When people ask where I’m from, and I tell them Mount Airy, I add one of two things. 

If they’re my age: “Forty-five minutes north of Winston-Salem, 10 minutes from the Virginia border.”

If they’re older: “You know Andy Griffith? It’s his hometown.”

The latter tends to elicit excitement from the right demographic. They ask if it’s anything like Mayberry, the small, sleepy town in The Andy Griffith Show. It is, in some ways. We had to drive to Winston-Salem if we wanted to go to Chick-Fil-A or Target when I was a kid, but we still had smartphones and chain stores. 

Today, New York Times journalist and podcast host Michael Barbaro tweeted a map showing on the dates when people stopped traveling over two miles. Most of the South was lit up bright red, an indication that they hadn’t stopped until very recently, if at all. Other states had red counties, but it was hard to ignore the blaring siren of the South.

In the midst of a pandemic where folks are encouraged to stay home, this chart could seem damning, especially if you think the South is full of idiot rednecks.

Which Barbaro apparently does.

“In a word…. The South,” he tweeted

I don’t want to give Michael Barbaro a RT because he’s deservedly getting dunked on. Some parts of the South are rural & access to essential businesses require a car. pic.twitter.com/6A6aSUecbT— Anna Celia Gallegos (@anna_gallegos) April 2, 2020

He eventually deleted the tweet as folks began “misinterpreting” his comment, then he doubled down by saying he would “let the map speak for itself.” (Don’t worry, he got ratioed).

As Facing South reporter Olivia Paschal points out, the map makes more sense when viewed with the second map in the Times article in which it originally appeared, which showed that the Southern states in question had seen less travel than what was considered “normal.”

here is what I have to say about these two maps: the first one lacks a ton of context that the second one includes. if you’re using the first map to make sweeping judgments about the South, please rethink. I’ll explain. pic.twitter.com/crzBAPSd45— Olivia Paschal (@oliviacpaschal) April 2, 2020

The Times story delves into this further: Southern municipalities and states have been slow to implement stay-at-home orders. But Southerners are traveling less. And the map doesn’t account for necessary travel, like to get groceries or seek medical care.

Barbaro didn’t mention that. “LOL rednecks” is an easier tweet.

There are nine states where more than 5 percent of the population has no car and no supermarket within a mile. North Carolina is one of them; the rest are also in the South.

Almost 28 million people in the South live in rural areas, almost half of the country’s rural population. Because of the spread, people in rural areas have the longest distances to travel to receive medical care. And the South, the sickest region in the United States, accounts for one in 10 COVID-19 deaths.

Some other facts Barbaro might have missed: The South has the lowest median household income of any region in the U.S; nine of the 10 states with the highest poverty levels are from the South.

The South also has the biggest minority population of any region.

A quick Google search reveals that Michael Barbaro grew up in Connecticut, attended one of the oldest country day schools in the country, and went to Yale University. He got a job at The Washington Post straight out of college and shifted to The New York Times shortly after that.

So let me offer a real-life example: My house growing up was in downtown Mount Airy, and the closest Food Lion was 1.3 miles away. If my family needed more than food, Walmart was 4.3 miles away. If we had to go to the ER, it was 2.2 miles. For folks who live farther out, the shortest distance you can travel is at least two miles.

I promise you, Michael Barbaro, they aren’t driving for the hell of it.

Contact digital content manager Sara Pequeño at spequeno@indyweek.com.

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2 replies on “What Michael Barbaro Gets Wrong About the South”

  1. I’m from the liberal Northwest. But I want to say on my trips to the deep South, I have never met a kinder and more accepting people in my travels across America. Sure some speak with a dialect characteristic of the region, and some people are downright hard to understand. But this is the same if you travel to Britain and venture into the more rural areas. It doesn’t mean they’re ignorant or stupid. The people down South are just as scared and worried as the rest of us about this terrible virus. This isn’t the time to exploit regional differences for gain. We’re all Americans, and we’re in the same boat.

  2. If anything, the red shows “the places where you’re least likely to get the virus”: driving in a car to the distant super market is certainly preferable to riding on a subway in New York City. Look where the virus epicenter is: New York City. And he’s laughing at the South?????

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