Belonging: a half-century of seismic change

Demographic destiny

Disruptions to the status quo aren’t easy to live through — they weren’t easy 50 years ago and they certainly aren’t today. Our country, and the South in particular, are again redefining belonging. Demographic shifts and migration patterns (into the South and from rural-to-metro), along with changing concepts about identity are demanding a different conversation. The bi-modal racial narrative of black/white is not sufficient to describe the region. The demographic momentum that predicts a “majority minority” population has fueled backlash narratives that tap into anxiety about “losing a place in line,” a scarcity mentality that has been at the black heart of discriminatory policy and practice since our beginnings. Tracing the last 50 years of population and migration can help us understand where we might go next.

Instead of African Americans leaving the South as they did in the 1960s, they have since moved to the South more than to any other region. “Thus, a half-century after the civil rights legislation of the 1960s,” demographer William Frey wrote in his 2015 book, Diversity Explosion, “new generations of blacks, particularly those with a college education, are moving away from their earlier predominant destinations. Although the initial ‘reverse’ migrants may have been fleeing from deteriorating economic and social conditions in the North, recent younger and privileged migrants are moving to a more prosperous, post-civil rights South that was unknown to their forebears.”

Frey identified Atlanta, Charlotte, Miami, Houston, and Dallas as major “metropolitan magnets” for blacks in-migrating to the South. And he has pointed out that more than half of African Americans in large metropolitan areas now reside in suburbs, rather than the center of cities.

The South has shifted from a bi-racial to a multi-ethnic region. The arrival of immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and Asia, as well as the births of children to immigrants, has contributed to population growth and mitigated the overall aging of the region. The younger, more diverse South of today starkly contrasts with the older generation of the region. While 77 percent of Southern adults over 75 identify as white, only 46 percent of Southern children under 15 identify similarly.

• 1960: “The heaviest concentration of departing Negroes occurred among those who were between 10 and 24 years old.” Charlotte Observer, analyzing 1970 Census data. In the ensuing decade, more than 1.4 million black people left the South, mostly resettling in the urban North.

• Mid-1960s: Historian James Silver describes Mississippi as a “closed society,” echoing earlier descriptions from V.O. Key, who had labeled Virginia a “political museum piece,’’ and characterized Georgia as “the rule of the rustics.”

• 1967, February: 19 whites indicted for the 1964 killing of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss.

• 1967, June: Supreme Court makes its landmark ruling in the Loving case, striking down Virginia’s prohibition of interracial marriage. On the next day, President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Thurgood Marshall to be the first black Supreme Court justice.

• 1968, April: Martin Luther King, Jr., is assassinated while supporting a sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis.

• 1973: Maynard Jackson, Jr., elected first African-American mayor of Atlanta, GA

• 1991: W.W. Herenton elected as the first African-American mayor of Memphis and re-elected to five terms.

• 2003: The Latino population surpasses the African-American population to become the largest minority group in the U.S.

• 2014: #BlackLivesMatter emerges on Twitter as a call to action for Black people following the innocence verdict for George Zimmerman in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida.

Further diversity appears to be in store. Among Southern children and teenagers, now about half are white. Blacks, Latinos and Asians together add up to nearly half. Currently, only Texas among Southern states has a majority-minority population. Recent demography projections from the Center for American Progress have Florida and Georgia becoming majority-minority in the 2020s, Louisiana in the 2030s, Mississippi and Virginia in the 2040s, and North Carolina in 2050.3

Southern in-migration and metropolitanization

The American South has 54 million more residents today than five decades ago and accounted for 49 percent of total U.S. population growth since 1970.4 States along the Atlantic seaboard, as well as Texas, have grown more robustly than states of the inner-South. Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina all have more than doubled in size and account for three-fourths of the region’s population growth during this period. The scale of population growth suggests a sweeping regional transformation—while the details of that growth tell an even more dramatic story.

• 1960s: Two-thirds of Americans nationwide lived in metropolitan areas, but the South’s populace remained roughly half-urban, half-rural—even in the wake of the post-World War II economic expansion and spur to urbanization.

• 1960-69: The number of black Southerners living in the region’s central cities rose from 25 percent to 28 percent. There were more black people living in poverty in Southern cities than in Northern ones.

• 1967: A year before his death, Robert Kennedy, then a senator from New York, visits Mississippians along U.S. 61, the north-south highway that runs parallel to the big river. His tour, with national media in tow, introduces Americans to the scandal of hunger in the Delta. In the same year, a National Advisory Commission on Rural Poverty issues its landmark report.

Of course, some growth comes naturally, with births exceeding deaths as people live longer lives. In terms of the South’s development, even more important are the shifts that arise from the mobility of American society, as people move from one state to another, from a small town to a city, from a city to a retirement community.

The population surge of fastest-growing Southern states has largely been driven by in-migration from other states and immigration from other nations. As its supply of jobs expanded, the South became an importer of talent. College-educated Americans moved in. The South’s strong-growth states have out-paced the slower-growth states. In 2015, 64 percent of Florida’s population was born in another state, while slower-growth states like Kentucky and Mississippi’s out-of-state population hovers around 30 percent.

For example, in North Carolina, four out of 10 current residents were born outside the state. Today, 7.7 percent of North Carolina’s population of 10 million were foreign-born, up from .6 percent of its 5.2 million population in 1970. According to UNC-Chapel Hill demographer Rebecca Tippett, 17 North Carolina counties have more residents born elsewhere than native-born; similar shifts are seen in across the region.


• 1970: This year’s Census counts six U.S. cities with populations of more than a million—Houston ranked sixth with 1.2 million people. In addition to the Texas cities of San Antonio and Dallas, the South had three cities in the top 20: Memphis with 623,530 people, New Orleans 593,471, and Atlanta 496,973.

• 1970: 61 percent of Southerners live in a metro county

• 2015: 75 percent of Southerners live in a metro county

• 1972: “Not only has urbanization now caught on in the South, but in the fashion of all late converts, the South is zealously leading the nation into the last third of this urbanizing century… These national trends of suburbanization of population and jobs, migration of blacks to metropolitan areas, concentration of blacks in central cities, and the exodus of whites to urban fringes are beginning to shape Southern metropolitan areas decisively.” Joel Fleishman, You Can’t Eat Magnolias, essays assembled by the LQC Lamar Society


• 1990: NC is most rural state in US

In 1970, only two states had sizable foreign-born populations—Florida at 8 percent and Texas at 2.8 percent of their total; all other Southern states had well below 100,000 foreign-born residents. Now all states, except West Virginia and Mississippi, have more than 100,000 foreign-born residents. And the fast-growing states have become the most robustly multi-ethnic—Florida nearly 20 percent foreign-born, Texas about 17 percent, Virginia more than 11 percent, Georgia nearly 10 percent, and North Carolina about 8 percent.

Born-elsewhere Southerners have been attracted by jobs, educational opportunities, and quality-of-life factors. The region faces challenges in building and sustaining a sense of belonging to communities filled with highly mobile people. To elevate their economies and spread prosperity, Southern states have to rely on—and educate more of—their own, at-home citizens to meet the talent deficits that immigration is not erasing.


South relies more on metro-power

Southern population growth has not been evenly distributed; rather, it is more pronounced in metro areas, a trend that was just beginning as the movement from a rural to a metropolitan-dominant region had just picked up steam in the early 1970s. Through the last quarter of the 20th century, that dynamic accelerated to change the face of the region. Today’s South contains one-third of the nation’s 100 most populous metro areas, and five of the top 10: Dallas, Houston, Washington, D.C. (includes Virginia suburbs), Miami, and Atlanta. Since 1970, the South’s metropolitan population has increased by nearly 50 percent; 75 percent of Southerners now live in a metropolitan setting.

Especially since the Great Recession, a collection of expanding metro areas has served as the South’s most potent economic drivers. Repositories of entertainment, art, and culture, cities and their surrounding suburbs attract people with ideas and money to invest in them. As they have attracted the “creative class,” Southern metro areas also have exerted a magnetic pull on people needed to fill burgeoning retail, service, and maintenance jobs. The double-edge of this growth—economic development that generates vitality for some and low-wage work and economic insecurity for others—is the paradox of today’s South.

Thus, the region’s metro areas find themselves divided among the affluent, a stressed middle class, and the struggling poor and near-poor. In 1986, MDC published “Shadows in the Sunbelt,” highlighting pockets of economic distress amid the “Sunbelt” surge. It described those areas mostly as rural communities left behind by the shift of people and jobs to the cities. Now the South has “shadows” of fragility and disparity just a few city blocks away from high-rise office and condo towers.

Simultaneously, Southern states face excruciatingly difficult choices in addressing human needs in rural communities, some holding on, some dwindling. The 1980s farm crisis, characterized by drastic declines in commodity sales and record farm foreclosures, brought a nationwide awakening. The economic dislocation of rural America brought rural policy to the forefront of concerns and rang in two decades of focused legislation surrounding rural economic development. This rejuvenation halted a collapse of rural America decades ago, but today, we continue to witness a decline of Southern rural populations.

To what extent should state governments try to “save” small towns or manage decline? Rural places have varying characteristics—some are amenity-rich and some have extractive economies; some are near vibrant regions, some are isolated. Some, to be sure, have shown remarkable resilience, especially those near metro areas, along major highways, and those blessed with natural beauty that attracts retirees and visitors.

And yet, across the South, many small towns have lost their economic bases in manufacturing and mining and struggle with discouragement at best, and opioid addiction and suicide at worst.

An increase in metropolitanization has made it increasingly difficult to thrive in rural counties that lack a sufficient number of good jobs and the postsecondary institutions that would equip the local labor force with the skills needed to attract employers. In more populous regions, regional workforce development strategies have relied on recruiting talent from other states rather than developing talent among local residents by investing in public, postsecondary institutions. Finally, the Great Recession and technological advances have created rapid and, often, unpredictable shifts in the labor market that make it difficult for communities to adjust quickly enough to meet the changing needs of employers.

The way forward: the strength of inclusion 

Growing racial diversity, immigration-driven population growth, increasing metropolitanization, and a stark political divide challenge notions of who belongs. In an increasingly heterogeneous society, we have communities that are separating themselves by affluence, race, and even ideology, rather than finding similarities in how people live, work, and play to create a shared identity as Southerners. Without more cooperation across these differences, the region risks continued isolation, polarization, and increasing segregation by race and socioeconomic status.

There are narratives celebrating the region’s increasing diversity, heralding the U.S. as a place where people from myriad backgrounds can find the “American Dream.” And there are other, perhaps louder, narratives that demonstrate resentment and anxiety concerning demographic change. That anxiety has resulted in increased concern about immigration, particularly immigration from Mexico. Our leaders struggle to agree on policies, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), that have significance for young people and their access to civic and economic institutions that contribute to upward economic mobility.

Diversity is different from inclusion. Although we are more racially diverse as a region, this does not mean that access to power and resources is diversified, nor equitable across race. For far too long, black, brown, and low-income people have had fewer opportunities to pursue leadership and decision-making positions, and public and private investments have been in the most affluent communities. Systems were designed to benefit some and leave others behind. Youth and young adults in these communities are the South’s present and future students, parents, workers, voters, and leaders. Improving prospects for them improves prospects for our prosperity as a region and nation. Such improvement requires a refusal to leave anyone on the outside.

Although we are more racially diverse as a region, this does not mean that access to power and resources is diversified, nor equitable across race.

What inclusion looks like will be different in individual communities. Metro areas are struggling with how to equitably distribute the rewards of an economy that is better able to provide support for essential components of the talent development pipeline (i.e., education and employment). Growth both follows and attracts talent, but when talent recruitment is the priority, traditional talent supply lines atrophy, creating yet another desert—this time of talent and access to development opportunities. Given historic disparities and discrimination, such atrophy leaves room for socioeconomic and racial inequities to increase.

According to the Brookings Institution, only 30 of the 100 largest metro areas in the U.S. grew as a result of becoming more prosperous (i.e., increasing productivity, average wages, and standard of living). Only 11 of those 30 have inclusively managed that growth (improving the employment rate, median earnings, and poverty rates). Only eight of those produced better outcomes for both whites and people of color–and only three of those are in the South (Austin, TX, Charleston, SC, and Houston, TX).5

As governments, policy-makers, and community organizers work toward designing inclusive economies, the role of business cannot be understated. The bid for a second Amazon headquarters presented a unique opportunity to invest in a city with the political will and infrastructure to support its operations. The Brookings Metro Monitor ranked the 20 cities in the running for the new headquarters according to their level of inclusivity with Austin, TX, Nashville, TN, and Miami, FL all scoring high.6 Being selected would mean significant economic gains for any one of these cities, but selection of one of these inclusive cities would likely mean a more equitable distribution of the rewards associated with a large business setting up shop in a community.

Increased competition among global cities has, perhaps, overshadowed a focus on equity and inclusion.7 Across the U.S., large cities like New York and Boston have become less dependent on nearby mid-sized cities and more dependent on other large cities across the world. The cumulative effect of this makes it increasingly difficult for these smaller metro areas to remain economically prosperous. Ignoring the need for inclusion would be a mistake. There are important fiscal and social costs of exclusion that require significant redistribution of tax dollars to alleviate child poverty, poor health, and higher incarceration rates. The option to ignore equity is not free and, in fact, would likely cost more in the long-term.8

Rural communities are not without sources of strength.

For rural areas, the definition of immediate success or improved economic well-being is different from their urban counterparts. Rural areas have a smaller employer base, less robust public infrastructure, an aging workforce, and fewer four-year colleges or universities. Short-term, front-end investments are not enough to address these challenges and elicit sustainable growth in rural areas. Investment must go beyond front-end capital and incorporate process-oriented models, ones that involve continued technical assistance, strategies for scale, and leadership development in order to fulfill a vision of sustainable growth. The N.C. Rural Center has put this framework into practice with their Small Business Recovery Program, aimed to revitalize local economies following Hurricane Matthew. Local leaders of participating towns strategize to guide investment decisions for local small business loans administered through the program. Alongside capital, the Rural Center also provides long-term planning and technical assistance to each of the towns, promoting a continued culture of entrepreneurship and small business development in each community. A declining, but diversifying, population characterizes a new rural South with a new set of obstacles and remnants of decades’ old ones.

Rural communities are not without sources of strength. Community colleges in these areas, for example, often serve a more central function than those in metro areas. These institutions are generally more integrated with other community-based organizations, often serving students along both the secondary and postsecondary continuum, creating closer partnerships with industry to train new and incumbent workers whose jobs increasingly require a postsecondary credential.9 They are neutral conveners for multiple stakeholders, and act as a hub for improving residents’ fiscal well-being and health. Through the Healthy Places NC initiatives, rural North Carolina community colleges have acted as champions of social change, specifically addressing the health challenges of their region. By collaborating with schools, hospitals, nonprofits, and churches, colleges have revamped nutrition programs, developed comprehensive exercise programs, constructed sustainable community gardens, and encouraged an overarching culture of healthy living in their communities.

Providing opportunities for upward economic mobility in rural communities also may mean that we need to connect young people to jobs outside their hometown. Connecting rural areas to nearby metropolitan hubs creates a symbiotic relationship between urban and rural areas that can provide a supply of labor for metro areas and new pathways for rural youth. The long-term vision of the rural South requires an economic environment that clears pathways to success in both the local rural community as well as the distant urban ones. This vision not only allows rural community members to stay closer to home, but also encourages those who have left rural areas to have an economic incentive to return. This autonomy and self-determination is critical to the success of the South as it allows individuals to decide where they belong, what it means to thrive, and how they want to contribute. Managing the declining population of rural communities and making intentional investments can preserve what is, for some, a staple of their identity as a Southerner. It reaffirms what it means to belong in the South, and ensures that metropolitanization doesn’t the leave rural communities behind. Southern history is full of rivalry between city and countryside, as well as mutual dependence. In recent years, several Southern states have implemented rural development policies and programs, often overwhelmed by the powerful forces of globalization and technology. Now the challenge for the South is not to set city against countryside anew, but rather to assure that its most powerful economic engines remain in tune and powerful. There is an opportunity for the region to deploy metropolitan “hubs” as catalysts for regional economic advancement—that is, to connect rural people and communities to the metropolitan economies in ways that serve both. The South must find its way to a new narrative—one that recognizes that more inequity means less development and that talent has many faces. A expanded definition of belonging is critical to expanding the conditions that lead to thriving communities.