Arguments Over What the South Was, Is, and Will Be

Arguments Over What the South Was, Is, and Will Be

Reviewed by Claude Sitton

Vol. 14, No. 1, 1992, pp. 28-30

The South Moves Into Its Future: studies in the analysis and prediction of social change. Edited by Joseph S. Haymows. (The University of Alabama Press. 322 pp.).

Historians and journalists have disputed for years over what the South was and is. Undaunted by this lack of consensus, Southern sociologists now have set out to predict what the region will be. What’s more, they think they can not only describe but also shape the South that will exist in 2050. That seems doubtful at first.

This bold venture in The South Moves Into Its Future comes a cropper at once on a question of definition. Joseph S. Haymows, the book’s editor, concedes in the

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preface that “the South” has several meanings. The reality is that there are–and always have been–not one but many Souths, Virginians and Texans having about as much in common as possums and armadillos. Further, there is the pertinent issue of whether the South still exists much beyond the confines of geography, history and fiction.

The fourteen authors infer the course of future Southern changes from changes now in process. Given the variables involved, the results are at best informed conjecture, conjecture that comes no closer to consensus than the historians and journalists. Further, the fact that few of the authors are likely to be around fifty years from now to answer for myopia lends a certain smugness to the undertaking.

Nevertheless, the book contains much informed debate about the social, economic and political directions of the South of today that makes it well worth the reading.

The studies referred to in the title were delivered at the 1986 meeting of the Southern Sociological Society in celebration of its fiftieth anniversary. They begin with an examination of the impacts of the Civil War, World War I, the Great Depression and World War II, impacts the book says brought the “New South.”

In one significant chapter, Jeanne C. Biggar predicts that current trends of in-migration will swell the region’s population to one-third of the nation’s total within the next fifty years. That in-migration also will create a South that is both younger and older, slightly more feminine and perhaps less black. And it will exert pressure on the environment and public services ranging from utilities and transportation to education and health.

Biggar says that barring a radical change in the racial composition of in-migration during the next fifty years an increasing dominance of white population numbers can be expected. This in turn may exacerbate socioeconomic and racial segregation in Southern cities, with central cities being abandoned to black residents while suburbs grow more white.

John D. Kasarda, Holly L. Hughes, and Michael D. Irwin think that, contrary to Biggar’s projections, the black percentage of the South’s population will increase somewhat. They also predict that many of the region’s competitive economic advantages will continue, while cautioning that its labor-intensive industries will grow more vulnerable to offshore competition. Future economic growth depends largely on investment in quality education at all levels and development of an information-age public infrastructure that supports a larger service sector.

The political South of tomorrow looks like more of the same through Paul Luebke’s crystal ball. He discounts the possibility of a biracial liberal alliance, a hope once popularized by V. 0. Key. Southern Democratic parties show little sympathy for an ideology keyed to biracial economic justice. Instead, those whom he calls the economic modernizers will adopt liberal ideas needed to defeat the conservatives while refusing to share power with the liberals.

Switch the debate to New South vs. No South and John Shelton Reed opts for the enduring South, which he explored in a 1986 book of that name. He concedes that Southerners now look more like other Americans, but argues that there are some persisting differences in localism, attitudes toward some types of violence and in a number of religious and quasi-religious beliefs and behaviors. Other authors question just how much South is left to endure. And Gordon F. Streib says old Dixie’s hopes for cultural survival depend upon its elderly as bearers of tradition.

Patricia Yancey Martin, Kenneth R. Wilson and Caroline Matheny Dillman present one of the book’s most conflicted analyses. They cite authorities who indict

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white males for many of the region’s social ills. They then concede that data on white that matter, are scarce and that a distinctive Southern style of what they call “gendering” may not even exist.

John J. Moland Jr. takes a downbeat approach to black-white relations. He thinks Reagan-Bush conservatism will persist into the twenty-first century, shifting to a more liberal and equitable direction by its second quarter.

W. Parker Frisbie sounds a hopeful note about the prospects of Southern Hispanics. He foresees full assimilation for Cubans, rapid progress by Mexican-Americans and a much slower pace for Puerto Ricans.

In summary, Haymows paints a South of 2050 that is aging, politically conservative, more than four-fifths urban, moving toward cultural similarity with the nation and drawing its income more and more from manufacturing and high tech and service industries. With the changes will come problems, says the editor.

Urban concentration will exacerbate pollution of air, water and other resources. Demands for public services will continue to outrun the public funds to provide them. Problems of inter-group relations–ethnic, racial, age, gender, and class–will intensify. The national balance of trade, the national debt, foreign economic competition and high defense expenditures will aggravate or extend economic problems. Management of toxic waste will become more and more urgent.

These problems, says Abbott L. Ferris in the book’s last chapter, simply present opportunities for sociologists. He notes how far the South has come in the past half century, in part through the efforts of sociologists such as the late Howard W. Odum and two organizations they helped found–the Southern Regional Council and the Southern Regional Education Board.

Political trends suggest that the region must rely on its own resources in preparing for the South that will be. If sociologists show the way, they will have made a more worthwhile contribution than those who argue over what the South was and is.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Claude Sitton covered the South for the New York Times during the Civil Rights Movement, served as long-time editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, and has recently been teaching at Emory University.