Saturday, August 01, 2009

The South, the poor South

Slavery was America's original sin, one which four centuries of history have failed to extirpate. To be sure, the northern states secured its formal abolition in the bloodiest war in our history 150 years ago, and although the Civil War constitutional amendments failed to secure the rights of citizens for the freed slaves, the great civil rights acts finally corrected that problem. That did not, of course, end discrimination against black people, but it has allowed for enormous progress, culminating in Barack Obama's election. Yet it seems to me that slavery's most enduring effects, ironically, have fallen upon the descendants of those who owned the slaves, rather than the slaves themselves--and those effects still are a terrible burden to the American South.

One of my deepest beliefs--one which I cannot scientifically demonstrate--holds that human beings have an innate sense of equality--that they understand that the recognition we all crave depends upon extending that same recognition to others. That understanding, to be sure, eternally conflicts with other equally primal human feelings, such as the desire to rule; but it is there all the same. Although no other critic ever seems to have realized it, that belief, I argued in my undergraduate senior thesis, was the key to George Orwell's particular contribution to western thought, precisely because he had been denied that essential recognition throughout his childhood and understood its consequences. The Declaration of Independence, our founding document, specifically affirmed this in the enduring phrase that "all men are created equal"--and my blood boils at recent scholarship, by Gary Wills and others, that argues that the slaveholder Jefferson could not actually have meant what he said. The Founding Fathers were effective politicians, as well as theorists, because they could deal with contradictions between the real and the ideal. The American failure actually to implement that phrase, well known to Jefferson, did not, to him, invalidate it--it simply left us with more work to be done.

Jefferson's whole generation of slaveholders was in fact quite ambivalent about the practice, and many, like himself, freed their slaves in their wills. In the early 1800s Virginia came very close to passing a plan for gradual emancipation, but it narrowly failed. Then came two revolutionary developments: the cotton gin, and the rise of a generation of Southern Transcendentalists, who, like all Prophet generations (including Boomers) preferred to see life in absolute moral terms. They turned slavery, in their eyes, from a necessary evil to a positive good. The Southern Baptist and Southern Methodist churches split off so as to proclaim that slavery was an expression of God's law, and southern fire-eaters plotted the annexation of Cuba and the rest of Mexico to give slavery more scope. The Civil War resulted.

The South lost the war and the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but white southerners, driven perhaps by a very bad conscience as well as by economic interest, held to their beliefs on race and re-established white supremacy through insurgency and terror. With agriculture at the beginning of a long-term decline, the South already led the nation in poverty and trailed in every basic public service by 1900. It was by then pursuing a new regional economic strategy, using cheap labor (including not only blacks, but poor white children) to build a textile industry. Meanwhile, Birmingham, Alabama became an industrial center and Atlanta a commercial center--but the United States remained two nations.

The years 1933-65 now seem to me to embody a second great southern tragedy. Roosevelt's New Deal aimed to helping the poorest Americans, and many of them lived in the South. The Agricultural Adjustment Act, federal relief, and public works projects literally saved millions from possible starvation. The Rural Electrification Administration (whose work is lovingly described in the first volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson) brought electric light to the South; the TVA developed a whole region. Such enormous works inevitably created a liberal white Southern constituency. Politicians like Lister Hill and Hugo Black of Alabama, Claude Pepper of Florida, Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson from Texas, and quite a few more, were New Deal stalwarts. They won a number of important victories over more traditional Democrats, who saw both the New Deal and the slowly emerging civil rights movement as Communist attempts to mongrelize and destroy America--and a second generation followed. By the mid-1950s the two Senators from Tennessee, Estes Kefauver and Al Gore, Sr., were both liberal Democrats. Alabama had a Governor, Jim Folsom, who publicly championed the interests of blacks, arguing that as long as they were held down, poor whites would be held down with them. And even some of the more conservative Southern politicians of the mid-century era, such as Richard Russell of Georgia and Sam Ervin of South Carolina, were men of formidable intellect, quite capable of making real contributions to other areas of national life despite their hostility to civil rights. All this, however, did not stop the steady migration of black (and some poor white) southerners into northern industrial eras, especially during the two world wars. And on one critical point the South remained aloof--it was resolutely, implacably hostile to organized labor. According to a contemporary source, the main point of the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959 was to make it impossible for the AFL-CIO to organize the South. It succeeded.

The civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965, sadly, turned out to have tragic consequences for the South--perhaps because too much of the white South was still not ready for them. White southerners in border and middle south states had been slowly moving towards the Republican party during the 1950s, and the civil rights movement and the legislation it secured accelerated that process. Hubert Humphrey won only one former Confederate or border state, Texas, in 1968, beginning a trend that dominated the next forty years. More importantly, "government" and "government programs" apparently became hopelessly associated in white southern minds with help for black Americans. Essentially the Reagan years spread a trend that had already begun in the south--a trend towards smaller government a lower taxes--to the country as a whole. Meanwhile, cheap labor and pro-business practices moved more and more enterprise southward, until the whole American textile and clothing industry operated below the Mason-Dixon line. That, too, is where foreign automakers began building non-union auto plants. With the decline of the rust belt, the migration trend of 1914-65 was reversed, and the South (and the Southwest) gained population and political influence. The only Democrats elected to the White House between 1964 and 2008 were southerners who could carry southern states.

In the last ten years all this has culminated in a new catastrophe--the de-industrialization of the South, thanks to NAFTA and the general movement of industry overseas. Regions that live by cheap labor, it turns out, die by cheap labor, because there is always somewhere where labor will be cheaper still. The election of 2008 drew a clear line around the deep South. Virginia and North Carolina, both of whom include substantial new urban and educated areas, voted narrowly for Obama, as did Florida, which is only partly a southern state at all. But the rest of the old Confederacy voted overwhelmingly for McCain, based on the same sad resentments that have controlled much of the poor white vote for most of the last 150 years. Republicans control all the Senator seats and the majority of the House seats from those regions--and there are no Richard Russells or Sam Ervins in this crop. The Sotomayor hearings displayed several of them before the nation, and they were of appallingly limited intellectual ability. That the Deep South now lives largely in a different mental universe is confirmed by a new poll on the question of whether Barack Obama was born in the U.S.A.--broken down by region.



Where all this has led can be seen in a front page story in today's New York Times, on the financial crisis in Jefferson County, Alabama, which may have to lay off 2/3 of its work force in the next few days. I did not recognize "Jefferson County" (as I would have recognized Fulton County, Georgia, or Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana) when I saw the headline and expected it to be depopulated and rural--but no, it includes Birmingham, and ranks as the wealthiest county in the state!. Several factors have contributed to its unprecedented crisis. The recession, of course, has hit every area of the country, but Jefferson County also lost enormous sums on a complicated financial deal designed to finance a sewer project--one that sounds a bit like Harvard's notorious interest-rate swap. In addition, the county has lost the right to levy a kind of income tax, upon which it relied beginning in the 1990s. The reporter's comments on that tax must be quoted:

"The tax that was ruled illegal, known as the occupational tax, is essentially a 0.5 percent tax on income, but the phrase “income tax” does not sit well with Alabamians. One of its peculiarities is that it exempts a long list of professionals like doctors and lawyers, as well as phrenologists, circus managers and crystal gazers. In 1999, state lawmakers from Jefferson County, who are allowed by legislative tradition to control the county’s ability to levy taxes, tried to earmark part of the money for their own projects, and the county balked.

"In response, the lawmakers voted to repeal the tax. But the county, buoyed by court rulings in its favor, continued to collect it, bringing in about $75 million last year — more than 25 percent of the county’s general fund."

Now the court has reversed itself and it is not clear that the legislature will restore it. The reporter discreetly left race out of her story almost completely, but I would assume that Jefferson County has a large black population which a Republican state legislature is not likely to want to help. What was once one of the most advanced economically (as well as the most bigoted racially) areas of the South has now been reduced, by long-standing southern political trends, to near anarchy. I suspect it will not be the last.

Crisis, in medical terms, leads either to death or to recovery, and this may be the last chance for the deep South to join the modern world. Parts seemed like they might do so during the New Deal, but sadly, racial prejudice wiped out that progress in much (though not all) of the region. Now, it seems to me, the old Confederacy faces another problem: most of its smarter folk, both black and white, have migrated away. There must somewhere be an opportunity in all this, however. If the Obama Administration can actually improve the lives of average white Southerners, it could deal a death blow to retrograde politics for a long time. If it can't, however, the possibility of a Republican resurgence remains--and that will mean that the rest of the country will move closer to the South once again, rather than the other way around.

9 comments:

bill said...

Your thumbnail sketch of Southern history can be misleading. During Reconstruction, inter-racial alliances of blacks and lower class whites emerged in a number of former the former Confederate states. Similar alliances continued to exist in the early post-Reconstruction South.
In some cases, these alliances achieved electoral success. In other instances, they lost because of massive vote fraud and violence. However, these alliances sparked an elite led movement in the various Southern states to disfranchise both blacks and poor whites. The seminal (if not definitive) study of disfranchisement in the Post-Reconstruction South is J. Morgan Kousser's "The Shaping of Southern Politics:Suffrage
Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910" (Yale Univ. Press, 1974). (Unfortunately, it is out of print.)
Kousser demonstrates that about twenty five percent of whites were disfranchised along with the vast majority of black voters.

shari said...

It is obvious this man has never lived in the south and 'studied' it from an elitist position. His liberal leaning are grossly apparent. I was born in Louisiana, and lived in both south LA and in the Delta in MS for 45 years and 5 years ago moved to Maryland. Give me the kindness and warmth of the people from the South towards each other any day...blacks & whites alike. You, sir, don't know what you are talking about. Go live there, then write an article.
Shari

Anonymous said...

You, sir, don't know what you are talking about. Go live there, then write an article.

Look, we've all been treated to Jeff Sessions' yammerings. I'm guessing that the fiscal meltdown of Jefferson County is pretty much a matter of public record. As is the decades-old tradition of Mississippi-Alabama-Louisiana-South Carolina vying with each other for the honor of being dead last in just about every measure of social and economic development.

All these things are documented -- you can look 'em up. My own experience, from a few months spent in South Carolina when I was in the navy, backs up the stats: The Low Country really was an economic basket case. Many people really were subsisting on a combination of public aid and a kind of foraging. And without those sweet, sweet federal (read -- Northern) dollars flowing in, the region would have been even more isolated and backward.

I'm inclined to think that Lincoln's reconciliation policies were flawed. He should have liquidated the Confederate officer corps and expropriated the planter class. Of course, whether the North actually had the will to follow through that way is a big question.....
-- sglover

Interstellar Bill said...

You forget that it was the Democratic Party was the party of slavery and later of Jim Crow. It is they who should apologize to blacks for wrongs done to them (and dig in their own pockets for so-called reparations). Only Dem lies and welfare dollars have convinced blacks that Dems 'care' about them, but it was welfare itself that destroyed the black family and brought on the rampant illegitimacy and resultant high crime rates by blacks. Also, so-called gun-control laws started out as anti-black measures (by Dems, of course).

And the next time you whine about racial profiling, try remembering that blacks commit far more than 10% of violent crimes, so police spend far more time stopping blacks, because they're looking for the disproportionate number of black criminals reported by their victims. Without including the black crime rate, U.S. rates are well below Europe's.

When you add up all the black-on-white crime since 1965, you far surpass all the long-ago lynchings y'all love to harp on. Incessant Dem tirades about white oppresion was gasoline on those flames.

As a blind ideologue, you will of course continue to ignore such inconvenient facts.

Anonymous said...

Sam Ervin was from North Carolina (not SC).

"most of its smarter folk, both black and white, have migrated away" Is that just a gut feeling or do you have some data that supports that?

"urban and educated areas, voted narrowly for Obama," no implications there, huh? So I guess the urban folks that didn't vote for him were the 47-49% with no education? :) Another possibility is that the narrow Obama win was cobbled together from large populations of African-American voters and younger educated whites who haven't yet shaken of the influence of overwhelmingly left-wing acadamicians.

Thank you for your OPINION piece. Agree with very little of it but enjoyed reading.

Anonymous said...

Only Dem lies and welfare dollars have convinced blacks that Dems 'care' about them

Ummmm..... I think there was this footnote character named Franklin Roosevelt....

...it was welfare itself that destroyed the black family and brought on the rampant illegitimacy and resultant high crime rates by blacks...

Right outa the Heritage Foundation Do-It-At-Home Shadow Puppet book.

Listen, ace -- Do you think that a little 400 year fad called "chattel slavery" might have left some effects that might linger for a spell? It's only been 5-6 generations since slavery was finally legally ended. It took another 2-3 generations for those laws to have much meaningful effect. Now I imagine that in your mind, all blacks everywhere should have set up there own small business as soon as the 13th/14th/15th Amendments were ratified. But I suggest that, like essentially EVERY right-winger I've ever run across, you are deeply ignorant of the history of your own country.

Try reading a history of Reconstruction, ace. Try reading anything other than that Dixiecrat orthodoxy that you duckspeak so well.
-- sglover

Anonymous said...

You forget that it was the Democratic Party was the party of slavery and later of Jim Crow. It is they who should apologize to blacks for wrongs done to them (and dig in their own pockets for so-called reparations).

When blacks became full participants in the Democratic Party in the South, the Democratic Party moved fully away from segregationism and Jim Crow. When white segregationists left the Democratic Party for the Republican Party in the South, blacks became the majority of the Democratic Party in some parts of the South, such became irrelevant.

Only Dem lies and welfare dollars have convinced blacks that Dems 'care' about them, but it was welfare itself that destroyed the black family and brought on the rampant illegitimacy and resultant high crime rates by blacks. Also, so-called gun-control laws started out as anti-black measures (by Dems, of course).

Why can't you recognize that poverty created a need for welfare in the South? Welfare of one kind or another (including debt-bondage that kept poor people from starving while making them dependent on big landowners) was inevitable in a part of the country in which the ruling class rejected industrialization for decades because it "might compete with farm labor as a way of living"?

And the next time you whine about racial profiling, try remembering that blacks commit far more than 10% of violent crimes, so police spend far more time stopping blacks, because they're looking for the disproportionate number of black criminals reported by their victims. Without including the black crime rate, U.S. rates are well below Europe's.

Black people are the disproportionate victims of crime committed by blacks. But even at that, it's far better that police focus attention on markers other than "race" that suggest criminal activity -- such as gang affiliation, prior criminal offenses, and personal behaviors (such as the sociopathic personality that appears in all groups). Blacks know who their own crooks are about as well as whites do.

When you add up all the black-on-white crime since 1965, you far surpass all the long-ago lynchings y'all love to harp on. Incessant Dem tirades about white oppresion was gasoline on those flames.

Does anyone excuse crime of any kind? Just catch the crooks, prosecute then, convict them, and put them away. "400 years of oppression" is no excuse for an armed robbery or a rape. Except for rare members of small racist groups, criminals are equal-opportunity... oppressors.

As a blind ideologue, you will of course continue to ignore such inconvenient facts.

The biggest "inconvenient fact" in America remains poverty. Another is sociopathic tendencies anywhere, but especially among political (example: Dick Cheney) and economic elites (corporate executives paid very well to treat working people badly) -- and that itself contributes more to poverty than does any "racial vice".

Gerald said...

While I agree with much of this, and it is an older comment, some points seem to me to need at least a parenthetical remark, here or there.

Although I sympathize with the position, slavery, itself, was not the original sin (hate to use that term anyway).

I still like to refer to W. Allen Salisbury's (a black man) book, The Civil War and The American System.

Even if you don't agree with him on some things, what a great and stirring compendium!

The movement of some industries into the south, at a late date, was suggestive not of a wholesome domestic industrial scenario.

Some foreign producers were understandably concerned about the 'specter' of increased protectionism, which would have been a good thing some 40 years earlier, but which for political reasons had never emerged.

Lincoln had apparently intended industrialization of the south;certainly at least infrastructure improvements to enable its development. That was not carried forward after his assassination.

All the best,
Gerald Meaders

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