It’s not Dixie’s fault

Roundup
tags: Civil War, Confederate flag, Confederate Memorials



Thomas J. Sugrue is a professor of social and cultural analysis and history at New York University. He is author of “Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North.”

The tragic Charleston, S.C., church shooting, in which nine black worshipers were killed, allegedly by a Confederate-flag-supporting white supremacist, has unleashed a new battle over Southern culture. Confederate monuments have been defaced; leaders have demanded that emblems of the Confederacy be erased from license plates and public parks; schools in TexasLouisiana and Alabama are struggling to defend their “rebel” mascots. Most predictably, pundits have renewed their characterization of Southern states as the ball and chain of America. If all those backward rednecks weren’t pulling us down, the story goes, the United States would be a progressive utopia, a bastion of economic and racial equality. “Much of what sets the United States apart from other countries today is actually Southern exceptionalism,” Politico contributor Michael Lind wrote this month in an essay called “How the South Skews America.” “I don’t mean this in a good way.” 

This argument recapitulates an old, tired motif in American journalism that the South is the source of our nation’s social ills. It has been blamed for our obesity problem (“Why Are Southerners So Fat? ” Time asked in 2009), persistent poverty (“The South Is Essentially A Solid, Grim Block Of Poverty,” the Huffington Post asserted in 2014) and general stupidity (“What’s Wrong with the South?” the Atlantic scoffed in 2009). This time, in the wake of the church shooting, the states of the old Confederacy have become a national scapegoat for the racism that underpinned the massacre. If only they would secede again, Lind and others suggest, the nation would largely be free from endemic prejudice, zealotry and racist violence.

Not even close. These crude regional stereotypes ignore the deep roots such social ills have in our shared national history and culture. If, somehow, the South became its own country, the Northeast would still be a hub of racially segregated housing and schooling, the West would still be a bastion of prejudicial laws that put immigrants and black residents behind bars at higher rates than their white neighbors and the Midwest would still be full of urban neighborhoods devastated by unemployment, poverty and crime. How our social problems manifest regionally is a matter of degree, not kind — they infect every region of the country.

In fact, many of the racial injustices we associate with the South are actually worse in the North. Housing segregation between black and white residents, for instance, is most pervasive above the Mason-Dixon line. Of America’s 25 most racially segregated metropolitan areas, just five are in the South; Northern cities — Detroit, Milwaukee and New York — top the list. Segregation in Northern metro areas has declined a bit since 1990, but an analysis of 2010 census data found that Detroit’s level of segregation, for instance, is nearly twice as high as Charleston’s. 

The division between black and white neighborhoods in the North is a result of a poisonous mix of racist public policies and real estate practices that reigned unchecked for decades. Until the mid-20th century, federal homeownership programs made it difficult for black Americans to get mortgages and fueled the massive growth of whites-only suburbs. Real estate agents openly discriminated against black aspiring homeowners, refusing to show them houses in predominately white communities. ...




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