If social media has a redeeming quality, it may be the ability to learn the unvarnished truth regarding the true feelings of others.
Within the past month I’ve come across numerous comments in the middle of Facebook conversations that were startlingly narrow-minded, yet because they singled out a group deemed OK to bash, no one uttered a peep.
The first came in early July, amid debates concerning the South’s ongoing educational deficiencies, specifically the overall low ranking many Southern states register on nationalized tests. Within a short time, the cause was identified solely as “Jim Crow.” Finally, one individual, located in the Northeast, stated bluntly, “I hate Southern white males.”
A second conversation dealt with the threat of radical Islam within the US. One individual countered that he had been to Islamic countries and that the Deep South, for example, was “way scarier” than Indonesia “in his experience.”
This individual lives on the West Coast, so it’s difficult to determine whether he’s ever set foot in the “Deep South.” I also understand that as a relatively tall, fit white guy, I may have an easier time than a black man or woman in the South. Still many blacks I speak with in the South – but by no means all – say that while issues certainly remain related to racism, they’re not specific to the South.
But unfortunately many of the South’s biggest detractors appear to have little to no actual experience with the South of today. It is certainly not perfect, but it’s vastly different from what it was 50 years ago, and it is a far friendly place, at least in my own experience, than New England, New York, much of the West Coast and the major Midwestern cities.
Still, the image persists, at least if one goes by the New York Times, Slate or other Northeastern-centric media outlets, that whites in the South are largely bigots, rural regions are populated almost exclusively by extras from Deliverance and blacks and other minorities live in constant fear, with some whites eagerly awaiting the return of “Judge Lynch.”
My experience has been largely the opposite: Whether on the West Coast, or the East Coast north of Richmond, no one will so much look at you when you pass them on the street, never mind say hello. Down South it’s unusual if you don’t wave when passing someone on a country road, whether you know them or not.
I can’t imagine standing to cross a street with someone in a Southern town and not saying hello and asking how they were doing, or vice versa. And anyone who knows me will tell you I am an introvert’s introvert.
While I may be a hermit in the making, my mother didn’t raise me to be rude. When I talk with strangers it’s not out of simple duty; I do have a genuine wish that their day goes well.
So why does a significant percentage of those outside the South feel white males in Dixie are a bunch of ignorant knuckle-draggers who keep white sheets and hoods in our closets?
A recently released book by Philip Leigh called Southern Reconstruction concludes that no small part of the problem is the result of Reconstruction, the period following the War Between the States.
However, Leigh doesn’t limit the term “reconstruction” to the 1865-1877 period that is generally used to designate the post-war era but expands it to include the decades afterward, when the former Confederate states lagged far behind most of the rest of the nation, stricken with higher rates of poverty, lower lifespans, poorer diets and reduced access to health care.
Leigh’s superb work points out that many of today’s mainstream historians focus solely on white racism in the South as the reason for Reconstruction’s failure, and that Reconstruction’s failure greatly aided the spread of white Southern racism.
Yet, as progressives like to point out, hate is a learned behavior. In other words, the racism that blacks experienced during Reconstruction and Jim Crow didn’t materialize out of nowhere – and it was different from that which existed during slavery. There was a root cause, and like many root causes, it was financial.
“The harmful effects of Reconstruction were more substantial, multiracial, and protracted than commonly understood, with poverty being among the most devastating,” Leigh writes.
Stereotypes play a role in how we see Reconstruction today: “Although Southern poverty and cotton culture is commonly associated with blacks, in 1940, whites made up two-thirds of the region’s farmers who either rented their lands or were sharecroppers,” Leigh writes. “According to a 1938 presidential economic report, about half of Southern white farmers were sharecroppers ‘living under economic conditions almost identical to those of Negro sharecroppers.’”
Unfortunately, post-Civil War Republicans were more interested in holding and building on political gains than actual advocating for black civil rights.
Even though blacks represented less than 2 percent of the population in the Northern states, compared to 40 percent in the Confederate states, most white Northerners wanted blacks concentrated in the South. Some white Northerners were concerned with increased competition for jobs if freed slaves moved North, while others likely were motivated by a dislike for people different from themselves, much as they disliked foreigners just off the boat from Europe or Asia.
Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary, Salmon Chase, thought emancipation would motivate Northern blacks to move to the South. In 1862, when blacks comprised less than 1 percent of the Illinois population, the state’s soldiers voted 3 to 1 to deny the blacks the right to vote, and Massachusetts and Illinois each refused to resettle contrabands (slaves behind Union lines) in their states during the war, according to Leigh.
Reconstruction was probably doomed to failure given the corruption that took place immediately following the war. Budgets in Southern states mushroomed, even if residents rarely got anywhere near their money’s worth as politicos, some Northerners who’d moved South after the war and others opportunists from the region, lined their pockets in many states.
Once the states were “redeemed,” a term which meant that Democrats effectively ousted Republicans for control, often by dubious means, the first goal of the new administration was to reduce the cost of operating state government, Leigh said, adding that segregation and disfranchisement of blacks didn’t begin to pick up steam until Populists were elected in the 1890s.
Leigh writes that white Southerners resented the financial burden associated with educating ex-slaves. Given that abolition was a national policy, many felt that the federal government should at least partly assist with the effort. Southern states were already poor to begin with and ultimately slashed education spending for both races.
There was certainly unequal treatment before the law and a general animus toward blacks in the South, particularly in the late 19th century and early 20th century. But Leigh argues that efforts to raise the South were hindered by the economic serfdom it was held in by northeastern economic interests.
He cites as an example the artificially high costs imposed on Southern steel by Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie, who created the U.S. Steel monopoly, recognized that the South, specifically the steel industry around the Birmingham, Ala., area, represented the biggest threat to his Pennsylvania operation.
By 1895, he had bought up the major Southern steel mills and imposed discriminatory pricing on Southern production.
“Thereafter,” Leigh writes, “steel from the company’s Alabama’s mills included an incremental markup … of $3 per ton over the Pittsburgh quote.” In addition, “buyers of Birmingham steel were required to pay freight from Birmingham plus a phantom charge as if the shipments originated in Pittsburgh.”
By the time the Federal Trade Commission got around to investigating the matter, during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, it was discovered that Birmingham’s steel costs were the lowest in the country and 26 percent below those of Pittsburgh.
For 80 years, the South suffered from burdensome tariffs and monopolistic rate charges, costs that kept wages down, stymied progress and contributed greatly to the poverty that helped create dissention between races.
But Reconstruction and the decades that followed it remain little understood among much of the population. In secondary schools, if it’s taught at all, it’s narrowly defined as a period when Southern whites sought to not only disfranchise blacks, but essentially place them back in the fetters of slavery.
White Southerners weren’t blameless but there was plenty of criticism to be leveled at others, as well.
As our nation currently tangles with the ghosts of the past, perhaps we would do well to seek out the reasons why the South has struggled economically and educationally for much of the past 150 years.
The reason, as Phil Leigh demonstrates clearly in Southern Reconstruction, isn’t simply that Southern whites didn’t like Southern blacks. History is rarely that evident.
(Top: Sharecroppers pick cotton in Arkansas in 1938.)