After I finished my move into my freshman dorm at USF and people discovered I was from Charlotte, North Carolina, I found myself drafted into service as an expert on the Southern states. I would be asked, “What is the South like? What are the customs? What is the food like? Is it as bad as people say it is?”
I didn’t know how to answer with anything more than clichés and deflection: rough weather, hard work and quiet people. I knew these answers didn’t satisfy anyone’s curiosity. Arizona summers and Massachusetts winters are also “rough.”
The real answer is that the South I grew up in was under the shadow of the old Confederacy and was constantly set back by an underperforming public education system.
These factors work to form people of color who are resilient, have an abundance of character and are determined — but nevertheless, are disadvantaged. The education system dulls the minds of students of color due to inadequate funding and resources and, as a result, leaves them undereducated and incapable of moving up the economic ladder.
According to Gene Nichol, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, Charlotte public schools see 77 percent of black students attending schools with majority low-income students, while only 23 percent of white students do. The best-performing schools are located in the wealthier sections of Charlotte. On the other hand, the worst-performing schools are found in the poverty-stricken areas.
The Confederacy still manifests itself today through the Confederate statues and discriminatory policies. The education system still resembles a segregated past. In the 2013-14 academic year, the number of racially isolated K-12 schools in Charlotte has risen to 50, up from 10 from the 2001-02 academic year.
As these truths about my home slowly revealed themselves to me as I grew up — truths that could make any person of color feel unwelcome — I decided to go to San Francisco for college.
Describing my first days in San Francisco as a culture shock would be an understatement. Instead of shunning inclusion, the city encourages active participation and celebration of different cultures and ethnicities. I was bewildered by seeing an environment so different from the culture of resentment and apathy that I was so accustomed to and replaced with a rigorous fervor for equality.
And, to my surprise, the inclusive culture of San Francisco welcomed me as a Southerner.
Through this acceptance, I can allow my conservative roots to coexist with my progressive present (and future) here in San Francisco. From my particular upbringing in the South, I developed the skill set necessary to be self-sufficient, not to entirely depend on others and not to expect help. As well, my experiences in San Francisco have planted a firm belief in the need to embrace diversity and differences in opinion.
I am putting the effort in to bring these two different cultures together. I don’t think San Francisco has all the answers, but the city’s more positive values have sparked a desire in me to change the culture of my home.
How could the South grow? Become something different? The South will need to embrace a type of social liberalism found here, without having to give up their own conservative values.
How can a society encourage self-reliance but also believe in the collective responsibility of caring for each other? It will be a daunting challenge to reconcile the two seemingly opposite qualities, but one that is necessary for the growth of the region. To start, Southerners must look around their homes and see the need for change; they need to understand that our home is slowly bleeding out.
I believe my thoughts are best explained in one of my favorite novels, “Plains Song” by Wright Morris. In this novel, the narrator asks, “Is the past a story we are persuaded to believe, in the teeth of the life we endure in the present?” Essentially, does the past make us who we are now? My view is that how we treat our world and each other manifests itself from our vision of our paths from when we were young to where we find ourselves now. The best hope for the South is to understand the remnants of the past we can see now. There is nowhere this is more needed than the South.
As I see the changing political atmosphere, the deserted towns and the abandoned factories, the more evident it becomes to me that the South is drowning in old American sins. The true potential of the South has not been realized and, to reach the untapped capabilities of the millions of people that call it home, change is needed. Once the change occurs, the people of the South can act wisely in the teeth of life.