Thursday, November 27, 2008

The "New South" Myth

Much has been said and written over the past four decades about what some observers term the "New South." These observers are quick to emphasize that Douglas Wilder, a black man, was elected governor of Virginia and served from 1990 to 1994. Wilder is currently mayor of Richmond, Virginia. Of course, Atlanta is often heralded as a shining example of racial progress, and is viewed as a Mecca of sorts for young professionals who desire to live and work in the South.

That said, only the most seriously mis-informed or constitutionally naïve among us would suggest that the rest of the South comes close to resembling what has occurred in Richmond and Atlanta. Arkansas, my home state, has consistently refused to elect black officials to statewide office. Except for the states of Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia, Barack Obama received a lower percentage of votes from white Democratic voters in the 2008 presidential election than John Kerry polled in 2004. Obama did not match Kerry in Georgia, where Atlanta is the capital city.

The 2008 presidential election result shines a bright light on the "New South" myth. It is certainly true that black people are less likely to be terrorized when attempting to register and vote than was true forty years ago. It is true that state and local governmental agencies in Southern communities are less likely to be exclusively white. Municipal, county, and state legislative bodies now include black representatives in larger numbers. None of us should deny these changes, nor should we minimize their importance.

However, we should not exaggerate the meaning of those changes or ignore current realities because of them. On the night of November 4, black students at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Arkansas assembled peacefully to celebrate Barack Obama's election. They were eventually confronted by police who demanded that they disperse. Several students were arrested and accusations of police misconduct that resulted in injuries to several persons have been leveled. Whatever may be the political and legal outcomes of this experience, it reminds one of a time forty years ago when Freedom Riders were attacked by police, Bull Connor's police dogs and fire hoses were turned on student protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, and Alabama police attacked civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

On November 4, 2008, most of the nation signaled its interest in and commitment to inter-racial progress. Sadly, most of "the New South" revealed that the more things change, the more things remain the same.

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