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 Texas, Louisiana 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.
When all else failed, white Northerners attacked blacks who attempted to cross the color line, using tactics we typically associate with the Jim Crow South. They threw bricks through the windows of their black neighbors’ homes, firebombed an integrated apartment building and beat black residents in the streets. In Detroit, to name one example, whites launched more than 200 attacks on black homeowners between 1945 and 1965. In Levittown, Pa., hundreds of angry whites gathered in front of the home of the first black family to move there and threw rocks through the windows. Racists burned crosses in the yards of the few white neighbors who welcomed the new family. That violence occurred in 1957, the same year whites in Little Rock attacked black students integrating Central High School, yet it’s that story — of racial bias in the South — that dominates our narrative of America’s civil rights struggle.
Passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968 didn’t eliminate racist real estate practices. A recent National Fair Housing Alliance investigation found that in 87 percent of test cases, agents steered customers to neighborhoods where existing homeowners were predominantly of the customers’ own race. And while Southern states are home to a larger portion of the nation’s minority residents, nearly half of all fair-housing complaints during the 2012-2013 fiscal year were filed in the Northeast and the Midwest.
Economic segregation is most severe in America’s Northern metropolitan areas, as well, with Milwaukee; Hartford, Conn.; Philadelphia; and Detroit leading large cities nationwide, according to an analysis of 2010 census data by the Atlantic. White suburbanites across the North — even in Bill and Hillary Clinton’s adopted home town, Chappaqua, N.Y. — have fought the construction of affordable housing in their neighborhoods, trying to keep out “undesirables” who might threaten their children and undermine their property values. The effects of that segregation are devastating. Where you live in modern America determines your access to high-quality jobs (which are mostly in suburban places), healthy food (many urban areas are food deserts) and, perhaps most important, educational opportunities.
Education remains separate and unequal nearly everywhere in the United States, but Confederate-flag-waving Southerners aren’t responsible for the most racially divided schools. That title goes to New York, where 64 percent of black students attend schools with few, if any, white students, according to a recent report by the Civil Rights Project. In fact, the Northeast is the only region where the percentage of black students in extremely segregated schools — those where at least 90 percent of students are minorities — is higher than it was in the 1960s. Schools in the South, on the other hand, saw the segregation of black students drop 56 percent between 1968 and 2011.
White Southerners fought tooth and nail to prevent desegregation, using protests and violence to keep black children out of all-white schools. But federal courts came down hard on districts that had a history of mandated segregation, and federal troops and law enforcement officers escorted Little Rock and New Orleans students through angry white mobs in front of their new schools.
White parents in the North also fought desegregated schools but used weapons that seemed race-neutral. Black and white students above the Mason-Dixon line attended different schools not by law but simply by nature of where they lived. This de facto school segregation appeared untainted by racist intent, but, as noted earlier, housing practices in the North were fraught with conscious racial injustice. Further, metropolitan areas like Philadelphia and Detroit contained dozens of suburban school districts, making it easy for white families to jump across district boundaries when black neighbors moved in. (Often, Southern districts, as in Charlotte, encompassed the inner city, outlying suburbs and even some rural areas, making it more difficult to flee desegregation. As a result, Charlotte became one of the most racially integrated school districts in country.) Unlike in the South, it was nearly impossible for civil rights litigators to prove that all-white schools in the North were a result of intentional discriminatory policies.
None of this denies that the South is, in many ways, shaped by its unique history. It broke from the union over slavery, and its economy was indelibly shaped by that peculiar institution. After emancipation, it took a century of grass-roots activism and public policy to break down the legal barriers that limited Southern blacks’ economic opportunities. But the South is not timeless and unchanging. The region’s per capita income began to converge with the rest of the nation’s during World War II and accelerated in the decades after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, according to Stanford economist Gavin Wright. The South is still at the bottom economically, but the regional gaps have narrowed considerably, especially for African Americans. By the 1990s, Southern black men earned as much as their counterparts in other regions. Now, Northern blacks are migrating South in search of better economic opportunities, reversing historic trends.
The South has become an increasingly heterogeneous place, home to the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the country, led by North Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas and Tennessee. Immigration has remade Southern big cities and small towns alike: North Carolina chicken-processing centers have attracted Guatemalan immigrants. Suburban Atlanta is dotted with panaderias and taco shops catering to the rapidly growing Mexican population. And Vietnamese-born shrimpers are working the Gulf of Mexico’s shores in Texas and Louisiana. In the past decade, immigrants have accounted for half of the growth of country-music capital Nashville, with large numbers of Latinos as well as Kurds, Bosnians and Somalis.
It’s reassuring for Northerners to think that the country’s problems are rooted down South. But pointing our fingers at Dixie — and, by implication, reinforcing the myth of Northern innocence — comes at a cost. As federal troops and Supreme Court decisions forced social change in the states of the old Confederacy during the 20th century, injustices in the North were allowed to fester. That trend continues, as Northerners seek to absolve themselves of responsibility for their own sins by holding aloft an outdated and inaccurate caricature of a socially stunted South. In 1960, Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Another group with a vital role to play in the struggle for racial justice and equality is the white northern liberals. The racial issue that we confront in America is not a sectional but a national problem.” That holds true for most of America’s troubles today. Enough finger-wagging at Dixie. Change begins at home.