Out on the dusty prairie west of Houston, the construction crews have been busy. Gone are the rice fields, cattle ranches and pine forests that once dominated this part of the South. In their place sit new homes and communities. But they are not an eyesore; the homes are affordable and close to attractive town centres, large parks and lakes. These are communities rooted in the individual, the family and a belief in self-governance.
The new American Dream has its heart in the states of the old Confederacy. But its allure does not merely lie in a conservative embrace of lower taxes, less regulation and greater self-reliance, although these surely matter. More important are the opportunities that come from building businesses and owning new homes, not for the privileged few but for an increasingly diverse, and growing, populace.
As Marianne Pina, who came to Dallas as a young adult before founding a five-million-dollar business specialising in minority recruitment and job placement, told me: “The American Dream stereotype still exists here. If you work hard, you can make it. It’s still up to you as an individual.”
But lurking in the background, the South’s rebirth remains threatened by its historical demons: racism, white nationalism and overzealous religious fervour. This is partly because, as the political scientist V.O. Key noted, the South remains the only region of America that has been conquered and subjugated. It is, he wrote in 1949, a prisoner of its racial legacy in its politics and social structure; only when that problem has been addressed can the region ascend to its potential.1 Indeed, the economic consequences of slavery persisted well into the 1960s.2
Even today, despite its ascendance, the South still lags somewhat behind the nation both in income and education levels. It is still castigated by progressive academics (increasingly a redundant concept) for being wedded to “racial conservatism”. It was only in 2013 that liberal chief justice Steve Breyer compared the region’s racial climate to “a plant disease”.
Anyone who has spent time outside academia knows this is increasingly no longer the case. Ever since the 1960s, business leaders in the South have worked overtime to embrace racial diversity, if not for moral reasons, but economic ones.3 Perhaps that explains why people from outside the region are pouring in: the Southern states account for six of the top ten gainers in interstate migration, led by Texas and Florida. In contrast, the biggest losers are the progressive strongholds of New York, Illinois, and California.
Significantly, while the African-American population has declined in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, it is expanding in cities such as Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), Atlanta, Houston, and Nashville. Immigrants, mostly from developing countries and Asia, are also moving in. According to research by demographer Wendell Cox, the fastest growth in a city’s foreign-born population over the past decade was in Nashville, where it exceeded 40%, while those in DFW, Houston and Austin increased by more than 25%. Once seen as a dominant immigrant melting pot, Los Angeles, by contrast, saw their foreign-born populations shrink.
“In the past, you would go to New York, but people have found life was very challenging there,” developer La Lou Davies, who moved to Houston from Nigeria, explains. “It’s hard to find a place to live. By the 1990s, people started going to places like Houston, which have lower entry costs for housing and better business environments. Getting that first apartment, or a lease for a business, is so much easier.”
And so it is economic opportunity, rather than reactionary politics, that has fuelled the South’s renewal. Most southern states — even Texas, which is suffering a contraction in its energy industry — have lower unemployment rates than California and those in the Northeast. Overall, southern states have also enjoyed far more robust job growth over the past decade than most of the country, accounting for six of the eleven fastest growing states.
Some progressives have dismissed this growth, suggesting that the South is where capital goes to “slum”, citing low wages, anti-union laws and housing costs. Paul Krugman, for example, ascribes Texas’s success to low wages and better weather, suggesting that he hasn’t visited the state during the impossibly miserable summers.
Certainly, the region’s growth in the post-war era rested largely on low-paying industries such as textile and food processing. Today, however, DFW is home to 24 Fortune 500 company headquarters, ranking behind only New York and Chicago. Even NASDAQ is reportedly considering a move to Dallas-Fort Worth from the New York area.
Tech employment has also been on the rise. Over the last five years, the South accounted for four of the top eleven tech growth regions: Austin, Orlando, Nashville and Raleigh-Durham all greatly outperformed the glamorous hubs of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Perhaps more important still, the South has become the epicentre for new job creation in professional and business services, the largest well-paying job classification. It also has held on to more manufacturing, and is now emerging as both the industrial, construction and energy capital of the country. For higher paying blue-collar jobs, southern regions account for a majority of the 15 strongest performers, while places like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago continue to languish.
Of course, construction plays a huge role. The South — as is evident everywhere from west Houston and north Dallas to the exurbs of Charlotte, Nashville, and Atlanta — is building far more new houses than their counterparts on either coast. Texas, with one-quarter fewer residents than California, has permitted more than twice as many new housing units this year, and has no housing crisis. Tennessee, now one of the 10 most popular destinations for immigrants from California, last year issued half as many housing units as California, despite having about one-sixth the population.
This is one reason why housing costs, even in the South’s hottest markets, tend to be as low as one-third, when adjusted by income, of places such as coastal California. Indeed, it is the opportunity to own a home that has likely made the South — which accounted for 43% of all sales in July — the predominant place for young families.
Yet the resurgence of America’s South still remains vulnerable. Yes, companies continue to move from the Northeast and California to Texas, Tennessee and other Southern states. But a number of corporate executives, particularly in the tech sector, have responded with horror to their socially conservative legislation. Texas’s recent abortion ban, for example, generated a strong set of counter-measures among tech firms: they blacklisted anti-abortion websites and offered protections for their own employees, including Uber and Lyft drivers who might be liable for transporting women to clinics.
Simply put, laws such the abortion bill, with could be enforced by state-sanctioned vigilantes, are unlikely to be a pull-factor for many would-be Southerners. Recent polls have found the majority of Americans disapprove of the bill, while at least one survey found that tough abortion laws would lead a majority of college-educated workers to move elsewhere.
The future of the South, then, depends on how it negotiates the rise of progressive politics — and its success will depend on how it negotiates their rise. Bills passed to restrict transgender rights, regulate voting or abolish critical race theory may have broader support than restrictions on abortion, but they have still led to boycotts, costing state economies millions of dollars.
The South’s biggest enemy, however, remains its own troubled historic legacy on race. All too often Southern conservatives allow racism to slip through the cracks. Just last year, for example, several Republican County Chairs in Texas tweeted openly racist memes; one of the offenders was from Harris County, where non-Hispanic whites make up less than one-third of the population. This behaviour, combined with draconian measures such as the abortion bill, could ultimately hand Texas to the Democrats — whose calls for a ban on fracking would, according to a US Chamber of Commerce report, would cost more jobs than those lost in the Great Recession.
And then there’s Covid-19, which, given the region’s low vaccination rates, also presents a serious danger to the prosperity of the South. Southern conservatives such as Florida’s Ron DeSantis may be rightfully critical of extreme lockdowns and school closings, but opening up too quickly has had dire consequences in a region that suffers higher obesity and diabetes rates than the rest of the country.
For the South to thrive, then, it needs to find a programme that both respects its traditions and embraces a more pragmatic, economics-oriented focus. It needs to overcome the ghosts of its tragic past and avoid the pitfalls of progressivism. The South, in effect, faces a balancing act. And if it succeeds, it will be the states of the late Confederacy could shape the future of their one-time conquerors.