In Baton Rouge, it might seem that we are awash in opportunity. There’s a petrochemical boom along the river and growth is manifest throughout the region.
Absent the petrochemical boom, though, many other places in the southeastern states are also on the rise after the punishing impact of the Great Recession of 2007-09. Yet the troubles of struggling middle-class families and workers in low-wage jobs continue.
A report from MDC, the Southern think tank based in Durham, North Carolina, focused late last year on the state of the South for mobility — the chance that the region can “sustain the American Dream of each generation moving up and doing better than previous generations.” It’s an extensive survey of the challenges of economic and social mobility with a number of case studies from around the South.
If the issues of mobility are complex — even measuring that concept has some challenges — there was in the MDC report a warning about a challenge that predates the recession: race.
“Southerners who are honest with themselves know that long-held sentiments and predispositions compound the challenges posed by the slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2007-09,” wrote Ferrel Guillory, a Louisiana native and one of the South’s wise men. “Even with renewed in-migration of black citizens and the expansion of the black middle class, the South remains a region divided along the fault line of race.”
Guillory teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has seen the gap between the economic performance of the Delta states of the region, where he was born and raised, and the Atlantic coast states, where he made his career as a newspaperman and then a professor.
That gap may be closing statistically in Baton Rouge, but the underlying issues of what President George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” remain.
“Even as most Southerners say they are happy living where they are, the South remains afflicted with an absence of long-range vision and low expectations for too many of its people — a failure to imagine a future for people and places beyond the current trajectory,” Guillory wrote. “Southern policy has rested on the assumption that certain people — whites, blacks and Latinos — will remain stuck at or near the bottom, that mobility is not in their destiny.”
This is both eloquent and on point around the national holiday marking the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
We’re fortunate to have in Baton Rouge some determined efforts to bridge the racial gap: The long-standing Dialogue on Race series originally started by the YWCA, and new and more informal “Race and Gravy” dinners promoted by Together Baton Rouge and the Leadership Greater Baton Rouge Alumni.
The MDC report noted that national scholars studying these issues found that even in Raleigh-Durham, a boom town in North Carolina, children who grew up in low-income families fare poorly. Racial but also class divisions should be on the agenda of opportunity, not just the increase in building permits or technology companies. We cannot afford a failure to imagine a future of wider prosperity.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.