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In 2000, the state of Alabama was identified as the seventh-poorest state in the United States. Its Black Belt region, in particular, is considered one of the most impoverished regions in the country. This may seem hard to believe, due to the profit of companies like International Paper, Hyundai Motor America, and Hanon Climate Systems with factories in Alabama, but Veronica Womack argues that the relationship of these companies to communities in the Black Belt is only the most recent chapter in the saga of social inequality that has existed in the state and throughout the Southeast for the last two centuries. Womack’s Abandonment in Dixie indicates that the chief reason for continual poverty in the Black Belt is that a small class of elites controls the economic and legal factors for a much larger group of lower class residents that, in return, provide that power that sustain the elites. Unfortunately, these lower class residents lack the capability to rise above such oppression because their communities are scattered across the region and cannot mobilize efforts to improve their conditions. Womack argues that racial divisions are a major [End Page 341] factor in this inequality; whites expelled African Americans from industrial areas through tactics like gerrymandering and busing, with the result that African Americans currently outnumber whites three-to-one in the rural areas of the Black Belt. Womack emphasizes that the only way to save the Black Belt and to prepare it for the growth of an egalitarian “global economy” is to invest in the long-term well-being of all of the Black Belt’s impoverished citizen, which will in turn increase productivity and benefit all ethnicities and classes that compose the Black Belt.
Womack provides a fascinating, practical, and activist perspective on the notorious history of race relations in the South. She indicates that the foundations of American society originated in the South, with the assertion that whites and African Americans knew the extent of their freedom in society from the moment they arrived in Jamestown. From the very beginning, race mythology, regionalism, and white nationalism forged a society based on the principles that white southerners were of a more prestigious Anglo-Saxon heritage than northerners and African Americans; that the rule of the elite should avoid the risk of giving the majority of citizens the right to vote, which would foster reform; and that “blackness” meant a degradation of godly virtues (2). These beliefs isolated the South from the rest of the country and stunted the region’s growth while encouraging constant struggle between white and African-American citizens of the Black Belt. The obstacles of federal and state legislation blocked the path of the African-American’s desire for freedom from the 1850s to the 1880s, while grassroots organizing efforts in the African-American communities provided a worthy adversary against Black Belt white supremacy from the 1870s to the 1940s. Womack spends the latter half of her book discussing the issues surrounding the African-American citizen’s desire for self-representation and political recognition, and why African Americans are fighting a losing battle against the local and federal governments that have consistently promised to protect and help them. The only strategy that will pull African-American citizens out of the mire of the Black Belt’s poverty and force [End Page 342] white politicians to pay attention to their needs is one that promotes “people-based” development instead of “place-based” development (167–74).
This solution only makes sense in light of Womack’s multi-faceted definition of poverty, which stems from a lack of adequate education, where de facto segregated schools receive little funding and one-fourth to one-half as many African Americans as whites receive their GEDs or go on to achieve their bachelor degrees; unemployment due to poor education; poor housing value; and poor support of local agricultural initiatives. The major causes of this poverty are the placement of community funds and political decision...