model of blacks as happy workers and whites as benevolent rulers challenged long-established southern hierarchies.

Although mastery was most internalized by the elite planter class, common white southerners, including “rednecks,” “crackers,” and “po’ white trash” of all kinds also subscribed to the notion of mastery. Doing so allowed them to claim, via their whiteness and domination over blacks, a shared kinship with wealthy white southerners in much the same way contemporary non-rich conservatives worship wealthy “job creators” out of a discredited hope that some of the modern oligarchs’ riches will trickle down to the obedient plebeians.

“Duck Dynasty” represents the mainstreaming of the commercial redneck brand.

The idea of mastery as a hallmark of white male southern identity largely, but not entirely, fell by the wayside after the Civil War, when the demise of slavery meant that mastery in its most literal form was no longer a hallmark of Dixie’s culture. But the concept of mastery has retained a stubborn influence — albeit reshaped by changing historical circumstances — on the construction of white southern male identity in the twenty-first century. In the contemporary world, homosexuality is gaining increasingly mainstream acceptance and an uppity black has reached the plateau of uppityness by becoming President. Thus, the old concept of mastery has adapted to the times to forge a non-politically correct creature; a creature who stands in proud defiance against cultural liberalism and creeping secularism: the modern commercial redneck. Phil Robertson is that redneck, and millions of Americans sympathize with his plight.

Scholars have been documenting the mainstreaming of commercial conservative redneckness for some time now. In his excellent study White Masculinity in the Recent South, historian Trent Watts writes that in still conservative twenty-first century America, “national audiences eagerly consume the redneck and good old boy repackaged as a blue collar man who is familiarly southern” in addition to being “hard-working, pragmatic, patriotic, and good-humored” while simultaneously eschewing the explicit, outward trappings of racism that defined white male mastery in the Old South. “No longer marginalized as either a rustic clown or savage hillbilly,” Watts observes, “the ‘blue collar’ man has become in the eyes of millions the most solid and patriotic of Americans.”*

But the media-created “blue collar” man, as evidenced by Phil Robertson and his cohort of modern commercial rednecks on “Duck Dynasty,” is less an organic creation and more a pre-packaged southern good ole’ boy brand. The commercial redneck is portrayed in mass media not by actual working class people, but by millionaires like Phil Robertson, Larry the Cable Guy, and others. The modern commercial redneck became an icon by taking the desire for mastery that defined white manhood in the Old South and reshaping it into a weapon to wield in the contemporary culture wars. Media-generated conservative rednecks like Phil Robertson are therefore less threatening and more mainstream than the patriarchs of the southern past, but they’re still interested in mastery of some sorts. Indeed, the modern commercial redneck is deeply concerned about retaining mastery over popular culture.

Millions of conservative Americans rallied to support Phil Robertson by eating deep-fried chicken gizzards, because freedom!

Millions of conservative Americans planned to rally in support of Phil Robertson by eating deep-fried, mechanically-separated chicken parts, because freedom!

By targeting gays and criticizing supposed black welfare fraud rather than calling for outright segregation, the redneck as portrayed by Phil Robertson offers a last stand in defense of mastery and the hierarchies created by white male privilege. Millions of Christian Conservatives, despite the fact that most Americans subscribe to Christianity in some form, feel persecuted by an onslaught of gayness and secularism, and they look to Phil Robertson to defend their way of life.

Robertson can retain cultural mastery over minority groups like gays and Democratic-voting blacks by verbally disparaging them in a mainstream publication and therefore diminishing their claims to mainstream cultural acceptance. His many Republican-voting, mega-church going, Chick-fil-A patronizing followers then vindicate his attempts at mastery by lining up lock-step in support of their bearded, reality t.v. Moses, to whom they look to lead them out of the Egypt that persecutes Christian Conservatives and into the Promised Land of shredded safety nets, low taxation, dinner-table prayers, and firearm proliferation.

Historically, this Promised Land has been the American South, and while the South as a region has never been immune to change, for white southerners especially, change has entailed a loss of mastery over various minority groups. They’ve therefore embraced change only with a fair amount of kicking, screaming, or ranting in GQ.

* See Craig Thompson Friend and Lorri Glover, eds., Southern Manhood: Perspectives on Masculinity in the Old South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004), ix.

* See Trent Watts, ed., White Masculinity in the Recent South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008), 6.

A Race Against Time: The South and the Fight Against Social Welfare

1930s poster advertising the benefits of Social Security. The South accpeted this program on condition that African Americans be excluded from its benefits.

1930s poster advertising the benefits of Social Security. The South accepted this program on condition that African-Americans be excluded from its benefits.

This October, some of the major benefits of President Obama’s signature health care reform bill will start being implemented across the U.S. Of course, ever since the bill’s passage back in 2010, the Republican Party has stood in strident opposition to a supposedly Stanliesque health reform law that was inspired by… the Heritage Foundation: a Republican think tank that over a decade ago proposed the idea of mandated individual health insurance. Among the GOP’s most vociferous opponents of Obamacare has been Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas who is aiming for the title of senate Wingnut Royale. Cruz has made headlines of late by defiantly claiming that he’ll find a way to destroy Obamacare even in the face of procedural impossibilities in the Senate.

Cruz’s Quixotic quest to defund the health care law is, in large part, a rhetorical attempt to regurgitate just enough political innards into the gaping maws of his nested Tea Party backers in exchange for their continued support. But Cruz’s anti-Obamacare stance is also standard politics for a conservative politician from the South: Cruz, as did many southerners in the past, opposes social welfare programs. Historically, however, conservative southerners’ opposition to welfare has been far from total; rather, as scholars like Lisa Disch and many others have observed, it has been selective along lines of class and, especially, race.

Earlier this summer Salon published an excerpt from Sasha Abramsky’s new book, The American Way of Life: How the Other Half Still Lives, that details the South’s historical opposition to the safety net. Abramsky notes that the U.S. as a whole, but particularly the South, stood against social welfare in the nineteenth century, even as European nations worked to implement early safety nets:

In the United States…support for such reforms remained more tenuous. True, an array of progressive political groups supported workers’ compensation laws by the early twentieth century. And by 1917, with the Supreme Court having upheld the constitutionality of these laws, thirty-seven states had systems in place, most of them compulsory. In fact, as a region, only the Deep South had completely neglected to implement compensation schemes for at least some categories of injured workers.

Some minor state-level tinkering aside, Abramsky observes that it took the Great Depression to loosen the U.S.’s opposition to the safety net and embrace FDR’s New Deal, especially in the South. Opponents of mandated social programs:

[A]rgued that the imposition of mandates on working Americans, forcing them to pay into a system to support the elderly and to provide medical coverage for the sick, was foreign to the country’s founding principles. What was happening in Europe was, they argued, too paternalistic, too coercive. Moreover, in a land of great social mobility and endless opportunity such systems were unnecessary. Keep them for the ossified Old World—keep them for places where one’s station in life was determined by one’s parentage.

This excerpt, however, neglects the important role race played in shaping Southern — and American — opposition to social welfare. After all, the U.S. did, in fact, implement welfare policies before the New Deal. As historian Elna Green writes, the Civil War produced the first great shift towards social welfare in the form of veterans’ pensions that covered soldiers and their immediate families and dependants. By 1893, 40 percent of the Federal budget was reserved for Union veterans’ pensions. Former Confederate soldiers were exempt from Federal soldiers’ pensions, but white conservative southern politicians who “redeemed” the South after Reconstruction implemented state pension programs similar to those at the Federal level.*

The Confederate pensions started small, but grew thanks to the influence of the Lost Cause movement, which Green defines as “an emotional defense of the [Confederate] war effort, slavery, the Confederacy, and the superiority of southern civilization.”* Rebel pensions set a precedent for defining social welfare as for whites only, laying the groundwork for the notion that the safety net was okay for some — but not all — that still influences modern southern conservatives.

Florida, for example, funded its 1909 Confederate Pension Law via property taxes that drew from white and black landowners, even though African-Americans did not serve as Rebel soldiers and were therefore ineligible for veterans’ benefits. By taxing blacks to pay for white pensions, Florida justified the existence of social welfare on grounds that it benefited whites at blacks’ expense. By enacting welfare in the form of Confederate veterans’ benefits, the state hedged against any potential black agitation for welfare benefits.* As Green notes, defining social welfare in racial terms “allowed Southern states to create extensive and expansive social welfare programs, without appearing to do so.”* Pensions for poor whites were earned through service, but welfare for blacks constituted racial entitlements.

Conservative southerners continued this line of thought in their approach to Social Security in the 1930s. Southern Democrats chaffed at the idea of redistributing money from whites to supposedly indolent blacks, and worried that extending federal Social Security benefits to blacks would discourage them from working as peons in the South’s fields, factories, and domiciles. In order to gain the support of powerful Southern Democrats for the program, Franklin D. Roosevelt ensured that Social Security excluded agricultural laborers and domestic servants, over 60 percent of whom were, not coincidently, black. Thus, conservative southerners embraced Social Security as long as it benefited whites only. As with Confederate pensions, the issue of race influenced conservatives’ support for social welfare.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX): arch-foe of Obamacare.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX): (Deluded?) arch-foe of Obamacare.

Today’s southern conservative politicians, such as Ted Cruz, are not unabashed racists like their political forerunners. But modern Republicans’ opposition to the welfare state is still deeply influenced by the racial issues that have long been at the heart of conservative approaches to the safety net. Indeed, much of Cruz’s opposition to Obamacare stems from his hawkish stance on immigration. He’s claimed, for example, that a quirk in the law exempts non-citizens from coverage and therefore encourage businesses to hire newly amnestied illegals over U.S. citizens. This assertion has been disputed, but Cruz’s claim is symbolically significant because it echoes historical southern conservative warnings that social welfare benefits should be endorsed with caution, lest those benefits flow to undeserving, non-white “others.”

Now, I don’t think Cruz is a racist: he is, after all, the son of a (nutty) Cuban refugee. But with his stance against Obamacare, he’s playing to the larger conservative electorate’s conditional opposition to social welfare, which is based on the fear that welfare’s benefits might go to undeserving blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities. Consider, for example, the return of Ronald Reagan’s fictional “Welfare Queen” story during the 2012 presidential election. This old myth served as a rallying point for conservatives fighting against Barack Obama’s liberal welfare state supposedly doling out benefits to non-white “takers.” The “Welfare Queen” meme still exists despite the fact that food stamp usage is REALLY high in Red States, especially among conservative whites, and that conservative Red States generally take in more in federal dollars than they pay into the system.

Cruz’s and the Republican Tea Party’s opposition to the safety net, whether in the form of Obamacare or Food Stamps, draws on a historical legacy of southern conservatism’s opposition to social welfare’s benefits going to the “wrong” people. The fight over the American welfare state has never been waged along simple lines of “for” and “opposed.” So the next time you hear shouts about “limited government,” remember to ask: “limited government for whom?”

* Elna C. Green, “Protecting Confederate Soldiers and Mothers: Pensions, Gender, and the Welfare State in the U.S. South, a Case-Study from Florida,” Journal of Social History 39 (Summer, 2006): 1079, 1085-6, 1082.

“Duck Dynasty” and the Historical Power of Beards

"Duck Dynasty's" unabashedly hirsute stars, Phil, Uncle Si, Jase, and Willie Robertson.

Duck Dynasty’s unabashedly hirsute stars, Phil, Uncle Si, Jase, and Willie Robertson.

Maybe you’re like me and you don’t have cable t.v. Good for you. Tell yourself, like I do, that this makes you inherently intellectually superior to the millions of glow-box zombified American scarecrows who have nothing better to do with their lives than exist in an immobilized state guarding the t.v. from the nefarious Corvidae of real life. Or, you could be honest and, like me, admit that you can’t afford cable. But whether or not you have cable, there’s no way to escape the current American cultural juggernaut that is A&E’s “reality-based” show, Duck Dynasty.

The show follows the exploits of “Duck Commander” Phil Robertson, his Vietnam-vet, eccentric brother Si, and his three sons, Jase, Willie, and Jep. The Robertsons live in West Monroe, Louisiana. Phil Robertson is a former star quarterback for Louisiana Tech who turned down pigskin glory to hand craft duck calls in a backwoods cabin. According to people who actually give a damn about duck hunting, Robertson’s calls work pretty darn well. When Phil’s son, Willie, took over control of the Duck Commander company, he turned it into a multi-million dollar outdoor empire and made the Robertson clan into self-proclaimed “redneck millionaires.”

A&E’s Duck Dynasty show is a fairly simple set-up that depicts the daily lives of the Robertson clan, which includes the Robertson women, Phil’s wife Miss Kay, Willie’s wife Korie, Jase’s wife Missy, Jep’s wife Jessica, and their large brood of kids. Yet, as simple as the show is, its a massive hit: as of late August, it’s poised to be the biggest cable show ever. So why the heck is this the case? After all, like any “reality” show, Duck Dynasty’s plot lines are transparently staged, but two things about the show really resonate with viewers: the Robertson’s eccentricity and, perhaps more importantly, their beards.

There’s lots to write about regarding Duck Dynasty as a cultural phenomenon, but this is a history blog, and I’m going to focus on the history behind American beards and why that history is essential to the show’s success. Over at History Scene, Sarah Gold McBride posted a fantastic historical recap of the power of the beard in terms of shaping masculinity in the 19th century. The 19th century was a period of vast changes during which the modern world as we know it was formed. Indeed, many of the cultural, political, and economic tropes that we acknowledge today were first articulated and solidified in the 19th century, and this includes beards and their relationship to masculinity. As Gold McBride writes, with vast social, political, and economic change:

The social and economic roles of men and women changed, too splintering into distinct activities and spaces that could be organized under a system of “separate spheres.” Under this schema, men laid claim to public places like taverns and city streets, while women were confined to private spaces—namely, the home. Even though this binary is more of an ideal than a reflection of reality (as historians like Christine Stansell and Mary Ryan have shown),  gender distinction gained a greater importance over the course of the century—particularly in the minds of white men, who began looking for ways to demonstrate a distinctly male identity.

They distinguished themselves from women in politics; a fundamental feature of the new universal manhood suffrage was, of course, the fact that it was only for men. But men also began exaggerating the physical differences between themselves and women. Men’s clothing styles shifted from a corseted, curvaceous look—one not dissimilar from a female figure—to the boxy silhouette of the three-piece suit. Men also began donning another distinct physical feature: facial hair—including side-whiskers, moustaches, and especially beards.

In the 19th century, beards came to define a concept of masculinity in a way that was unmistakably visual to better distinguish them from increasingly public women:

Boxy clothing and bushy beards were reactions to women’s changing role in American public life. Although men in Europe and the United States had long written—even in times of overwhelming beardlessness—about how beards marked the male members of their species as strong, manly, powerful, and wise, it was only once women began entering “their” public that American men started to cultivate the facial hair they had publically revered (but personally scorned) for generations. Facial hair was a visual and visceral way for men to distinguish themselves from women—to codify a distinctly male appearance when other traditional markers of masculinity were no longer stable or certain.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, beards thus emerged as a key method for American men to demonstrate their masculinity to themselves, to women, and to each other.

So what does the rise of beards in the 19th century have to do with Duck Dynasty’s popularity in 2013? Much of the show’s popularity stems from its carefully controlled depiction of very generic, supposedly “down home” southern American values like family, Christian religious observance, traditional gender roles, patriotism, humility, good manners, reverence for the outdoors, and general redneck-ness. Thrown together in a pot, these values create a simmering, clichéd stew of good ole’ folk southern identity that harks all the way back to the antebellum South, when sectional divisions over slavery led southerners to double down on creating cultural distinctions between themselves and the North to justify southern values as superior.

Minus the slavery issue, of course, the above-listed generic stew of southern cultural values survived well into the 20th century because these values seemingly offered an authentic alternative to the fast-paced, modern, cold, money-obsessed, industrializing nation that emerged after the Civil War. As historian James C. Cobb observes in Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the Modern South, culture is a process, and in the post-Civil War South, southern culture was “an ongoing cycle of interaction”  during which some southerners constantly shaped, reshaped, and reformed southern cultural identity to adapt older traditions to the demands of modern life and social change that threatened to leave Dixie and its culture in the dust.* The South’s general cultural, political, and religious conservatism aided this continuing process.

Now, in the 21st century, the vague idea of “southern culture,” defined by traditional religion, gender roles, guns, family values, and patriotism has been mass-produced and sold via shows like Duck Dynasty. The show is consumed by a large segment of the American public that is fed up with what they perceive as the modern world’s assault on traditional values and religion, and they’re willing to commit their time to a  little slice of supposedly authentic southern American-ness to combat the secular hordes of social change roaring at tradition’s gates.

The beards in Duck Dynasty symbolize this general, supposedly authentic, but actually mass-produced, southern cultural conservatism. As Gold McBride noted, 19th century beards symbolized masculinity and an affirmation of gender distinctions in an age when gender roles were shifting. Contemporary America is witnessing many of the trends that shaped the 19th century, including growing income inequality and the increasingly public role of minority groups asserting their rights; groups that in today’s context include gays, women, atheists or non-religious folks, and (shudder) liberals of all types.

Duck Dynasty's bearded hunters. Real men still hunt.

Duck Dynasty’s bearded hunters. Real men still hunt.

Duck Dynasty’s bearded male stars offer a symbolic reaffirmation of traditional values onto which many Americans threatened by social change can latch. The Robertson men’s bushy beards, like beards in the 19th century, distinguish them from the Robertson women and symbolize southern masculinity. Just look at the hirsute Robertsons’ favorite things: they do manly activities like hunting, fishing, shooting guns, and praising God. Hell, their entire business is built around the idea that MEN hunt to bring home food and take care of the family.

And what distinguishes all of the bearded Robertson’s activities? For the most part, they happen outdoors, that is, outside the sphere of the home, where the Robertson women reside. When Jase or Willie or Jep return from a days work at the Duck Commander headquarters or a day out hunting, they return to the home sphere to meet the women. There was even an episode where Jase and Willie take their wives hunting, and, in a fantastically clichéd plot line, the thoroughly suburbanized and home-bound ladies act the classic part of ducks out of water (or babes in the woods), unable to fathom how their manly, bearded beaus could possibly derive joy from going into the woods to shoot deer. And just so viewers don’t forget: these are indeed REAL men – they have beards. Bushy Beards.

Duck Dynasty’s bearded display of warm, corn-pone, conservative but non-threatening, down home, southern cultural values resonates with a portion of the American population. Conservatives have taken to declaring the show’s popularity as driving liberals crazy, while regular Christian Americans praise the show as an antidote to the ills of modern culture via its depiction of warm, simple, family values. Thus, the Robertson men’s beards alone do not a successful show make. But their beards do symbolize and invoke a long history of cultural construction based around generic southern American values served up hot and ready to many Americans. These folks want a little something simpler in their lives to combat what they see as a host of uncomfortable modern social changes. All hail the power of beards.

* See James C. Cobb, Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the Modern South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999), 1-4.

The History Behind the Southern Booze Buzzkill

Devil girl liquor caddy and paper towel holder made by Speedcult, Detroit.

Devil girl liquor caddy and paper towel holder made by Speedcult, Detroit.

Following up on my recent post on the historical demise and recent resurgence of American craft breweries, I thought I’d discuss another example of how booze and American history are forever intertwined. Last year the BBC ran an interesting article on the slow death of vestigial prohibition laws in the American South. Following the ending of national prohibition law in 1933, laws regarding the sale and distribution of alcohol fell back to the states. In the southern Bible Belt, the spirit (pun intended) of prohibition remained alive in the hearts of local temperance advocates. As the BBC reported:

When alcohol regulation was handed back to individual states, many local communities voted to keep the restrictions in place, particularly in the southern Bible Belt.

Today there are still more than 200 “dry” counties in the United States, and many more where cities and towns within dry areas have voted to allow alcohol sales, making them “moist” or partially dry.

The result is a patchwork of dry, wet and moist counties stretching across the south.

There’s an old saying (or maybe I just made it up) that even in the midst of economic depression, the bars always remain open. Well, following the 2008 economic crash, the temptation to reap some easy cash from the sale of booze has fuelled momentum to repeal long-established temperance laws:

Every few weeks, somewhere in the US, citizens of a dry area gather enough signatures on a petition to trigger a wet/dry referendum. It is not a one-way street – some communities have voted to remain dry or even introduce further restrictions on alcohol sales.

But hard economic times have accelerated the march of alcohol, and in recent years many communities that have been dry for decades are opting to end prohibition, for fear of losing business to their wet neighbours.

So how did the South come to embrace prohibition so thoroughly that its effects still linger in the form of dry counties well into 2013? The answer involves two central themes in southern history: religion and race. Southern prohibition laws were mostly enacted between 1880 and 1915. They were spearheaded by Evangelical Protestantism, a cultural force that still maintains a powerful influence in the South today. Historian Joe Coker, who was interviewed for the BBC piece, explains in his book Liquor in the Land of the Lost Cause that southern evangelicals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, particularly the Baptists, embraced prohibition in order to preserve the moral uprightness of southern culture. For evangelicals, “southern culture” entailed traditions of honor, Christian religious faith, and, especially, white supremacy.

The American temperance movement originated in New England, but antebellum southern evangelicals had little need for temperance in a culture that linked alcohol consumption to honor and white manhood. Indeed, slaves were forbidden from drinking except during carefully controlled celebrations like Christmas, when slaveholders monitored slaves’ drinking as a form of racial control. After the Civil War, however, the abolition of slavery gave blacks open access to hooch. This became especially problematic in the late nineteenth century, when the racist cultural trope of the lustful “black beast” bent on raping white women swept the South, spurring an era of brutal lynchings. White evangelicals argued that black rapists were driven by alcohol consumption and, consequently, advocated for prohibition as a means of reasserting white control over wayward southern blacks.

Evangelicals combined their desire to control alleged drunken black rapists with a recasting of southern honor that eschewed traditional honorable activities like drinking, fighting, gambling, and racial violence in favor of a new bourgeoise version of southern honor characterized by Victorian propriety. Thus, evangelicals succeeded in extending a plan of racial control to prevent all of southern society, black and white, from partaking of the forbidden elixures.*

Map showing the still remaining U.S. dry counties. Nearly all are located in the South. Map courtesy of the BBC.

Map showing the still remaining U.S. dry counties. Nearly all are located in the South. Map courtesy of the BBC.

Thanks to the efforts of evangelicals, a good slice of the South, particularly in Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee still have dry counties. This highlights a broader point about the nature of government involvement in private affairs in Dixie that influences southern lawmaking and culture to this day. Despite a generally conservative political culture in the South that emphasizes limited government interference in individual affairs, southern evangelicals have not ceased trying to use the state to shape social behavior according to their preferred designs. Contemporary evangelicals are behind efforts to use government power to ban gay marriage and restrict, if not outright ban, women’s access to abortion — and they still want to keep some counties in the South booze free.

In terms of the liquor bans, though, it looks like the religious folks’ stranglehold is starting to loosen. And, as with a lot of things in history, if you follow the money trail, you’ll get close to some answers. There’s nothing like a big ole’ recession to uncork (pun REALLY intended) a few bottles to start pouring out some much-needed revenue. Back in March, Governing reported that a growing number of localities across the South were ending decades-long prohibitions on sale and consumption of hooch in efforts to raise revenue without raising taxes. This trend is also happening outside of Dixie. In February, for example, the town of Seneca, New York reversed an 80 year standing ban on the sale of booze in order to raise enough dough to keep its landfill open.

The slow hammering of the final remaining nails in prohibition’s coffin reminds us of two crucial points about Americans as a group. 1.) Whatever their political persuasions, they aren’t shy about using the state to force others to bend to their sacred whims, and 2.) even the most deeply held beliefs can become suddenly negotiable when you threaten the cash flow. Now go out and get sloshed tonight, my friends, its your civic duty.

* For more information on prohibition in the South, see Joe L. Coker, Liquor in the Land of the Lost Cause: Southern White Evangelicals and the Prohibition Movement (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007).