The first rule of white club

Why do white people write as though “the South” is comprised only of white people?

A friend of mine, interviewing candidates for a fellowship, once complained that students trained at Yale always wrote “southern history” this way, in the tradition of C. Vann Woodward:  exclusive of African Americans.  My sense is that it’s only a matter of time for white conservative southerners, who will eventually be outnumbered by white northern in-migration, Mexican and Central American immigration, and African American re-migration as the great-grandchildren of the Great Migration return to their ancestors’ native land.

History is powerful, probably more powerful in the American South than in other American regions, so this will likely take the majority of the present century, but the shift is already well under way.  Texas and Florida lead the way, but North Carolina and Georgia aren’t far behind.  Hotlanta is the capital of black America, after all, and North Carolina has more northern-born retirees every year.  If these states retain a white majority, that white majority will be pretty darn grey, so although older Americans vote more conservatively than other Americans, it’s black and brown people who will be having and raising their children there.

20 thoughts on “The first rule of white club

  1. Gah. We just interviewed someone in a lit field who did this as well: the candidate’s work involves regionalism/regional identity, with the diss focusing on the south. . . but there was no indication that this identity might include (or at least intersect with) non-white experiences of the south.


  2. But, but, but, don’t we all know that questions of race, class and gender only serve to derail the predestinate historical discourse?

    /end snark

    Honestly, that is disturbing but it seems strongly representative of the way in which the mainstream media portrays regional politics. Speaking as a scholar of European history, how well-served are other regional histories by the integration of non-white elements into the historical literature?


  3. Indeed, it has long been the case that “European” history equals “Christian” history, until the Jews appear out of nowhere in 1933. I too am familiar with Americanists who not only believe that Southern history is by definition white, but who still seem convinced at a fundamental but unacknowledged level that “real” American history is white only, too. Everything else is left for “ethnic” courses.


  4. I’d like to know how many of those Yale students who somehow managed to write an all-white history of the American South (how?) were actually from the South. I grew up in California but have been living in the south more or less since 1995. The way history is taught in schools here (at least in South Carolina and Georgia) is inclusive. Remember, a fairly large percentage of students and teachers here are themselves black.

    I’m not saying racism doesn’t exist: it does. But the people who live here for any length of time are constantly forced to confront race relations. You can’t ignore it, can’t wall yourself off from either blacks or whites because we’re all around each other almost anywhere you go. And it’s been that way for long enough that I don’t know how you could tell the history of the South without one or the other.


  5. MMMMmmmm. I get it that this is a problem for the field, and I rarely disagree with Historiann, but how about Glenda Gilmore? John Howard? Christina Greenberg? Steven Hahn? And even (choke, gasp) Betsy and Gene Genovese?

    The question is, how is it that a young person coming out of grad school today could really think that way….which, I grant you, they can.


  6. A lot of scholars are afraid to do multi-cultural history in a first project. I wasn’t one of them. I teach high school now. In general, the outcomes of my friends in grad school who did multi-culti projects – regardless of their background – was poor compared to folks who did monocultural projects. They had a harder time getting a job and haven’t moved as fast up the ladder as people who did mono-cultural projects. There could be all kinds of reasons for that, but I can’t help thinking advisers telling folks to do a mono-cultural project first might be part of the problem.


  7. Susanna K.: my guess would be “no,” but my story is second-hand from a friend about 10 years ago.

    TR: The faculty training students now are probably a lot different than those who were training students in the 1990s or earlier. The students my friend referenced would have been late 1990s Ph.D.s.

    And Western Dave: that is very interesting. I also think that that advice, at least in early American history, was largely wrong (i.e. NOT to do multi-cultural projects.) I wrote a mostly monocultural dissertation because my advisor kept pulling me away from the really interesting Indian history I was finding. That’s why I had to write a totally different book rather than revise a diss. for my first book. I think in the end that my instincts were right.

    On a related point: here’s another rule of White Club: Anyone who writes about African American history, particularly before emancipation, or Native American history (because they’re working from European-language sources) is necessarily writing a multi-cultural or at least multi-racial study, and yet people can write about white people without writing about anyone else. But in the long run, again at least *in my field,* I think people are having a hard time finding book contracts at quality presses if they don’t address in a meaningful way questions of race or ethnicity.


  8. I used to scream about this constantly, and indeed once made it my scholarly agenda to make this no longer the case — obviously that was not successful. But in fairness, it’s more of a popular perception thing (“Southern” = white) than a scholarly thing, for reasons TR notes above and also any perusal of the Journal of Southern History for a few issues will demonstrate that as well. But in terms of public discourse, it’s gotten worse, partly I suppose because of political discussions (Republicans are buoyed by the “southern vote,” meaning white vote, actually white evangelical vote predominantly.

    As for Yale students — flat out not true, see recent works by Alison Greene, Kat Charron, and many, many others.


  9. Good point about popular v. scholarly representation of “the South,” Paul. I think maybe my use of a pretty old (and second-hand!) story confused the issue here. (And I didn’t mean to slag on Yale–obvs. they’re not the only Yankees who might sometimes make this mistake.)


  10. Very odd. My little window to history is cliometrics, and I can’t think of anything South-related that isn’t about race. I don’t think economists care about the South except because of how its racial relations have affected the rest of the country. It’s just an odd little region to put in a fixed effect for otherwise.


  11. Setting aside the very first sentence – and I, not being of Yale, can’t offer an opinion – the rest of this is totally spot on, H-Ann. You are describing, as a stage of socio-demographic evolution, the outskirts of Phoenix, now full of silver-haired millionaires on fixed incomes, driving custom golf charts and voting in Sheriff Joe, whose job is scare off/overpolice the browns and blacks. But someday, the silver-haired folks will be fewer. And they will lose everything. For the rest of the greater South, between now and the inevitable future, though, there is a whole mess of ugliness yet, a whole lot of Phoenix. We need histories rich in complexity to prepare us for this rich and complex landscape in-the-making.

    Plus, I love the tone.


  12. Did anybody else actually click over to read the article? Ugh. George Packer is a war and “failed state” reporter, I guess. This manly white guy in an armchair stuff might be his style.


  13. Indeed. He was one of those very brave, very manly so-called “Liberal War Hawks” back in 2002 and 2003 who supported the Bush admin’s opportunistic move to invade Iraq and depose Saddam. All of those guys–and of course, the ones who got the prominent perches in mags like the New Republic and the New Yorker were in fact all guys–were apparently entirely ignorant of the voluminous history of modern colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as totally credulous in believing (or hoping?) that the Bushies were capable of anything but a total clusterf^(k. And none of these guys had military experience either (duh!).

    So, color me surprised when they turned out to be wrong wrong wrongity-wrong with a very wrong cherry on the top.

    But nobody was giving me, or anybody with any historical knowledge, common sense, or even the slightest amount of political acumen that even my dumba$$ kitty-cat had after watching the Bush admin run things for 6 months, any of that kind of opinion journalism real estate, except for Paul Krugman. It was all Thomas Friedman “suck on this” time. Jackasses.


  14. Northern Barbarian is on the money, and the point on popular vs scholarly perception is very good (and this NY article participates in the popular perception).

    There are a lot of Democrat-voting precincts and municipalities and counties here but what pisses me off royally is the party’s abandonment. Candidates cannot get funded by the DNC, etc., yet they have the gall to call me for contributions to campaigns in other states. Who has the wherewithal to challenge the Republicans for Governor and save the schools?

    I don’t know, those dems themselves just seem so white some days, like this author, white is all they can see.


  15. Thanks, Paul–I’m sorry to hear about this. I TA’d for Bob in the fall of 1991, for his Civil War class. He was a generous and decent guy.

    I think his son is just a little younger than I am. (At the time, he had a son who was an undergrad at Penn–he may have had other children too but I don’t recall.) Sad for them to lose a parent at a relatively young age.


  16. Western Dave is absolutely right. I did a multicultural thesis comparing acculturation and political activism of Russian-Germans, Crimean Tatars, and Meskhetian Turks in response to being exiled from their ancestral homelands. There was absolutely zero interest in the US in even interviewing me. It took me a full seven years after getting my PhD to land a long term contract at an African university. The number of comparative historians out there is quite limited. For a long time the late George Fredrickson was just about the only person doing comparative history.


  17. The cognitive dissonance that holding an image of the south as all-white culture is amazing, especially considering that the one other thing that is popularly associated with the Deep South is difficult race relations.

    And while we’re at it: can we dismantle the “racist south” versus “non-racist north” dichotomy? Detroit anyone? Chicago? The (until recently) lily-white Pacific Northwest?


  18. racist v. non-racist

    I grew up in white suburban California under the care of parents who had an anti-racist parenting thing going on before there even was such a term (they were folkies, more or less). I moved from there to Montana, where the casual and conversational displays of racism left me stunned. I realized that growing up where and how I did, I really had no clue about what the world is like. I started paying more attention and after a while, I realized that where I’d grown up was just the same, simply less out in the open about it. The notion that any particular place in the US has a lock on the racist/not-racist sweepstakes is not credible.


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