By JONATHAN TILOVE
March 20, 2006
c.2006 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) Historians Matthew Lassiter, Joseph Crespino and Kevin Kruse are part of the first generation of whites to grow up in the post-Jim Crow South. They’re also at the leading edge of a group of younger scholars who say it’s time to stop considering the South a region apart _ especially on race, the sine qua non of Southern exceptionalism.
In books, articles and at an Emory University conference this week under the banner “The End of Southern History?” these rising academic stars _ Lassiter at the University of Michigan, Crespino at Emory and Kruse at Princeton University _ challenge the prevailing view.
Believers in a distinct South “came of age during the civil rights movement, and that profoundly shaped their orientation,” said Lassiter, 35. “Now there’s a younger generation who grew up in the South and came of age in residentially segregated suburbs of cosmopolitan cities that seemed to have as much in common with Chicago or Los Angeles or Boston as with rural Mississippi.”
Unlike earlier white Southerners who invoked an “everybody-does-it defense” to expose Northern hypocrisy, this new generation is examining how massive resistance to desegregation morphed into racially exclusive suburbanization across the United States.
The result, North and South, is what Lassiter calls an “intractable landscape of racial apartheid” where whites can avoid integration under cover of “color-blindness,” their racial “innocence” intact.
The new scholars focus not on the provocative name players of the 1960s and ’70s, but on the “silent majority” of Southern whites _ those who opposed both desegregation and violent resistance to it. They became the bulwark of a new conservative movement and an ascendant Republican Party that transformed American politics.
“It’s not about can we take race out of the story of the South, but can we put the South back into the national story,” Lassiter said.
Historians have long kept a checklist of what made the South different _ beginning with Jim Crow, the cotton economy and a one-party system, all of which are now history. The New South is thriving economically, its population booming with transplants from all over the country. Of the 20 most segregated metropolitan areas in the U.S., only two are in the South, with Birmingham, Ala., at 15, ranking the highest. Southern conservatism now holds sway over the Republican Party. The only president of the last 30 years not elected from a Southern state was Ronald Reagan, who, more than any modern president before him, breathed Southern values.
Growing up in Sandy Springs, Ga., outside Atlanta, Lassiter, who betrays no obvious regional accent, said most of his friends in high school had moved from the Midwest and Northeast. When he taught civil rights history at the University of Virginia, where he received his doctorate, he found his Southern-born white students could not relate to any of the white characters they studied.
Kruse, 33, had the same experience growing up in Nashville, Tenn. The great white villains of the 1960s _ figures like Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor in Birmingham and Jim Clark in Selma, Ala. _ seemed caricatures. “I knew people who were opposed to the civil rights movement, who may have been racist in some way, but they were not cartoonish,” Kruse said.
In his book, “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism,” released last fall, Kruse presents a nuanced portrayal of the trends that fostered the growth of the suburbs and the casting aside of racist demagoguery in favor of what Kruse terms “a new conservatism predicated on a language of rights, freedoms and individualism.”
Likewise, in “The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South,” Lassiter describes a “Sunbelt synthesis of racial moderation and economic growth,” which enabled places like Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C., to boom amid an aura of racial peace, even as they maintained a familiar terrain of “residential segregation and suburban exclusion.”
Crespino, 34, grew up in Macon, Miss., and in the book he is now writing looks at how many whites in that most deeply Southern place “strategically accommodated themselves to the demands” of the changing racial landscape even as they protected their privilege. “In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution” will open with the “states rights” speech Reagan delivered at the start of his 1980 campaign, at the Neshoba County Fair, near where three civil rights workers were slain in 1964. To Crespino, it marks the moment this reconstructed white Southern conservatism became central to the reaction against the civil rights movement and modern liberalism, a revolt embodied by Reagan and national in its scope.
All along, Lassiter believes, the difference between segregation in the South and segregation in the North _ the former a matter of law, the latter a matter of practice _ was a “national myth.”
But here some colleagues urge caution.
Temple University historian Bryant Simon may well have referred to the Jim Crow character of segregation in New Jersey in his book “Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America.” But Simon says the sanctioned, systematic violence of Southern Jim Crow really was different.
Likewise, points out University of Virginia historian Grace Hale, blacks in the North could vote. Moreover, Hale worries, to argue that the South now practices race in the same way as the rest of the country is as likely to lead people to stop thinking about race as to think more deeply about it.
“I just worry,” she said, “that that’s been a very slippery argument.”
It isn’t a strictly academic matter. Civil rights groups seeking congressional extension of the Voting Rights Act depend on evidence that the South remains different as proof that the region still requires federal oversight. And David Bositis, an expert on black politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, said the evidence is ample _ beginning with far higher rates of racially polarized voting, of felon disenfranchisement, of poverty and of capital punishment.
Lassiter acknowledged that “our argument could be misused or misinterpreted for political purposes.” But, he said, to indulge what he considers the fiction that the South now approaches race in wholly different ways distorts not just Southern history, but American history.