Hard to believe that there are more foreign-born people living in the American South than live in the whole state of Tennessee, population 6,356,897.
Just look to the latest Census numbers to learn that 7.3 million of the South’s 76 million residents were born outside of the country. And if you take out Florida and its 3.6 million foreign-born residents, the 3.7 million people left are more than everyone who lives in Arkansas (2.9 million) or Mississippi (3 million).
Even more interesting: some 1.2 million people in the South were born in Puerto Rico, on a U.S. protectorate like Guam or to American parents living overseas. Then there are the 26 million Southerners who were born in a different state than they now live in. That could be a Georgia native, like my sister, who now lives in North Carolina. Or it could be a New Yorker who moved to Hilton Head Island.
Interestingly, just a little more than half of today’s Southerners — 41.8 million people, or 54.8 percent — live in the states where they were born.
Not only does this tell us how much more mobile our population is, but it begs the question of what it means to be a Southerner in 2012.
Is someone born in South Carolina of parents born in India, such as Gov. Nikki Haley, a “real Southerner?” Absolutely.
What about an Asian-American child born in Charleston who identifies himself as “American” or “South Carolinian,” not “Southern?” Yep, he’s still a Southerner.
Or the columnist born in Germany to parents serving in the military? Or his wife, born in New Orleans to parents who were raised in Maryland and Pennsylvania? Yes, both are Southern.
Being “Southern” today is much different than it was before World War II when few homes or businesses had air-conditioning, which took off after 1951 when Carrier invented the inexpensive window unit.
In fact, air-conditioning might have as much to do with changes to what’s Southern as anything else because it allowed people from “off” to move to the region, and live and work in comfort. By the mid-1970s, most businesses, two-thirds of homes and half of classrooms in the South had air-conditioning, according to the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.
But don’t forget two other things that fundamentally changed the South and made it more like the rest of America: integration in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the spread of commercialism.
It took a generation for most of the South to integrate following the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that held separate school systems were not equal. But eventual integration at schools — and in public accommodations, businesses and across the social structure — fundamentally changed the South. Sure, there are pockets of racism left. Sure, blacks, whites and Hispanics have different cultural backgrounds. And sure, some areas unfortunately seem to be resegregating mostly because of economic challenges.
But in today’s South, most people get along most of the time. Today’s kids don’t have the racial baggage their parents and grandparents might have had. The mythological South of Jim Crow and the Dukes of Hazzard has largely passed.
Mass market commercialization also generated big changes. Television is rightly blamed for dulling regional accents and thwarting backyard conversations. The spread of chain stores from McDonald’s to Walmart overhauled the ways Southerners eat and buy things. Instead of maintaining a distinct identity, commercialization continues to chip away at the South by making it a blander region in a country racing toward homogeneity.
Just think how easy it is for a traveler to get off of a plane, rent a car, check-in at a Hampton Inn, eat supper at an Applebee’s, grab a cup of morning coffee at Starbucks, attend a meeting at a corporate campus that could be anywhere, and return to the airport to start it all over. The traveler could be visiting Columbia, Topeka, Portland or Dallas.
Nevertheless, I wouldn’t live anywhere other than the American South. It’s still home to great people, great food and a great quality of life for many. None of those things, however, looks anything like they used to.