Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

New People of the Newest South: Prospects for the Post-1980 Immigrants

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

New People of the Newest South: Prospects for the Post-1980 Immigrants

Article excerpt

THE SOUTH IN RECENT YEARS HAS UNDERGONE A DRAMATIC AND, TO most eyes, astounding demographic shift. From 1850 to 1970, it stood as the region with the smallest percentage of immigrants (and the largest percentage of born-in-state residents). Suffice it to say that the volume in Louisiana State University Press's History of the South series devoted to the New South from 1945 to 1980 barely mentions immigration. By the 1990s all that had changed, as the census of 2000 identified the South as having the fastest-growing immigrant population in the country. (1) Like the national pattern, reflecting first of all a heavy influx of Latinos (tripling the Latino population in the region and thus augmenting a pattern previously established in the states of Texas and Florida) and lesser but still significant numbers of Asians, along with scattered other groups, the new phenomenon reached nearly every hamlet in the southern states. The region thus contributed mightily to the making of a multiracial America, a transformation that has been marked both by the census count of 2003 that confirmed that Hispanics have surpassed African Americans as the nation's largest minority group and by the projection that by 2050 non-Hispanic whites would no longer compose a majority of the U.S. population. (2) Home to more than 11 million Hispanics and more than 1.5 million Asians in 2000, the region in the contemporary era has lent a special, new meaning to the term global South. (3)

Though too recent to have generated sustained analysis in many academic monographs, the subject of the new immigration has nevertheless attracted much scholarly as well as popular attention. Generally speaking, moreover, it is an attention with a kick. Like many contemporary issues, the social fact of new immigration to the South provokes commentary that tends to divide between those who see the glass half-full and those who see it half-empty. In short, will the new arrivals lift--and in turn be lifted by--the quality of life in the region, or will they create another social bottom-rail in a place all too used to racialized inequality? This essay focuses on the phenomenon of the new immigration (with particular attention to Latinos in North Carolina) and highlights both the promise and the problem of acculturation in an era of uncertain economic and political prospects.

The glass-half-full view of the subject may be said to begin with economics and then extend to culture. Clearly, the main reason for the rise of southern immigration has been economic opportunity, and in this respect, the magnet of the Sun Belt and post-Sun Belt South has proved most attractive. A surge of research and development enterprises, select manufacturing centers, and financial services built prosperous urban centers that demanded labor at various skill levels. In North Carolina, as Peter A. Coclanis and Louis M. Kyriakoudes have shown, the metropolitan counties like those surrounding Research Triangle Park and the Triad (Greensboro, High Point, and WinstonSalem), as well as the "economic dynamo" of Charlotte, "averaged 10 percent population growth every five years since the 1970s." (4) And according to a study by James H. Johnson Jr. and John D. Kasarda, it is precisely these metropolitan counties that account for about 70 percent of the state's Hispanic immigration, with many of the remaining immigrants residing in "rural" counties and working in "[s]pecialty industries" like meat and poultry processing. (5) The metropolitan magnet similarly attracted comparatively well educated South Asians to the Washington, D.C., area, where they "were represented most heavily in professional, scientific, and technical fields ... followed by retail trade, educational[,] health[,] and social services, and," to a lesser degree, "the hotel/motel industry." (6)

Economic pull equally explains the presence of the single largest new immigrant group, Latinos, but with an added political twist. …

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