Today’s South is boldly moving backward

By Nelson Lichtenstein
June 18, 2014

mahurin for bishop

We used to call it the “New South.” That was the era after Reconstruction and before the Civil Rights laws — when the states of the old Confederacy seemed most determined to preserve a social and economic order that encouraged low-wage industrialization as they fought to maintain Jim Crow.

What was then distinctive about the South had almost as much to do with economic inequality as racial segregation. Between roughly 1877 and 1965, the region was marked by low-wages, little government, short lives and lousy health — not just for African-Americans but for white workers and farmers.

Volkswagen employees work on the assembly line of the 2012 VW Passat in Chattanooga TennesseeThe Civil Rights revolution and the rise of an economically dynamic Sun Belt in the 1970s and ‘80s seemed to end that oppressive and insular era. The Research Triangle in North Carolina, for example, has more in common with California’s Silicon Valley than with Rust Belt manufacturing. The distinctive American region known as the South had truly begun to vanish.

This is the thesis of economic historian Gavin Wright’s new book on the economic consequences of the civil rights revolution, Sharing the Prize. Ending segregation, Wright argues, improved the economic and social status of both white and black workers The South became far less distinctive as wages and government-provided benefits increased to roughly the national level.

But the New South has returned with a vengeance, led by a ruling white caste now putting in place policies likely to create a vast economic and social gap between most Southern states and those in the North, upper Midwest and Pacific region. As in the late 19th century, the Southern elite appears to believe that the only way their region can persuade companies to relocate there is by taking the low road: keeping wages down and social benefits skimpy. They seem to regard any trade union as the vanguard of a Northern army of occupation.  

Exhibit A is the refusal of every Southern state except Kentucky and Arkansas to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Senator David Vitter (R-La.), running to replace Bobby Jindal as Louisiana’s governor, made headlines Monday when he announced he would consider adopting the Medicaid expansion.

In 2012 the Supreme Court gave states the right to back out of this part of Obamacare. The South rushed to take this opportunity — despite the loss of billions in federal dollars. Now 5 million poor Southerners are consigned to health insurance purgatory

Workers at South Carolina Boeing work on a 787 Dreamliner for Air India at the plant's final assembly building in North CharlestonThe Republican Party as a whole has made opposition to Obamacare virtually a fetish. But outside the South, Republican governors from Arizona and Nevada in the West to Iowa, Ohio, and New Jersey further East, have seen the economic logic and social utility of taking the federal money. After the 2014 elections, when Democrats look likely to oust Republicans from statehouses in Pennsylvania and Maine, those states will do the same. 

Southern states also keep wages low by neglecting to raise their state minimum wage standards. In the North and West, a movement to dramatically increase wages — to $10, $12 or even $15 dollars an hour — has caught fire. Seattle just mandated a $15 minimum wage that will kick in over the next few years.

Today 21 states have raised minimum wages higher than that of the federal standard of $7.25 an hour. But only two of these states, Missouri and Florida, border on the South. As in the New South era, when textile factories were enticed to flee the North for the low-wage Piedmont region, Southern states now trumpet not just low taxes and an absence of trade unions, but low wages.

Although Oklahoma joined the Union in 1907, it immediately joined the ranks of the Jim Crow South with its strong segregation and anti-union policies. This continues today. In April, for example, when Oklahoma City residents sought to put a municipal wage increase on the November ballot, the state legislature quickly enacted a law banning any city or town from raising the local minimum wage or requiring that employees have a right to sick days or vacation, either paid or unpaid.

lich-volks-factory.jpgOf course, such regressive social policies, including voting rights limitations, are supported by a fierce white partisanship. The solid South has returned in full force. Black voters there are overwhelmingly Democratic, whites of almost every income level equally determined to vote Republican.

The presence of an African-American in the White House plays a large role in this racial-political polarization on the ground in Dixie. But not even Southern-born white Democrats, like former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore, have been able to transcend this Southern partisanship. Despite for their cultural affinities and Southern accents, they could not persuade Southern whites to vote Democratic.

This is, however, not just a product of racial fears and resentments. Instead it appears to reflect an increasingly inbreed Southern hostility to the exercise of economic regulatory power on virtually any level. As in the 19th century, many in the South, including a considerable proportion of the white working-class, have been persuaded that the federal government is their enemy.   

As in the New South era, Southern whites, both elite and plebian, have adopted an insular and defensive posture toward the rest of the nation and toward newcomers in their own region. Echoing the Jim Crow election laws promulgated by Southern states at the turn of the 20th century, the new wave of 21st century voting restrictions promise to sharply curb the Southern franchise, white, black, and brown.

The new New South rejects not only the cosmopolitanism of a multiracial, religiously pluralist society, but the legitimacy of government, both federal and state, that seeks to ameliorate the poverty and inequality that has been a hallmark of Southern distinctiveness for more than two centuries.

The Civil War has yet to be won.

 

ILLUSTRATION (TOP): Matt Mahurin

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Volkswagen employees work on the assembly line of the 2012 Volkswagen Passat in Chattanooga Tennessee, December 1, 2011. REUTERS/Billy Weeks

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Workers at South Carolina Boeing work on a 787 Dreamliner for Air India at the plant’s final assembly building in North Charleston, South Carolina December 19, 2013. REUTERS/Randall Hill PHOTO (INSERT 3): A general view of the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, February 14, 2014. REUTERS/Christopher Aluka Berry
25 comments

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“The South mostly wants to be left alone,” “These people want to remain who and what they are.” How does anyone figure that out without some nagging questions? It seems to me, the south once wanted segregation to remain for substantially the same reasons. What southern jokes?

In the world of mass media, the internet, and international trade – GOOD LUCK trying! You can’t quite be wealthy and provincial at the same time.

Slavery can thrive anywhere now and it all depends on how you define it. To complicate the picture – slaves could be very well off in the Old Roman empire and a “citizen” could live in squalor. Only the ancient Greeks, the ancient Jews, and the old south made sure than didn’t occur very often and the condition was considered genetic and usually severely substandard. In such societies, “maintaining standards” usually involved maintaining substantial barriers to the good things of life and erecting substantial barriers to new blood in the upper classes. That kind of thinking may not actually be extinct. This country may be more enlightened over all, but the rest of the world is not so uniformly “liberal”.

I’ve been called a “slave” in a comment on another thread on this site months ago, for not risking my weekly budget in a casino. And it doesn’t take a big income to use your brains as well as you can. But a social system that limits access to a bigger income until you already have one, is rotten from the start. This country has no more ground floor entry level ways of making substantial livings, e.g farmsteads on the open prairies for people without much in the way of education or special skills. So that relegates most to trying to make it in very controlled economic paths or along lines that require a lot of capital investment (borrowing) upfront, or in having very steady employment with companies that survive the rough times and ruthless competition.

Bankers do rule the world now if you can stand being enslaved by massive debt. But bankruptcy law allows you to break the chains at least, but not without some major set backs.

One could always try to live in Shayamalan’s “Village” but that’s just weird and that movie didn’t make the slightest sense.

I’m not planning to disconnect anytime soon from the global media. It’s better than the ghetto, even a wealthy one and am in no position to rig economic conditions to favor my sense of personal or corporate identity.

Is that a kind of slavery too?

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

I’m atheist, gay, and yes, I’m Southern. I have also earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology from an accredited university in Louisiana (McNeese State), hold a license to practice mental health counseling in the state of Louisiana, and I am evidently able to compose grammatically correct sentences with proper spelling. We Southerners aren’t perfect, but we have many traditions of which we can be proud. I grow weary of hearing about all the ills of the South, especially in light of the fact that racism—although perhaps somewhat more covert, but nonetheless just as insidious—is just as rampant among the Yankees as it is here among us “ignunt Confed’rates”. If our Northern counterparts want to imply that they are superior, I say prove it with more substantial evidence than this obviously biased article.

Posted by JMillet | Report as abusive

Is it Reuters? Does anyone here audit articles before they get to the main page? Just another unsubstantiated shallow amateur blog rant.

Posted by alex440 | Report as abusive

I’m so glad to see that I’m not the only one who applied Carl Sagan’s “baloney filter” to the so-called facts of this article. Hey, what do you know? A dumb Southerner familiar with Sagan!

Posted by JMillet | Report as abusive

Henenlotter: I do agree that the War Between the States has yet to be lost.

Oh, it was lost, but we removed the Federal troops too soon after the war so that Jim Crow, the Klan, and an apartheid system could exist for almost another hundred years.

Sherman didn’t do enough in his march to the sea. The North should have done to the confederate states what Rome did to Carthage: burn everything to the ground and sow the earth with salt. It would have been just to send every white southerner to Africa with a black master, now that would have been justice.

Posted by Andvari | Report as abusive