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Are Southern accents and education handicaps in Trump's White House? And everywhere?


Do Southerners still have to overcome stereotypes about their accents, intelligence and education? 

The question is being raised in light of reported criticisms by President Donald Trump of his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Trump has been increasingly contemptuous of Sessions, but a new report cites a fresh concern -- his accent and education.

Alabama born and raised with an accent thick as sawmill gravy, Sessions attended Huntingdon College, a private liberal arts college in Montgomery, and the University of Alabama law school. A New Yorker by birth, Trump attended the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League institution.

According to an account in Politico:

Trump has intermittently pushed to fire his attorney general since March 2017, when Sessions announced his recusal from the Russia investigation. If Sessions’ recusal was his original sin, Trump has come to resent him for other reasons, griping to aides and lawmakers that the attorney general doesn’t have the Ivy League pedigree the president prefers, that he can’t stand his Southern accent and that Sessions isn’t a capable defender of the president on television — in part because he “talks like he has marbles in his mouth,” the president has told aides.

The report is sparking discussion among Southerners about the biases and misperceptions they’ve encountered around their education, accents and backgrounds. One teacher on Facebook said his students in New York called him “the farm guy” because they assumed everyone in the South lived on farms. He was raised in Atlanta. 

Here is an excerpt from an AJC story about reactions to Southern accents:

When people think Southern accent, "people think hillbillies, 'Dukes of Hazzard,' Jeff Foxworthy," said Lee Pederson, linguist and English professor at Emory University.

For some reason, he added, they don't think William Faulkner or Tennessee Williams.

A notable Atlantan who relocated to a New York suburb told me the school system warned that his daughter, an honor student at her Stone Mountain high school, would find her new courses far more challenging. The teen earned all As at her new school.

My husband’s parents had the same experience when they moved from Atlanta to Larchmont, N.Y. They, too, were told their children were probably behind academically after Atlanta Public Schools and would be better served by going back a grade. My husband’s parents refused, and all five of their kids were academic successes, including my husband who did well enough to graduate Harvard.

Speaking of Harvard, I read an essay in the Harvard Crimson three years ago by a Georgia student about how often the “South” was a punchline in conversations with classmates. Student Madison Johnson wrote:

Growing up, there were people who talked about the North like it was the Promised Land. Here, I’m beginning to hear people talk about the South like it is actual Hell. By substituting laughter for any possible constructive conversation that could take place about what is actually at play and what is actually at stake when it comes to the American South, there becomes a sense of irresponsibility. Oh no, we would never do anything like that. And if we would, at least we’re not the South…The South can be hilarious. The South can be terribly, terribly racist. And so can the rest of the country.

The essay drew 132 responses, including this one:

I'm from Georgia myself, but there's nothing stereotypically Southern about me. Still, I have Northern friends who think it's hysterically funny to say "It's cause you're from the South" or "The South" to virtually everything. I can say something like, "I don't like olives on my pizza" and the retort is "It's cause you're from the South." They behave as if every part of my life can be thoroughly explained and dismissed because I was raised in Georgia. Some even refuse to visit cities like Atlanta because they're terrified of the, and I quote, "hordes of racist Southerners." Even outside of the country I have been lectured by Europeans on why they "know" the South is more "barbaric" than other U.S. states. People's general over-reaction to the "South" (cue laughter) is the really funny part. I suppose this could be offensive, but as you described the "big brother" effect, I also take a peculiar pride in being from such a distinctive place. Let 'em say what they want. Let those old Yankees slog around in 10 feet of snow screaming jealous spittle. The Southerner will be toasting his feet by the fire when there's but a 2-inch dusting.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.