Faces and Places: The Evolving American South

Susanna Hegner

Race and ethnicity seem to dominate America’s headlines these days. A federal judge is hearing arguments in the NAACP’s challenge to North Carolina’s voting law. South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds after the racially motivated murders of nine black churchgoers. New York City reached a $5.9 million settlement with the family of a black man killed by a white police officer. A leading presidential candidate incited furor when he called Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers.


For those who’ve been battling the scourge of racism in all its forms since the civil rights era, these recurring themes are frustrating. " For the most part, we’re still fighting the same battle,” said Southern Echo founder and president Hollis Watkins. “Back then, the overall and overriding issues we were dealing with were education, workers’ rights, decent and affordable housing and voting rights. Those are the primary issues that we are faced with today, what we've been fighting all of this time. … You just got different people, different situations.”

But there are major changes happening in America, and the South is driving them. Many analysts believe the rebel flag would still be flying over Columbia if not for a significant shift in demographics. In 1980, the United States was 80 percent white, but a recent analysis of census data projects the country will be majority non-white by 2044. According to the Institute for Southern Studies, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia are all adding population more rapidly than the national average, thanks largely to newcomers, both immigrants from other countries and people moving from other parts of the U.S. Thirty-five percent of the nation’s African Americans live in the 11 Southern states, in part due to return migration, the reversal of the Great Migration that saw millions flee Jim Crow a century ago. Over the last two decades, millions of blacks have moved from Chicago, Detroit, New York and other Northern cities, mostly into major Southern cities. 


Perry Perkins, Lead Organizer for Working Together Jackson, says elected leaders can’t afford to keep ignoring these trends. Perkins points out advocacy groups are recognizing the need to build coalitions across racial lines. “Louisiana’s still shaking itself out after Katrina. North Carolina is demographically changing. Mississippi, because of return migration from places like Chicago and Detroit… and growth of the Hispanic population, these places over the next ten or 15 years are gonna become majority minority places too, and the current public debate leaves those folks out, doesn’t act like that’s happening. … Places are changing.”

Asian and Latino communities have seen the most dramatic population increases in recent years. Since 1990, the number of foreign-born residents in the South has grown 320 percent – triple the national average. Over that time period, North Carolina Congress of Latino Organizations Executive Director Ivan Parra says immigrants have become much more integrated into American culture. “The first generation were mostly migrant workers, folks that came to work in agriculture with little sophistication or understanding of the system, no English, and many times with the idea that they would come and go back, but they end up staying in this community,” said Parra. “Now, they have had children and many times their children have had children. They’re documented; their first language is English and not Spanish. Their last name could be Rodriguez, but they’re much more American than their parents would have ever thought they would be. They have the right to vote. … They’re citizens and they’re folks that are beginning to fight for their rights and they’re participating much more in the community.”

There’s strength in numbers, with some undocumented immigrants becoming more civically engaged. Mayra Rangel is a member of the steering committee for the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice. Fighting the state’s anti-immigration bill alongside other advocates emboldened her. “Now I’m not afraid to talk, even with my representatives,” Rangel said. “I was hesitant to talk to my representatives because I’m undocumented. I never thought that I could talk to them and tell them that’s what we need, but now I’m able to do it. I have so much knowledge and we are building for the next election. We’re trying to build register people to vote and get some power.”

Parra says corporate leaders and policymakers ignore the evolving makeup of the population at their own peril because the Rising American Electorate isn’t waiting for the power brokers to act. “Unless we’re seen as a community that has capacity to elect or not elect people, or unless we are able to quantify in good terms the buying capacity, the buying power that we have, unless we open educational opportunities for our members, remove barriers for access to housing or healthcare, we’ll always be at the lower place. And now I have kids and I don’t want my kids to be in that place.”

Disclosure: Parra is a member of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation board.

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