I get periodic news alerts from some journalist down in Tennessee about the political/cultural state of my home state. They're not always pride-inducing. For instance, the highlight of today's update:

MTSU poll: One in Six Tennesseans Admit to Telling Racist Jokes About the President. 

Nearly one in six Tennesseans has told a joke about Barack Obama's race, and three-fourths say they've heard or read at least one, even though only 15 percent of Tennesseans say they would find such a joke funny. 

I'm puzzled as to why this mini-summary includes the phrase "even though," suggesting that the numbers don't come close to adding up. By my reading, the percentage of Tennesseans who admit to running around cracking racist jokes is roughly the same as the percentage who admit to finding said jokes amusing (16.7% vs. 15%). The remainder of the 75% are (hopefully) just passive by-standers who need to find a better class of friends and/or reading material.

That said, I'm not entirely sure whether to regard these figures with disappointment or relief. On the one hand, you have to assume that the actual number of people who have told--or cackled at--a racist joke about POTUS is higher than the number who will admit to doing so. On the other hand, I'm kind of surprised the numbers aren't higher, considering the grim mood of the country.

Not to delve too deeply into the psychology of Jim Webb's much beloved Scots-Irish good ol' boys (and gals) who dominate the Volunteer State, but the rednecks I grew up with most often resorted to racial nastiness when they were feeling bad about their own standing in the world. You know, the revolting "logic" of: I may be working a crap job and have a wife who's cheating on me, but at least I'm not...

These days, with so many people falling on hard times, those stubborn blame-and-degrade-the-Other biases are likely floating closer to the surface than they have been in some time. And with Obama the obvious guy to blame for not immediately halting our suffering, I would have guessed that the number of folks ripping on everything from his race to his ears would be higher. Indeed, as the economic slump drags on, my bet is that those numbers will keep rising--and not just in Tennessee.

The more interesting question, of course, is what happens to those numbers if (please God) Obama succeeds in dragging us back from the economic abyss in short order. 

--Michelle Cottle