There have been many New Souths. The first was a fraud, a marketing strategy devised by Bourbon Democrats to present a regressing society as a dynamic destination for investment. Over a century later, we began to hear about how air conditioning and the Civil Rights Act had obviated the Old Confederacy’s long and ugly inheritance, but this ray of hope was extinguished by Nixon and the Southern Strategy. Another wave of boosterism crested after Virginia, Florida and North Carolina voted for Barack Obama, but the ensuing decade saw the most vigorous efforts at voter suppression since before 1965. The New South is a hope that burns eternal but never withstands the forces of history and reaction.
Always, the dream of a New South rests on a quasi-scientific notion known as “modernization.” Unwittingly channeling Marx, Southern champions point toward the region’s evolution from an agrarian society to an industrialized economic force, and perhaps, eventually, a center of the Knowledge Industries. With this progress come new workers–at first derided as Carpetbaggers, then celebrated as degree-holding blue-state transplants–and growing sophistication. Over time, these new industries and the workers who populate them will replace the older generation and form a new world where slavery and segregation once ruled.
Alas, only half of this trend has born fruit. The South remains more rural and agricultural than the rest of the country, but it bristles with auto plants and corporate office parks. “Yankee” transplants have been moving their families to the region for sixty years. Nevertheless, the South is the most racist, impoverished, unequal and unhealthy region in America and perhaps the entire developed world. To the extent that the death penalty exists in America, it is mostly in Southern execution chambers. To the extent that Americans lack health insurance, they mostly live in former Confederate states that have not expanded Medicaid. Every Southern state has a voter-ID law. Clearly, this is place that is still haunted by its history.
The promise of demographic modernization has failed the South. In the words of Mississippi novelist Jesmyn Ward, “the ugly heart of the South still beats with the idea that some people are less than others.” It is tempting to say that the South will never change fundamentally, but an historical comparison is instructive. Just as the South has been a moral laggard, Germany was the great troublemaker of Europe in the twentieth century. But rather than persist in bigotry and militarism, the German nation engaged in a profound reckoning with what it had done to the Jewish people and to the world. Nazi structures were razed, and Germany paid reparations to Israel. They committed to resolving their moral debt.
The South’s worst atrocities are not as recent as the Holocaust and the World Wars were to Germany when they began the truth process, but Americans are increasingly cognizant of them. Slavery. Segregation. Lynchings. A morally mature South could recognize these horrors as worthy of atonement, acknowledge their living legacy, and lay a foundation for a future that is better than the past. Given how white Southerners whitewashed the Confederacy, this process of truth and reconciliation may seem like a forlorn hope. But even in North Carolina, which sent more men to die in the dishonorable Rebel cause than any other state, Black and white activists have mobilized against Confederate monuments. One must have a very low opinion of other Southerners to believe that a process that started with Silent Sam could not end in a full reckoning that creates a better world.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.