In a lot of commentary over the Paula Deen workplace harassment suit, I've noticed a common refrain: Why is anyone surprised that Paula Deen is racist? She's an old white lady from the South! The assumption that the South is full of racist people like her is insulting to all the people from Dixie who managed to grow up dipped in racism lard and yet are somehow not reflexive haters of minorities. Nonetheless, the point is not without merit: There are definitely a lot of racists there. They just aren't all like Paula Deen.
DISCLAIMER: I grew up in the South and left, so I won't be offered any jobs as a spokesperson for the region, and never made the cut as a Daughter of the Confederacy (that scholarship money could have really helped, y'all). I was born in Atlanta, raised in Tennessee, and am exceptionally well-traveled in what I call "the rogue states," you know, the lowest-ranked places to get an education, the places you might, say, find an inordinately high number of deadbeat dads hiding out from child support payments. I have heard "Sweet Home Alabama" play while actually in Alabama.
And let me tell you Yankees, yes, the South is, without a doubt, home to as many racist people as it is delightful meat-and-threes, rolling hills and big yards. Southern racists are really good at hiding it — they are often the picture of manners when everyone is watching. It's the rest of the time you have to wonder about. And as a region, the South is really good at holding onto the old attitudes, especially when, historically speaking, the attitudes are all that's left.
But what people often misunderstand about the South is that it's not racist everywhere: There are loads of forward-thinking, lovely, tolerant people who read books, know about pressed juice and quinoa, and aren't terrible homophobic bigots, though they do tend to concentrate more in the cities. But not all countryfolk are racist, either! Just because it wears overalls and says yer damn straight does not mean it is a boorish, backwards-thinking redneck.
The thing about racism in the South you have to realize is that, like anywhere, racism must be taught, but — and this is KEY — not teaching anything to someone doesn't automatically instill in them a reflexive disregardfor anything different. In other words, not all uneducated hicks are racists. And not all racists are uneducated.
But even if racism isn't handed down directly to you alongside your first green-bean-picking outing, you can still pick it up on account of the region being lousy with it.
Dumb White Supremacists
Angry violent white dudes, usually young, usually uneducated by what you might consider the approved curriculum, but well read in racist literature. Obsessed with guns, the old KKK, neo-Nazism, militias, training for the chance for a Civil War do-over. It's fringe, but it's there. Usually out in the sticks holed up at some weird training compound that you are terrified to ever drive past. Mouth-breathers.
Dumb, Openly Racist
They use the n word freely, make disparaging remarks about any and all minorities who are seen as the usual clichéd threats to jobs, a purer America, general decency. Sometimes doesn't even know the correct racial slur to use, but combines a bunch to cover all the bases. Usually likes hip-hop.
The Good Ol' Boy
Nice as hell. Polite. Gentlemanly. Racist.
The Political Racist
This can either refer to the Tea Party racist — here's a funny breakdown of the five types of racists found within the Tea Partiers — but it's basically a rightwing neo-con. The South has a long tradition of fiery Southern liberals, but that's in opposition to the sea of red. Found bottom-dwelling there is this breed of fratty mouth breather who is a small-minded, racist conservative fearmonger who blames all the country's ills on minorities and immigrants.
Should he or she get elected to office, they immediately try to preserve or reinstate the Old Ways by twisting racist logic into modern, common sense, pro-American values. When I lived in Nashville that person was Eric Crafton, an overgrown toddler whose claim to racist fame was introducing an English-only bill that sought to limit all government business communication to English, in a city where 1 in 10 residents are foreign-born. (Luckily, the measure was crushed in a huge show of solidarity by the city, proof of the ever-present tension in the South between the old and the new.) Note: Loves pleated khakis.
The Privately Nasty Racist
Knows better than to say anything racist out loud at their job or in mixed company, but will unleash a torrent of truly disturbing vitriolic racist rage around "friends." Warning: Often leaks out when drunk.
The Privately Well-Intentioned Racist
Expresses racism in a more indirect way among likeminded folks — often in comments disguised as bless-your-heart style sympathy, which is Southern code for you poor, pathetic piece of shit. It's less angry and more nonchalant, the they-can't-help-but-steal-because-they're-black kind of reasoning. Very common among rich or "proper" Southern people.
The Good Old-Fashioned Racists
These are the grandpas and grandmas of many white Southerners who must be tolerated at family events and in churches when they mutter something about the coloreds or the housekeeper stealing. They grew up with Jim Crow still in effect, eventually got around to accepting that "mixing the races" was now going to be How Things Are. To many younger Southern people, this is considered the most benign kind of racism there is because it is ultimately powerless and near-extinct — if you can, indeed, call any form of racism benign — because it is so clearly on its way out, and must only be ignored until the last of the Olds are dead, which is literally any minute now. Often unintelligible anyway.
The Unintentional/Accidental Racist
Popularized recently by Brad Paisley in his song "The Accidental Racist," this could also be called the Doesn’t Even Know They Are Racist type of racist. It's when you either think that racism is something in the past that no longer exists, refuse to acknowledge its impact, or that the things you say or do don't contribute to racism or reflect racist thinking. In Paisley's case, it was song lyrics about not being free to wear the Confederate flag on a T-shirt without a potentially racist association.