Shushok co-founded Appalachian Youth Climate Coalition. He is a freshman at the University of the South in Tennessee. He is from Blacksburg.
In the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other people of color around the country, activists and organizers have found that their causes, once ignored as fringe political idealism, are suddenly being seriously considered by both the masses and their elected representatives. Since the death of Floyd, a variety of victories have already been won by urban organizers. City leadership in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Boston, and New York have all agreed to cut police budgets, with many cities committing to new reforms such as required intervention training, the banning of chokeholds, and increased transparency measures.
While these changes are undoubtedly necessary and the municipalities adopting them should be commended, many reforms are conspicuously absent in the place where they are most desperately needed: The South.
States such as Washington, California, and New York are regularly portrayed by Northern conservatives as liberal hellscapes in which the castration of police departments will create anarchy. On the contrary, Northern Progressives often see these states as prime examples of how “civilized” state and local governments should operate. Southern states however, are faced with a different dilemma. Below the Mason-Dixon line, Northern progressives tend to characterize the South as a “lost cause,” and advise organizers and politicians to concentrate their efforts in non-Southern areas where they perceive a higher chance of success. Readers need not look far to see this mentality. In 2017, Daily Beast reporter Michael Tomasky summed up the mindset that many Northerners hold. Tomasky, in his article titled “Dems, it’s Time To Dump Dixie” argues that Northern progressives should surrender the South and instead should, “Write it off. Let the GOP have it and run it and turn it into Free-Market Jesus Paradise.”As a result of the beliefs of Sanborn and many others, Southern states are consistently last in line for any meaningful social reforms— especially those surrounding race.
Today, Southern states rank at the bottom of the list on nearly every social progress metric, from education to voter turnout. These shortcomings, which typically affect the poorest and most disenfranchised members of Southern society, are often depicted by progressive non-Southerners as unchangeable facets of daily life in a region of backward culture and destitute people. Northern liberals’ insistent superiority is rationalized as a form of “punishment” for the racism that has been perpetuated both currently and historically by southern whites. This “punishment” however, does not lead to racial justice, but instead presents itself as the continued belittlement and dismissal of southern activists. This penal mentality is deemed necessary by Northern liberals and is marketed as an attempt to right the wrongs of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and a variety of other southern sins. The sad reality is that this misguided retribution does nothing to punish the white ruling class, but rather empowers them to continue their systems of oppression by portraying Southern activism as a futile pursuit.
Though their actions actually harm Southern communities, many Northern progressives mean well. But in the current climate, in which activists and organizers are demanding reform, it is vital that progressive intentions are aligned with supportive actions. By continuing to refuse to lend their political capital to Southern states that they have incorrectly characterized as backwards lost causes, Northern progressives continue to inadvertently support the racially oppressive systems they claim to be against. The South can’t change itself if Northern progressives continue to derail voices pushing for change. If the South is ever to become a region of equality and justice, Northern progressives have to both recognize and reconcile their role as unlikely oppressors, and instead uplift all voices—even if they come from below the Mason-Dixon line.
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