I have long argued that Southerners are distinctly more punitive than other Americans. In an experimental post called “The Religious Roots of Southern Punitiveness,” I noted that rates of incarceration in the cluster of states just to the east of Texas are twice as high as the national average and that 82% of the executions administered since the death penalty was ressurrected in 1976 have been in the South. Recently, when I expressed surprise that the Cambridge Police Department would arrest a distinguished black professor for disturbing the peace of an irritated officer, several readers commented that folks in the Northeast are every bit as racist as the folks down south.
To an extent, I agree. But civil rights resentment still runs strong in states like Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, states where the first African American president fared very poorly with white voters. And now comes the Birther movement. A hot-0ff-the-presses poll by The Daily Kos finds that, nationwide, when asked if Barack Obama was born in America, 77% said yes, 11% said no, and 12% weren’t sure.
Considering that there is no evidence supporting the Birther position the 77% figure is a bit distressing. But you ain’t seen nothin’.
Broken down by region, a disturbing trend emerges. In the Northeast, 93% said yes, a tiny 4% said no, and 3% said they weren’t sure. The “yes” vote in the Midwest was 90% and it was 87% in the West. In the South, however, fully 47% of respondents thought Obama was born in the United States, 23% said he wasn’t and a whopping 30% said they weren’t sure.
When you break the numbers down by party affiliation, Democrats and Independents answered the question much like folks in the Northeast, Midwest and West, but only 43% of Republicans nationwide believed the President is a citizen, while 28% said he wasn’t a citizen and 30% claimed they didn’t know. That means that 58% of Republicans refuse to affirm that the President was born on American soil.
I would like to see the figures for white Republicans in states like Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Texas. If 58% of Republicans nationally aren’t convinced that Barack Obama was born in the United States what do the numbers look like in Jena, Louisiana where 80% of the electorate voted for David Duke, or in Winona Mississippi where a state senator can freely admit membership in the most racist organization in America without raising a ripple of concern in white Republican circles?
It could be argued that we are talking about an irrational position. For those in the reality-based community, the President’s place of birth was settled long ago. But this isn’t about evidence; it is about the refusal of a large percentage of southern whites to see a black president as one of us. It’s about the perceived otherness of black America.
The Daily Kos poll determined that 69% of Birthers live in Southern states, 12% live in the Midwest, 12% in the West, and 6% in the Northeast.
What does all of this say about the objectivity of your typical all-white jury in rural Mississippi or Alabama when the victim is white and the defendant is black? Do the majority of the people sitting on such a jury truly believe that the defendant is a genuine member of the community. In such a situation does the phrase “a jury of one’s peers” have any meaning?
Sure, the current Gates vs. Crowley debate suggests that most white coastal moderates have a hard time identifying with the black American experience. But the birther phenomenon goes much deeper than that. It is a psychosis akin to the anti-civil rights rage we witnessed fifty years ago.
The South is different; just ask the Birthers.