Welcome to South Carolina: Where “Bless Your Heart” Means “Go to Hell”

I zipped through John Saward’s Keeping It Casual: A Day with South Carolina’s 21st Century Racists, and then posted the article on Facebook with “Painful but real about SC.”

Little did I know that a former student was involved in Saward’s interview and even captured in the article’s main photograph. Luckily, she explained to me that Saward came off as looking to paint as negative a picture of South Carolinians as possible, prompting me to consider more carefully what I had posted and why.

I did add this NYT’s analysis of who supports Trump in the South, confirming, I think, my larger point — even acknowledging that Saward had an agenda regardless of what he found.

So my much more careful point is two-fold:

  1. Outsiders coming to the The South in order to make us look bad is wrong and upsetting for those such as me from The South.
  2. But the ugly, ugly truth is they don’t even have to try to make us look bad because bigotry, nastiness, and racism/sexism are still proudly embraced by way too many and tolerated by way too many more — and that ugliness is usually all justified by Bible thumping, making it all the worse.

This brings me to the two disjointed stereotypes about the South — one that praises us for Southern Hospitality and the other that demonizes us as cross-burning, toothless rednecks.

These caricatures are partially grounded in truth, but the cartoonishness of both makes the mistake that Ta-Nehisi Coates addressed about “oafish racists”:

The problem with Cliven Bundy isn’t that he is a racist but that he is an oafish racist. He invokes the crudest stereotypes, like cotton picking. This makes white people feel bad. The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt. Elegant racism requires plausible deniability, as when Reagan just happened to stumble into the Neshoba County fair and mention state’s rights. Oafish racism leaves no escape hatch, as when Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond’s singularly segregationist candidacy.

Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism.

The South broadly and South Carolina specifically are not uniquely a region and state that represent the corrosive impact of virulent hypocrisy, but both are significant breeding grounds for hatred, racism, classism, homophobia, and sexism shielded by a nasty veneer of Bible thumping.

So if you are just visiting, “Bless your heart” may mean “Bless your heart,” but it may also mean “Go to hell” (or possibly more accurately, “You are gong to hell [and I’m not]”).

With SC Republican’s supporting Trump as they did Newt Gingrich, as a native South Carolinian and an unabashed redneck, I am forced once again (and this is a daily, if not hourly, experience) to note that Trump is exposing that the so-called Religious Right is neither religious (in the moral/ethical sense), nor right.

Trump uses brazen lies and lies that are grounded in hatred to attract a legion of voters who once called themselves the Moral Majority; and in fact, those iterations — Moral Majority, Religious Right, Evangelicals — have always been as nasty as they are currently being by aligning themselves with Trump — a cartoon in a suit and a wig who is even more outlandish than the imagined future in Idiocracy.

Trump, in fact, is the perfect lightning rod for the very worst the South has to offer — the uneducated fundamentalists who cling to conviction even when it is self-defeating. The brutal irony of the South is that the tired Republican ploy of making Americans afraid of terrorists (non-Americans) and whites afraid of people of color is that one need not live long in the South to know first-hand the reality of what is immediately dangerous for anyone — your own damn family, and people like you or that you know.

As I examined during the most recent debate about finally removing the Confederate battle flag from state house grounds, if you really want to understand the South, investigate the nonsensical rallying cry of flag supporters, “Heritage, not hate.”

But I want to return to the point raise by Coates because it is not the KKK defenders who are the problem in the South (and this appears to be the narrative Saward was going to right regardless of what he found), but the same ideologies resting in the breasts of working class, middle class, and affluent Southerners who, like Emily in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” cannot and will not let go of our tarnished traditions in order to build a more perfect union.

The problem is that many in the South passionately wave the flag and thump the Bible without a clue to what either means, and without a moment of their lives spent honoring either.

Instead, the flag waving and Bible thumping are used as weapons to smear good people and to deny others life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Again, this is not unique to the South, but as a Southerner, it kills my soul that this is too often the South and none need come here to make any of that up.

See Also

On Southern Heritage and Pride

The Self-Defeating South, Words Not Spoken: Racism as a Scar and Cancer

Originally published at radicalscholarship.wordpress.com on February 24, 2016.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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