Every state in the former Confederacy enacted funding for kindergarten between 1968 and 1982. Some of this reflected new federal support for public schools in low-income areas, but most of it was the result of new state policy priorities, led by the New South governors.
More recently, however, this biracial political cooperation and economic progress in the South has lost steam. The reason may be that two-party competition at the state level dwindled with the consolidation in the 1990s of conservative Republican majorities, which make no serious effort to compete for the black vote.
In many southern states, the effect has been to isolate blacks politically and to stifle or reverse the programs they support. After 1990, convergence toward the national average in per-pupil spending ceased or reversed in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Most ominously, Republican control of the state legislature in places such as Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina ended the advance of black legislators to positions of leadership. Not only has black political influence been diminished, but after the high black turnout for Barack Obama in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012, southern states have taken the lead in enacting measures designed to discourage registration and make voting more difficult.
This reversal has had economic consequences. In their 2011 book, Taxing the Poor, the sociologists Katherine Newman and Rourke O’Brien show that southern states depend on regressive sales taxes as a source of revenue to a far greater extent than states in the rest of the country, and that these differences widened dramatically after 1990.
These regressive trends can be turned around. But that will require the mobilization of an expansive political movement, sufficiently inclusive to attract Hispanics, low-income white southerners and African-Americans. That is what’s at stake as Congress considers the Supreme Court’s invitation to revise the Voting Rights Act for a new era.
Gavin Wright is the William Robertson Coe professor of American economic history at Stanford University. He is the author of “Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South.”