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A complex South of dueling impulses

The new State of the South report from MDC in Durham depicts a region moving in opposite directions simultaneously: striding forward and sliding backward. It tells the complex story of progress through social change and investment vying with retrenchment and withdrawal.

In issuing its ninth State of the South report, MDC, a research and community development nonprofit, reached back 50 years as a baseline for analysis. MDC has proved a durable institution since its founding 50 years ago as the North Carolina Manpower Development Corporation, and over the half century it transitioned to a region-wide thought leader.

(Full disclosure: As a writer-in-residence and a senior fellow at MDC, I have served on the research teams producing the State of the South reports.)

For those of us who lived through 1967-68 and whose lives were shaped by the events of those years, it was a hellacious period: escalation of the war in Vietnam; civil strife in major cities, North and South; the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy; the emergence of black-power advocates as well as a mostly white counter-culture, the presidential candidacy of Alabama Gov. George Wallace as an expression of white backlash, the paper-thin electoral victory of Richard Nixon, which led to his pursuing a “Southern strategy” that reshaped regional and national politics – generating a Republican Party dynamic that eventually led to the Trump presidency.

While the State of the South report takes note of political shifts, MDC focuses more on the condition of the people of the South, on their education, income, wealth and health. In looking at the region’s trajectory since the late 1960s, MDC sees a South no longer the “self-limiting also-ran’’ section of the nation that defended racial segregation and relied on a low-wage, low-skill economy.

Even amid the turbulence, MDC reminds Southerners, grassroots activists, public leaders, and business executives emerged to chart new directions. The South changed, in part, as a result of federal laws and court rulings, as well as public and private investments.

“We enjoy the legacy of those of visionary and courageous actions,” says the State of the South. And it asks, “Can the levers of progress that helped us move forward before be elevated and reinvigorated to do so again?”

A potent lever, of course, is education. The report asserts that the South’s public educational institutions – schools, colleges and universities – “perform better than ever.” And yet, most Southern states still fall below the nation in the achievement levels of its K-12 students. Gaps, debilitating to the region’s economic future, remain between the educational attainment of black and Latino Southerners and white Southerners.

One finding, in particular, illuminates a region transformed – with so much still to do.  Since the late ’60s, the South has been a major importer of talent. In every Southern state, residents born in another state exceed native-born residents in the percentage with a university degree.

In North Carolina, for example, a mere 8.4 percent of adults had a university degree in 1970; now 30.4 percent hold a degree, according to Federal Reserve Bank data presented to MDC. That significant up-tick has resulted from the state’s investment in educating its born-here residents as well as the in-migration of people born elsewhere. Since 1970, the state’s population has doubled, with 49 percent of its current adult population born outside the state.

The in-flow of talent testifies to the South’s progress and vitality since the demise of Jim Crow segregation, as the states strengthened public schools, expanded community colleges and invested in higher education. Millions were drawn to the region to work in new-economy jobs and to enjoy a high quality of life.

And yet, MDC points to research that shows even the South’s most vigorous metropolitan areas do not propel many of its poorest young people up the ladder of mobility. The report calls on states to raise education levels of native-born residents. Racial, income and geographic disparities “threaten a thriving talent development system,’’ says the report.

In keeping with its leap forward-fall back motif, this State of the South report calls on Southerners to engage in community conversations to chart ways to move forward – to ponder questions that arise from this central observation:

The vision of an inclusive and thriving South is still elusive. We have substituted a culture of withdrawal for a culture of investment.”

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.