Monday, July 22, 2013

History is Interested in Us

We are products of our history whether we know it or not.

That's become my mantra after spending years researching the South, where I grew up. The latest evidence of this is a study published today in the New York Times,  which paints a stark geographical portrait of where in this country it is the hardest for a child born in poverty to better his economic condition. 

Guess where it's the hardest? Yup: the Deep South, which is to say a band of counties starting in southeast Arkansas and west Tennessee and curving down and then up again through Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South and North Carolina and extreme southeast Virginia. The worst city? Atlanta. 

The reasons for this are undoubtedly complex, but it is not particularly linked to present-day racial factors: researchers noted that the climb out of poverty was just as hard for white children as for children of any other ethnic group. Geographic and demographic factors do play a role, though:

In Atlanta, the most common lament seems to be precisely that concentrated poverty, extensive traffic and a weak public-transit system make it difficult to get to the job opportunities. "When poor communities are segregated," said Cindia Cameron, an organizer for 9 to 5, a women’s rights group, “everything about life is harder.”

And that's where history comes in. Even though its neighborhoods remain, on average, more racially integrated than most American cities, Atlanta still bears the broad imprint of decades of residential segregation: poor minorities live south of I-20, affluent whites north. The fact that Atlanta is crippled today by a lack of rapid rail is directly traceable to the decision in the 1970s by residents of Cobb and Gwinnett counties to opt out of MARTA, because so many affluent white folks in those counties feared more mobility would mean an influx of poor black people into their neighborhoods. (It would have, too, and in the long run everybody would have benefitted.) And finally, the symbiotic link between public officials and private developers--by no means an exclusively Southern phenomenon, but one that flourished in the South's conservative anti-union, pro-business climate--has mean decades of suburban sprawl: more houses, more roads, more traffic, very little regional planning. 

To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, we may not be interested in history, but history is interested in us. 

1 comment:

  1. when I hear statistics these days about Gwinnett being so ethnically diverse and a magnet for immigrants, I think about them refusing MARTA and laugh. It didn't work, did it y'all? The people you didn't want came anyway.