I’m not sure that I’m quite as pessimistic as labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein about the early 21st century South. But he’s certainly right about the attempt to reinstitute white supremacy.
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.
The 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.
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.
My relative optimism has to do with demographics. As it becomes politically more and more difficult to thrive as a white supremacist, as Latinos become an ever-larger part of the southern population, and as the people become more worldly, threatening conservatives with the moral decay watching soccer causes and the like, these politics, at least around race, become harder to sustain. Into that gap can come voter suppression and other tools of white supremacy, but unless the Supreme Court is willing to overturn the Voting Rights Act entirely, which is not impossible given who makes up the court in 2014, this seems like a loser’s game in the long haul. On the other hand, the attack on unions as monsters can easily transcend its southern rhetoric as agents of northern occupation and morph into a general hatred of workers uniting for higher wages, better working conditions, and a voice on the job. With Obama’s own former appointees leading some of these charges, that seems almost likely, if depressing.