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It’s Time For Northerners To Give Up Outdated Prejudices About The American South

Plenty of Americans — particularly those in the Northeast — reacted with shock last Friday when Joe Biden overtook President Donald Trump’s lead in Georgia. 

Pending a recount unlikely to reverse a Biden margin over Trump that as of Tuesday evening stood at more than 14,000 votes, the former vice president will be the first Democrat to flip the state from the GOP column in nearly 30 years. The jolt this caused among many is understandable. We’re talking about the Deep South, after all. 

But I wasn’t surprised. As a native New Yorker, I know the results in Georgia are a wake-up call for many Americans unfamiliar with the South’s shifting political landscape. But a political revolution and a cultural renaissance have been underway here for decades. The nail-bitingly-close results we’ve seen in this election in Georgia and North Carolina (which Trump won by less than 2 percentage points) and the increasing competitiveness of Texas in presidential races reflect a sweeping change underway across the whole region.

I’ve witnessed this firsthand as a resident of Memphis, Tennessee, where I now live.

I’m one of many millennials who fled New York City due to the coronavirus pandemic and chose to move back to the South, where I’d lived five years previously. Even before the pandemic, the South was gaining great numbers of young people from all over the country, many of them liberal. 

Everyone has their own reasons for moving to the South. I came initially as a Teach for America corps member in 2013. I didn’t expect to fall so deeply in love with Memphis, a city I’d only heard referenced in blues songs and history books. But the South stole my heart, from the vibrant local music and arts community, to the inspiring activists working to end educational inequity, to the funky boutiques and coffee shops in this city that feels like a small town. 

Other millennials are moving to the South to join the tech boom in places like Austin, Texas, and Raleigh, North Carolina. Or they are drawn to the lower cost of living and the artsy, Brooklyn-like neighborhoods in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. 

Three of my hometown best friends chose to settle in the South after college, to the chagrin of our New Yorker baby boomer parents. Like many millennials, our parents’ impressions of the South had been formed by the unrest of the ’60s, and so they warned us to carry pepper spray in our purses and keep our noses out of politics. We rolled our eyes; they couldn’t see what we knew: that in the South we could buy affordable houses — at age 25! — and would spend winter weekends at the beach, sampling delicious Southern-fusion cuisine at microbreweries that would make any New Yorker jealous. 

When I moved to the South, I easily met a community of other idealistic young people — teachers, lawyers, chefs, urban planners and religious leaders — who believed in (and voted for) the same things I do: feminism, social justice, expanded health care and social services, rights for LGBTQ people and marginalized groups. And they weren’t all transplants like me. Many were born and raised Southerners. 

Like many who grow up in the North, at a young age I absorbed a negative impression of the “backward” South, crippled by its legacy of slavery and Jim Crow oppression.

Fast-forwarding to 2020, a solid blue majority in Charleston, South Carolina, Memphis, Dallas and other Southern cities helped propel the Democratic ticket of Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris to win the largest popular vote in U.S. history.

Culturally, Southern cities might surprise many Northerners: Here in Memphis, a typical day in 2020 begins with a visit to the farmers market, where progressive nonprofits sell vegetables grown by local students from Title I schools (including some of my former pupils). We’ll have our temperatures checked before entering a restaurant practicing social distancing to enjoy the city’s many delicious Vietnamese, Ethiopian or Caribbean offerings. At night I’ll drive five minutes to a local gay bar for a drag comedy night, passing a field of Biden + Harris and Justice for Breonna lawn signs along the way.

This is the South I know and have chosen to make my home.

The South has its problems, of course. A long history of voter suppression and redlining here continues to influence voting patterns in the region’s states, and may have blocked a larger Democratic majority from surfacing in Georgia last week. A deep legacy of racism and injustice persists, from the enduring school-to-prison pipeline, to food deserts in poor neighborhoods, to racial profiling within local police forces that leads to the needless killings of Black people. 

But these problems are also widespread across the U.S., not isolated below the Mason-Dixon line. This is a tough pill to swallow for many Northerners, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise after the past four years. Look at the swastikas graffitied on New York subways, or the MAGA caravan that blocked traffic on the Mario Cuomo Bridge a few days before the election. Bigotry transcends borders, and it lives on — sometimes insidious, but increasingly outright in the age of Donald Trump —  in New York and the rest of the liberal Northeast. 

In the South, many of us think things are changing for the better.

The Georgia runoff election in January for two crucial Senate seats will be a contest between the conservative old South that some liberal Northerners scoff at (one that still exists and has pervasive political influence, I can’t deny) and the emerging South that I know — one that is increasingly liberal, progressive and diverse.

On the frontlines of this growing blue wave are Black and progressive Southern leaders who have been fighting the good fight for years. Stacey Abrams and Jaime Harrison are two of the most prominent — but scores of Democratic organizers, PACs and progressive nonprofits are also working to expand voting rights, ballot access and enthusiasm for their causes here in the South. 

Beyond politics, you can feel change underway in the culture of a city like Memphis, which has been strengthened and shaped by Black community power. Immigrants are moving here from across the globe; Confederate monuments are coming down; the community rallies around new women- and POC-owned businesses. 

When I moved away after my Teach for America service ended, I didn’t predict that I would come back five years later in the midst of a pandemic, fleeing my tiny and overpriced Manhattan apartment for Memphis’ green and airy sprawl. But coming back here felt like coming home. 

It’s time for Northerners to give up outdated prejudices about the American South and wake up to the reality that I see confirmed here every day. Places don’t vote, people do. And the people of the South have a voice and a vote. Last week’s altered electoral map should have taught us that. 

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