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The South has risen

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | February 22, 2012

Historically, the greatest dividing line among Americans (after race, of course) was probably the Mason-Dixon Line, the boundary between southerners and the rest. As recently as 1900, 4 in 10 Americans had been alive when Lincoln was assassinated. Bitter grievances between northerners and southerners — played out in hostile stereotypes and occasional violence — began long before the Civil War and carried into Reconstruction and then well into the 20th century.


D. Lange (LC-USZ6-1028)

Social differences were profound. In 1900, the South was much poorer than the rest of the nation and estranged from it. The southern economy was less connected to the North’s than was Europe’s (see here). Reconstruction had ended without repairing the consequences of slavery and the Jim Crow system was building a caste society.

By 2000, writers were hailing the “New South.” As part of the Sunbelt, its economy boomed even as much of the North became a Rustbelt. So “new” had this South become that many African Americans reversed the Great Migration of the mid-20th century by going “home.” What shrank this great regional divide, this bitter alienation?

Smaller differences

The economic gap between North and South lasted well into the 20th century, but then closed rapidly (Much of what follows draws from Century of Difference.)  Before World War II, southerners were much less likely to have graduated high school than other Americans, but by 2000, that difference had essentially disappeared. In 1950, southerners earned about 60% of what other Americans earned (adjusting income for size of family); by 1980, about 90% as much. The difference closed as low- and middle-income southerners gained rapidly in the post-war years. The new wealth showed in higher standards of living. As late as 1960, southern homes were notably less likely to have critical facilities like plumbing ; by 2000, it was hard to tell the difference.

Divisions in ways of life and values narrowed, too. For example, around 1950, when pollsters asked Americans what they considered to be an ideal number of children, southerners preferred more children, about a half-child more, than did non-southerners; the difference had almost disappeared by 2000.

Most dramatic, of course, was the change in race relations. For much of the 20th century, the South remained a fiercely- and violently-defended caste society; by 2000, much of that society had been rebuilt. Around 1960, hardly any blacks could vote in the deep South; 40 years later, Mississippi had about 900 black elected officials, Alabama about 700 (see here). Around 1960, only about 10% of white southerners told pollsters that they would vote for their party’s presidential candidate if that candidate were black (about 50% of northern whites said they would); by 2000, 90% of southern and northern whites said they would vote for a black. And roughly 90% of white, self-proclaimed Democrats, southern and non-southern equally, claimed (in the 2010 General Social Survey [GSS]) to have voted for Obama in 2008.

Lasting differences

Atlanta skyline


Still, differences remain. A small academic industry is devoted to documenting how the South and southerners continue to be distinctive — particularly with respect to violence. In the last several years homicide rates in South have been about one-third higher than in other regions (here). Researchers debate whether this is the result of something special about southern culture — say, an “honor code” (e.g., here) — or can be sufficiently explained by the demographics and economics of the South.

Cultural differences do remain. For example, in the last 30 years, southerners have been more likely to tell the GSS that they know God really exists and “have no doubts about it” – about 70% versus 55% for other Americans. Southerners have been slower than others to accept homosexuality. Since the 1980s, the percentage of non-southern GSS respondents who said that homosexual relations were “not at all wrong” rose from about 15% to about 40%; the percentage of southern respondents who said that also rose, but more gradually, from about 10% to almost 25%. In these respects, too, we can ask how many of the differences can be explained by the circumstances of southerners — say, levels of education or religious affiliations — rather than a special culture.

Nonetheless, even given the differences remaining, the bigger story is the substantial narrowing of what were once vast material and cultural divisions. What happened?


Part of the answer is the operation of the labor market. As the South reconnected to the rest of the nation in the 20th century, many of its poor and dispossessed moved out – waves of blacks in the Great Migration north and later many “Oakies” heading west. After the war, businesses reliant on cheap labor, notably textile factories, moved operations to the South. The wages they paid were low by northern standards, but they were better than what poor southerners could earn before and so the region prospered (see, e.g., pdf).

The South also benefited from outside intervention. Progressive do-gooders and, later, government programs raised the conditions of the poorest southerners. One fascinating study estimates that the eradication of hookworm infections in the South, thanks to programs pressed by Rockefeller philanthropists and state officials, by itself may have closed about one-fifth of the income gap with the North. Then there also were major investments in the South by the New Deal — in, for example, the TVA and rural electrification — and by post-war governments in the form of defense industry investments.

Migration out of the South was notably high in the early part of the 20th century and migration into the South has been notably high in recent decades (e.g., here) resulting in a mixing of populations that has also likely contributed to closing the differences.

Critical economic and social divisions among Americans have become less so in the last few generations — notably the gaps between the races and the gaps between the sexes. We talk a lot about these developments. (Others divisions, especially between the better- and less-educated, have widened.) Yet, the fading of the Mason-Dixon line is also remarkable — but rarely remarked upon (at least by those of us outside the South).

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.