The Lure of Reporting About Southern Stereotypes

Friday, March 23, 2012


In the lead-up to the Alabama and Mississippi presidential primaries the media seized on poll results which revealed surprising views on interracial marriage and Barack Obama's religion among likely Republican primary voters. Public Policy Polling, who conducted the poll, also asked people who they'd be voting for, but that information wasn't as attention-getting. Bob speaks with Michelle Cottle, a Southerner herself, who has been keeping tabs on media coverage of the polls for The Daily Beast


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Michelle Cottle

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Bob Garfield

Comments [13]

Sarah Golden from Ashland, Oregon

Generally I find the interviewees chosen for On the Media to be intelligent and represent a satisfying spectrum of opinions. In this piece, however, I think both interviews miss the mark. Both guests dismiss what this poll indicates about intolerance and racism in America. I don't think that this is a problem only in the South, though it may be more concentrated there. But be it Mississippi, Arizona or Boston, this hatred should not be excused or mitigated.

The guests indicate that the data is not as important as the substance of the presidential primaries. But these are the values from which our politics are born! We should examine the system that allows people to maintain these bigoted views. The republican candidates are reflections of values that allows this social hierarchy to continue. They may not specifically call for a return to Jim Crow, but they provide a space in politics those who believe we should.

And the idea that we are wasting energy on this poll data instead of focusing on the election? The conclusions one can draw from this data IS the story. The daily dramas between the republican candidates have been raging at a vapid and superficial frequency for months and months. And it will continue for many more. It would be a valuable use of the media's time to examine our cultural values that exacerbate America's inequities and have rendered such offensive and uninspiring candidates as Romney and Santorum.

But, as is, this piece downplays information we could use to make a better America.

Apr. 05 2012 09:37 AM
Steve Hall

So, the point of this episode seems to be: despite the fact that these were polls of likely Republican primary voters (i.e., not representative of all southerners), and despite national and other regional polls showing similar results, and against the advice of his guest, Bob Garfield (on behalf of the rest of the east coast media) is pretty happy to keep his stereotypes of the south and southerners. Did I hear the correctly?

Mar. 31 2012 11:46 AM
April from Manhattan

I'm an anomaly among anomalies. Either that or we don't know what we're talking about. I choose B. I'm a 66 year old Southern woman now living in NYC. Like many white Southerners, I was in the civil rights movement. Odd you haven't heard of us? Not at all. As Bob Moser, an editor at The Nation said in his book, Blue Dixie, "Talking about race in the South is a way of not talking about race in the rest of the country." Imagine the mayor of Atlanta killing an unarmed African or African American every few weeks. The country would scream "SOUTHERN RACIST KILLINGS!!!" But it was Giuliani's well named street crime unit that did that in NYC. I talked to one of my few last black neighbors before she moved back South, as part of the reverse migration. We had worried about her son under Giuliani, then stop and frisk (and possibly go to jail or get a record due to unreasonable search and seizure) about her grandson. I talk to people all the time. I like to talk to African Americans, feel comfortable with them and sympathetic for what they go through EVERYWHERE in this country. At the NY HIstorical Society I asked Rev Butts of the Abysinnian Church whether there was still segregation in NYC. He began,"Well, in Atlanta..."then did a double take. "Yes. In housing, jobs, schools, policing, and churches..." Take a look at The Southern Poverty Law Center's Hate Map. Most of their stories are about the South, since, it's my belief, most of their funding comes from the NE helping THOSE people down there. Look at KKK in upper Michigan, the snarl that is NJ. California, easy, liberal, has the most.

Mar. 27 2012 08:56 PM
Rev Archibald Taylor from Clarksville IN 47129

Fundamentalist Christians who deny evolution have turned the Bible into god, and commentators play into the hands of the deniers if they speak of "believing in evolution" in the same terms as "believing in God." Evolution is a scientifically demonstrated FACT. It describes the development of the cosmos since the big bang and the emergence of life on planet Earth over billions of years. Details of various aspects of the evolutionary process are still being worked out, involving hypotheses, debate, revision, etc. which by no means negates the FACT of evolution as a process of development. One should say "accept" or "acknowledge" or "appreciate" evolution. One can still "believe in God" as I do--the One God who transcends the cosmos, the earth, all gods.

Mar. 25 2012 10:28 PM
Jason Weeks

The interview with the Daily Beast reporter was a bit short on facts, which are not all that hard to retrieve.

The PPP polls results on Mississippi and Alabama Republican voters actually show that, where evolution is concerned, they are not too far out of line with the Republican Party nationally.

66% of Mississippi Republicans and 60% of Alabama GOP voters disbelieve in evolution. But according to Gallup (2007), 66% of all Republicans believe the theory to be definitely or probably false. (cf Andrew Revkin, "A Fundamental Republican Science Problem", NYT, 22 Aug. 2011).

But this compares unfavorably with Americans as a whole: 53% say the theory is probably or definitely true. Likewise, 52% of Republicans, as opposed to 40% of Americans generally, believe that human beings did not evolve, but were created by God in their present form 10,000 years ago.

As for the President's religion: the PPP results show that 52% of Mississippi Republicans believe that he is Muslim, and 36% are not sure. Only 12% believe that he is Christian. In Alabama, the comparable figures are 45%, 41% and 14%.

This is quite a departure from national norms, even among Republicans. According to an August 2010 Pew Center poll: 34 % of Americans generally believed he was Christian, 18% Muslim and 43% said they didn't know.

The comparable figures for Republicans nation wide are 27% Christian, 31% Muslim and 39% don't know.

The data suggest that, where science is concerned, it is the Republican Party, not the South, that is "shockingly retrograde", but the South may be significantly less accepting of a black politician whose middle name is the same as the surname of the former leader of Iraq.

The Daily Beast reporter would like to defend the South's reputation against "stereotyping" from the North or the "elites" on the coast. But since she doesn't really have any data to back up her claims, she doesn't get very far.

Mar. 25 2012 09:34 PM
Stacy Harris from Nashville, TN

Having lived in the South decades longer than I have lived anywhere else (I am Midwestern-born, Northeast-educated), my experience is that Dixie is more sexist, homophobic,anti-Semitic, ignorant of civil liberties and, yes, racist, than its regional neighbors. (I remain here due to other, obviously more positive, reasons and interactions.)

Granted, I paint with an overly-broad brush. But I believe most stereotypes contain a smidgen- if, in most instances, only a smidgen- of truth; hence the disclaimer that I speak to my OBSERVATIONS.

That said, while I don't think interracial marriages should be ILLEGAL, I understand that OPPOSITION to such unions (which can be, but is not necessarily, the same thing, depending upon one's belief), is sometimes rooted in personal preference informed, not by bigotry, but other considerations.

Personal preferences re: race, religion and ethnicity are sometimes rooted in beliefs and decisions about one's own ability and desire to procreate. Similarities in background and/or genetics, like similarities in attitudes about such subjects as parenting, saving, spending, politics, are thought collectively to be indicators of a successful marriage. In essence, the more we have in common, opposites attracting notwithstanding, the better chance we'll remain physically, emotionally and mentally compatible.

Compatible parents presumably produce healthier happier offspring. Forcing a child to identify racially or religiously with one parent (or having society foist that "choice" upon them), can be a recipe for disaster. This is why, in thought if not also in deed, some people prefer to take the path of least resistance.

There are also other considerations. If a Jew marries someone who is not Jewish, and the couple's children are not raised as Jews (as statistically happens the majority of the time), then "the numbers" (low birth rate) dictate the future of Judaism. If Judaism is worth preserving, self-preservation- what's right for "me" as opposed to my trying to control, judge or even caring how others conduct their private lives - is the first consideration dictating personal choice.

Stacy Harris
Publisher/Executive Editor/Media Critic
Stacy's Music Row Report

Mar. 25 2012 03:05 PM
Isaac from Chicago, IL

Unfortunately, I was deeply disappointed in lack of the professionalism with which this story was reported. I am an avid NPR listener and supporter, however, the language about the implications of this poll was deeply deceptive and imprecise. In particular, it was not acknowledged until several minutes into the discussion that the poll surveyed an insignificant sample size and was limited to conservative Republicans. Thus, the entire interview up to that point portrays the majority of southerners as anti-intellectual, racist fundamentalists.

Rather than being clear about who was being polled and the inability of such a poll to accurately reflect the entire south-east region of the country, I imagine this report only served to offend those southern listeners for whom this is not an accurate reflection, and further fortified the unjustified prejudices about the south that already exist.

Mar. 25 2012 01:13 AM
Lyle Gravatt from Tupelo, MS


The reason the PPP data you mention wasn't widely reported is because it does not accurately depict Democratic/Independent positions. "PPP surveyed 656 likely Republican voters in Mississippi and 600 likely Republican primary voters in Alabama," all 100% of which planned to vote in the Republican primary.

In other words, the Crosstabs you mentioned, reflect the attitudes of 38 Democrats and 263 Independents who voted in the Republican primaries of AL and MS. This cross-section is highly unlikely to represent the actual attitudes of Democrats and Independents as a whole.

Additionally, where the margin of error is +-4% for the overall polls, the Crosstab margin of errors for the smaller subset of Democrats and Independents is much higher.

Mar. 24 2012 06:39 PM

Bob Garfield: "Are the media in this case just carrying water for the Democrats in the culture wars?"

Correct answer: Yes.

You question was an excellent one, Bob. Thanks for asking.

Whenever these kinds of polling exercises hit the news in the larger press, I perform the mental exercise of thinking about what sorts of polling questions I might pose, to embarrass the populations of the East Village or Brooklyn in New York City; or Harlem and the South Side of Chicago; or the Rosebud or Pine Ridge Indian Reservations; Annandale-on-Hudson, New York; Madison, Wisconsin; or even Westwood Village, Los Angeles. I think Jay Leno has Westwood covered, via his "Jaywalking" segments.

Mar. 24 2012 01:41 PM

"The dying South" grew up in a mid-20th Century Southern culture where the Democratic Party machine controlled all aspects of political, educational and social life with oppression and brutality was the answer to anyone who challenged it. Does that Democratic Party obsession with race and political conformity continue to this day in other forms? If the media insists on distracting attention away from the economic record of the President than surely that question is just a relevant as inquires about evolution.

Mar. 24 2012 11:06 AM

Here is some more data, drawn from the "Crosstabs" pages of the .pdf of the PPP poll done in Alabama:

27% of Democrats think that Barack Obama is a Muslim.
33% of Independents think that Barack Obama is a Muslim.

43% of Democrats do not believe in evolution.
50% of Independents do not believe in evolution.

This was interesting; broken down by party, these were the percentages of poll respondents who oppose interracial marriage:
26% of Democrats think interracial marriage should be illegal.
23% of Republicans think interracial marriage should be illegal.
11% of Independents think interracial marriage should be illegal.

OTM didn't report those numbers. Neither did most media accounts of the PPP poll.

OTM also didn't mention; one of PPP's neat little polling tricks is that they frequently include a few questions about a hot-topic sports rivalry, frequently a collegiate sports rivalry. Because while people might be bored with poll results of policy questions, few things get their blood boiling like college sports (in this case, the Alabama-Auburn football rivalry), and make for good newspaper headlines.

Mar. 24 2012 08:41 AM
fuva from Harlemworld

I think so, Alana. I find that many white people are uncomfortable referring to or discussing race. I've encountered this phenomena in black folk too, but much less so. I've speculated about the reasons for this -- guilt, fear of betraying white-supremacist views, etc. But it's hard to really know because, of course, it's hard to get honest dialogue going here. This does us no good...

On another note, in this segment, Cottle described white Southern stances against interracial marriage as both "retrograde racist" and "ultra-Conservative". And the cited polls revealed high rates of belief that Obama is a muslim, etc. amongst self-identified Conservatives elsewhere. When will we acknowledge and seriously address the baseness of the Republican base, and call that party out on it? Course, this should have happened when the Republican party, in the 60s, race-baited Southern Dixiecrats mad at Civil Rights for black folk. That it hasn't happened is evidence of larger problems across a much broader swath of American society.

Mar. 24 2012 07:59 AM
Alana Gaymon from Brooklyn

I need clarification as a result of listening to this story. When you say "Southerners" do you mean "white Southerners, or was a cross-section of Southerners (white/black/Native/Asian/etc.) interviewed? Because when you place "Republican" and southerner" in the same sentence I assume "white", but you don't say that. You also refer to Boston and "retrograde racist views" and that also makes me think "white". Ok, you finally said "old white folks". Maybe that should have been clear from the beginning.
Let me tell you where I am going with this. My experience has often been that white people only mention race if the person is not white (not like *them*). The rest of us are supposed to assume that's what is meant. When a non-white person is mentioned, there is a slight hesitation in mentioning the race (at least around me - a non-white person) before the sentence is completed. I'm uncomfortable hearing it largely because it seems the white speaker seems uncomfortable saying it, and I'm curious as to the root of the discomfort. Is that the case? Is there a hesitation/discomfort on the part of whites in naming the race/ethnicity of someone who is not white?

Mar. 24 2012 07:29 AM

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