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Kathleen Parker: Why do candidates treat South like a stereotype?

Published: Wednesday, March 14 2012 1:16 a.m. MDT

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets supporters who braved the rain during a campaign stop at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Monday, March 12, 2012 in Mobile, Ala.

Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — Having lived in South Carolina for most of the past 25 years, I've often averred that the state Chamber of Commerce keeps a stable of "rednecks" to release when the national media come to town.

You know the ones — the folks who drive trucks, hunt deer (and even varmints if they're in the mood for a little chicken fried squirrel) and, yes, put cheese in their grits. The latter is hardly a redneck pursuit these days, however, as grits have become the side dish du jour in the swankiest restaurants.

Mainly, the locals captured on camera are often unsophisticated, probably undereducated, and unaccustomed to editing their thoughts for public consumption. The accent common to many folks in the region — or as outsiders prefer, "them thar parts" — long ago has been identified by the motion picture industry as belonging to less-intelligent humans. Rare exceptions — the brilliant country lawyer who merely pretends to be dumber'n a box of rocks — prove the rule.

Thus, when members of the national media come to town every four years, they're on the lookout for the stereotype they've memorized from afar. And, in a quirky gesture of reverse public relations, the Chamber obliges. Or so I've always figured, given that I know few people who actually talk that way. It isn't inconceivable that these characters play up their role just a bit for the cameras. What else would one expect, anyway, when the candidates themselves fall into a weird sort of "Southern Tourette's," delivering inanities apparently gleaned from the visitor's guide to "redneck" tropes?

"Mornin', y'all," said Mitt Romney recently to a Mississippi crowd. He started his day off right, he said, with "a biscuit and some cheesy grits." That would be cheese grits, but never mind. Would Romney greet an audience at a Jewish Community Center with: "Oy vey, did I ever enjoy my loxies and bagels this morning!"? Or African-Americans with: "Yo, dawg, wassup?"

Actually, yes, he might. Forever tattooed in the memory is the image of Romney approaching an African-American baby at a 2008 Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade. Pointing to the baby's necklace, he said: "What's happening? You got some bling-bling here!"

Yo.

Which means "I" in Spanish, so why not go there, too? "Buenos dias, amigos. Love me some tacos and salsies."

Romney isn't the only guilty party, just the most recent. Even Barack Obama loses his last syllable south of the Mason-Dixon. For Romney, however, the more he tries to get down with the people, the more he highlights the perception that he can't. Why try? Why not be yourself? How many times do I have to say this?

Southerners, some of whom have actually ventured beyond their state's borders, understand that biscuits and grits are local fare and that northern politicians probably haven't enjoyed much of that. They understand that a city boy probably hasn't had much experience in deer stands and duck blinds. They get that you have a different elocution, so why try to imitate theirs? Would Romney speak English with a Latino accent to win over a crowd in Little Havana?

No, because that would be racist — or something. Which raises the question: Why is it perfectly acceptable to mock white Southerners? If it's because you think they're ignorant, then when did it become OK to mock the less lucky? Or to ask only residents of the Deep South questions you don't ask people in other regions?

Bias isn't only found in answers, but in questions, as illustrated by a recent poll by the Democratic-affiliated Public Policy Polling group out of North Carolina. People in Alabama and Mississippi were asked about evolution, interracial marriage and whether President Obama is a Muslim. More than half of Mississippians apparently believe Obama is a Muslim, and 45 percent of Alabamans do.

These headline-producing findings are interesting and a little disturbing, but are they unique to the South? As Michelle Cottle points out at The Daily Beast, PPP didn't ask these questions in other states.

The U.S. region that was invaded and conquered doesn't have much use for condescending outsiders, but most have warm hearts and will laugh at your corny jokes. And they'll take your poll, though they may or may not answer honestly, depending on whether they've had their biscuits and cheesy grits that day.

Which is to say: There are lots of ways to be smart and lots of ways to be dumb, and it would appear that the South does not have a monopoly on the latter category.

Kathleen Parker's email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com

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