- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 23, 2005


The joke around here is that this town’s name is really an acronym for “Containment Area for Relocated Yankees.”As far as Vernon Yates is concerned, they haven’t been contained well enough.

Nearly surrounded by pricey subdivisions, the cinderblock Yates Grocery and Farm Supply sells neither anymore.

Holding court near a potbellied stove, the 69-year-old man in the suspenders and NASCAR shirt laments that his old customers have been replaced by fast-talking, sport utility vehicle-driving Northerners who don’t seem to be able to read a stop sign.

“It’s all gone,” Mr. Yates says of the Southern town of his youth. “Everything is completely different from what it used to be.”

Things are indeed changing in the South. And so is the notion of what it means to be “Southern.” We’ve had the Solid South, the Old South and the New South.

But are we heading toward a “No South”?

As the South’s population booms — projected to make up 40 percent of the nation’s population by 2030 — a new Associated Press-Ipsos poll finds that the percentage of people in the region identifying themselves as “Southerners” is slowly shrinking.

The poll, conducted this past month, found that 63 percent of people living in the region identified themselves as Southerners. That mirrors a trend from a University of North Carolina analysis of polling data that found a 7 percent decline on the same identity question from 1991 to 2001, to 70 percent.

The South has become “sort of like a lifestyle, rather than an identity anymore,” James Cobb, author of the newly published “Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity,” would argue. “The things now we would base Southern distinctiveness on are so ethereal.”

And sometimes contradictory: In a region that once tried to break away from the Union, people generally are considered more patriotic than the rest of Americans; in a place where blacks were oppressed for hundreds of years, poll after poll shows them identifying themselves as “Southern” even more often than whites do.

“The South is a region of irony,” says Bill Ferris, co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. “It’s both un-American and deeply American.”

New York City-born Bob Petrolino has lived in Raleigh, N.C., for 30 years and has heard his share of snide remarks about damned Yankees.” When the local paper recently ran a landfill story with the headline “N.C. set to become Yankee dump,” he fired off an angry letter wondering when we would finally get beyond the Civil War references.

“I find a lot of people who are still fighting that war,” the 71-year-old IBM retiree told AP. “They still have that chip on their shoulder, like, ‘Hey, we would have been better off if you’d never come here.’”

About a third of the Southern residents who responded to the AP poll say they were born outside the region. But of those born in and living in the South, 77 percent choose to call themselves Southern.

William Andrew Johnson was born in Savannah, Ga., and lives just outside Charleston, S.C. — where the first shot of the Civil War was fired. But he rejects the label “Southerner.”

“I’m not a red-stater at all,” says the 61-year-old retired investment banker. “You know how a Southerner defines ‘patriotic’? He supports any and every war.”

Studies have found that people in the region enlist in the military out of proportion to their percentage of the overall population. But that could be as much a factor of economics or the predominance of military installations in the region as love of country.

And what about the so-called Bible Belt? Are Southerners really more religious than other Americans?

Church attendance figures compiled by David Olson, director of the American Church Research Project, show Southerners are much more likely than the average American to go to church — though, as a region, their Midwestern brethren have a slight edge. The Arbitron broadcast rating service finds that Southern dwellers are 48 percent more likely than people in the rest of the country to listen to religious radio programming.

According to the AP poll, Southerners appear to have a higher opinion of themselves than do others. Of those asked whether Southerners were more courteous than other Americans, 55 percent of those living in the region said yes, while 35 percent of non-Southerners felt that way.

The South is now the nation’s most industrialized region. Though traditional textile employment and the like has largely moved offshore, the region has attracted high-profile employers such as automakers. About three-quarters of Southerners now live in metropolitan areas.

But if you’re looking for the “real South,” retired Dallas salesman Patrick Phillips says don’t bother going to Charlotte, N.C.; Birmingham, Ala.; or even Atlanta, the presumptive capital of the New South. It’s not there.

“I think the true Southerner is pretty much lost in the metropolitan area in today’s time,” says the 56-year-old Tulsa, Okla., native, who identifies himself as a Southerner. “I think you have to get off in the back roads of the Southern states to really get into it again.”

The AP found that people who live in rural areas are much more likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to consider themselves Southern.

“Southern identity,” says novelist Cassandra King, who grew up on a southern Alabama peanut farm, “comes from the red clay or white sand or black dirt which produces our peanuts and corn and okra and field peas and sweet potatoes.”

John Shelton Reed, author of numerous books on the region, says, “The differences between Southerners and other Americans have now become so small, by historical standards, that they hardly matter at all.”

In many ways, he says, the rest of the country is starting to look more like our image of the South. “We have exported country music, NASCAR and the Southern Baptist Convention so successfully that they may not be ‘Southern’ institutions much longer,” Mr. Reed says.

Graham Banks, chairman of the pro-secession Southern Party of South Carolina, says there’s something wrong when the Country Music Awards are being presented in New York and Southern stock-car tracks lose race dates in the name of NASCAR expansion.

“Every time there’s something good that people like, it becomes ‘American,’” says the 38-year-old investor and writer from Bamberg, S.C. “They co-opt it and then call it something else, and then begin to slowly morph it into something that isn’t Southern, and then it dies.”

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