When I told my friends in New Jersey nearly ten years ago that I was packing my bags and heading south, they thought I’d lost my mind. Why, they wondered, would I give up the food, shopping, and close proximity to New York City to live anywhere else, especially a place like Oxford, Miss.? I might as well have told them I was moving to Mogadishu.
I tried to lighten things up by explaining that we had running water in Mississippi. And cable TV. Heck, we even had dentists. The planes coming and going in nearby Memphis got me most places in quick order, too. I then described the quality of life in Oxford and how far a dollar stretches. When I showed them pictures of my house and shared with them the cost of that house — and the low property-tax bill that came along with it — they got depressed. When I told them I had no desire to inherit the pension liabilities that New Jersey’s public unions and politicians were irresponsibly saddling on their own citizens, things got downright gloomy.
Then I explained that my work — like the work of millions of Americans — is mostly done on the phone or online, 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. I was moving from New Jersey to Mississippi for the same reasons my grandparents left Lebanon and Italy to come to America: for a better life for my family.
I am not alone. According to the latest Census figures, the South was the fastest-growing region in America over the past decade, up 14 percent. “The center of population has moved south in the most extreme way we’ve ever seen in history,” Robert Groves, director of the Census Bureau, said at a news conference in 2011.
“The hegira to the Sunbelt continues, as last year the South accounted for six of the top eight states attracting domestic migrants,” Joel Kotkin reported in The Daily Beast in 2013
And it isn’t just millions of American citizens packing their bags and heading south. Last month, in a move that shocked residents of northern New Jersey, Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz USA announced it was moving its headquarters from Montvale (just miles from where I grew up) to Sandy Springs, Ga. And it’s bringing nearly 1,000 people along with it, at an average salary of nearly $80,000 per worker.
“We think the infrastructure in the States has changed,” Dieter Zetsche, the chief executive of Mercedes, told reporters. “The South is much more relevant than it used to be. We think it is a new start, a rejuvenation of our company to make the move.”
The decision blindsided New Jersey politicians, but it shouldn’t have. Back in 1993, Mercedes made a big bet on the American South, building its first-ever assembly plant outside of Germany there. They could have chosen anywhere in the world, let alone anywhere in America, to build it. They chose Tuscaloosa, Ala.
“Twenty years ago, the question at Daimler was, ‘Tusca . . . where?’” Andreas Renschler, who served as the Alabama plant’s first CEO, noted on the day of the plant’s 20th anniversary, in 2013. “Today, our most talented people are waiting in line to work here.” In 2012, the plant shipped 5 billion dollars’ worth of Alabama-made vehicles to 135 markets across the globe. Half the vehicles sold by Mercedes in the U.S. were made there, and an annual output of 300,000 vehicles is expected by 2016.
That kind of story has been playing itself out in the South over and over again in recent years. In 2011, when Toyota announced the opening of a plant near Tupelo, Miss., it was big news to everyone living nearby. The $800-million plant was slated to roll out 150,000 vehicles every year and employ 2,000 workers. Last week, workers at the plant that’s just miles from the birthplace of Elvis Presley (and a short drive from my home) celebrated an impressive milestone: They rolled out their 500,000th car, a red Toyota Corolla.
And there’s another angle to the southern-migration story that hasn’t received enough media attention, though it’s perhaps more profound: The past 30 years have seen an epic migration of black people to the South. Indeed, the percentage of the nation’s African-American population living in the South hit its highest point in half a century, as more and more black people moved out of declining cities in the Midwest and Northeast.
A great many books have been written about the migration of rural black people from the South to the big cities of Chicago and Detroit during the 1940s and ’50s. Nicholas Lemann, former dean of Columbia University’s journalism school and a professor there, wrote one of them: The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America.
Why, a curious student might want to ask Professor Lemann, hasn’t he written about the reverse migration, and about the economic and cultural forces behind it?
I think we know why he won’t. The ideological prejudices of so many journalists and media elites — and the academic elite, too, even in the South — won’t permit it. They’re so invested in the old narrative of the South, so busy reminding Americans about the tragic history of the region, they can’t bear the thought that it’s changed, let alone that black people are fleeing blue northern cities to live in red southern states.
Another factor is the cultural superiority that permeates the media when it comes to the South. That a solid majority of southerners are not crazy about unions, and that they “cling” to guns and faith, doesn’t help matters. Journalists and media elites think we’re backward for believing what we believe about those things.
For those reasons, and others best left to psychologists and psychiatrists, the media haven’t — and probably won’t — investigate this remarkable migration story that’s happening right under their noses.
But this much is self-evident: If the South is so backward, why are some of the most sophisticated foreign companies moving here? For decades, American policymakers have been worried that we would lose our manufacturing base to the world, but over the past few decades, the South has become a hub of manufacturing for the world.
This much, too, is self-evident: If the South is so racist, why are so many black people moving back here?
This I know for sure: My adopted state of Mississippi has better race relations than my old home state of New Jersey. It has more integration in its schools and in daily life. Indeed, my old home state has some of the worst segregation imaginable. Large swaths of the state’s suburban public schools are filled with white kids, while others — particularly the poorest and most dangerous urban areas such as Camden, Newark, and Jersey City — are filled with mostly poor minority children. No law compels it. The people in New Jersey choose to live that way.
Contrast that with my daughter’s fourth-grade class in Oxford, where you see large numbers of black and white kids seated together. More than 25 percent are African Americans. My new home state has more elected black officials than any other state does — not just more per capita, but more, period. It’s proudly progressive Massachusetts that now has the fewest elected African-American officials per capita.
You won’t ever see or hear any of the above stories covered in any depth in the media. They’re too busy recounting negative stories about the South’s past — stories that no doubt need telling — to notice the progress.
But if some inquiring journalists bothered to ask the people who moved why they did it, those transplants would paint a very different and much more positive picture of the South. People don’t go through the stress and change of a big move unless they’re hopeful about the place they’re moving to.
In the downtown square of my hometown of Oxford sits a bronze statue of our local literary hero, William Faulkner. “The past is never dead,” he once wrote. “It’s not even past.”
If I’d told him when he was alive that a Japanese auto company would be making American cars in Tupelo or that the great German manufacturer Mercedes would be making cars in Tuscaloosa, he’d have called me crazy. If I’d told him that Mississippi would one day have more African Americans holding public office than any other state in America did, he’d have called me delusional.
The fact is, white people and black people from all over America, and businesses from all over the world, are investing in the South. Some are doing it with their capital, and others with an even more precious asset — their lives and their families.
And all because we see something here that Faulkner would never have imagined possible and that most writers, academics, and media types can’t see — or don’t want to see.
— Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network. He lives in Oxford, Miss., with his wife, Valerie, and daughter, Reagan.