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Southern Like Me
What Americans, and President Obama, can learn from the Great Migration South.


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Lee Habeeb

I’m a Jersey boy. I was born there, went to high school and college there, and assumed I’d spend the rest of my life there. But though I loved the people and food, the Jersey Shore summers, and short rides through the Lincoln Tunnel to Broadway shows and Madison Square Garden, I gave it all up and moved south. Very far south. I’m not alone.

According to the latest Census figures, and stories in USA Today, the Associated Press, and elsewhere, the South was the fastest growing region in America over the last decade, up 14 percent. “The center of population has moved south in the most extreme way we’ve even seen in history,” Robert Groves, director of the Census Bureau, said a few months ago.

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That migration wasn’t limited to white Yankees like me. The nation’s African American population grew 1.7 million over the last decade — and 75 percent of that growth occurred in the South, according to William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. What those stories and studies failed to report were the reasons propelling that migration. The economic and cultural forces driving this migration south have been ignored by the press. And by the Obama administration

So I figured this Jersey boy who now calls Oxford, Mississippi, home could explain why. This Yankee turned good ol’ boy could explain the pull — no, the tug — of the South.

“Have you lost your mind?” is the refrain I heard over and over from friends up north when I told them the news. It was as if I’d just told them I was moving to Madagascar.

I then explained the move. I started with some humor. I explained that we have electricity in Mississippi. And indoor plumbing. We even have dentists. I told them we have the internet in Mississippi. And cable TV. I told them I travel a lot, and Memphis airport has planes, too.

I then told them about the quality of life in Oxford, and how far a dollar stretches. And the ease of doing business. When I show them pictures of my house, and get around to my property taxes, things get positively somber. On a home valued at $400,000, my tax tab is $2,000. My parents in New Jersey pay $12,000. And for a whole lot less house. On no land. When I remind friends about the pension liabilities they’ll be inheriting from the state unions, things get downright gloomy.

I then explain that my work is mostly done by the phone or internet. So where I live has little bearing on how much I earn. But it has a whole lot to do with how much I keep.

Having disposed of the economic arguments, I knew that one big question lurked: “Okay, Lee, but what’s it like living with a bunch of slow-talking, gun-toting, Bible-thumping racists?”

My friends didn’t use those exact words, but I knew it’s what they were thinking. I knew because I thought the same thing about the South before I moved here. Most of what we Yankees know about the South comes from TV and movies. Think Hee-Haw meets Mississippi Burning meets The Help and you get the picture.

But my own prejudices bore little resemblance to the reality I encountered when I moved south. I fell in love with the place. With the pace of life, for openers. Things got done, and done well, but it always seemed as if people had time for one another.  

Though I’d never owned a firearm, I learned that the locals took personal protection into their own hands, knowing that a call to a county sheriff wasn’t a solid defense strategy. I also learned how much fun it was to shoot stuff, from targets to tin cans to turkeys.

The Bible thumpers proved to be more caricature than anything. The people I met didn’t impose their religion on me. They tried to live by the standards of their faith. Sometimes they did; sometimes they didn’t. But the pervasive pursuit of those standards made the South a better place to live.



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