Category Archives: World Systems Theory

The Gulf South as Internal Periphery

In the article, Race, Class and Hurricane Katrina: Social differences in human responses to disaster, the authors, Elliot and Pais, provide a brief overview of the history of the Gulf South region of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. In giving the historical background for their study on the role of race and class in the Katrina disaster, they focus on the underdevelopment and peripheral status of the region. It is important for Leftists in the South to understand this history, as it is the backdrop to the conditions which we continue to face. For this reason I am quoting the relevant excerpt, though the entire article is worth reading. – hastenawait

As Elliott and Ionescu (2003) point out, the Gulf South region of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama has long been demographically and economically subordinate to other parts of the country, including today’s “new” New South. To appreciate the historical underpinnings of this peripheral status, it is useful to review the development of the US settlement system as a whole.

Broadly speaking, the collection of towns and cities that comprise the US settlement system, although long including southern port cities of Charleston, Mobile, and New Orleans, took root and spread principally from colonial cities in the Northeast, specifically Boston, Providence, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. According to Eysberg (1989) this uneven geographic development resulted more from historical accident than from regional divergences in raw materials and transportation options. Central to this “accident” was the British Crown’s policy of encouraging migration of wealthy Anglicans—who, among other things, could afford slaves—to the southern colonies, while encouraging migration of religious refugees to northern colonies. This policy, rather than innate topographical divergences, set into motion the development of two distinct socio-economic systems.

As port cities in the Northeast grew and developed their own entrepreneurial and industrial middle classes, they also began to attract middle-class immigrants, who tended to arrive in kinship groups that generated demand for urban goods and services, which in turn fueled the development of a new urban-based, capitalist economy. By contrast, the disproportionate settlement of British, French, and Spanish aristocrats in southern colonies during the same time period contributed to the development of a caste-like society there with an economy based almost entirely on agriculture (specifically cotton, sugar, and indigo), slave labor, and mercantilist exchange with Europe. As a result of these divergences, urban centers in the South failed to develop strong entrepreneurial networks and remained largely confined to harbor areas such as New Orleans, Mobile, and Charleston.

This uneven geographic development became increasingly hierarchal during the middle to late 1800s, as the growth of transcontinental railroads not only connected southern agriculturalists with northern markets but also rendered them increasingly beholden to northern elites who controlled these railroads and markets. These uneven relations, in turn, helped to reduce the importance of the Mississippi River for trade with growing industrial centers in the Midwest, and made the South, especially the Deep South, economically dependent on northeastern cities, particularly New York, for commerce.

This peripheral status continued in large measure until the late 1960s, at which time “core” urban centers in the Northeast and Midwest began to deindustrialize, pushing millions of people away from pink slips and high heating bills toward booming metro areas in California, Texas, and Florida. These and more recent economic booms in Georgia and the Carolinas have since rendered southern cities such as Charlotte, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, and Houston more prominent players in the US settlement system, while at the same time largely bypassing the Gulf South, where historic port cities such as New Orleans, Biloxi, and Mobile have experienced little demographic and economic growth by comparison (see Glasmeier and Leichencko, 2000).

These historic developments have coalesced to produce a peripheral region characterized by deep and complex relations of racial and class division. Because comparably few “outsiders” of either native or foreign birth have moved into this area during recent decades, these relations have been left to unfold largely of their own inertia, undisturbed by mass in-migration from other parts of the country and the world.

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Filed under African Americans, Alabama, class struggle, Gulf States, Leftists in the U.S. South, Louisiana, Mississippi, National Oppression, Southern Strategy, Southern United States, The Left, Uncategorized, United States, workers, World Systems Theory