James C. Cobb: Katrina demystified the good and the bad of the New South

Roundup: Historians' Take

IN 1964, when the blood and terror of Freedom Summer prompted many Americans to condemn the South as backward and bigoted, the historian Howard Zinn struck a nerve with his suggestion that "the nation reacts emotionally to the South precisely because it sees itself there." Now, as Americans rebuild from the wreckage and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, they see another portrait in time, one that tells us much about what has and hasn't changed in the South in recent years, as well as about what the South can still tell the rest of the nation about itself.

At the very least, Hurricane Katrina put the lie to a generation's worth of ballyhoo about the newfound prosperity of the Sunbelt South. It showed us not only the impoverished and immobile masses of New Orleans, but the shack-dwelling, hand-to-mouth lives of thousands of others within the three-state swath of its hellish destruction. Here the disaster laid bare the shackling legacy of generations of pursuing industry through promises of low-wage, nonunion labor and minimal taxation and the correspondingly inadequate investment in public education, health and social welfare in the South.

Many of the places leveled by the hurricane were one-industry towns that had been reduced to no-industry towns when low-paying, tax-exempted, union-free employers repaid their hospitality by heading east or farther south where even cheaper labor and lower taxes awaited them. If Sherman originated urban renewal in Atlanta, Hurricane Katrina may have accomplished small-scale urban removal along the Gulf Coast, considering the number of towns that will likely never be rebuilt.

Even before the hurricane, more than two-thirds of the poverty-level families with children in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama fell into the "working poor" category. This figure is pretty much standard across the Old Confederacy, meaning that a great many Southerners beyond the physical reach of the storm would also be at the mercy of any such catastrophe of similar proportions. However, the same might be said for the almost equally prevalent working poor in such decidedly un-Southern locales as Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where folks have been laid low by wholesale outsourcing of jobs and economic policies that have left real wages stagnant and a social safety net in ever greater disrepair.

No Americans have had more experience with burden-bearing than Southerners, white and black. In this they have been well served by traits they exhibited repeatedly in dealing with Hurricane Katrina, especially their willingness to suffer extreme hardship and even death rather than sever their enduring ties to place, family and community.

Indeed, while Katrina may have bared the lie behind the New South's supposed prosperity, it has also highlighted a remarkable shift in racial attitudes. The small towns throughout the hurricane area where the rabidly segregationist Citizens' Councils once flourished produced some striking scenes of black and white Southerners in physical and emotional embrace, commiserating about what they had lost and sharing what they had left. ...

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