May 10, 2006: A moment with...
Although Kevin Kruse grew up in Nashville and studies the American South, he doesn’t consider himself a Southern historian. He calls himself an American historian, because he doesn’t see the contemporary South as distinct from the rest of the United States. In his book, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, Kruse, an assistant history professor at Princeton, examines racial desegregation and argues that it led Southern conservatives to abandon traditional racist appeals and instead craft a conservatism based on a language of rights, freedom, and individualism. Kruse spoke with PAW associate editor Katherine Federici Greenwood.
Why did you write White Flight?
Growing up in the South, I had a real interest in civil rights history, but I rarely recognized the whites I saw in these stories. Invariably, the segregationists were presented as cartoonish, two-dimensional figures, either ruthless Klansmen or crudely racist sheriffs. Those people existed, of course, but they weren’t the people I knew. I wanted to move beyond those simple stereotypes and try to understand segregationists — not to excuse them, but to understand them. What I discovered is that segregationists thought of themselves not in terms of what they opposed — the rights of black Americans — but rather in terms of what they supported — their own rights. When they felt those rights were under attack, they fled to all-white suburbs as a last-ditch effort to preserve their world. They believed they had a right to be left alone, a right to do as they wished with their property, a right to choose their children’s schools, and so on.
Why do you think the South is not so different from other regions of the United States?
Some historians see the South as so unique that you can’t apply the lessons of the South to the rest of the nation. This is, to be sure, the region that had slavery, seceded from the Union, and declared war against it. But the closer you get to the present day, those regional differences really blur, because the nation has reordered itself across regions. We’ve had not just great migrations of black Southerners out of the South into the North and back again, but also whites flowing across the nation and into the South. The South became less backward and became this thriving engine of suburban growth and economic development. So rather than seeing the South as distinct, I think we might see it as representative of the nation.
In many ways, the South has been ahead of the curve. The problems of the nation have been more pronounced there, and that has forced the nation to deal with things that it might not have otherwise addressed as directly, especially in terms of race, religion, civil rights, and political change.
Does most Southern history and literature reflect the South as you knew it growing up?
A lot of Southern history and literature focuses more on demagoguery than demography. Most of the people in the South, when I was growing up, lived in suburban, middle-class metropolitan areas with booming economies. They didn’t live in the backwoods world of Faulkner’s Mississippi. And yet, for too long that image of the South has been considered representative of the region as a whole. Most Southerners don’t live in the rural Mississippi Delta, they live in Atlanta, Birmingham, Charlotte, Raleigh–Durham, and similar metropolitan areas.
Are you debunking stereotypes of the South?
I’d like to think I’m debunking stereotypes on both sides. Atlanta prided itself as a “city too busy to hate,” a liberal oasis in the South, but it proved to be the city too busy moving [to the suburbs] to hate. At the same time, I would hope to get away from this stereotype that racism only has obvious forms, such as the Klan. As long as we are fixated on the surface of racism, we don’t pay attention to the deeper and more important problems that exist under the surface.
Are most white suburbanites racists?
No, not at all. But white suburbanites throughout the nation have a historical amnesia about how their world was created. The problem with that is that it leads them to say race had nothing to do with how they got to where they are — communities with good schools, safe streets, and steady work. And that makes them unable to understand why other races and classes can’t do likewise.
Do you miss living in the South?
Absolutely. I miss the weather, the people, the food. Right now I live outside New York City, which is as brusque a Northern place as you can get. In the South there’s a genuine friendliness, an easygoing attitude. It permeates the culture. You don’t get that in a Northern environment, where the default setting is mistrust.