We’ve all been taught the North won the Civil War. But we didn’t in the long term. How else can you explain the slow-but-sure Southernization of America? While we were busy congratulating ourselves for being the most wealthy and free nation in the world, the Old South’s most extreme elements took over the Republican Party. After decades of exploiting our worst fears and prejudices to turn Americans against each other, they’ve reasserted their dominance and installed Donald Trump in the White House against the will of the American people.
The Old South’s “values,” “beliefs,” and “heritage” all exist to serve a slave economy that enriches the well-heeled few while starving the many. In Harold Meyerson’s brilliant piece on the Southernization of America for the American Prospect, he explains why we’re still stuck fighting the Civil War. Meanwhile, the GOP is slowly-but-surely rolling back all the hard won gains made by women, people of color and workers over the course of the 20th century.
The South’s current drive to impose on the rest of the nation its opposition to worker and minority rights—through the vehicle of a Southernized Republican Party—resembles nothing so much as the efforts of antebellum Southern political leaders to blunt the North’s opposition to the slave labor system.
The Old South may not be able to bring back the days of unpaid slave labor, but the GOP’s doing the next best thing by shredding our safety net, slashing our wages, and taking aggressive measures to keep us from voting them out of power.
Now as then, white Southern elites and their powerful allies among non-Southern business interests seek to expand to the rest of the nation the South’s subjugation of workers and its suppression of the voting rights of those who might oppose their policies.
Meanwhile, the school-to-prison pipeline terrorizes communities of color and criminalizes them to keep them in line while exploiting the 13th Amendment to reinstate slavery through a captive labor force. And really, there’s nothing new about the unholy alliance between the old Southern elite and the Northern bankers, tycoons, and captains of industry. After all, they all profit from their slave labor-based economic development model. What is new — as Mayerson points out — is the current wave of non-Southern political leaders cloaking themselves in the mantle of Southern values.
What’s new is the spread of historically white Southern values to Northern Republican politicians—the latest development in the 50-year Southernization (and nearly complete racial whitening) of the Republican Party.
A look at the following maps shows a series of trends, public policy failures, and poor outcomes that are radiating out from the Old Confederacy. It seems like the more power the GOP holds in a given state, the worse off people are likely to be.
- Red and Blue States in the 2012 Election.
- Percent of adults who graduated high school.
- Poverty rates
- People who identify as evangelical Christians.
- Rates of Gun Deaths by State.
- Teen Birth rates.
- Medicaid Expansion 2015, by State.
- Rates of Accidental Child Injuries that Result in Death.
- Voter ID Laws by State.
- Average Life Expectancies by State.
- Rate of Incarceration by State.
- State Minimum Wages in 2015.
But first, let’s take a look at the map of slave vs. free states and territories from just before the Civil War.
The Southernization of America began as southerners moved west, taking their “peculiar institution” of slavery with them (or trying to).
Take a look at this map of free vs. slave states and territories in 1861, when the Civil War began. As you can see, the pattern of “red” states vs. “blue” states looks quite familiar to the modern eye … The Southernization of America began as “we” (meaning people of white European descent) began moving West. Although the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in the Northwest in 1787, the Southern elites saw anything below or near the Mason-Dixon Line as fair game. Congress took care to maintain an equal balance of slave and free states as our country grew. This gave rise to the constant Senate gridlock that plagues us to this very day.
Then, as now, the South’s economy relied on cheap commodities (cotton, tobacco, and, more recently, coal…though unions made coal jobs pay better), cheap labor, and low taxes. Meanwhile, the North — whose terrain, weather, and crops proved less well-suited to slavery — had evolved a more diverse and vibrant economy. [NOTE: This does not make northern states free from the shame of slavery, as northern textile mills, shipbuilders, and others were tied to slavery and the slave trade.]
Our history classes teach us all about how the North “won” the Civil war and how Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. What we don’t learn is that the American dream was built on the backs of black slaves whose labor powered America’s rise to riches, the bones of the Native Americans whose lives, culture and land we stole, and the blood of both. As explained by Cornell History Professor Edward E. Baptist in Salon, slave labor gave the South a huge leg up in the world’s booming cotton markets. Plus, the slave trade itself was a huge industry:
From 1783 at the end of the American Revolution to 1861, the number of slaves in the United States increased five times over, and all this expansion produced a powerful nation. For white enslavers were able to force enslaved African-American migrants to pick cotton faster and more efficiently than free people.
Thanks to slaves and Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin, the South’s elites grew wealthy and powerful even as the region as a whole grew poorer. Then the South’s ruling classes lost their slaves, and have been desperately trying to find new slaves ever since.
Make no mistake: As Alternet‘s Michael Lind explains…When right-wingers fight federal programs in the name of “freedom,” they mean “freedom” for their elites to exploit people and our nation’s shared resources, not actual “freedom.” Face it: the U.S. government’s programs and regulations throw a wrench into the South’s vile “economic development” model. How? by giving workers more power and protections, while making them a little less desperate.
The traditional Southern regional economic strategy, then, depends on the control by Southern employers of a huge pool of low-wage workers with little or no bargaining power in their dealings with their local bosses or the foreign (that is, extra-Southern) investors and corporations who are invited in to exploit their labor.
The high level of skills and high visibility of our first African-American slaves were ideal for exploitation by the Old South. And of course, this system relies on our nation’s deep-seated racism to help achieve its goals. But when push comes to shove, the elites don’t really care as much about the color of their slaves’ skin as you’d think.
Map #1. The Southernization of America: Division of red vs. blue states for the 2012 election.
The map above shows the spreading Southernization of America in terms of which states voted for Barack Obama (in blue) and which states voted for Mitt Romney (in red). The numbers reflect the number of electoral college votes per state, with the more highly-populated states with major cities tending to vote Democratic.
In the mid-20th century, we had the best of everything and the most broadly-shared wealth of any society ever known to humankind. After the Great Depression, the Democrats enacted a series of programs in the 1930’s–1960’s that lifted millions out of abject poverty and into the middle class. Although some were dragged into the 20th-century kicking and screaming, the much-loved President Dwight D. Eisenhower and many other Republicans also supported these programs.
Then, the Civil Rights movement came along, and many resented being forced to share their new-found prosperity with people of color. Plus, our women were getting uppity and those damn hippies were out of control.
In the late 1960’s, the Southernization of America began in earnest. The GOP figured out that many of us would rather sink back into the abject poverty our forebears suffered and fought to end, than pay even a nickel in taxes that might help “those people.” By “those people,” we mean lazy, undeserving people who don’t look like us. GOP leaders then mapped out a “Southern Strategy” that targeted the white “Moral Majority” and played to their racism and fear of a swiftly-changing world.
The above map shows how Southern “values” have radiated out from the Old South into the Northern, Western and even some Northeastern states. As Lind remarks, the staunch conservatives of the South may now vote Republican instead of Democratic, but they’re still up to their same old tricks.
Now that they dominate the Republican party, Southern conservatives are using it to carry out the same strategies that they promoted during the generations when they controlled the Democratic Party, from the days of Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren to the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. From the nineteenth century to the twenty-first, the oligarchs of the American South have sought to defend the Southern system, what used to be known as the Southern Way of Life.
Map #2. The Southernization of America: Percent of adults without at least a high school degree.
The above map shows the percent of adults who’ve graduated from high school by state. The lighter-colored areas represent communities with fewer people who’ve managed to graduate high school. Why do fewer folks from the South finish high school? It has nothing to do with the intelligence they were born with. Southern states generally spend less on their public education systems. They also do less to address childhood poverty, which strongly correlates with poor outcomes for students.
But thanks to the Southernization of America, budget cuts, and rampant income inequality over the past four decades, guess what? The decline in high school graduation rates have begun spreading outwards from the Old Confederacy. This may have a lot to do with the fact that in 2013, children living in poverty became the majority of students in the South’s and in the West’s public schools for the first time since before the Great Society programs of the 1960s.
Many Southerners lament the sorry state of so many of their public schools. But an increase in poorer, less educated folks doomed to low-wage jobs suits the Powers that Be just fine.
Map #3. The Southernization of America: State poverty rates, with the highest level in the old Confederacy.
As you can see in the map above, the poverty rates in Southern states is high. As Mark Gongioff once observed in the Huffington Post , “the South is essentially a solid, grim block of poverty.”
North Carolina and a handful of other Southern U.S. states saw the biggest increases in the number of people living in what are known as “poverty areas” between 2000 and 2010, according to a new Census Bureau report.
The Southernization of America has also resulted in swiftly increasing levels of poverty in other states as well, especially in the Midwest and Western states. As explained in the American Prospect, pressures created by cheap labor from abroad and the low wages and lack of workers’ rights in the South have dragged all of our wages down. Even as more and more factories open in the South (because U.S. labor is finally cheap enough, compared to developing nations like China), workers’ inflation-adjusted pay keeps falling.
One reason wages continued to fall throughout the Deep South, despite the influx of jobs, is the region’s distinctive absence of legislation and institutions that protect workers’ interests.
As outsourcing to places like China and India grows less cost-effective, due to demands for higher pay and tougher environmental and safety regulations, the much-missed manufacturing jobs are coming back. Unfortunately, they no longer pay well because the U.S. is swiftly becoming the new Third World.
Map #4. The Southernization of America: Observant evangelical Christians (and Latter Day Saints), as defined by people who say they go to church “often.”
Religion has played a vital role in the Southernization of America. Why do we Americans put up with a lower standard of living than people in other so-called “advanced” nations would never stand for? It’s because of our toxic legacy of racism and slavery. Being forced to live in poverty by your own leaders is a much easier pill to swallow when they provide you with others to look down on. But for those of us who aren’t racist — or at least try not to be — our dour Calvinist/Protestant heritage takes over. And no matter how liberal we are, we still deep-down believe that if we’re poor, it’s our own damned fault. We made bad choices. We don’t work hard enough. We’re just not good enough. This dovetails nicely with our brutal legacy of racism and slavery. Since blacks and other people of color are more likely to be poor, well…That’s just because they make bad choices and don’t work hard enough, right?
Except for some of that dark patch in and around Utah (a center of the Church of Latter Day Saints), that deep purple radiating from the Bible Belt of the Old South consists of mostly right-wing Evangelical Christians … Most of whom attend churches that are either affiliated with or influenced by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). While they’ve made some attempts to atone for their racist past in recent years, the SBC originally split off from the rest of American Baptists over the issue of slavery back in 1845.
Of course, there are also many evangelical protestant individuals and churches who hold more loving, liberal and tolerant beliefs. But face it: Religion can make poverty and injustice easier to bear, and that’s hugely helpful when it comes to the Southernization of America.
The Southern strain of “Christianity” also demands obedience, conformity, intolerance, the subjugation of women, and an often terrifying strain of white purity culture. While countless movements for civil rights and social justice have come out of Southern Christian churches, the SBC has historically served as a counterweight: If people are victims of poverty, racism or injustice, that’s all part of God’s plan, and governments are not supposed to interfere. Religious leaders preach the peace and loving kindness of Jesus, but embody the wrathful, abusive and war-mongering Old Testament patriarch who smites nations, turns women into weeping pillars of salt, inflicts the supposed Curse of Ham, and cruelly demands a child sacrifice, only to capriciously change His mind at the last minute.
As evangelical ministers migrate to the Northern and Western states and plant new churches, their new, born-again converts are groomed to become more accepting of the cruel injustices wrought by their corporate masters. Even worse, their children grow up knowing no other belief system. And somehow this brand of Christianity persuades people to believe all kinds of nonsense, such as: Climate change isn’t caused by our over-consumption of fossil fuels, gay people are evil, people of color are impure, women are incompetent and sinful, humans and dinosaurs lived side-by-side just 5,000 years ago, and abstinence-only “sex education” actually works. These views may not make sense, but they’re great for people who profit from fossil fuels and paying women and people of color less than white males.
Map #5. The Southernization of America: Gun deaths per 100,000 people by state.
In few realms is the Southernization of America more apparent than when it comes to gun violence.
Guess what? If you live in the South, you’re not only more likely to not graduate high school, live in poverty, and give birth while still only a teenager, you’re also more likely to die from a gun-related injury. Whether you get shot by a white terrorist, a madman, or a toddler, we have more gun deaths here in the U.S. than in any other industrialized nation. And within the U.S., the gun death rates in the South are high and the West’s are even higher. But every time we call for tougher gun safety laws in the wake of yet another massacre, tragic accidental shooting, or tragic on-purpose shooting, the NRA’s pro-gun crowd swoops in and starts howling about how our scary Kenyan Muslim former President Barack Obama’s still coming to take our guns.
But plenty of liberals and folks from the North also love their guns. Most of us aren’t “anti-gun” at all. We just want the kind of common-sense laws and regulations for owning and operating guns that we require for owning and operating other deadly machines: Namely our cars, SUVs, motorcycles and trucks. Also gun safety and gun culture don’t need to be at odds: People in the nation of Switzerland have long managed to enjoy a strong, safe and positive gun culture.
So what’s all the fuss about the Second Amendment and the “right to bear arms” all about anyway? Once again, it all boils down to the Southernization of America. Award-winning author and left-leaning talk show radio host Thom Hartmann did a little sleuthing and discovered that — surprise! — all that gun-loving blather goes back to slavery. Why? Because the Southern plantation owners needed their poorer white neighbors’ help with putting down slave rebellions.
The real reason the Second Amendment was ratified, and why it says “State” instead of “Country” (the Framers knew the difference – see the 10th Amendment), was to preserve the slave patrol militias in the southern states, which was necessary to get Virginia’s vote. Founders Patrick Henry, George Mason, and James Madison were totally clear on that . . . and we all should be too.
And although U.S. gun owners come in all colors and political leanings, the link between white gun culture and racism persists to this very day. A 2013 paper published in the Public Library of Science (PLOS) found that underlying racism among white gun owners — coupled with the Southernization of America has had a damaging effect on our nation’s gun policies.
Symbolic racism was related to having a gun in the home and opposition to gun control policies in US whites. The findings help explain US whites’ paradoxical attitudes towards gun ownership and gun control. Such attitudes may adversely influence US gun control policy debates and decisions.
White gun culture, open carry “activists,” White terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, Stand-Your-Ground vigilantes like George Zimmerman, and our nation’s brutal militarized police forces all combine to create a climate of terror designed to keep communities of color in “their place.” But these forces are always perfectly happy to turn on white people too, if they dare to challenge the natural order of things. Or, even worse, work side-by-side with blacks to fight injustice as they did during the Selma marches and during the 1877 St. Louis General Strike. Nor do these bullies always insist on using their guns: Beating, choking and lynching will do in a pinch.
The saddest thing for many gun enthusiasts is how the National Rifle Association (NRA) got co-opted into the Southernization of America. The NRA was founded by two Civil War Veterans from the Union side to encourage good marksmanship. They’d noticed their fellow Yanks were terrible shots compared with their Southern former opponents. The NRA has a long history of supporting civil rights and gun control. In fact, they even helped write gun laws for the feds until the 1980s. Alas, those days are gone.
Map. #6. The Southernization of America: Southern states have the highest teen birth rates as conservative leaders across the U.S. attack women’s health and access to birth control and abortion.
Teen birth rates are highest in the Old South, plus a couple of Western states. Why? The folks from the Atlantic‘s CityLab pored over the data and concluded that higher teen birth rates have a lot to do with the high number of Evangelical Christians living in these states who describe themselves as “very religious.”
Social and religious conservatives often invoke religion in their crusades against teen sex and teen pregnancy. But Mellander’s analysis finds a substantial positive correlation between the teen birth rate and the share of state residents who say they are “very religious” (.65). Despite the moralizing, the teen birth rate is actually higher in more religious states. This may be because other options, such as abortion, are more restricted in these states.
As explained on the previous page, religion has played a major role in the Southernization of America. When you mix raging teenage hormones with lack of sex education and few (if any) options for birth control or an abortion, pregnancy, and STDs are likely to result. Girls who grow up in poverty are also more likely to become teenage mothers. These teenage mothers, in turn, are more likely to raise children in poverty. Or, as drily explained by CityLab:
The teen birth rate turns on socio-economic class. It is lower in more affluent states, as it is negatively correlated with both income (-.53) and wages (-.35). The teen birth rate is also lower in more educated states (with a negative correlation to the share of adults that are college grads, -.54). Conversely, the teen birth rate is higher in more working-class states (with a negative correlation of -.36). The teen birth rate is also higher in states with greater poverty and economic disadvantage, as it is positively associated with the state poverty rate (with a correlation of .72).
Anyone in their right mind would demand good support, sex education, birth control, and access to a good women’s health clinic for these young women. But thanks to the Southernization of America, we see our fellow human beings as fixed cost assets to be exploited, rather than as unique individuals that require investment and nurturing to reach their full potential.
Map #7. U.S. States that expanded, considered expanding, or decided not to expand Medicare so their residents would have better access to affordable healthcare.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a key part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Now, people living in GOP-run states that refused to expand Medicaid can finally have access to health coverage through the federal healthcare exchange. Still, it’s utterly baffling that any state lawmaker or governor in his or her right mind would reject U.S. government funds that would give people in their states more access to healthcare. Especially since they’re already paying for Medicaid through payroll taxes. Even more puzzling is the number of non-Southern states that chose to screw their own constituents.
Such irrational behavior — and the fact that we put private health insurance companies in charge of our healthcare system instead of having a single-payer system to begin with — can only be understood in the context of the Southernization of America. The Old South exploits racism in both the North and the South to turn us against government programs that help people of color, even when they help whites too.
The Powers that Be don’t want people to have access to healthcare unless it’s through their jobs. That way, the people running our corporations get to decide who deserves to live or die. They’re perfectly happy for people to live in quiet desperation or in fear of going bankrupt due to a medical emergency. Because, when it comes to the Southernization of America, people aren’t actually people, they only exist as customers and workers (often one and the same) who add or subtract from the bottom line. And, as in the days of slavery, our corporate masters still reserve the right to decide who gets to see a doctor and who doesn’t.
Map #8. The Southernization of America: Rates of childhood injuries resulting in death are higher in the South and in states run by conservatives.
Bike helmets? We don’t need no stinkin’ bike helmets…Because, FREEDOM. And because the Southernization of America encourages us to see human lives as disposable, rather than worthy of protection, even when they’re children.
Alarmingly, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports the U.S. has among the highest rates of childhood deaths resulting from unintentional injuries in the developed world. And, of course, these rates are even higher in and around the Old South (plus Alaska and a handful of High Plains states). The top causes of child deaths are: Motor-vehicle-related injuries, suffocation, drowning, poisoning, fires and burns, falls, and sports/recreation-related injuries.
Strangely, accidental shootings didn’t make the short list, even though at least 100 children died in gun-related incidents in 2013 alone (and these shootings often go unreported).
How could these fatal child injuries be prevented? With simple, commonsense items like child-proof cigarette lighters, car seats, bike helmets, and smoke alarms.
Alas, these items cost money. and ensuring safety for minors requires attention from adults. For many of today’s families, money and time to pay as much attention as we’d like or should are in short supply these days.
Map #9. The Southernization of America: States with strict voter ID laws that make it harder for low-income people to vote.
Thanks to the Southernization of America, we’ve got Republicans in states across the nation trying to take away our right to vote. Jim Crow may still be illegal, but the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has emboldened GOP lawmakers. Even since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, they’re determined to turn all 50 states in the U.S. red by hook or by crook. And now with Neil Gorsuch in the Supreme Court seat the GOP stole from Merrick Garland, and other reactionary judges Donald Trump is appointing across our country, Americans soon may have no options for seeking justice at all. In fact, the white states that don’t have a circle with a line through them are the only states the GOP hasn’t tried to tamper with. That’s right, only six states (That sixth white space happens to be Lake Michigan) have been spared attempts at Voter ID laws.
The map shows the Southernization of America’s assault on voter rights, and is color-coded as follows:
- The states marked in yellow managed to fight back bills that would have required restrictive photo IDs.
- The purple states actually had Photo ID laws in place that were blocked by the courts.
- Four states — the ones that are appropriately colored red — still have Photo ID laws in place.
- The turquoise blue states are called “confusion states” because photo IDs are requested but not required.
- The four states with big Vs actually passed strict photo ID laws, which their governors thankfully vetoed.
- The states tattooed with a circle and a line through it require proof of citizenship in order to vote.
- Pennsylvania (the state with the purple pinstripes) still asks for photo ID even though their photo ID law was blocked.
- Virginia (the state in green) changed their law to allow both photo IDs and non-photo IDs. How mighty white of them.
Of course. the number of people who’ve actually attempted to commit voter fraud is statistically insignificant. But why should the GOP bother coming up with an appealing agenda when it’s so much easier to just keep likely Democratic voters from voting?
Map #10. The Southernization of America: Average life expectancies are lowest in the former Confederacy.
In the GOP-controlled “red” states in and around what once formed the old South, their unfortunate citizens are worse off by nearly every possible quality of life measure. And of course the average life expectancies for men and women are no exception. While folks up North and in the West (plus parts of Texas and Florida) are living well into their eighties, people in the Old Confederacy start dying off in their 60’s.
Map #11. The Southernization of America: State rates of incarceration, with higher levels in the Deep South.
- Vox‘s German Lopez reports that the United States’ prison population leads the world, both in terms of percents and actual numbers. We make up just four percent of the World’s population, but account for a whopping 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. And as you can see in the map above, the South throws more people in jail than anyone else. The Center for American Progress adds that our so-called “War on Drugs” is mostly waged on communities of color, and that our prison population ballooned by 700 percent between 1970 and 2005. Furthermore, our nation’s prisoners are disproportionately people of color.
“While people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned.”
The Old South may have lost their slave labor force when we passed the 13th Amendment, but now they’ve got the next best thing: Prison labor! Alas, even our nation’s overcrowded prisons and failed war on drugs can be attributed to the Southernization of America. Jaron Browne explains how the U.S. prison system started in the South as a way to re-enslave blacks in Reimagine:
In 1865, the 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery for all people except those convicted of a crime and opened the door for mass criminalization. Prisons were built in the South as part of the backlash to Black Reconstruction and as a mechanism to re-enslave Black workers. In the late 19th-century South, an extensive prison system was developed in the interest of maintaining the racial and economic relationship of slavery.
That’s right. And Rania Khalek writes in Alternet about how big corporations exploit cheap prison labor for as little as 25 cents per hour, while our tax dollars pay for it all.
In the eyes of the corporation, inmate labor is a brilliant strategy in the eternal quest to maximize profit. By dipping into the prison labor pool, companies have their pick of workers who are not only cheap but easily controlled. Companies are free to avoid providing benefits like health insurance or sick days, while simultaneously paying little to no wages. They don’t need to worry about unions or demands for vacation time or raises. Inmates work full-time and are never late or absent because of family problems.
Oh, and these vile companies even get a $2,400 per inmate tax break for employing them at way under minimum wage. Meanwhile, Arizona’s much-hated Sheriff Joe Arpaio has brought back the chain gang. No wonder these cheap, sleazy companies won’t pay living wages anymore. Welcome to the Southernization of America, and all-low-wages-all-the-time.
Map #12. The Southernization of America: States with the lowest minimum wages in 2015.
Oh, and guess why the minimum wage is so low throughout the South and much of our nation? The states with the lightest shades pay the least and the states with the darker shades pay the most. Yet it’s interesting to note that not a single state in the U.S. requires a minimum wage that would actually pay the rent on a two-bedroom apartment, as a single parent needs to do. Overall, the Southernization of America has led to an assault on civil rights, a declining middle class, and lower wages across the board. And there’s only one way to get rid of the people who are responsible for this: Get out and VOTE.
Featured image: Composite/Elisabeth Parker (Gage, Rural Assistance Center, USDA, U.S. Religion Census/ASARB via The New York Times, Huffington Post, CityLab, Planned Parenthood, CDC, 866OurVote.Org, VizHub US Health Map, MetricMaps via VOX, National Conference of State Legislatures via Quartz).