Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Instant Grits and Plastic Wrapped Crackers: Southern Culture and Regional Development

 instant grits

In 1928, an unusually far-sighted southerner named Broadus Mitchell pondered the implications of the South’s impending modernization, wondering “whether these great industrial developments [to come] will banish the personality of the South … or whether the old spirit will actuate the new performance.” “Will industrialism produce the same effects here as elsewhere,” he mused, “or will it submit to be modified by a persistent Southern temperament?” A half century later, the South has certainly seen its share of industrialization, urbanization, and all the other -actions that sociologists call development and most of us would optimistically call progress, but the answers to Mitchell’s questions are still not clear.

When he wrote, a majority of southerners were engaged—un-profitably, for the most part—in agriculture. Only a third lived in the South’s towns and cities (“cities,” with a couple of exceptions, that didn’t amount to much anyway). The South’s per-capita income was roughly at the level we use today to distinguish between “developed” and “less developed” countries, and was substantially less than that in the rest of the United States. Since then, both the proportion and the absolute number of southerners working on farms have declined dramatically (fewer than one in twelve does so now, only slightly more than the national figure), and the nature of southern agriculture has changed: the size of the average southern farm has doubled, and it has itself been very largely industrialized.”

Per-capita income in the South is now recognizably American and is a good deal closer to the national figure (although a gap still remains). The South has become, like the rest of the United States, an urban society. Two-thirds of its people are now city or townsfolk, and a half dozen of its cities are grand enough to have teams in the National Football League.

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