Wednesday, November 7, 2012

One Nation, Divided, by Race and Class

I am no expert in demographics, but take a look at the New York Times election map, and drill down to the county level. What's clear as day to me is that we are a nation starkly divided along lines of race and class--and my native region is one of the starkest examples.

On the state level, the South is a solid sea of red. But on the county level, there are distinct patches of blue: along the Mississippi River and up through the heart of the old cotton plantation country, known as the Black Belt. That's majority-minority land. Then there are the urban islands: Atlanta, Birmingham, Charlotte, Richmond, Nashville. These are increasingly places for the more affluent: gentrification has been driving out inner-city blacks for a while now, and Atlanta--the largest majority black city in the nation--has seen unprecedented growth in its white population over the last decade. Although there are plenty of affluent black people living in Atlanta, that city also has the starkest wealth disparity statistics of any city in the nation. The South's urban areas are job meccas for the better educated, and for those people who represent the South's rapidly increasing ethnic diversity. Urban, relatively affluent, educated and ethnically diverse populations tend, all things considered, to vote Democratic. They have a communitarian approach to government, and tend to see it less as "the enemy" than as a mechanism for regulating the excesses of capitalism and allocating resources.

Then there's the Other South, the part Romney won most decisively--is the mountain South. We're talking here about the Ozarks and the Appalachian band that starts in northern Alabama and curves up through Tennessee, southwest Virginia and West Virginia (and up into Pennsylvania). Those areas are rural, majority white and home to voters whose median age skews well over 40. The rest of the South won by Romney also fits that general description, though to a lesser degree. These voters value individual initiative and freedom from government restraint; they're also motivated to a huge degree by "values" issues that affect their faith and their family--mainly, same-sex marriage and abortion.

The first group sees the other as narrow-minded, selfish and bigoted about other races and cultures--and they have a point; the second sees the first as lazy, unprincipled, native about real-world threats and suffering from a massive case of entitlement--and they, too, have a point (much as it pains me, a member of the first group, to admit it). We are like a dysfunctional family, where everyone contributes to the problem, nobody has a lock on what we need to do, and emotions are too raw to even think about having a productive conversation. I don't think even Dr. Phil can fix this.

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