The media’s Southern stereotypes
Each election cycle the press portrays the region as rural, stupid and monolithically conservative. We're not
“Doubts on Romney’s Conservatism Help Santorum in the South,” reads the ABC News headline from March 13. The headline would have you believe that Rick Santorum trounced Mitt Romney in the Alabama and Mississippi GOP primaries. It obscures the fact that Santorum beat Romney by just 44-39 percent in Alabama and 42-39 percent in Mississippi. In other words, nearly half of GOP primary voters in these states voted for Romney.
The headline not only obscures the kinds of political divisions that divide the rural and more liberal urban parts of the South; it also feeds into the idea that Southern conservatives vote primarily on “family values” issues, and takes it on good faith that Romney – who has moved awfully far to the Right during primary season – is somehow the more civilized, sane, humane and/or liberal of the two.
In January, CNN contributor John Avlon wrote about the ugly stereotypes about South Carolina that he saw as that state’s primaries kicked off: “You know, the characterization of South Carolina as a swamp of sleazy politics and brutal attack ads, a Bible belt bastion of rednecks and racism, a state defined by Bob Jones University. Sometimes these stereotypes are floated in political conversations as evidence of how ‘real’ the state is in determining the true feelings of the conservative base.”
These stereotypes are nothing new. In fact, they often date back to the Civil War. They tend to denigrate the Southern poor, under-educated and rural in ways that bear striking resemblance to Republican rhetoric that demonizes the poor in general. But every election season, those of us who have spent most of our lives in the South are reminded of the devastating misconceptions that many other Americans have about us. The Right romanticizes us as the “real America” while the Left treats us a punchline. Polling organizations like Public Policy Polling design studies that target Southern states and reinforce the national sense that we are backward and dim-witted. Here are just a few of the ways in which popular political narratives distort the contemporary realities of Southern life in historical context.
1. We are not predominantly rural.
This one should be a no-brainer. Of course, it is clear to people who live here that our economies no longer operate by way of large-scale plantation systems, if they ever did in the first place. Ferrel Guillory, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor in the school of Journalism and Mass Communication, tells AlterNet, “There is this common wisdom out there that the South remains a rural place dominated by working-class people with no education past high school.”
But the reality is much more complex: “The truth is the South is much more of a metropolitan place. Three out of four Southerners live in metropolitan areas – some combination of cities, suburb and exurb. Throughout the last quarter of the 20th century – up until the recession hit – the South was the fastest growing section in the country. It had outpaced the nation in job and population growth.”
Guillory is the founding director of UNC’s Program on Public Life. He also teaches courses about the political history of the South. He does this, he says, to teach budding journalists how to write about the region in ways that provide appropriate context: “What tends not to be captured is how the South is still the South, but more complex, more diverse. True, you can go into some small towns and find classic Mayberry, and you can go into other small towns and find a lot of poverty. One of the tragic consequences of the recession,” he says, “is poverty in the South, which had been declining. It has gone back up to mid-1990s levels in the past few years.”
But it’s not just news media that perpetuate the rural stereotypes. It also happens in popular culture. Guillory says, “I tell my students that one of my favorite TV shows used to be ‘Designing Women’… What I liked about ‘Designing Women’ was that it was not country music. It was not NASCAR or the ‘Beverly Hillbillies.’ It wasn’t ‘Dukes of Hazzard.’ It was a group of women running a business in Atlanta.” The metropolitan backdrop, which included professional women, he says, provided a refreshing alternative to the usual stereotypical narratives about the South.
And it isn’t just that the South is no longer dependent on plantation economies. The truth is, the region was always more economically diverse than most realize. Jessica Luther, an Austin-based activist and PhD candidate in history at UT-Austin says that states south of the Mason-Dixon Line depended on slave economies at varying levels long before the Civil War began. She notes that, not long after the Revolutionary War, mid-Atlantic States like Virginia and North Carolina had already begun economic transition away from slave-based plantation economics. They had seen the writing on the wall over the slavery issue, particularly when the international slave trade stopped.
And of course North Carolina, which relied on small-scale tobacco production, never had the large plantation-style economy that characterized so much of the South. This is why it was the final state to secede from the Union, and it is part of the reason so many North Carolinians deserted the effort when the Confederacy began experiencing major military setbacks. It may be that these states were able to adapt to modern economies more quickly than others simply because they began the post-plantation transition so much earlier.
2. We are disproportionately poor, but this does not mean we are lazy.
In popular culture, it is easy to dismiss the South as an embarrassing punchline. One of the most common often involves the hilarity of Southern inefficacy and sloth. Television shows like the “Dukes of Hazzard” and “My Name Is Earl” have popularized these misconceptions, making a joke of poor Southerners.
Some of this is probably based on historical observation. As Luther and Guillory both point out, hot Southern climates exhausted farmers and manual laborers in the South. It is a truism that the South became industrialized when air-conditioning became more widely available.
But more important, the tendency to dismiss Southerners as lazy is surely linked to the persistence of inequality and poverty in the region. As Guillory notes, “We have educational gaps that have not been fully closed. We have achievement gaps between young white people and young black people. We have gaps everywhere in the United States, but some of the Southern rates are a little deeper.”
Plus, he notes, we “have some of the highest dropout rates – and so we’re still dealing in many ways with the legacies of our history.” In other words, slavery and then Jim Crow created class distinctions between white and black Southerners that have proven very hard to eradicate. What’s more, the early suppression of the labor movement often meant the disenfranchisement of working-class whites and blacks. Ultimately, the region never fully recovered from its post-Civil War economic collapse.
Southern states usually relied on working-class jobs like textiles, cotton and tobacco. But rising labor costs in the South in the modern era meant that tobacco companies and other sources of employment moved production to other countries for cheaper labor. Guillory says that these new developments have “wiped a lot of that [previous industry] off the face of the state” in North Carolina.
Plus, he points out, older citizens throughout the South have often had trouble adapting to modernization: “They haven’t been trained. They don’t have the education that allows them to adapt… Some [rural towns] haven’t modernized their infrastructure.” So, despite modernization and industrialization, we are still poor states.
Guillory says, “Southerners themselves too often buy into the ‘laziness’ narrative.” But it has very little basis in truth: “Southerners work hard. You know, people worked in fields, in small factories in the heat. Southern states used to attract industry by advertising relatively inexpensive labor but people who would work hard and work independently.”
This linked to a long and troubled history of violent labor suppression in the South that has resulted in some of the worst working conditions in the country – and contributed to the region’s never-ending poverty. Indeed, Southern states often attracted industry based on the fact that they had crushed working-class activism in ways that ultimately produced a pliable – and fearful – labor force. During the 1940s, Jacob Remes, founding member of the Southern Labor Studies Association and assistant professor of public affairs at the State University of New York Empire State College, tells AlterNet, interracial civil rights activism sometimes combined the causes of racial justice and labor rights. But labor organizing was violently put down. People were killed, and both race and Red panic were used as wedges to divide white and black workers. Over time, says Remes, national labor rights activists sometimes gave up on organizing the South, and Southern workers were cowed into poor working conditions and low wages. Just as corporations have moved jobs overseas for cheaper labor, northern industry first came to the South because labor costs had risen in the north, and corporations – like the textile industry that ultimately landed in North Carolina – needed a cheaper labor force.
The entrenchment of Southern poverty may not have happened by design, but capital and history led to the circumstances that made it possible. Though the region was dominated for a time by industrial labor with high wages compared to what had come before, these jobs are no more. This is one reason why so many Southerners have begun flocking to cities, and why metropolitan areas have become, as Guillory points out, the locus of Southern political power.
In contemporary American politics, of course, stereotypes and insults are often leveled at Southerners without regard for historical context. The idea of “Southern white trash” is just one of many problematic tropes that accompany nearly every narrative about poverty in the United States. The Reagan era gave us “welfare queens,” and Southern poverty has given us “poor white trash.” The stereotype, in the latter case, goes something like this: It’s a more aggressive – more denigrating – take on “redneck” culture. “White trash people” – many of them male – are thought to lounge around and, rather than work, collect junk cars for the front yard, drink cheap American beer, knock up 14-year old girls, bet money they don’t have on NASCAR, hate gays and Mexicans, and personally relate to Robert Earl Keen’s comedic country hit, “Merry Christmas from the Family,” which begins, “Mom got drunk and Dad got drunk at our Christmas party.”
We in the South may laugh at these absurd stereotypes, but we know the story of poverty in this region is far more complicated than that. Guillory says the South was slowly climbing out of poverty in the years leading up to the economic crash of 2008, but has since suffered much of that catastrophe’s worst damage. To the rest of the nation, it sometimes seems as if we are – and have always been – “poor white trash.” We are static and unchanging, and people of color rarely figure into these narratives at all. Blaming people for their own poverty is part of the United States mythology of the “American Dream.” It’s not specific to the South, even if the “white trash” trope gives the denigration of poor people a regional flavor.
3. We are not stupid.
The white-trash trope is part and parcel of the idea that we in the South are stupid. Part of this, Guillory notes, is related to the aristocratic education systems that pepper Southern history. He notes that education “wasn’t seen as everybody’s right – it was seen as what rich people do, and what the lucky and the elite do.” Not only this, he says, but “debates over evolution or…liquor or other cultural things” often perpetuated the “sense that Southerners were acting on little or no knowledge of science.”
Even now, evolution remains a hot-button issue that seems to divide North and South. Indeed, evolution remains as controversial today as it was during the Scopes trial in 1920s Tennessee. And though Guillory says that the South has largely converged with the rest of the country when it comes to politics, he explains that it nevertheless “continues to differ with the nation on social issues and cultural attitudes. It’s not that much different, but on a whole series of things having to do with the classic construct of ‘God, guns and gays,’ the South tends to be somewhat more conservative, somewhat more churchgoing, somewhat more accepting of the freedom to own and use firearms and somewhat less accepting of same-sex unions. So, it’s on these cultural issues that there remains some distinctiveness.”
But these beliefs did not develop in a vacuum, and often have more to do with lack of adequate education than innate stupidity. Indeed, as Jane Mayer’s New Yorker exposé on Koch brothers affiliate Art Pope shows, national GOP coffers are pouring into the South to advance causes like school privatization and vouchers under the guise of freedom, equality and “school choice.” Luther says this very same anti-intellectual ideology is also being fueled by right-wing money pouring into Texas.
Often, the moneyed interests that shape Southern conservatism come from other parts of the country – like the Kansas-based Koch brothers – and exploit populations already underserved by their historically underfunded systems of public education. And conservative billionaires bent on privatizing education and dismantling the public system pour lots of money into campaigns meant to reinforce propaganda about untrustworthy “government schools.” These campaigns often result in statewide support for vouchers that further defund the public system. So, when under-educated voters base decisions on issues like “personal morality” rather than perceived economic self-interest, we should probably start talking about the powerful outside interests that are funding this ideology.
But Luther says that dismissals of the South as anti-intellectual – and “stupid” – have dangerous implications for Southern politics in general. She says the stereotype is “not that people don’t know, but that they willfully don’t know. I think that leads to this idea that the South isn’t worth saving. It’s too far gone, it’s not worth it to try and do anything about what people think are serious problems in the South. I think that’s a pretty devastating narrative.” She says that, in her work at RH Reality Check, she regularly encounters snide remarks about the South – “You should just go ahead and secede from the Union” is a common refrain – when she posts information about new restrictions on reproductive rights in the region.
She notes that, whenever people in the South are perceived as doing something stupid, “it gets all this play in the media.” Michelle Cottle has been tracking the disparate coverage of primary season polling at the Daily Beast. She writes, “[N]o one appreciates the absurdity of the South’s retrograde conservatism more than I. For all its many charms, the ‘real America’ that Sarah Palin et al. so mythologize sports its fair share of warts, zits, and infected boils.” Of course it does.
But liberal-leaning media can be particularly unhelpful when it comes to contextualizing lack of education in the South. She points out that Southerners are specifically polled with the kinds of questions – “How do you feel about interracial marriage?” “Do you believe in evolution?” – designed to confirm our collective ignorance. Of the recent polls on Alabama and Mississippi collected by North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling, for example, she says, “when I went back and looked through the rest of PPP’s polls from this year, I couldn’t find any other states that were asked about evolution. Ditto questions about whether Obama is a Muslim. And in only one other state did I see voters being asked about interracial marriage: South Carolina. (Surprise!).” Instead, she points out, other states were asked more predictable campaign year questions: Who do you support? Does a candidate’s electability figure prominently in your vote?
And yet she notes, “On the flip side, missing from this year’s polling were questions about how, say, Arizona or Colorado Republicans feel about Hispanics—immigration, unlike mixed-race couples, actually being a hot political potato. I mean, if we’re going to plumb voters’ innermost prejudices, why not dissect those likely to have real policy implications going forward?”
Luther notes out that statistics like those from PPP fit dominant narratives about the South – people just read the information as “crazy Southerners doing crazy Southern things.” Plus, she notes, Santorum is not really considered a fringe candidate by many Republican primary-voters even if he is dismissed as such in the media.” So, when he establishes Republican support bases in places like Texas, Luther sees it dismissed as common Texas politics. She is keenly aware of the subtext: “Of course that’s what they do in Texas. They elect idiots.”
Not to mention, of course, that Santorum is from Pennsylvania – itself a former slave-owning society and current home base to one large offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan. Plus, Santorum has proven popular throughout the Midwest as well as the South. And in any case, it isn’t entirely clear whether Santorum’s success is any more rooted in anti-intellectualism than in the fact that Santorum speaks like a populist. And populism arguably has as much historical currency in working class regions of the country as evangelicalism. Romney, in contrast, makes ridiculous comments about “cheesy grits,” and the nation is surprised that voters see this as pandering and condescension.
The problem, Luther says, is the relative simplicity with which the media often covers issues like the PPP polls from Mississippi and Alabama. That is, the media usually omits context. Luther rarely sees, for example, analyses of corporate influence in Texas politics. For example, in January, Michael Barajas wrote in San Antonio-based independent newsweekly the Current that corporations like Koch Industries, ExxonMobil and Wal-Mart had poured $16.2 million into Texas in just the past 10 years.
Also ignored, Luther says, are the social realities of Texas. She points out that the state “has so many problems with poverty and education” that this “make[s] it so hard for people to know what’s happening politically.” Last year, a CNN Money report noted that poverty had increased in Rick Perry’s Texas so that 18.4 percent of Texan residents now lived below poverty level. This is a problem that is replicated in most every other Southern state, where poverty levels usually exceed the national average of a little over 15 percent.
And of course underfunded education remains a problem in Texas and throughout the South. Just this week, Southern Education Desk explained that Alabama has historically kept education funding low by using race – once again – as a wedge to keep white working-class people from supporting education funding. White working-class farmers had always opposed tax increases in Alabama, but the desegregation of schools left white Alabamans less committed than ever to funding public schools. Unsurprisingly, though, there has always been something in it for the moneyed classes, not the working class – that is, measures to defund education always “played into the hands of large landowners who wanted cheap, non-unified labor, more land, and very low property tax rates, which they have enjoyed ever since the state Constitution centralized power in Montgomery to the state’s planting class. One result of all this is that, across Alabama, there are significant hurdles to raising property taxes to increase local school funding, including mandatory referenda in a very anti-tax state.”
4. We have progressive activists and large liberal contingencies in our states.
The common perception that Southerners are stupid obscures the generations of progressive activists who have fought, sacrificed and sometimes died to make this a more hospitable and inclusive place. But progressive media outlets too often imply that we are an undifferentiated mass of ignorant bigots. In a 2004 Slate article, for example, novelist Jane Smiley wrote that “ignorance and bloodlust have a long tradition in the United States, especially in the red states.” Her conclusion? Progressives should just write them all off as potential political allies and marginalize these states as much as possible. But this is extremely ineffective political strategy – and almost certainly would have prevented Obama’s 2008 wins in swing states North Carolina, Florida and Virginia.
Jessica Luther has noticed the deleterious consequences of such dismissive attitudes in Texas progressive politics. Working with RH Reality Check, she watched the “transvaginal ultrasound” media coverage with some skepticism. She notes the vast national coverage of Virginia – a swing state and an urban one – is out of step with the coverage of this issue in throughout the rest of the South. She says the ultrasound law, like the ones passed in North Carolina and Oklahoma – is being held up in the courts. Texas, she points out, is the only state currently enforcing the transvaginal ultrasound law. But where has the national media been on this story?
Luther says at the time of the interview that we are on the 50th day of forced ultrasounds in Texas. And she is angry that there has been so little national coverage that acknowledges it at all. It becomes national news when Virginians protest the law, but the growing weekly protests in Texas – which are drawing hundreds of people – aren’t acknowledged. There is no place, it seems, in the national narrative for progressive Texan activists. Encouragement to “secede from the Union” shows no regard for the history of resistance to regressive legislation and politics in the South. And one need not plumb the entire history of Texas to find them: Molly Ivins found a national audience as a Southern populist feminist icon. Before the election of George W. Bush, feminist Democrat Ann Richards served as governor of the state. Her daughter, Cecile Richards, is the president of Planned Parenthood.
Ultimately for Luther, this is about more than annoying stereotypes; it’s about the fact that no one really notices when marginalized groups in the South are further marginalized by legislation like the ultrasound law. “These people count too,” Luther says, and of course she is right: “It’s something that I just have to keep saying to people. Yes, we live in Texas, but we count too. We are not the ones that are shutting down women’s health programs, and trying to defund Planned Parenthood and forcing women to do ultrasounds. People are angry about that here. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the state government in general.”
Liberal journalists and pundits too often operate as if no one in the South really matters. Luther remembers a 19-minute segment on the “Rachel Maddow Show” devoted entirely to the ultrasound bill in Virginia in which neither Maddow nor other commentators mentioned Texas. Not once. She is glad to see the issue addressed in national media – and on programs like “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show.” But she tells me that “everything Stewart says about Virginia also applies to Texas.” And yet few people are telling that story. As Guillory points out, “politically and culturally speaking, the nation has a ways to go in terms of updating its vision of what the South is.”
North Carolina politics are often reduced to the “Jesse Helms legacy.” Helms, of course, was the segregationist and Cold Warrior who served as a North Carolina senator between the early 1970s and into the 21st century. But as Guillory says, this is not the whole story of North Carolina politics. Living in urban North Carolina, one gets the impression that the civil rights movement is far from over – and that current political fights are widely understood in the context of a longstanding commitment to progressive activism in the South.
Certainly, the civil rights movement gets romanticized in dishonest ways. For example, Duke University literary theorist Mark Anthony Neal tells AlterNet that the “civil rights movement was ultimately about [providing] access to a small percentage of blacks, who were outside of institutions etc. The expansion of the black middle-class in the 1970s is the most visible example of that access. In terms of attitudes about race, it means that certain black folk are accepted and the others are still left to the margins.”
This has been true, of course, of most metropolitan civil rights activism throughout the South – and elsewhere – that focuses on civil rights often at the exclusion of economic justice. It is easy to understand why it happens in light of the severe repression against interracial labor movements during the 1940s. It also means that the strongest civil rights advocates in the South are committed to working within the system. Though Remes does not diminish the importance of such advocacy, he does think the Occupy Movement’s decision to operate outside the system is instructive inasmuch as it may open up greater possibilities for transformation.
In any case, Neal says, “however progressive and cosmopolitan the Triangle [comprised of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill] is and how ‘crunchy granola’ Asheville is, there are still pockets throughout the state that reflect Helms’ ideology.” And whatever anyone’s take on the civil rights movement as such, the South remains largely conservative, and is still beset by problems like racial injustice and income inequality. But once again, that isn’t the whole story.
5. We are not a monolith.
For better or worse, Jim Crow is a part of the South’s recent history. Jessica Luther speculates that this may have something to do with the way we experience civil rights as omnipresent in our communities in ways that the North does not. We see the old “whites only” and “colored only” water fountains – signs now removed – in old buildings. We remember that some of our college dorms (including mine at UNC-Chapel Hill 12 years ago) were designed first to segregate the university when blacks began to be admitted. We have vigorous fights about whether or not statues of civil rights heroes should be removed from university grounds.
Much of the country assumes that Southerners are even more inept at discussing race than other Americans. But I think its omnipresence has made it impossible for Southerners not to talk about race. It does not surprise me when my elderly relatives – including those with only a high school education – from the rural South can recognize entrenched racism in their own attitudes and then trace them back to the bigotry they learned growing up. So, we do talk about it, and we talk about it in interracial contexts, and we also talk about it regardless of political affiliation (at least historically).
Jacob Remes points out that Jim Crow was organized in a way that enforced strict segregation, but in some ways depended on day-to-day interactions between blacks and whites in the South. “Colored” water fountains were not always found in separate buildings. Many black working-class people worked for white people on farms or as domestic laborers. So, white supremacy was enforced by way of daily interaction. I sometimes think the fact of “being together” for all these years has enabled us to talk about our history more honestly than we might if segregation had involved the kind of strict urban segregation and non-interaction that is prevalent in the Northeast. That we talk about it just means we’re more socially comfortable with each other. It doesn’t – and didn’t – necessarily disrupt white supremacy.
Talk does not equal progress, and despite advancements in our rhetoric, white supremacist attitudes remain. Ferrel Guillory thinks that, despite all the talk, there is still some denial going on. He notes that it’s difficult to measure the severity of racism in the South, because people have found ways of justifying their own racism without admitting to it. For example, you will rarely hear anyone admit to being a proud bigot, but white people sometimes speak in hushed tones to advise fellow white people not to move to a “dangerous” – that is, usually majority black – neighborhood. Likewise, Guillory says that voters may explain a vote to pollsters by saying, “‘I picked him because he’s more conservative” rather than “because he’s white.” And we sometimes defend ourselves with the claim that we are more integrated than the North (which we are). But hastening to point this out sometimes obscures the changes we still need to make.
Guillory says, “I’m not trying to say that we don’t have real human issues to deal with, and we’ve got a polarized political system much as the rest of the country does. And part of the polarization has been that Southern white people – particularly working-class white people – have gotten increasingly mired – stuck — in their cultural conservatism and the white Southern portion of the Republican party has helped pull the Republican party nationally to the right. So, it’s a complex picture, but it’s important not to say the whole South is ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ or Mayberry.”
He continues, insisting that “those who say…that Democrats ought to write the South off because they can’t make any gains in the South are mistaken. Obama showed that they were mistaken at least in” North Carolina, Virginia and Florida, which voted to elect him by narrow margins. But this wouldn’t have been possible a quarter of a century ago. And it was difficult, growing up in the Jesse Helms era, to believe that anything could ever change. Indeed, “We still matter when it comes to national politics. And we are increasingly diverse” in political opinion.
Guillory thinks the slight political shift – from moderately conservative to moderate – in these newer “swing states” is largely explained by increasing racial and ethnic diversity, as well as urbanization. He says, “The easiest way to say this is [that] people move to jobs, and political power follows the people. So, we in North Carolina and others on the East Coast – we’ve been partly lucky, but partly, we’ve been aggressive” in catching up with the rest of the country. “We’ve built highways. We’ve built good imports. We desegregated the schools… Wake County consolidated the old county and city schools to enforce desegregation. Our cities built good airports. We have good universities nearby. We have the Research Triangle Park.”
But convergence with the nation has happened for better or worse, and the changes are not universally progressive: “We have the banking industry… We have automobile manufacturing…We’ve got the pharmaceutical industry. We’ve got biosciences… We’ve built a modern diversified economy, and that has attracted people from all over.” The legacies of Old South plus all of these new changes have to be included in any characterization of the South. We are not a monolith. There are liberals and conservatives among us.
Simplistic stereotypes about the South do violence to the rather complex histories of struggle, resistance and industrialization in the South, as well as to the diversity of Southern experiences. Progressives and pundits who dismiss the South as a place that is “beyond redemption,” so to speak, miss out on the liberalizing effects of urbanization and increased diversity. They alienate – and ignore – political allies when they do this.
We in the South are not a monolithic population, not by any stretch of the imagination. We disagree among each other on social issues, as well as matters of faith. Our populations are facing some of the most severe reproductive rights restrictions and social services cuts in the nation. If our marginalized groups “count” to progressive Americans outside the region, it shouldn’t be controversial to point out that we could use solidarity, not derision, when we fight regressive Republican legislation. There is a political shift underway in the South. It is incomplete, and it is a moderate shift. But Democrats and liberals do the country a grave disservice by continuing to ignore it.
Kristin Rawls is a freelance journalist based near Raleigh. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, AlterNet, In These Times, Religion Dispatches, GOOD magazine and many others. Follow her on Twitter @kristinrawls.More Kristin Rawls.
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