A Permissible Ethnic Slur

May 10, 1992|By SAM HODGES

Why do political commentators freely talk about the "Bubba vote" and not the "Mick," "Hymie," "Julio," "Ahmad" or "Linda" votes?

It's a question that bugs Doug Marlette, Southern-born (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) cartoonist for Newsday, the daily newspaper on Long Island, N.Y.

He thinks white Southern males are the one group it's never politically incorrect to stereotype, especially in New York.

"Up here it's always open season on Southerners, on Bubbas," said Mr. Marlette, who also draws the syndicated cartoon strip "Kudzu" and whose ancestors were North Carolina cotton mill workers. "Jesse Jackson says 'Hymietown' and everybody's up in arms. But it's all right to use 'cracker' or 'redneck' or 'Bubba.' White Southern males it's OK to bash. There's always a green light for that."

Not that it ranks with the federal deficit or ozone layer protection, but the fairness-to-Bubba issue has taken on a higher profile with Bill Clinton as the likely Democratic nominee for president.

Mr. Clinton is, at best, a weenie-Bubba, having assimilated at Yale and Oxford (on a Rhodes scholarship). But he remains governor of Arkansas (a state within the "Bubba border," as the Mason-Dixon line was referred to recently by a Philadelphia columnist); he continues to speak with a drawl (albeit slightly suppressed); and he apparently enjoys rapport with Southern voters. He carried the Deep South convincingly on Super Tuesday and other primary dates.

He also won the recent New York primary, but not before enduring searing criticism in the local press, including references to his Bubba roots. He deflected the issue with humor, or something close to it, saying publicly that "Bubba is Southern for mensch" -- "mensch" being Yiddish for a "sensible, mature, responsible person."

But all the Bubba talk by New Yorkers was a little much for Doug Marlette, and for E.L. "Bubba" Henry, former speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives.

"You couldn't call that vote up there the Mario vote, because the governor [Mario Cuomo] would get awfully mad," Mr. Henry said. "He's far too thin-skinned for anything like that."

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, the nickname "Bubba" has been, along with "Sonny," "Buddy" and one or two others, fairly common for decades among Southern boys and men. It's hardly restricted to whites. A number of celebrated black athletes, including the great Michigan State and Baltimore Colt lineman Charles "Bubba" Smith (of Beaumont, Texas) have had the nickname.

The nickname usually begins as baby talk for "brother." Bubba Henry's sister, for example, couldn't as a little girl pronounce "brother," so she said "Bubba." It stuck.

"I tried to lose that name," Mr. Henry said. "When I went off to college [at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas], I called myself 'Ed,' which is short for my first name, 'Edgerton.' But when I came back to law school at LSU, too many people knew me as 'Bubba.' I had to go back to it."

The beauty of "Bubba," or lack of it, is in the eye and ear of the beholder. Like another Southernism, "Piggly Wiggly," it's a sonically amusing term, the explosively accented B's mixing playfully with the short vowels "u" and "a."

The name can conjure up a pleasant, even admirable image of an Andy Griffith-like fellow: slow-talking but wise, physically competent, courtly, fair, at ease with himself and the world. Or it can can conjure up a potbellied, ignorant, bigoted image -- the Hollywood image, except when Burt Reynolds is available for casting.

For sure, any real Bubba is independent enough to weather analysis or attack.

"You can't insult somebody who don't give a lukewarm damn hTC what you think of them," said Jake Vest, Orlando Sentinel cartoonist and columnist, and native of Strawberry Plains, Tenn.

The use of "Bubba" as shorthand for the white Southern male voter has taken hold only in recent years. The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture came out in 1989 and contains separate entries on "cracker," "redneck" and "good ol' boy," but none on "Bubba."

Conventional political wisdom says that the "Bubba vote" consists of those white Southern males who, regardless of socio-economic standing, favor the death penalty, a strong national defense, Constitutional protection of the U.S. flag and prayer in public schools.

"They are skeptical of government to some extent, and rightly so," added Bubba Henry.

Doug Marlette draws cartoon strips featuring "faux Bubbas" ("That's somebody like Sam Shepard, buying a ranch and driving a pickup to regain his lost masculinity").

He thinks there is little chance that lampooning Bubbas of any kind will become politically incorrect.

Southerners, in Marlette's view, don't get bent out of shape about bias toward them. Thus, they don't protest.

"We were raised to have manners and grace, and you learn to tolerate stuff. I don't want to be yet another pressure group for political correctness. My people deserve to be ridiculed, as do all people. Of course, I would think that. That's why I'm a

cartoonist."

Sam Hodges writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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