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Why the South?

An interview with Jean Hardisty

You’ve lived in both the South and the North. What do you see as the difference in the economic lives of the people?

The South in some ways resembles the North in an earlier time. Low-wage industrial jobs are common. In industries like poultry, textiles and mineral extraction, jobs often have minimal safety oversight and require physical labor. Also, because anti-union, “right-to-work” laws are prevalent, low-wage laborers in the South have great difficulty improving their conditions, without access to unions, as their northern neighbors have. All of this contributes to the image of the South as downtrodden.

But there is strength in numbers. There is a large, and in some case thriving, Black community in the South. This makes it possible for African-Americans to have more political clout than in the Northeast, where their share of the population is smaller and where segregation is often as pronounced as in the South.

You’ve written that the South is of strategic importance in terms of building a progressive movement. Why?

Progressives often do not understand the importance of African Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color to the movement. People of color have been at the forefront of progressive change in our country in recent times. They have lived their lives in a history and culture of resistance to exploitation and racism. The South is the site of remarkable progress against difficult odds. Yet we tend to write the region off.

We need to recognize the astonishing wisdom that resides in the South. I am continually surprised by white progressives who are excited by the growing populism in Latin America, but have difficulty seeing the same seeds of change and resistance in our own South.

What do you want the rest of the country, and specifically UFE, to know about the South?

I believe there is richness of political experience in the South that White progressives tend to overlook when we believe the stereotype of the “solid South” – Republican, reactionary, and racist. We can learn much about how to live in resistance and struggle from the progressives who live in the South. Southerners know how community and culture can support resistance.

In addition, the South is a bellwether of conditions increasingly characteristic of the rest of the country: attacks on unions, a "kinder, gentler" racism, right-wing populism that legitimizes institutional power, and the increasing decimation of the middle class as the gap between rich and poor becomes a chasm.

As a prominent economic justice organization, UFE is already helping to build the progressive movement. By taking a strong anti-racist stance, it could help create the context for the overall progressive agenda that could include and build on the strengths of the South. In the end, this strategy will help to direct resources to the South, where the needs are stunning. At the same time, UFE could help us to stop overlooking a goldmine of ideas, wisdom, strategies and tactics of resistance. If we neglect the South, we will hurt our cause and abandon one of our greatest assets.