Maybe Think Twice About That Twitter Joke
I grew up around 20 minutes north of Houston, TX; just a straight shot down the I-45 freeway in a quintessential Southern suburb. I drove past bluebonnets and a Methodist and Baptist church on my way to high school, plus a larger than life Mormon temple at the entrance to my neighborhood. The first thing I noticed when I moved up to Massachusetts for school was the looks I would get from people when I mentioned I was from Texas. People were always so curious; did people really ride horses to school? What was it like down there? (The answers to which are respectively maybe, but not that I’ve seen and honestly, as normal as anything else is).
I remember after the 2018 Senate election, feeling like I experienced a bit of whiplash from how quickly people on the internet switched from being thrilled at the potential of Texas flipping a Senate seat blue, to going back to making hillbilly jokes for a couple of impressions on Twitter. It was hard to watch how quickly that fleeting support disintegrated as someone who was from Texas and had voted there, not to mention had volunteered and phone banked all election season. It was disheartening to have the people who were cheering us on turn to mocking us in a span of 24 hours, as we grieved our loss.
As the 2020 election rolled around and people became more and more excited at the prospect of flipping Texas and its 35 electoral college votes, I saw the same phenomenon occur once again. Tiktoks about manifesting a Blue Texas turned to Tiktoks about how disappointing Texas was. I got on Twitter one morning and came across this brand of joke, which struck me a particularly cruel and harmful in a way I realized I don’t think the people making it had ever realized.
And I really do get it; it’s an easy target, an easy joke to make. And it feels good to lash out at something or someone you can blame when you’re disappointed. But these jokes paint the entire South with one broad brush, writing off everyone living there as a lost cause with one careless stroke. Is the South blameless or ideal? Absolutely not. But is anywhere really blameless?
Can you imagine reading a tweet from someone who lived in New Zealand that told America if it continued to vote against comprehensive healthcare, then they deserved to get sick? Not only would it simply not feel good to read, but I’m also sure you would be quick to recognize that that narrative would do more harm to people who are more vulnerable. The people suffering under America’s current healthcare system who cannot afford care are the people who would deserve to get sick. Those who can already afford healthcare would be completely fine. Much in the same way, the people this narrative about voters in the south and climate change hurts the most, are statistically, people of color, women, and those below the poverty level.
Natural Disasters and Marginalized Communities
Natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey, which devastatingly flooded my hometown in 2017, that Houston is still recovering from even today, hit the city’s most vulnerable communities the hardest. In general, these disasters do the most damage to these communities due to the way they have been disadvantaged by oppressive systems in place long before the disasters ever hit.
Redlining, a racist real-estate practice that comes from around the 1930s, wrote off poorer communities and communities of color as ‘higher risk’ to mortgage lenders, which led to disinvestment in communities of color, as well as continuing the idea of segregation without technically calling it that. This eventually led to hazardous waste sites, landfills, refineries, etc, and any other entity that spills toxins into the air being statistically more likely to be placed into communities of color. This creates more health risks for these communities, and when disaster strikes, creates more risk of pollution and contamination, which can be beyond devastating. The disinvestment in these communities also creates more financial devastation that comes with these disasters. It is incredibly difficult for communities below the poverty level to bounce back from a natural disaster. For example, in the case of Houston and Harvey, it is more likely for those below the poverty level to live in the flood’s path of destruction, because housing tended to be cheaper there. Only a small fraction of those in these communities could afford flood insurance.
So, when you make a joke about letting Florida sink or letting Texas flood, that’s what you’re really talking about. This lost cause trope that writes off the entire Southern and rural US actively harms communities in the US that the most vulnerable to the regressive policies in place in these areas.
It’s Really Hard to Vote in the South
Voter suppression is rampant and blatant in the Southern United States. The republican party uses a myriad of tactics to maintain its stronghold on elections in the South, despite the growing population of voters of color.
Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing the boundaries of an electoral constituency, like a district or county, in a way that manipulates the voting population to favor one party. This can be done in a few ways: by packing all of the voters of one particular demographic into the smallest amount of districts as possible, so as to concentrate their overall say into just a few districts, or by splitting them across many districts, so as to weaken their overall say. This practice is rampant across the Southern US and though the focus on gerrymandering in the media is often on its political party implications, it is important to note that the demographic most likely to be negatively impacted by gerrymandering are voters of color.
In 2010, Texas was found in violation of the voting rights act due to its incredibly gerrymandered districts. Though Texas had grown by 4 million people between 2000–2010, with 90% of that growth being of those with marginalized identities, not a single person with a marginalized identity gained a house seat in Texas following that growth. However, in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the law that required districts to seek approval from the justice department for any changes related to elections in its historic Shelby Counter v. Holder decision, effectively gutting the safeties in place and giving states unchecked power to create biased voting laws and districts. The Supreme Court at the time struck the law down because it was based on data from 40 years ago and was no longer responsive to the current needs of the United States. The day after the law was struck down, Texas put forth a new redistricting plan that analysis later showed helped Texas Republicans win more new US House Seats than any other state. In 2018, five years after the decision, 59 million Americans live in a state where the party with the least votes in the 2018 election still won control of a majority of seats in the legislature.
Photo ID Laws
Photo ID laws that require voters to be in possession of an approved photo ID are another way voter suppression happens. Currently, 34 states have these laws in place, while 11% of citizens do not have a photo ID. Obtaining a photo ID is not easy and costs money, which can create a significant cost barrier, especially for low-income voters; the ACLU estimates the combined cost of document fees, travel expenses, and waiting time ranges from $75 to $175. The requirement to travel presents a barrier to disabled voters and voters in rural areas. In Texas, some rural voters would need to travel about 170 miles to obtain an acceptable form of ID. Not only do these ID laws present significant barriers, but they are also often discriminatory in nature. 25% of Black voters are estimated to lack a photo ID, as opposed to 8% of white voters. These laws have been proven to reduce turnout in voters of color, as well as to be enforced more heavily on voters of color. There can also be bias in which IDs the state accepts; in Texas, a college student ID is not acceptable, but a concealed weapons permit is, creating a fairly obvious bias in what kinds of voters have more ready access to ID.
These kinds of photo ID laws exist all across the South, actively creating barriers for voters of color. In 2016, a North Carolina photo ID law was struck down for “targeting African Americans with almost surgical precision.” Alabama toughened its ID law and then shuttered 31 driver’s license offices in 8 of the 10 counties with the highest percentages of voters of color. These ID laws make it harder for those with marginalized identities to vote and they do it on purpose.
Voter purging is the practice of cleaning up voter rolls by deleting names from registration lists, which when done poorly, can delete eligible voters from the list, preventing them from casting a vote. 33 million Americans have been purged from the voter rolls between 2014 and 2018, with purging rates soaring after the 2013 Supreme Court decision. The purge rates are up to 40 percent higher in states with a history of voter discrimination.
In Wisconsin, 14% of voters were purged from its list between 2016 and 2018. Voters in neighborhoods with a majority Black population were found to have been twice as likely to be deleted as those in more predominantly white neighborhoods. In Georgia, in 2018, Secretary of State Brian Kemp ran and eventually won the very contested race for governor against Stacey Abrams, while simultaneously attempting to purge up to 300,000 voters and pausing 53,000 registrations. Nearly 80 percent of those paused registrations were of voters of color. These purges stop eligible voters from casting their votes, often removing these voters without ever letting the voter know. How would one know they need to re-register if they are never notified? What is one supposed to do if their state simply refuses to process their registration?
Poll closures are another form of voter suppression rampant in the South and nationwide. More than 10 percent of polling locations have been closed across the US between 2008 and 2016, with these closures more heavily impacting voters of color. Poll closures create barriers to voting by making it simply harder for voters to travel to cast a vote and by creating long lines at fewer polling locations. These barriers are more likely to impact low income voters who are unable to take time off of work to travel or to wait in line.
Before the 2018 governor election, Georgia closed polls and increased the average distance a voter had to travel to cast a vote. It was estimated to make it 20 percent more likely for Black voters to miss the election and to prevent 54,000 to 85,000 people from voting in the 2018 election. Brian Kemp won by less than 55,000 votes. In the 2020 election, in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott closed all but one mail-in ballot drop-off location in each county. The decision was contested by several voting rights groups but upheld by a conservative court ruling. Harris County Texas, the largest Democratic county in the State, right in the middle of the most diverse city in the nation, has over 4 million people, all required to use one drop-off location, in the middle of a pandemic.
The Lost Cause Trope Helps No One
Shaming voters for being uneducated or joking about climate change in the south ignores the south’s long history of discriminatory policy and of cutting education funding, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color, not to mention brushing past all of the voter suppression going on in these areas. Intellectual elitism occurs when those in communities who have been historically richer and benefitted from well-funded education look down on those who have not had access to those same opportunities. This misplaces the blame and puts it on those who are suffering under regressive policies and underfunded education, rather than putting it on the policies themselves.
Not only are these kinds of jokes incredibly classist and problematic, but they also isolate the people in the South. The South is not a lost cause. The South is not a punchline and presenting it as one actively harms the most vulnerable people living there. Maybe next election, instead of retweeting a joke about the South, go to a phonebank and try to reach disenfranchised voters in the South, send texts for candidates attempting to flip a seat, donate to campaigns or organizations working to fight voter suppression. Do something. The Georgia Senate runoff election is still going on and you can volunteer and donate today to help get voters heard.