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Understanding the Transforming U.S. South: Perspectives on Race, Culture, Politics, and Society

Co-Principle Investigators:

Kerry L. Haynie, Political Science and African and African American Studies
John Aldrich, Political Science
Linda Burton, Sociology
Adriane Lentz-Smith, History
Mark Anthony Neal, African American Studies and English
Donald Taylor, Public Policy

Project Coordinator: Betsy Dessauer

Over the past half century, the South, always a distinctive and critical crucible of national trends, has undergone dramatic changes in its demographics, economy, politics, public institutions, and its culture. A new economy has emerged in the South, one that will potentially have profound political, cultural, and social consequences for not just the region, but for the nation as a whole. In this transforming South it is now commonplace to see African Americans and women in important elected offices, and as leaders in education and business, something that was rare just four short decades ago. The once solid Democratic South is now much more competitive at the state and local level, while Republicans tend to dominate elections for national office. At the same time, more blacks hold elective office in the states of the former Confederacy than in any other region of the country. Symbolic of these shifting trends, in 2008, on his way to becoming the first black president of the United States, Barack Obama won North Carolina, and Virginia, two states that until then had been reliable Republican states in presidential elections. In his successful 2012 re-election bid, he won Virginia a second time and lost North Carolina by just a slim margin. Considering these changes collectively, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that between 1965 and 2015 the South turned upside down.

The election of Donald Trump as president, efforts by Republican controlled state legislatures to roll back the 1965 Voting Rights Act, widening inequality, and public rallies by neo-Nazis and other white supremacists could be signs the South is beginning to turn yet again, or perhaps they are indications that it never turned in the first place. For example, Trump ran a campaign that was reminiscent of George Wallace’s and Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” of playing on racial fears and inciting racial animus among some whites. Like it was for Nixon, this strategy appears to have been successful in increasing white turnout for Trump and stoking tensions among racial groups.

It has been more than fifty years since a series of seminal studies sought to assess the state of the American South, and particularly the predominant role of race in southern history and the development of southern society. The “classic” works of  history, sociology, and political science, which heretofore have framed debates and research about the South, are books such as John Dollard’s, Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937), W.J. Cash’s Mind of the South (1941), Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944), V.O. Key’s, Southern Politics in State and Nation (1949), Floyd Hunter’s Community Power Structure(1953), and Donald Matthews and James Prothro’s Negroes and the New Southern Politics (1966). Each of these books helped determine the way scholars as well as laypeople have defined, explained, and understood the American South, from Hunter’s insights into how the Atlanta elite created the image of a “city too busy to hate,” to Key’s distinguishing Mississippi, a place of total white tyranny in politics, from North Carolina, described in Key’s own words as an “inspiring exception to Southern racism.” These works, all written by white scholars, whether right or wrong (and often they were wrong), created the dominant paradigm for understanding the history, and the cultural, political, and social dynamics of the American South.

Now more than three generations have passed since these classics appeared, and a different South has emerged. The Civil Rights Movement, America’s most powerful social movement, helped revolutionize political and social rights in the South so that Mississippi, once the scourge of democracy, now boasts that 75 percent of her black citizens are registered to vote – the highest figure in the nation. Industrialization and urbanization have swept the region. Instead of being a cultural and financial backwater, now the South is home to the nation’s largest bank and three of the country’s biggest airlines. Research parks in places like Raleigh-Durham, Huntsville, and Austin define the cutting edge of new technologies.

The racial composition of the South’s population has also undergone a dramatic transformation. Earlier migration patterns have shifted into reverse, with black Americans moving back into the South. Millions of Latino Americans have added to the population shifts in recent decades, with at least six states tripling the size of their Latino population between 1990 and 2010. In some places, this “new” minority has also become the largest minority. As a result, racial and cultural contact and interactions have been transformed from an exclusively white-black dynamic to a situation in which the presence of the Latino population has to be factored into any considerations of the South’s politics, culture, economy, and race relations.

Significant economic and educational developments have accompanied these political and demographic changes; largely due to the civil rights revolution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As a consequence, a new and rapidly expanding black middle class and an emergent Latino presence in the service sector are integral features of this new economy. Yet at the same time, it appears race continues to be the central variable in politics and in determining economic and social inequities between people. For example, more than 60 percent of African American and Latino children live in low-income families, compared to just over 31 percent of white children.  We find similar disparities when we examine family wealth, unemployment, school drop-out, and incarceration rates. Why do these patterns persist, especially in light of the many positive changes to the South’s landscape?  One might easily infer from all of this, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

By design, our initiative is interdisciplinary. It is intended to forge cross-departmental and cross-school collaborations, generate new research activities, spawn proposals for external funding, and develop innovative undergraduate classes. Our intention is to maximize the potential of being an interdisciplinary team. Thus, for example, we will gather and analyze new quantitative survey data to provide baseline information on issues of, education, health care, employment, income and wealth, political attitudes, demographic changes, and inter-racial relations. But at the same time we will dispatch trained oral historians to conduct interviews and seek detailed narratives that will help flesh out and contextualize the aggregate quantitative and qualitative data secured through surveys.