MAXWELL:  The South no longer matches its myths

9/27/1998- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Many Americans who do not follow politics closely believe that the South remains a monolithic region largely populated by backwoods, benighted bigots in pickups with gun racks and Confederate emblems who vote for Democrats and by obsequious blacks living in shotgun shacks who would rather die than vote for a Republican.

Not so, argues Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and public Life at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

“To look at the South close-up is to see a politics that is anything but one dimensional,” he wrote in the spring issue of the journal Southern Cultures. “The rule of rural Democratic barons has been broken as population and jobs have shifted from the countryside to the city and suburb. Blacks walk into voting booths and hold elective offices from which they were once barred.

“Republicans outnumber Democrats among Southern governors, senators, and representatives. The reality these days is that the South produces a diverse set of officeholders, and that it is possible to be both genuinely Southern and genuinely different in style and ideology. . . . It is important to understand the currents and cross-currents behind politics in the South, because the region, once so out of synch, now often serves as a leading indicator of national trends and as a wellspring of national power.”

Guillory contends that American politics itself has been “Southernized,” correctly pointing out that national issues such as tax-cutting, budget-balancing, crime, race, religion and family values took deep root in the South long before they did in the other regions. And Washington’s most powerful leaders _ President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Majority Leader Dick Armey _ hail from Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas, respectively.

At the first meeting, Sept. 20-21, of the Southern Journalists’ Roundtable, a subsidiary of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life, Guillory a UNC professor, other UNC scholars, journalists from around the South and representatives of the Pew Center on the States discussed the South’s emergence as a crucible in U.S. life and how Southern journalists can play a major role in helping the rest of the nation understand the complexities of the region.

James H. Johnson Jr., E. Maynard Adams distinguished professor and director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center at UNC, argued, for example, that the South’s demographics, especially its conflicts, are no longer a matter of black people versus white people.

He describes an “inequality paradox” in the New South, where mostly American-born blacks are losing jobs to the continuous influx of Hispanics, Africans, Asians and West Indians into states such as Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Maryland and Tennessee. On this front, Johnson said, the South resembles Los Angeles, where minority groups battle among themselves for old and new jobs.

Hispanics, for example, are leaving the traditional port-of-entry centers, such as New York and Miami, and are resettling in small- to mid-sized towns throughout the South. Arkansas and North Carolina, where meat processing plants flourish, attract large numbers of Hispanics. They displace African-Americans who have held these jobs for many years.

Calling this phenomenon “employer-induced conflict,” Johnson said that many Southern corporations desire newly arrived immigrant labor over native Americans _ especially black males. This situation is responsible for deep interethnic and intraethnic divisions. In Atlanta, Africans have displaced American-born blacks in the taxi, hotel and hospital industries. In Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties in Florida, West Indians and Hispanics have won jobs that blacks held for generations.

Since the 1980s, Johnson said, “Most of the human conflagrations have been between ethnic groups, not between whites and blacks.”

Johnson argued also that American blacks, who do not have an entrepreneurial tradition, clearly lose out to Asian and other immigrant cultures that come the United States with well-honed business skills, money and networks with ties to banks and other lending sources.

Other round-table presenters described the South as a leader in education reform, especially with regard to charter schools. North Carolina is a leader in this area. Several Southern states, such as Florida, have model welfare reform efforts and programs that protect young children.

On the down side, the South is also one of the fastest-growing regions of the nation, and with such growth comes more ZIP codes, area codes and, of course, the social isolation of gated communities and sealed waterfronts.

Dixie, where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered in shame to northern Gen. Ulysses S. Grant 133 years ago at Appomattox, Va., is as mainstream as any other part of the nation and through self-examination has become a major player in shaping the issues, trends and customs important to most Americans.

The key now, Guillory said, is to nurture journalists who can “cast trained, experienced eyes across the South’s political landscape, seeking not to perpetuate myths but to illuminate reality.”