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

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

This is a very one-sided bigoted diatribe unworthy of a respectable news organization, although – that said – I do agree that the War Between the States has yet to be lost.

Posted by Henenlotter | Report as abusive

Complete hogwash article. The south does not need the Federal government and democrats to destroy their cities they way they have done in the Northern cities. The only people who nod their head in agreement with this article are the beltway and ne elites and we have quite had it with their prescriptions for virtually anything. We do just fine on our own, thank you very much. Our economy and unemployment rates only underscore that. And of course wages are lower, because the cost of living is much lower, and better might I add. Complete utter hogwash article.

Posted by Aldo_Raines | Report as abusive

The south will always opt for low wages, low education, and tweaker welfare. It’s in their blood. The smart people in the south tend to leave.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

What an essay filled with disinformation, calumny and uninformed prejudice this is!
The Northern states, so progressive and forward thinking, chased their jobs in heavy industry to Japan, Taiwan and the PRC decades ago thanks to heavy taxation and unbridled trade union greed, leaving whites and blacks jobless together. The Southern states make unionization optional AND THE WORKERS REJECT THE UNIONS!
As for the ruling white elite…can the author name ANY state in the Union where whites make up much of the ruling class? African Americans are just 13% of the population.
If we are still fighting the Civil War, I hope the South wins.

Posted by BrianJohn | Report as abusive

Unregenerate horsehockey. All this says is simply: to oppose statism is to be racist. To oppose unionism is to be racist. To oppose us in any way is to be racist. RACIST! RAAAAAACISSSSZSTTTTTTTTTT!!!!

I’m not from the Old South (unless you consider Macomb County, MI to be part of the Confederacy) but I call horsecrap on this entire rant.

Posted by RichardLKentEsq | Report as abusive

When did “Senator David Vitter (D-La.” become a Democrat? The GOP/TP can keep that diaper wearer.

Posted by HoomooAmerican | Report as abusive

Having traveled this nation, and parts of this world, I can say the South, other than major cities such as Charlotte, Atlanta, etc., is headed to becoming a third world economy and nation.

I can see this as only a result of their ideology of low taxes and deregulation that makes it impossible to have a highly civilized people.

An improving civilized nation is characterized by a higher standdard of living and quality of life for all,

This can be measured with improving health outcomes, increased life expectancy, rising incomes, greater educational attendence and graduation rates, work and public safety programs,and the attinment of clean air, water, and soil.

Aldo, you need to review your statistics more closely. In fact, those states that raised taxes and accepted the ADA are doing better financially and economically.

Recognize that your cost of living is only lower because your standard of living and quality of life is lower.

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

I’m from the Southeast. Born and raised between Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. I’ve also lived a good bit in the Midwest and on the west coast. The Southeast is the least educated part of the country. It is filled with ignorant, easily persuaded, easily duped people and as such the religious right and the republican and tea party propaganda machines fill the empty heads here with fear and hostility. How ironic that the three groups named above have major strongholds here in the Southeast…A place filled with the uneducated, uninformed and superstitious. And what a bad example of the capabilities of those same three groups considering the uneducated squalor that exists here. Don’t even get me going about divorce rates and illegitimate children…

Posted by Dogmabites | Report as abusive

“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.”

I see…why wouldn’t you want to keep that?

Posted by dj1s | Report as abusive

Interesting, if novel. However, how does the insipid voter restrictions harm whites? This is obviously being done for a reason. The one side would have you believe all changes are to address illegal votes. Ha! Good one. If you need to connect the dots that is. Also: it’s inbred.

@Aldo: Completely disagree. You seem to imply that ACA and other unnamed policies will only affect Southern cities. Further, you erroneously assert that said policies emanate solely from DC and the NE. Such is not the case.

If you think the South does just fine on it’s own and that respective state economies are proof I have news for you. Your ‘wages are lower due to cost of living’ argument misses the point. I suspect someone touched a nerve.

@Flash1022: How can you cite the effects of ACA already? The truth is that living standards are diverging as America separates into tiers. Your thought process is fuzzy. The South is a nation? We’re now not “highly civilized”? Overall the stats may frame total populations as lower quality of life but you make wide assumptions with little information. Best to just stick to reading opinion, not trying to make one.

Posted by Mac20nine | Report as abusive

What a load of crap. This is nothing more than a liberal progressive whiner who doesn’t like it that part of the country disagrees with their agenda. Last time I checked people from all of the country were flocking to the sunbelt, especially the South. They come for jobs, the low cost of living and the quality of life. Even the pictures with the article are of an auto and an aircraft plant, who went South because of the cost of doing business. And if the employees are so disadvantaged then why did the UAW lose an uncontested election at Volkswagen?

No, the New York and Kalifornia elites just don’t get it. When you pay $600,000 for a 900 square foot home and 15% or more in state/local income tax of course you need a $15 per hour minimum wage. And of course you need the government to help you out.

Income inequality is just as bad or worse in other regions but the writer makes it sound like other lower income areas don’t exist outside of the South. And the whole article is dripping of the race card, with the ever popular “Obama is a black man so all of the white people in the South are mad”. If you think that then why don’t you run Condoleezza Rice, JC Watts, Alan Keyes, or Allen West on your ticket and see how many Southern white votes you can pick up? No this is not about race, it is about issues but since that won’t hold up it is much easier to fall back on old worn out rants.

Face facts, there is a reason Detroit is bankrupt and shuttered. And it has nothing to do with what a guy in Foley, Alabama thinks about Obama.

Posted by Tarheel72 | Report as abusive

The south may try to move “boldly backward” until there is such a disconnect between its economic system and the rest of the country – it falls away again.

But this time it has the industrial capacity the north used to have and that allowed the Union to prevail in the civil war.

But the Chinese have the industrial capacity the US lost to it and the rest of the developing world will be giving China headaches.

But all any of it means is poverty, and even squalor, is on the rise again!

So who ultimately wins anything much anywhere and the mass of humanity might not actually be going anywhere one could call “progress”. It would just be working harder and for less money to live in hell. If that happens it declares the managers and winners of the social stew weren’t worth nearly what they were charging the rest of society. The reason wealthy tended only to live with other wealthy people – it was so much easier for them to preserve the image of competence and the flimsy justification for their special privileges that way.

The south can’t get too smug because “southern rights”, or even American rights means keeping a gun by the bed now.

Social life will become far more lethal and social “winners” will have to pay for defense as much as for pleasure to support their ascendancy.

One could look to the comforts of “religion” but the Christian message, and some others, praise poverty and are ambivalent about those with wealth. Were the scriptures just pandering? Many smart people have accused them of that. If Southern grandees want to rise again, they will also have to get used to being big charitable donors.

Wouldn’t a decent daily rate of pay and an accountable tax code be more sensible? The Middle East should serve as a blinding example of what happens when religion (and that’s very popular in the southland) is used, first as an excuse for social control by an elite, and then as a support for the victims of that control.

“God” always seems to be the ultimate “bipolar” personality. But even God could do better than use the archaic social recipes of the Good Book, or he’d find he gets the archaic social order as a result. One of those recipes involved keeping slaves.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

According to his senate homepage, Vitter is a Republican (http://www.vitter.senate.gov/) See paragraph 6.

Posted by PrueAnne | Report as abusive

Taking the billions in fed spending on medicaid only provides those monies for a few years at 100%. It declines from there.

If one cannot see our future congresses changing the match in order to play budget games then one has not much watched our federal government in action.

In Texas our budget already spends about 25% of our revenue on medicaid and related programs. If we take the short term view that our rich uncle will take care of us forever, then we could be committing economic suicide.

I for one look at our feds more and more as the class that considers any opposition to it as racist unhinged Neanderthals.

I think the truth is that the federal government simply cannot be trusted ever to keep its word.

Republicans and Democrats are both to blame, but both love their power money and prestige so much that none of them can even think about anything outside of their predetermined responses to issues.

Democrats…to have the Feds as the be all, end all, controller of both the states and the population at large.

Republicans…to have the Feds as the be all, end all, controller of both he states and the population at large.

Only difference between them is who the checks are made out to.

Posted by iamjoeschmoe | Report as abusive

Perhaps the author of this article needs to take a leisurely drive through and around Detroit, to witness the civility that the policies he advocates have wrought.

Posted by Randy549 | Report as abusive

Mac20nine: Provide an e-mail, and I’ll provide the stats.

But you just need to cruise this nation.

Flashwrk22@att.net

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

It’s ironic that writers like this criticize the South for being bigoted, ignorant, and arrogant, but they don’t even realize that their skewed view of the South comes from the same traits. This is called “projection.”

One thing that always stands out to me when I go to Northern cities like New York is that people there LOVE to make fun of the South. Go see any comedian, watch TV commercials, listen to people on the street; they HATE the South and will impugn it with any bad trait they wish if it amuses them. Meanwhile, in the South I rarely hear anything blatantly against the North unless I happen to go into a seedy biker/trucker bar and some guy is stubbornly saying, “Leave me alone, Yankee….” (And even that is more a caricature than common reality.)

The South mostly wants to be left alone, but articles like this prove that the North will always try to stand high above the South and criticize it mercilessly and arrogantly. “You must do everything the way WE say you should, and don’t you DARE criticize us for anything because you are just inbred racist backwards hicks.”

Mr. Lichtenstein openly calls the South regressive for not having unions and not raising taxes, assuming everyone who reads it will agree with him–which is a clear sign that he lives in an intellectual bubble and believes he is preaching to his choir. These are political issues that are decidedly NOT settled, and it has nothing to do with the alleged racist nature of all Southern whites.

(As an aside, it boggles the mind how he intends to get away with talking about the South “boldly moving backward” while supporting his statement with pictures of some of the high-tech automotive and airplane factories that are popping up in the South.)

There’s nothing in this article analyzing the downfall of industry in the North (even as it grows in the South), or the festering hellholes that tend to overcome Northern cities…nor is there any discussion of how much effort Northern people expend on gentrification to keep those crushingly poor areas out of sight of the perfect enlightened angels who write articles such as this.

If the Civil War isn’t over, it’s because the North won’t let it be over….which is pretty sad considering how much the North loves to gloat about its supposed victory.

Posted by nonstrosity | Report as abusive

The author states a part of the truth about this complex region, but he oversimplifies, particularly when he speaks of the south rejecting a multi-racial, religiously pluralistic society. That is true of a lot of older white southerners, but the generation growing up now is quite different; they will create yet another “new” South.

Posted by daveyjoe | Report as abusive

Obviously with the clear rejection of multi-culturalism as conveyed via the recent EU elections, the Council on Foreign Relations led Think Tanks are getting nervous in the service.

One would also think that Lichtenstein would be aware that a certain ethnic group are being run out of Europe by an increasingly vocal and aggressive muslim minority. School buses stoned (last week), shootings at religious facilities. Not to mention the fact that EU prisons are roughly 50% muslims while their %age of the population still remains quite low.

Diversity is chaos. Which is exactly how the powers that be want it.

Multiculturalism is the name for the condition in which antagonistic cultures co-exist in the same country. A divided population is a quiescent population and will be far too distracted to look at the bigger picture.

Posted by Loucleve | Report as abusive

There is first the rejection of universalism and transnationalism, and a reversion to patriotism and its songs, symbols, holidays, history, myths and legends.

To peoples such as these, the preservation of the separate and unique ethnic and cultural identity of the nation supersedes all claims of supranational organizations, be it the EU or U.N.

This sentiment is reflected not only in fierce resistance to further integration within the EU, but in visceral hostility to further immigration from the Third World, Islamic world or Eastern Europe. These people want to remain who and what they are.

Same. Thing. Here.

Posted by Loucleve | Report as abusive

“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