What’s Holding Alabama Back?

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As I watched my local Montgomery, Alabama news station this morning, I saw that question pop up on the screen. What’s holding Alabama back? Wait, what? What do you mean by “holding back?”

In the segment, the news station sent out a roving reporter on the streets of Montgomery to ask random citizens to tell him what they believe is “holding Alabama back.” The reporter got a brainstorm of an idea by creating an impromptu ballot box with “WHAT’S HOLDING ALABAMA BACK?” written on all sides. He placed the box on a table with some blank index cards and Sharpies, and allowed people to anonymously write their responses on the cards and drop them in the box. According to the reporter, allowing people to remain anonymous would greatly improve the chances of people giving honest answers. However, it also simultaneously eliminated any possibility of checking for significant differences in responses according to gender, race, age, etc. I kind of would have liked to have known all that, which I think he finally figured out the hard way when he started tallying the results.

Many answers were impossible to read (Sharpie on an index card), and many answers were jokes. The most prevalent joke answer seemed to be that Auburn was holding Alabama back. Ha ha. Very funny. However, according to the reporter, the single most duplicated reply was “Education.” Of all the people who happened to walk by that box on that particular day and take the time to fill out an index card with a Sharpie, the majority of them believed that “education” was “holding Alabama back.”

Although I agree that education can always benefit from a boost, I think that applies to every one of the 50 states. I’ve never heard a single American anywhere say, “Hey, education is good in our state. We’re set. No more, thanks.” Almost everybody would agree that education needs to be improved no matter where you are or what the situation might be. So, from my way of thinking, that was a useless response.

What I really wanted to know was how many people refused to write an answer because they didn’t understand the question. As I asked in the opening paragraph, what do you mean by “holding Alabama back?” My problem is that I totally disagree with the entire premise of the question. I’ll put the 2016 version of Alabama up against anybody.

Were they talking about race relations? Were they suggesting that Alabama somehow lags behind the rest of the country in race relations? If so, then why are all the race riots and demonstrations I see popping up on TV in Yankee cities? I don’t see marches and boycotts in Birmingham or Selma or Montgomery on TV anymore. In fact, I can’t think of a single piece of footage of racial strife in Alabama that’s not at least 50 years old and in black-and-white. There is no color footage of race marches in Alabama, because by the time color footage became available, Alabama had already moved on. All the color footage of racial unrest I remember seeing was from Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, etc. My, oh my.

I spent a little bit of time on the internet looking at various state rankings, and there certainly are a lot of them. Trust me, if you want to know how the 50 states rank in terms of their treatment of left-handed agnostic trombone players, you can probably find it. As I browsed list after list, I quickly started to notice a trend. Alabama usually ranks in the top half of every state ranking category with two tragic exceptions – obesity and infant mortality. Even the list I checked on education had Alabama ranked 34th (ahead of Connecticut, Michigan, and Oregon). So if these rankings are accurate, how can we explain the original question – “What’s holding Alabama back?” One possible answer might be “perception.” Yankees need Alabama to be in bad shape so they can feel good about themselves. As long as Yankees perceive that someone else is doing worse, then they can perpetually avoid their own social rehabilitation, which is WAY overdue. But what if Alabama is really not in bad shape after all? Simple. Ignore the truth and perpetuate the lie. It works every time. You can even place a cornball reporter on the street to remind people that Alabama is being “held back,” in case they forgot.

I have a long-standing challenge issued to my Northern friends, which none of them have taken to my knowledge. The challenge is simply this – the next time you are introduced to someone, tell them you’re from Alabama. No matter where you’re really from, lie and tell them you’re from Alabama. Then, watch what happens. Watch as they immediately deduct 25 IQ points from their first impression of you. Watch the confusion spread on their faces as they try to figure out how you’re able to speak clearly. Watch their eyes divert down to your feet to ascertain if you’re wearing shoes. Time them to see how long it takes to ask about lynchings and police dog attacks.

If you had answered Connecticut or Michigan or Oregon to your new acquaintance, then you would have seen none of those things happen. They would have summarily accepted you without a second thought. But Alabama? Go ahead, I dare you to say it. That’s what I face every single time I meet someone from elsewhere. You ask me what’s holding Alabama back? That is. That right there. The fact that the question itself implies that something is inherently wrong with Alabama is the very heart of the problem.

What’s holding Alabama back? If I had stopped at that table, I would have written “Yankees.”

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About Tom Daniel

Tom Daniel holds a Ph.D in Music Education from Auburn University. He is a husband, father of four cats and a dog, and a college band director who lives back in the woods of Alabama with a cotton field right outside his bedroom window. His grandfather once told him he was "Scotch-Irish," and Tom has been trying to live up to those lofty Southern standards ever since. More from Tom Daniel

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