The American South can’t seem to shake off the Civil War. Or Jim Crow. And yet, that region of the U.S. is undergoing some dramatic changes. How the South responds to these changes will determine how easily it will enter the modern world and usher out the racial demons of its past.
Latinos are on the rise in the new South, with the nation’s fastest growing Hispanic populations in the states of the former Confederacy. Georgia and North Carolina are now among the ten largest Latino communities in the nation.
Further, African Americans are coming back home to the region, reflecting the nation’s largest demographic shift. The South now has its highest share of black folks in half a century. As northern states and California have witnessed a loss in their black populations, Atlanta has gained half a million black people in a decade. The largest black city after New York is no longer Chicago, it is Atlanta.
The migration of Latinos and the reverse migration of blacks mean that people of color are poised to become a majority in some areas of the South, as is the case in Texas. Add to that the influx of white professionals and high-tech workers in states such as North Carolina — a red state that Obama turned blue in 2008 — and you have the makings of noticeable change.
Then again, you have Alabama. After the state enacted the harshest anti-immigration law in the land, Latinos are leaving Alabama. Now, farmers are hoping to replace migrant workers with prisoners to work the fields because, after all, we know how forced agricultural labor worked out the first time around.
Alabama, as an aside, has a majority black prison population. African-Americans are 27 percent of the population and 63 percent of the prisoners. The state is 23rd in the nation in population, but was second in the number of executions in 2011. And over the past decade, nearly two dozen death penalty cases were overturned because prosecutors illegally struck black jurors.
Last year, like Alabama, South Carolina also passed its own bad anti-immigration law — modeled after Arizona’s SB 1070 — key parts of which were thrown out by a federal judge in Charleston. And the U.S. Department of Justice blocked the state’s new voter ID law, which would require voters to present a photo idea at the polls, and discriminate against racial minorities in the process. Under the Voting Rights Act, states such as South Carolina and Texas, because of their history of racial discrimination, require federal approval of any changes to their election laws.
The old South meets the new, as South Carolina’s Governor Nikki Haley signed both of these cruel, atrocious pieces of legislation into law, and vows to fight in court to have them upheld. Governor Haley is the children of Sikh immigrants from Punjab, India. The Sikh-American community has endured its share of discrimination in the post-911 era, branded as terrorists and persecuted for the traditional turban and beard worn by Sikh men.
And so, a woman of South Asian ancestry, a person of color and darling of the Tea Party, has chosen to channel the angry white segregationist governors that came before her. Some names that come to mind are George Wallace of Alabama, who stood in the schoolhouse door to block black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama; Theodore G. Bilbo of Mississippi, who kept blacks from voting, and Ross Barnett, who denied James Meredith, an African-American, admission to the University of Mississippi.
Haley’s policies, not unlike those of her predecessors, are the unjust laws that Martin Luther King discussed in Letter from Birmingham Jail. As King said, “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. … An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal.”
Even today, such laws are designed to keep communities of color isolated, scared and disempowered, down and out of the process. That the dominant party in the South has changed its affiliation from Democratic to Republican since the Civil Rights era really is beside the point. The old mentality remains. We’re talking old South vs. new South, a steadfast resistance to civil rights, and clinging to a segregationist mindset, even well into the twenty-first century.
Meanwhile, in Georgia, a black man named Troy Davis was executed last year under the rules of the old South — a justice system of mob rule, in which racial vengeance and scapegoating take precedence over guilt or innocence. In the end, what mattered was not the evidence pointing to Davis’s innocence, or the seven out of nine witnesses who recanted or changed their testimony, but rather that the victim was a white police officer and Davis was a black man.
Although I was born and raised in New York and now live in Philadelphia, I always regarded the South as a second home, if not something of an ancestral homeland. My mother was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and my late father was from Augusta, Georgia. I have lots of family there, not to mention fond childhood memories of visiting cousins. Many good people in the South, to be sure, but there’s a great deal of ugly in the South.
The problem arises when some people can’t pick a century to live in and stick with it.