Educating for a New Economy:
The Struggle to Redevelop a Jim Crow State, 1960 – 2000

The civil rights movement created a tremendous opportunity to uproot the political economy of Jim Crow, and yet, from the vantage of the present, we can see both the frustrating persistence of racial inequalities as well as how significantly the ruts of economic inequality have deepened since the 1970s. While some scholars have dismissed the movement’s impact or shown how conservative movements foreshortened its possibilities, my dissertation argues that the civil rights revolution did have profound effects on economic development policy in North Carolina and many other parts of the South. I show how it empowered a new array of policymakers, men and women who seeded what they thought would be a more equitable economy. Initially, a North Carolina policy network that grew out of the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty focused on industrialization patterned on the midcentury North, but they were early adopters of a new model predicated on both well-educated people whose talents could anchor economic growth and a flexible workforce adaptable to any new industry that might emerge. By the 1980s, these policymakers uprooted intellectual and political support for low-wage industrial recruitment as a development strategy. Converted policymakers promoted education at all levels to incubate small businesses, train workers, and stimulate research. These intertwined transitions, away from Jim Crow’s stultifying political economy and towards education for economic development, allowed North Carolina—a rural state which long had the nation’s lowest manufacturing wages, abysmal educational attainment, and massive outmigration—to become an emblem of the “New Economy,” focused on research, marketing, and financial services.

But, as I show in the dissertation, this new approach proved highly uneven. For all its successes, this strategy did little for rural areas and small towns, traditional centers of political power that after agricultural mechanization came to depend on recruiting branch plants. Equity-oriented policymakers, pursuing high-wage work, shed few tears for the loss of low-wage industries to Asia and Latin America, given their deleterious effects on community well-being. But alternative approaches failed to balance out rural job losses, placing outsized pressure on education to generate economic returns. While the New Economy meant more graduates could remain in the state’s urban hubs, rural communities were stuck as impoverished export zones for children, fostering bitterness among those who remained. Today, urban–rural political divides threaten public investments in education, research, and business creation that reinvented the state’s economy. By tracing the enduring policy challenge of equitable development, my research illuminates the role of liberals—rather than conservatives—in shaping the neoliberal turn during the late 20th century.

If you’re interested in the dissertation, please e-mail me. I’d love to start a conversation.