“I remember the days, sittin' on the porch with my family, singin' and dancin'
About a year ago, I was engaged in a discussion of writing “The Other”—a topic of great importance to near-future science fiction—when I mentioned the society I envisioned for a first sequel to the novel whose hopefully-salable draft I am close to completing. My novel begins in the last days of the Second Civil War, which followed a campaign of “Whitening and Christianization” in the region that became known as the Christian Republic. The remaining population was envisioned as white, fundamentalist Protestant, heterosexual, cis-gender Southerners; and the society, patriarchal in nature. However, I devoted only a few sentences to this part of the world in the current novel, making it the bogeyman that frightened the northerners (in the part still calling itself the United States) into accepting militarism, a security state, dramatic asymmetry in wealth distribution, and perpetual wars of conquest fought in Africa.
For the sequel, I said, I would center the novel in the Christian Republic, but I didn’t want to do what Margaret Atwood did in The Handmaid’s Tale: the South as backward and repressive with no redeeming features. I wanted a mirror of the northern region, where everything positive about the North is negative in the South and vice-versa. As such, I messaged my friend, “the Other” I was currently researching was Southern American fundamentalist Christian males, as my world would grow out of their present.
No response was made to the message. I’d shocked my friend into silence. How could this be an investigation into diversity? What “culture” could those people have? And how could they be “The Other”?
Well, speaking as a Jewish former denizen of Northern, Midwestern, and Western cities, a Ph.D. who enjoys intellectual discussion, and someone whose politics tend leftward, I’ve felt rather out-of-place since moving here. Sure, I’m neurotypical, able-bodied, light-skinned, English-speaking, heterosexual, and cis-gender, but these folks with their ATVs, guns, Baptist churches (especially the “primitive Baptist” ones where actually preparing a sermon ahead of time by doing some reading and jotting down notes is verboten), love of football, and deification of veterans struck me right-off-the-bat as far less like me than any I’d ever met. I went to a high school that was half-Black, my wife’s family was first-language Spanish-speaking, I’d had mostly Indian collaborators in my last job and the two students who’d earned their Ph.D. under me hailed from Beijing and Calcutta, and I’d had so many LGBT friends, relatives, and colleagues that to me, all of that was “typical American.” Not so, many of the “Southerners” I met in Florida. How the hell was I to understand this land where my first impression driving into the state was billboards that alternated between strip clubs and “adult” boutiques on the one hand and crisis pregnancy centers and Biblical exhortations on the other (with huge “rebel flags” in between)?
The following is my attempt to make sense of this culture. By necessity, I will speak in generalizations—the archetype being required to extrapolate into near-future science fiction—but I am well aware it doesn’t apply to everyone. I have met some very nice people here. However, I’m shooting for something true enough that it could also help readers navigate a political path toward the type of egalitarian and diverse society I hope my kids get to experience, as these folks aren’t going anyway, and they will be part of any future societal tapestry.
1. SOUTHERN CULTURE IS THE CULTURE OF PRIVATE PROPERTY. Let me back off for one distinction: Marx used “personal property” to mean items associated with day-to-day life and “private property” to mean land, housing, and means of production. I’ll stick with that definition—I’m not talking about your toothbrush or your MP3 player. I’m speaking of one’s home, or better, one’s family’s home. When that “plagiarizer,” Thomas Jefferson, changed one of John Locke’s immortal trinity of those things protected by natural law—life, liberty and property—it didn’t have much impact on the meaning for people here. What is happiness but a piece of property and a home upon it where one can raise one’s family? There’s chicken frying and a pot of grits on the stove in the kitchen and a lawn out back where the dog can run around. Within a fence. Of course, a fence because how else could one’s property be demarcated?
Country songs will celebrate the “front porch swing” on which one can greet the neighbors, boastful of one’s homestead. And through that window on the world, one can chew the fat with neighbors just like you. You might head out with your buddy to go fishing on the nearest lake while your boys play pick-up baseball, and your wife does whatever wives do when they aren’t cooking dinner. You know the local barber, you know the local beat cop, you know the town librarian and the town mayor, and they’re all right friendly, because they have their homes too, and some Sundays, after church, they’ll invite you and yours over for a barbecue, and your wife will bring her award-winning apple pie, but later, each family returns to their own domicile because that’s God’s natural order of things.
Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit. But I have seen many folks for whom this is nearly true.
So, what’s pernicious about this? Well, within historical memory,
2. BLACK PEOPLE AND WOMEN WERE PROPERTY, AND SOME SOCIAL MORES AND FOLKWAYS PERSIST FROM THAT ERA. I would assume that anyone reading my blog posts is aware of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Act or 1964—either from lived experience or history books. What many Northerners (myself included before I came here) didn’t know is how long segregation dragged out. Integration of the high schools in the county in which I live took place in 1974, as demanded by federal courts. Up until recently, the “Black” high school—that used to serve every Black student in three counties, leading to bus rides of several hours each way—still served a 90% Black population. (Magnet programs have addressed this issue recently, but the school is still 2/3 Black, and the other eleven high schools are 10% Black or less.) The neighborhood around this high school is still mostly Black. Several other small pockets of Fort Myers are also largely Black, and all of these neighborhoods are high-poverty. The other neighborhoods all have Black people, just not that many.
Residential segregation leads to social segregation. Up until recently, Black people did not attend the local festivals, a continuing protest of days when they were excluded. When I first moved here, the Edison Festival of Lights junior court coronation consisted exclusively of Blue Blood children. At one earlier point, Black kids were specifically excluded by the rules of selection. As Edison (and Ford, the other plutocrat with a summer home here in the early 20th century) were racists, it’s not surprising.
Go east to most of Lehigh Acres and Bonita Springs, and many neighborhoods are near-100% Hispanic. This degree of separation is not uncommon in the South.
So, with no legal segregation, with redlining of neighborhoods largely abolished in the eighties, and at least in the region where I live, dramatic income segregation but with low- and middle-income neighborhoods distributed throughout all of these areas, why does segregation persist?
Let’s go out on a limb and hazard a guess that racism and/or fear of anticipated racism explains why some people of color don’t gravitate to largely white neighborhoods (with wanting to remain in a neighborhood where they know people also playing a part with multigenerational families in these areas). Let’s go further out and assume that most of the people in a typical white neighborhood would bristle at charges of racism. So, why the difference in perception?
If I grew up in a neighborhood without significant diversity (I isn’t me—I is the hypothetical Southerner—I live in a neighborhood of Northerner transplants chosen for the commute distances to the jobs my wife and I had when we first arrived and because it was the only neighborhood where we wanted to be that had any children), my home and my nuclear family are the center of my life, and I choose to associate with those most like me because the culture is comfortable and familiar, I will move into a neighborhood where most of the people look like me. I will form strong ties to my immediate neighbors. We will hang out with each other.
My children will grow up with the idea that the definition of Southern includes whiteness, because that’s what they will see. Schools can combat this to some extent. My kids went to a relatively diverse school and freely associated with their peers across racial and ethnic lines. But that was in Fort Myers, an area with a very high number of transplants and a pretty high degree of diversity. Move further north (in Florida, the truism is that the further north you get, the further South you get) into the Bible Belt, and social segregation is more likely to be reinforced than combatted in the schools. Even one county north of here (I’m basing my observations on a brief period as a substitute teacher), white kids associate with white kids, Black with Black, and Hispanic with Hispanic, to a much greater extent than in the county in which I live.
Bottom line: the era when Black people were property graded into the era of segregation, graded into continued social segregation. “Them’s just different folks,” you might hear. “I want a safe neighborhood, without too many of those people,” might come from the mouth of the more socially inept. And that’s in public. In private, the sentences might use the n-word. When I volunteered for my kids’ band, I soon learned who to avoid, as these parents thought nothing of casually expressing their racism, despite being around a diverse group of students. Always the lifelong Southerners. Fortunately, they were in the minority, and their kids lacked these attitudes.
Another story, when I first moved here, we lived in a condo in a different development than we now live. My kids—at the time, nine and seven, were out bicycling with me in the neighborhood. We stopped to meet a neighbor. Innocently, my daughter asked her why she moved here from Miami. “Too many Spics” was her answer. My mother-in-law’s family is from Mexico and Guatemala, and my kids were raised with the idea that they were ¼ Hispanic. My son was too young to know what had happened. My daughter wasn’t.
What white people here don’t say, because they don’t know enough to question their own attitudes, is that people different from them threaten their property and homophilic associations-based culture. But that’s what’s going on. Stereotyping, fear of “The Other,” and development of racist memes and dog whistles (“I only oppose illegal immigration”; “I don’t like it when men kiss in public”; “Gang members are ruining this country”; “Most of those people are lazy and don’t want a job”) reinforce the basic dynamic of defense against a perceived threat to the property-based, association-with-those-like-you culture.
Legacy attitudes also explain the position of women in the South. In the early days of the US, women were considered property of men under the British common law doctrine of coverture. They were the property of their father, then the property of their husband. In the 19th century, many states passed Married Women’s Property Acts that allowed women to own property, blunting the worst effects of these laws. Other states abolished coverture-related practices when Constitutions were written.
In Florida, coverture was abolished by the State Supreme Court in 1940, but the “Doctrine of the Necessaries” remained, and it was upheld by this court as recently as 1986. (It hasn’t been challenged since.) This principle holds that the inferior legal status of women is necessary (or natural, or divinely ordained, depending upon which state law you examine). In British common law, women were classified with children and “imbeciles,” unable to think, and thus in need of paternal protection.
So, if women are your property, and property is fundamental to your existence, what do you do to protect your property? Originally, divorces were hard to get. Except in cases of “fault” (abandonment, cruelty, incurable mental illness, or adultery), divorce was not allowed, as it was viewed as socially detrimental. The second-wave feminist movement pushed for no-fault divorces, with California being the first to adopt this concept, in 1969. Divorce skyrocketed in the 1970s, now ending more than half of all marriages. But divorce is still difficult for poor families with children. Where two incomes might pay for rent, divorce means two properties, each supported with a single income. Divorce often means poverty. In our post-capitalist dystopia, low and deteriorating income for working people means barriers to divorce still serve as “property” protection.
A culture where women are expected to remain “pure” can also serve as property protection. If women have sex before marriage, they are sullied goods, or at least they were considered such up to recent times.
But “boys will be boys,” and if certain property is untouchable, other property reaches the market. Hence, the “gentlemen’s clubs,” prostitution, child sex trafficking, etc., that we see so prominently here.
Suddenly, we have an explanation for the conservative Southern support for Donald Trump: it doesn’t matter that he harassed “loose” women—they’re just property. And his acquisition of wives including the latest one who posed nude in Playboy—understandable as property relations.
So, women readers, get this: either you are virtuous because you are acting as the permanent property of a man (under your Dad’s protection and pure and then in a traditional marriage) or you are bought and sold as the more disposable property of a man.
Sounds like a good time to fix up and decorate the house, take care of the kids—you wouldn’t work while they’re little, now would you?—and host proper parties and neighborhood gatherings to make your husband look good.
I didn’t marry a Southern belle. Thank God. I get some awfully strange looks when I tell some women here that my marriage is egalitarian. They can’t relate.
The girls I teach think these attitudes are archaic, but then again, I’m dealing mostly with a population of transplants (from the North as well as from other countries).
Oh, and if you little hussies get pregnant while unmarried, you’re keeping the baby, because abortion is a sin against God. So in some all-white neighborhoods, babies are born to fifteen-year-old girls and raised by either their thirty-year-old grandmothers or their forty-five-year-old great-grandmothers.
Wouldn’t want the girls to get away—to college or something egghead like that. Keep ‘em pregnant, and they’ll stay. Work at Walmart long enough and maybe one day they’ll be able to buy a home. Property for the property.
And I’m realizing this will have to be another of my blog posts with a Part I, II and III (at least). Lots more to say, but any longer, and all but the most steadfast of you will stop reading. Another day.
And the quotation I began with—from Steve Martin’s The Jerk. Great movie. A classic. Hit the public library up for a copy if you haven’t seen it.
Feel free to comment on Facebook or Twitter about this post, with the proviso that “but you didn’t mention” will get the answer “I haven’t gotten to it, yet.”