America’s New South: from slavery to economic powerhouse?

Saturday 28 October, 12:0013:00, ConservatoryUnderstanding America

The American South has a contested heritage. The romance of the Old South, as captured in Gone with the Wind, is overshadowed by the legacy of racism. The South’s economy and society was defined around slavery. It fought a war to maintain black bondage in the US and instituted a harsh system of racial segregation that persisted well into the twentieth century. Some see police shootings of young black men today as a continuation of that history.

Nevertheless, the South has started to see some major changes. While black Americans migrated north in the early twentieth century to escape Jim Crow laws and find better lives, many today are migrating back. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, three quarters of African-American population growth occurred in Southern states. Cities such as Detroit, Chicago and Baltimore are being traded for Dallas and Atlanta, the latter of which is now seen as the cultural capital of black America.

To some, this reveals a new, more progressive South. Southern cities and regions have seen tremendous economic growth, with the creation of many jobs in technology and finance. Atlanta International Airport is the busiest in the world. Certain parts of the South and Southwest, the so-called New South or Sun Belt, have escaped the backwardness traditionally associated with the South and seem increasingly free of the racial legacies of the past.

To others, however, the legacy of slavery persists below the surface. When riots erupted in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2016 following the police killing of a black man, the Wall Street Journal said Charlotte’s ‘New South image’ had dissolved overnight. Indeed, the legacy of slavery, or at least the war that ended it, continues to divide the South. Following the shooting of nine churchgoers by a white supremacist in South Carolina, the appropriateness of both state institutions and citizens flying the Confederate flag was called into question. Fights broke out between those flying the flag in the name of tradition and those who saw it as symbol of racism.

Is the new migration of black Americans to the South in spite of continued racism, or has the region really changed? If the South has left behind the racism of its past, why are the symbols of that past still so contested? How should the South be understood today in comparison with other regions of America, particularly when it comes to racism and the life offered to black Americans?